We have a choice bit of memes and soundbites for problems for which we seek, as citizens in an activist democracy and policy wonkery laboratory, all manner of solutions. Date rape. Drunk driving. Police brutality. Political corruption.
It occurred to me this morning that I don't see these things as a problem because when I think about them, I do so in the context of what is trying to be accomplished and what can go wrong. So I think in terms of the number of ways things can go wrong and the likelihood of each outcome. Is it a problem? Well, that is determined by expectations. What do I expect? I expect things to go wrong. How many times? As many times as they do go wrong, consistently. That's the stoic approach. It's not interesting to me that things go wrong, but how often they go wrong and why. 'Why' meaning under what circumstances. Determining the circumstances and the corresponding likelihood that something goes wrong is what's interesting to me, not the very existence of a problem. How those circumstances change over time is really interesting to me. That's how I study things, whether or not you start with calling them a problem.
These days, since I hang out at Quora, I get asked all sorts of questions about police brutality. People are drawing conclusions about all of America because the idea of police brutality is now viral. Very few people know if there is any more or less 'police brutality' in America, it is merely presented as a problem for which outrage is an appropriate sentiment, and therefore something needs to be done. Like a lot of our popular politics we are in the "Don't just stand there, do something" mode. Screaming is involved.
Since I think the way I do, I find the screaming to be stupid, but it may not always be helpful to screamers and those who proxy their sentiments to the screaming end of the political spectrum to just do the math. Nevertheless, I still say that people who don't count, don't count. Nevertheless, there is a way to approach this whole collection of 'problems' with an understanding towards the dynamism involved. So yes I say that if you look at the problem of police brutality and try to find the cause of the problem, the most honest and factual way is to see it as something going wrong.
What is the something? An arrest.
What makes all of these problems complicated is that citizens focus on negative outcome and think there is a single most important factor that can be restricted by political action. What we have seen is that particular political hammer is prohibition. Over simplistic. Always.
Look this way. What is the cause of traffic accidents? Traffic, and then something goes wrong. What is the cause of violent arrests? Arrests, and then something goes wrong. What is the cause of corrupt elections. Elections, and then something goes wrong. What is the cause of date rape? Sex, and then something goes wrong.
The more traffic, the more arrests, the more elections, the more sex people are determined to have, the more things are going to go wrong, for a million reasons under every possible circumstance these phenomena will generate. The more people involved in causing the thing that can go wrong, the more dynamic and unpredictable each and every circumstance will be. When we talk about 100 fatal arrests in a year, we do so in the context of 3.5 million arrests. How do you categorize 3.5 million things? How do you describe 3.5 million human beings interacting? Of all the things that can happen between human beings, traffic, arrests, sex how many things can go wrong? What are your expectations?
In so many things, I find zero tolerance for negative outcomes to be an attractive, but utterly impractical 'solution'. This is why we should instinctively know that zero tolerance for any particular behavior between human beings is not ever going to make good policy in our democracy. Why should we know that? Because the very action of making policy is something that human beings have been doing for hundreds of years, and those policies that have survived we call 'taboo'. We pretty much already know what they are. My point here is that common sense and common law are pretty evolved already, and we're probably not going to speed up their evolution to get us closer to perfection. Arrests are going to happen and go badly. Traffic is going to continue, and people will wreck. People will choose leaders in contests and there will be cheating. What do you expect?
When it comes to police brutality, the expectations of the officer and the suspect seem pretty straightforward. As part of that, they are certainly expecting their side of the story to be backed by the public. So there's an interesting dynamic. Imagine an arrest is imminent and both parties are thinking "No matter what I do, the public is on my side, I don't have to give a crap about what the other guy does." That seems to be a recipe for a bad arrest. But that's just me thinking about the state of mind of two other human beings engaged in their business. I might as well project my thoughts on two lovers when sex is imminent. Who knows what they're thinking?
More importantly as citizens we are particularly hamstrung in trying to compel policy from our perspective when we come at it like a problem waiting for a clever solutions we can enact, especially when they are prohibitions. This morning I am thinking that bad elections, bad sex, bad arrests, bad driving can all be attributed, among other things, to anger. But let's be generous and say rage. How are you going to outlaw rage? It's an outrage!