Sunday, May 29, 2005

Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Hoodie

An amazing amount of magical thinking goes unchallenged in our public life. The fuzziest possible notions of causality and correlation are not only accepted as valid observational modes, but welcomed as sound basis for policy-making. Faced with an intransigent social problem, invariably one which the most cursory material analysis reveals as an obvious product of the usual toxic goulash of social and class inequalities and failures, the official explanation equally invariably finds a Thing, often literally a concrete object, on which to blame the problem. This is not coincidence.

The Great Hoodie Debacle is of course the current locus classicus of the phenomenon I am pleased to call Societal Reverse Objectification Transference, or Societal ROT, but several others have whizzed by recently and are worthy of notice for the agenda they illuminate.

On Friday, the British Medical Journal ran an editorial in which three emergency medicine docs called for the banning of long, pointed 'dagger-style' kitchen knives as a crime-reduction measure. It appears that '[v]iolent crime in the United Kingdom is increasing; figures from London show a 17.9% increase from 2003 to 2004, and one easily accessible weapon used in many incidents is the kitchen knife.' The authors go to some pains, complete with potted history, to refute the culinary utility of the traditional long pointy knife, and conclude that a knife of less than 5cm length would suffice for kitchen needs.

Parenthetically let me add that they, and whatever chef they chivvied into seemingly admitting this, are smoking deep of the crack. I've been cooking for fifteen years with many different knives, and do trust me, a 5-cm (i.e., paring) knife is a faithful and necessary tool, but it is by no stretch of the tortured imagination an all-purpose one. I would fight viciously for, and indeed with, my 10" cook's knife. But this is beside the point.

The point, of course, is that the existence of an object does not by itself engender the desire to use that object for ill. Given the impulse to domestic violence, a means will be found whether or not a cook's knife is in the block. This is not to say that there are no differences between means, and that a single stab from a long pointed knife might not have a higher fatality risk than a single hammer-blow to the head, or a sustained kicking in the gut. It may very well. But these are relative minutiae, and what's much worse, they actively obscure the greater harm being done by this kind of argument. The key is embedded in the docs' own formulation, though they try to twist it around: 'Many assaults are impulsive, often triggered by alcohol or misuse of other drugs, and the long pointed kitchen knife is an easily available potentially lethal weapon particularly in the domestic setting.'

Well, sure, we can scamper around trying to identify and rid the domestic setting of every 'easily available potentially lethal weapon'. Or we can hark back to the great stinking elephant in the room of that sentence: 'triggered by alcohol or misuse of other drugs'. Ah. Now wouldn't it be another thing entirely if we actually tried to address the causes of violence, rather than the completely contingent, completely interchangeable means by which it is expressed?

But that would require allowing a kind of analysis that is not merely foreign but actively anathema to the purveyors of social policy. At all costs, direct attention away from the bedrock social iniquities that give rise to crime, and that are not just difficult and resistant to change but are in fact endemic to the established structure of society in which the elite (including, as it happens, many doctors) are heavily invested. Find the proximate 'cause', invest it with totemic powers, and then drive it out of the village and over the cliff. The villagers will scream for its blood and will, most of them, be satisfied that with its banishment Something Has Been Done about the problem.

Because let's face it, the villagers think this way too. Magical thinking makes for effective propaganda only because an awful lot of people have an atavistic silt of attenuated superstition in the bottom of their mental stream, and it can be stirred up.

Schools in Lewisham, south London, and St Albans have recently banned camera phones on the grounds that they promoted bullying in the form of 'happy slapping'. Can it possibly be that all these administrators and parents believe, explicitly and concretely, that before gaining the technology to conveniently video it, schoolchildren lacked the impulse to randomly terrorize and beat on others? Put that way, I'm sure they would deny it to a person. But the magnetism of spurious object-causality is too strong for their overstressed logical faculties to withstand. They perceive (correctly) a terrible problem: outbreaks of violence, which are accompanied by camera phones. The solution: ban the accompanying camera phones (or the kitchen knives), and the outbreaks of violence will surely stop. Correlation is mistaken for causation, a classic logical error they train out of you in Statistics 101.

It may seem like by pointing this out I'm just having a go at the unrigorous thinking of the general public, but it's not that (or not just that). It's the way that weakness is exploited as a diversion, a continual 'Look over there!' to draw focus away from the genuine--and, if you look, not terribly difficult to spot--root causes of all these problems people are legitimately upset about.

As long as we keep thinking that knives cause stabbings, camera phones bullying and teen pregnancies dead-end lives, we'll keep trusting the people who have the authority to ban those things, and we'll keep paying no attention to the man behind the curtain who's busily projecting those big, lurid images designed to frighten us literally out of our wits.

[Coda:

The cleverer liberals among you are undoubtedly now going 'Aha! But that way lies Opposition to Gun Control!' Yeah, tell me about it. And you know what? Like so very many things the dominant ideology gives us readymade positions on, that issue is less cut-n-dried than I used to think. There's serious complexity there, and I'm convinced enough by the logic I've outlined above that I no longer think I can rigorously hold a blanket position on this one.

I confess there are all kinds of visceral factors tugging me to make an exception for gun control, not least the fact that I viscerally oppose NRA types getting anything at all they want, from assault rifles to blowjobs. But in the real world, gun control is not only monumentally ineffectual, it's also a great big stomping exemplar of the diversionary tactics I discuss above, and as such should be unmasked and deactivated. We all know who gun control is really aimed at, and it's not generally NRA types. Equally, if you're going to consistently support gun control, then you also have to, for example, condemn the Black Panther Party's insistence on their right to bear arms against the armed forces oppressing them, and I'm damned if I'll commit that wrong for the sake of holding a consistent position.

And yet, small children accidentally blowing each other's heads off? To be avoided where possible. It's awfully tricky. I reserve judgment, as well as the right to rule case-by-case.]

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