If You Want Moderate Muslims To Denounce The Radicals

“If Muslims are peaceful, why don’t they condemn terrorism?”

This is a common question in some philosophical corners in response to headlines about attacks by radical Islamists. Assuming the good faith of those who ask this question, there are three important things to recognize.

1. Muslims do denounce terrorism.

It only takes a few minutes on Google to find condemnations of radical Islam by the Secretary General for the Organization Of Islamic Cooperation, the top cleric of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Al-Azhar’s Grand Mufti (the highest religious authority of Egypt), the chief of the Arab League, the Muslim Council of Great Britain, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the American Muslim Political Co-ordination Committee, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabiadozens of UK imamsa Muslim HuffPo bloggerMuslims in Toronto, Muslims in Norway, and many, many more.

When someone says “I haven’t heard moderate Muslims denouncing radical Islam,” maybe what they really mean is “I haven’t looked for it.”

2. These denunciations are handicapped by the disincentives of information flow biases.

Why should this person have to look for it? He didn’t go looking for news about terrorist attacks – the news just came to him. Or so it seemed. Perhaps he implicitly assumes that news about condemnations of terrorist attacks should just come to him the same way.

I think there is a fallacy that “news” is a generally consistent portrayal of “things that are happening in the world.” I think this fallacy is especially seductive to those of us who “follow the news.” We know there are political biases in the way these “things” are portrayed or emphasized by certain sources, but I think we often ignore the inherent biases that affect whether or not events show up on our radar as “things” to be portrayed at all, and how they filter their way to our consciousness when they do.

Denunciations about terrorist attacks face multiple handicaps. First. people being killed tends to attract more attention than people talking. The latter is less likely to be introduced as “breaking news” or front-page headlines. Regardless of how prominently it is introduced, it is less likely to propagate through clicks, shares, comments, and general discussion.

Sometimes people talking about big events can attract more attention due to the connection to the big event. But a second handicap is that Western media and its Western consumers tend to pay more attention to Western people, especially those who are Important. That’s how Obama not going to France – a non-event that would normally register even less attention than Obama talking about something – was apparently a bigger deal last week than hundreds or thousands of Nigerians killed by Boko Haram. If dying Africans can’t compete with Obama’s travel plans, what hope do talking Arabs have?

A third handicap is that we tend to pay more attention to events that elicit emotion than events that absorb emotion. An article about someone condemning violence – if it finally manages to make it past the other handicaps – is less likely to elicit much reaction. Well, duh, denouncing violence is what we would expect any normal person to do. Normal expectation satisfied, emotion absorbed, not much impulse to share that story with others,

These handicaps hold true independently of political bias. A couple of the above links are from Fox News and the Blaze. But how prominently were such articles featured on these sites to begin with? How many clicks and shares did they receive? What percentage of articles do regular visitors to these sites read, what percentage of front-page vs. below-the-fold/deeplinked articles do regular visitors read, and what is the chance they saw those lesser articles at all?

3. If you really want more moderate denunciation of radicals, you should encourage and amplify the voices that are already doing that.

Some respond to the above points by moving the goalposts or making weaker claims: “Well, there’s still not enough of them” or “Well, they need to try harder” or “Well, it doesn’t seem to be working, does it?”

It can be simultaneously true that there are Muslims condemning violence done in the name of Islam and that the efforts of those voices should be increased. But I think people in good faith, if they really want those moderate voices to be more successful, should not respond with derision, but by recognizing the handicaps faced by those moderate voices and helping them out by encouraging and amplifying their voices.

Reinforcing Our Views On False Choices

An activist in Arizona went through some use-of-force training scenarios with police and came away with a different attitude. I think it’s a great example of the power of rejecting False Choices and trying to understand opposing perspectives. The better you understand what it’s like to be a police officer, the better you can offer legitimate critique and ideas for improving things as opposed to baseless criticism and demagoguery.

I think it would be great if every protester did this. I also think it would be great if, say, every pro-police counter-rally-goer would spend a couple days driving around and hanging out with some young black men in the inner city (it’s harder to come up with comparable reverse scenarios due to some of the power asymmetries involved, but something like that might be a start). Increased understanding leads to increased empathy, breaking the negative feedback cycles of defensiveness and outrage.

It was interesting, though, to see the article making the rounds in the conservative wings of False Choice land. Many people seemed to view the story through the tribal lenses that divide these issues between “police” and “protesters” and insist on choosing sides between them. False Choicers already knew that “police” was the right side and “protesters” was the wrong side, and this activist’s experience simply proved that he was on the wrong side in his ignorance, but his enlightenment showed him the truth about the right side.

Instead of the article making them think that their own views might suffer from similar ignorance, they could only think about all the activists on the other side they wished would also become enlightened to their side. Instead of the article implying that protesters who want to fix problems with police are more likely to be able to make genuine improvements if they understand an officer’s position, the article only implied to them that there are no problems with the police that need fixing at all!

As someone who rejects False Choice land, the incident reinforced to me the value of rejecting False Choice land. For someone who thrives in False Choice land, the very same incident reinforced the value of thriving in it.

Why Conservatives And Liberals Both Let Police Unions Get Away With Stuff

No one holds police unions accountable because conservatives like police and liberals like unions

I created this hypothesis while observing the events unfolding in my city of St. Louis late last year. I learned that the head of the local police union was a former officer who was fired from a nearby district for falsifying police reports! To me, this looked like classic corruption. The newspapers kept quoting the man about ongoing developments, yet few seemed to question his past.

I found it amusing to think about how well many conservatives can expound upon the problems of teachers unions protecting bad teachers while remaining completely silent about the potential for police unions to protect bad cops. Perhaps it is the loudest and most extreme criticisms from some liberals which provokes this defensive blind spot; it would likely be easy to reverse roles and find similar blind spots in the other direction.

The unfolding events in New York City have me considering this hypothesis further.

Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who brought Eric Garner to the ground in a chokehold, was previously involved in a lawsuit for strip searching a couple African American men. The claims are denied, but the charges against the men were dropped and they got paid instead. Maybe there’s some defense to be made (overly litigious society, etc) but this sort of thing seems to happen a lot, and my unenlightened conclusion is that you only want to hand out money to avoid a trial if you think you might lose the trial. One of the side effects seems to be that the officer is less likely to receive consequences. Normally, incentives would induce the organization to remove officers who become too litigiously costly. Is there a union element standing in the way?

We have seen actions that appear consistent with an organization reflexively resistant to criticism. After Eric Garner, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio made remarks that to my ears were markedly moderate. To the NYPD’s ears, biased by previous developments, the mayor has two murdered officers’ “blood on his hands,” and they’ve taken to turning their backs on him at the officers’ funerals, even against the request of their own police commissioner and the officers’ own wives.

Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani gets on TV and explains that this is all happening because the mayor “created an impression with the police that he was on the side of the protesters.” Giuliani even admits that “some of those protesters were entirely legitimate,” but when you live in False Choice land, if you don’t align yourself clearly enough with one side then you clearly must be “on” the other “side.”

Frustratingly, the False Choicers are the ones who, with a Smart-People-esque confidence, get to decide how you are aligned. They can even complain that you should “have said” less-outrageous more-on-my-side things that you actually did say but that they maybe didn’t hear due to the biases and discincentives of information flow about things that they and their information flow network consider outrageous/non-outrageous.

Maybe a skeptic would argue that none of this has anything to do with unions. At a minimum I feel like there’s enough circumstantial evidence that I wish more people seemed to care more about looking more into it.

Since you can’t criticize police unions without questioning police, to conservatives this smells too much like the people yelling death threats, and they reflexively block it off. I suspect something similar is at work with liberals and the conservative distaste of unions. Thus both sides develop blind spots against an organization they would otherwise be quick to criticize. Thus the unions are free to protect their members from the accountability they would otherwise receive, while the distracted demagoguery continues…

The Road Taxes Are Coming, The Road Taxes Are Coming

Congressional Republicans are not ruling out raising the gas tax to keep afloat the broke Highway Trust Fund… (WashingtonExaminer)

I assure you I was going to predict this before it hit the news yesterday, but I can’t prove it. I never even tweeted about it. Oh well.

I first blogged about the growing road tax problem over three years ago (wow, that’s like forever in blog-years), and not much has changed since then. It’s been over two years since I blogged about the increase in US oil production, and not much has changed about that, either, except that the oil markets finally responded and dropped like 50% in the last few months.

A couple months in I started wondering if the corresponding drop in gas prices, which I don’t expect to reverse any time soon, would give Congress more appetite for a gas tax increase. The per-gallon funding system is still increasingly broken, but it’s only like 18 cents a gallon. That was a lot when prices were, like, 60 cents before adding that tax. But we’ve seen 300-400 cents now! Prices have dropped like 150 cents from the levels customers have gotten used to, so what’s, say, 9 cents back the other direction? That would immediately give the fund a 50% boost, extending the broken model out for at least several election cycles.

Yeah, yeah, Republicans taking over Congress, Republicans will never increase taxes. Yeah, right. The road tax is one of the more reasonable federal taxes out there (not that there’s a super high bar there), and the numbers just don’t add up anymore. Once they accept it the politicians will come up with any number of justifications. “It’s better than a Big Brother per-mile tax.” Or maybe they’ll extract some sort of concession that theoretically reduces construction union power to theoretically reduce ongoing maintenance costs or something. Or maybe they’ll just hide it in a spending bill somewhere with a graduated increase that hopefully won’t get noticed too intently.

It’ll give people something to complain about when prices go back up, but, hey, they’re going to complain about that no matter what even as they buy more fuel-efficient vehicles that more than offset it. It’ll give Tea Partiers something to complain about while they drive on the federally funded highways to get to their rallies about how the establishment Republicans are so unacceptably compromising of Big Government, which, again, they’re going to complain about anyway.

And the government will still pay people to Build The Roads. And the unsustainably subsidized suburban sprawl will sustain itself a little while longer. And life will go on.