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Politics & Plagiarism

English: Melania Trump at the QVC Red Carpet S...

During the 2016 Republican National Convention Melania Trump delivered a speech that plagiarized the speech given by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. As always, the responses tended to correspond with ideology: the left largely condemned and mocked it; some on the right downplayed and even defended it. As a professor and an author, I condemn plagiarism and have a few students fail themselves each year by doing what Melania’s speechwriter did. I do not fail students; I merely record their failure.

After my initial mild condemnation of the plagiarism, I came to what is an obvious realization: almost all political speeches are acts of plagiarism. I am not claiming that the vast majority of speechwriters are stealing the words and ideas of others; the plagiarism is of a different sort and this will be clear with a bit of explanation. Put a bit roughly, plagiarism occurs when someone tries to claim that substantial words and ideas are their own when they actually belong to another. By this simplistic definition, when a politician (or spouse) delivers a political speech that was written by someone else as if they were presenting their own words and ideas, then they are plagiarizing. Unless, of course, they engage in proper citation practices. As such, Melania Trump was engaged in double plagiarism: trying to pass off as her own the words stolen from Michelle Obama’s speech by the speechwriter.

An obvious reply to my assertion is that nearly all politicians have speechwriters and the commonness of the practice thus makes it acceptable. This is, obviously enough, the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice: the mere fact that something is commonly done does not make it right. It is, however, fair to point out that if nearly all politicians engage in this practice, then it follows that it would be unfair to single out any particular politician for special criticism.

Another, and better, reply is that speechwriters merely assist the politician in presenting their ideas and words. To use the obvious analogy, when the editors suggest changes to my writing and I follow them, I am not plagiarizing from the editors—this is a legitimate and proper part of the writing process. To use another analogy, if a student goes to a university writing center and gets assistance with improving their paper, that is not plagiarism.  Likewise, if a politician has others edit their speech, then that is also legitimate.

This is a point both fair and just, provided that the speechwriters are actually speech editors who assist the politician in crafting their speech. While there is considerable gray area between assistance and plagiarism, there is also a clear zone of plagiarism—the most obvious being a speech written entirely by another. While I cannot draw a clear line that would apply in all cases, a sensible consideration of amount contributed by the alleged author can resolve questions about plagiarism.

While plagiarism is condemned in academics and copyright violations are illegal, it might be claimed that it does not really matter that politicians almost never write their own speeches. After all, only the most naïve or ignorant would think that the words a politician reads from a teleprompter or paper are their own. However, I contend that it does matter and especially matters when a politician is running for office. I will focus on that specific scenario in the discussion that follows.

In theory, one point of a speech by a political candidate is to inform the voters of their views, ideas and policies. As such, the politician should write their speech, Otherwise, the politician is like an actor in a commercial who is endeavoring to sell someone else’s product using a script written by another. This can be countered by contending that a person could have excellent ideas and policies, yet lack the writing skills to craft an effective speech—thus the need for speechwriters.

While I would certainly put an “F” on a paper written this way, it does seem acceptable in the case of politics. To use an analogy, if a skilled doctor who was a poor communicator had her more eloquent assistant explain things to me, then there would be no problem: what matters is not who crafts the exact words, but the information behind them.

That said, there is more to a campaign speech than just putting forth ideas—it also supposed to reveal more about the politician such as wit, skill and character. While it is obviously true that the audience does get to see the politician’s skill at delivering words and timing, this merely reveals the politician’s skill as an actor and orator if the words are not their own. This creates the Cyrano de Bergerac problem: the voters are won over by the fine words of the writer, yet think they “love” the person speaking them. The voters are not, as Trump would rightly say, getting authenticity—they are getting an actor mouthing the words of another. Thus, when a politician reads a speech written by another, voters learn about the actor’s skills and not the actual person.

Some might counter this view by pointing out that what matters is actions—what a person does. After all, a politician could be a skilled writer, yet awful at the job. This is certainly a reasonable point: no one should be judged by words alone (especially when the words are not their own). It is also reasonable to point out that reading a prepared speech is relatively easy—the real challenge lies in a Socratic engagement. This is something that the vast majority of politicians are loath to do for they know how it would go for them. This is why the presidential debates in the United States are not actual debates—just people giving short speeches that have probably been pre-written for them. What, in general, the voters see is a spokesperson for a product that is themselves spewing advertising copy written by someone else. So, the voters have no clear idea of what they are actually buying.

 

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The Ethics of Trump Denial

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

Brian Ballsun-Stanton suggested that I address the question of whether or not it would be legitimate to deny Trump the nomination and to do so in the context of the article by Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic. In the course of raising question, Friedersdorf presented three stock positions and I will consider each in turn.

The first option is grounded in a basic principle of democracy, majority rule. Since Trump won the majority of the votes, he has earned the nomination. John Locke laid out the justification for this, which is quite reasonable: in a democracy, majority rule needs to be accepted to avoid destroying society. If the numerical minority refuses to accept the decision of the numerical majority, then the social system would be torn to pieces and, as Locke claimed, social systems are not formed to be torn asunder.

One obvious counter to this view is to point out that while Trump won the majority of the votes and delegates, only a small percentage of Republicans actually voted in the primaries. As such, Trump is not really the choice of the majority of the Republicans and denying him the nomination would be acceptable.

While this counter has some appeal, the easy reply is that voting is like running a race: it does not matter who might win based on who might show up; winning is a matter of who actually shows up. As such, since Trump won the majority, he is entitled to the nomination.

Accepting majority rule does leave open the possibility of Trump not getting the nomination—provided that the process is taken to include the voting of the delegates at the convention. This leads to the second option, that of the delegates voting the conscience and possibly against Trump.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to look at the obligation of convention delegates. One is that they are obligated to vote based on who won them as delegates (at least on the first vote). The foundation for this obligation is the acceptance of the rules of the process—that is, the participants agreed with the rules and are now bound by them because of their agreement. To use a sports analogy, if one team is winning under the rules of the game and the results are not pleasing to the other team, then this hardly gives then the right to start changing the rules that everyone accepted. However, there are many cautionary tales of simply following the rules just because they are rules—there remains the question of whether the rules are good or not.

The other view of the obligation is that the delegates are not automatons—each, as Henry David Thoreau would say, has a conscience. As Jiminy Cricket said, they should let their conscience be their guide. On the positive side, a person’s conscience can play a critical rule in distinguishing good rules from bad. On the negative side, a person’s conscience can be in error. While there is often the assumption that the conscience is a reliable indicator of right and wrong, a person can have a bad conscience. This leads to a serious problem: if one uses his conscience to judge the rightness of rules, then what does the person use to assess the correctness of his conscience? One possible answer to this is the utilitarian/consequentialist approach—weighing the likely costs and benefits of an action to determine whether it is right or wrong.

In the case of Trump, one utilitarian calculation involves weighing harms and benefits of denying Trump the nomination he has earned in accord with the established rules. This would mostly be a calculation within the confines of the Republican party rather than in terms of the entire country. My inclination is that denying Trump the nomination would have profoundly negative consequences for the Republican party as an institution. As many others have noted, denying Trump the nomination would be rightly perceived as breaking the rules and a betrayal of the voters. This, of course, could be seen as a benefit for those who are opposed to this party.

A second utilitarian calculation involves weighing the harms and benefits of denying Trump the nomination in the context of the entire country (or perhaps even the world). Trump has no experience in political office, seems to lack interest in the complexities of political positions, has little concern about truth, and there are grave concerns about his ethics. As such, a solid case could be made on utilitarian grounds for denying him the nomination—assuming that his replacement would be better for the country. Hillary Clinton must also be considered in these calculations—would it be better or worse for the country if she ran against Trump rather than someone else? As I see it, Trump would be worse than Hillary Clinton; but there are presumably Republicans that would be better than her. If so, a utilitarian approach would seem to point towards the delegates nominating a candidate that is better than Trump and Hillary and who could beat Hillary. At this point, it seems unlikely that such a candidate could be found—then again, there are still months to go before the election.

In closing, my position is that Trump won the nomination and is thus morally entitled to it; that is the way the process works and it would be unjust to betray the voters and Trump. However, I think that people should not vote for Trump in the general election.

 

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Silencer

English: NRA (National Recovery Administration...

Put a bit simply, a silencer is a device attached to a gun for the purpose of suppressing the sound it makes. This is usually done to avoid drawing attention to the shooter. This makes an excellent analogy for what happens to proposals for gun regulation: the sound is quickly suppressed so as to ensure that attention moves on to something new.

Part of this suppression is deliberate. After each mass shooting, the NRA and other similar groups step up pressure on the politicians they influence to ensure that new regulations are delayed, defeated or defanged. While it is tempting to cast the NRA as a nefarious player that subverts democracy, the truth seems to be that the NRA has mastered the democratic process: it organizes and guides very motivated citizens to give money (which is used to lobby politicians) and to contact their representatives in the government. This has proven vastly more effective than protests, sit-ins and drum circles. While it is true that the NRA represents but a fraction of the population, politics is rather like any sport: you have to participate to win. While most citizens do not even bother to vote, NRA member turnout is apparently quite good—thus they gain influence by voting. This is, of course, democracy. Naturally, another tale could be told of the NRA and its power and influence. A tale that presents the NRA and its members as subverting the will of the majority.

Certain pundits and politicians also engage in suppression. One standard tactic is, after a shooting, to claim that it is “too soon” to engage in discussion and lawmaking. Rather, the appropriate response involves moments of silence and prayer. While it is appropriate to pay respects to the wounded and dead, there is a difference between doing this and trying to run out the clock with this delaying tactic. Those that use it know quite well that if the discussion can be delayed, interest will fade and along with it the chances of any action being taken.

It is, in fact, appropriate to take action as soon as possible. To use the obvious analogy, if a fire is ravaging through a neighborhood, then the time to put out that fire is now. This way there will be less need of moments of silence and prayers for victims.

Another stock tactic is to accuse those proposing gun regulation of playing politics and exploiting the tragedy for political points or to advance an agenda. This approach can have some moral merit—if a person is engaged in a Machiavellian exploitation of some awful event (be it a mass shooting, a terrorist attack or a wave of food poisoning) without any real concern for the suffering of others, then that person would be morally awful. That said, the person could still be acting rightly, albeit for all the wrong reasons. This would be in terms of the consequences, which could be quite good despite the problematic motivations. For example, if a politician cynically exploited the harm inflicted by lead contaminated water in order to gain national attention, then that person would hardly be a good person. However, if this resulted in changes that significantly reduced lead poisoning in the United States, then consequences would certainly seem good and desirable.

It is also worth considering that using an awful event to motivate change for the better could result from laudable motives and a recognition of how human psychology generally works. To use an analogy, a person who loves someone who just suffered from a lifestyle inflicted heart attack could use that event to get the person to change her lifestyle and do so for commendable reasons. After all, people are most likely to do something when an awful event is fresh in their minds; hence this is actually the ideal time to address a problem—which leads to the final part of the discussion.

Although active suppression can be an effective tactic, it often relies on the fact that interest in a matter fades as time passes—this is why those opposed to new gun regulation use delaying tactics. They know that public attention will shift and fade.

On the one hand, the human tendency to lose interest can be regarded as a bad thing. As Merlin said in Excalibur, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” In the case of mass shootings and gun violence, people quickly forget an incident—at least until another incident reminds them. This allows a problem to persist and is why action needs to be taken as soon as possible.

On the other hand, our forgetting is often our salvation. If the memory of fear and pain did not fade over time, they would be as wounds that did not heal. Just as a person would bleed to death physically from wounds that never healed, a person would bleed out emotionally if memory did not fade.

To use another analogy, if the mind is like a ship and memory is like a cargo, just as a ship that could never lighten its load would plunge to the ocean floor, a person that could never lighten her emotional load would be dragged into the great abyss of emotions and thus be ruined. Thus, forgetting is both our doom and our salvation. Of course, we would have far less need to forget if we remembered what we need to fix. And fixed it.

 

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No Fly, No Buy

Departing BFI as BOE008 Heavy

In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, there has been a push for the idea of “no fly, no buy.” This is the sound bite slogan for banning people on the No Fly List from buying guns. There are two main versions of this proposal. One, backed by Democrats, is that the No Fly List data would become part of the background check to purchase a firearm and would prevent a person on the list from buying a gun legally. The other, backed by Republicans, gives the government a limited time frame to establish probable cause for banning a person on the list from buying a gun. For the sake of this discussion, I am oversimplifying the fine distinctions between the various lists. Fortunately, the general discussion does not require such fine distinctions.

Both parties agree with the fundamental justification for the proposal: guns should be kept out of the hands of terrorists. This is often described in the media as a “no brainer.” While I agree that it is best if terrorists do not have guns, this justification is something of a deceit: being on the No Fly List is not the same as being a terrorist. Rather, being on the list means that a person (might be) suspected of having some connection to terrorism. To use the obvious analogy, it is a “no brainer” to want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals—but it is another matter to want to keep guns out of the hands of people who are suspected of maybe having some connection to crime. As such, the “keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists” is a rhetorical point that has a very limited connection to the actual facts. This leads to my concerns about using the No Fly List as a no-buy list.

The first point of concern, one shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be poorly managed. The reason this is a problem is that a person can end up on the list who actually has no connection to terrorism at all. Since the program is secret, the mechanics of ending up on the list are known only to a few—but it has been clearly established that the list is “riddled with errors.” Using such a flawed list is clearly problematic. This could, of course, be addressed by improving list management.

The second point of concern, also shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be a clear violation of the right to due process. As such, the list itself seems to be unconstitutional. It was, of course, accepted as part of the grand sacrifice of rights to the delusion and illusion of security following 9/11. Unfortunately, the fires of fear are relentlessly stoked, making addressing these violations unlikely. Obviously enough, using an unconstitutional process as the basis for forbidding people from buying guns is problematic. This could be addressed by revising the process to follow due process or amending the constitution to change due process.

The third point of concern is that the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is as an individual right to keep and bear arms. A look back at the history of the Second Amendment shows that this has not always been the case; but what matters legally is the current interpretation. Given that the No Fly List is flawed and seems to be unconstitutional, to deny a person his Second Amendment rights on such a basis would be unacceptable. To use an analogy, imagine that in addition to “no fly, no buy” there was a proposal for “no seating, no tweeting.” On this proposal, people on the No Fly List would be banned from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. This would be absurd. By parity of reasoning, using the list to violate the Second Amendment right would be just as absurd.

It could be objected that the danger presented by guns is far greater than the danger presented by words. While this does have some appeal, the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” exists for a reason. While it is true that guns can kill, words have great power—after all, when people discuss terrorism they often focus on the process of radicalization—and expression (propaganda in various forms) is a large part of this. There is also the fact that, once again, being on the No Fly List is not the same as being an actual terrorist—so a person’s rights would be denied on the basis of an unreliable violation of due process.

It could be objected that there should not be an individual right to keep and bear arms. That is, the Second Amendment should be repealed or reinterpreted. While this could be done, it does not address the actual issue at hand. After all, the issue is not about what the Second Amendment should be, but about whether or not the “no fly, no buy” proposal is a good one or not. If no one could buy, then the “no buy” would make “no fly, no buy” pointless.

Another objection is the “low impact” counter. This is a general tactic in which it is argued that a proposal is acceptable because it would not really have much of an impact. In the case of “no fly, no buy”, people point to the fact that of the 192,956,397 background checks between February 2004 and May, 2016 there have been 2,477 matches with a watch list and only 212 denied transactions. As such, the argument goes, there should be no real objection to “no fly, no buy” because it will almost certainly have a miniscule impact on citizens.

There are two easy and obvious replies to the “low impact” counter. The first is that just because a policy is likely to have low impact, it does not follow that it is thus acceptable. As argued above, the “no fly, no buy” proposal is highly problematic and the fact that it will not deny too many people their rights is hardly good grounds for accepting it.

The second is that the “low impact” shows that the proposal will not be very effective at achieving the results that are supposed to motivate its acceptance. To be specific, the proposal would seem to have little or no impact on gun violence in the United States. As it stands, it seems that there have been no mass shootings that would have been prevented by “no fly, no buy.” While the Orlando shooter was on a list, he was removed—so the proposal would not have prevented that shooting. Unless, of course, there was also a proposal passed into law that would prevent people from being removed from the list or imposing a permanent gun buying ban on anyone who is ever on the list. These would certainly be problematic.

Overall, “no fly, no buy” seems to be a case of political theater—the illusion of trying to address a very real problem in a way that actually fails to address that problem while also violating rights. As such, I am against “no fly, no buy.”

 

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Guns & Negligence

Remington Arms

After each mass shooting in America, there is a push to do something about gun violence. After the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some family members of the victims brought a lawsuit against Remington Arms. Remington manufactured the Bushmaster rifle used by the shooter. The lawsuit also includes Camfour (a firearm distributor) and Riverview Gun Sales (which sold the gun).

On the face of it, the case would seem to have no legal merit—the main reason being the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 federal law. This law serves as a protection for liability in regards to the legal sales of firearms. While what a law means amounts to the opinions of the adjudicators and enforcers, there would seem to be little grounds for a lawsuit in this case: a legal product, the Bushmaster, was manufactured, distributed and sold in accord with the laws. The only criminal activity was on the part of the shooter.

Interestingly, the case seems to be going forward. The attorney for the victims’ families, Joshua Koskoff, has contended that there is a legal foundation for the case. To be specific, he claims that the “negligent entrustment” exception of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act provide the opening needed.

One clear problem with using the negligent entrustment exception is that it seems to have been clearly intended for cases in which a gun is sold to a person who is threatening to do harm to others or visibly intoxicated. The situation in question does not meet this condition: the person who legally purchased the weapon was neither intoxicated nor threatening others.

Koskoff is taking an intriguing approach to the matter. He is not claiming that the person who bought the weapon was intoxicated or threatening; instead he is trying a rather different tactic.

His line of reasoning begins with the assertion that the semiautomatic AR-15 type rifles (the Bushmaster is one specific version) are essentially the same as the burst fire M-16 military rifle. His next step was to assert that, “It was Remington’s choice to entrust the most notorious military American killing machine to the public and to continue doing so in the face of mounting evidence of its association with mass murder of innocent civilians.”

One way to look at the argument is that Remington and the others were negligent because they were well aware that these weapons are dangerous and, more specifically, that they are linked to mass shootings. The obvious concern with this sort of reasoning is that it would seem to lay the foundation for a very broad principle of negligence. Under such a principle, anyone who manufactured or sold a product that has been used to create significant harm would be liable, to a degree, for that harm. Computer manufacturers could, for example, be held liable for hacking, phishing and other computer based crimes. As another example, alcohol manufacturers could be held accountable for crimes committed by drunks. As an extreme example, the manufacturers of the planes used on 9/11 could be taken as liable for the misuse of their products. This all seems absurd: manufacturers, distributors and sellers have little (or no) control over the use of their products and hence they cannot be held accountable. There are, of course exceptions—such as liability for selling drinks to someone already drunk. Obviously, the matter is quite different when people are harmed by defects or other problems with the products—the manufacturer is, for example, morally responsible for hazards presented by automobile ignitions that fail.  This leads to a second possible interpretation of the argument.

Koskoff could also be taking as advancing the notion that the negligence arose not simply because the product has been misused by some to create significant harm, but that the product is so dangerous that allowing it to be sold at all constitutes negligence. While this might seem similar to the first interpretation, they are actually quite different. To illustrate this, consider the case of the computer. Under the first principle (that of potential misuse), making and selling computers could be seen as negligent because they are often used in various crimes. Under this principle (that of inherent danger), making and selling computers would not be seen as negligent because they are not inherently harmful (this could, of course, be argued). One way to view the danger is in terms of a defective product. However, the concern is not that the guns are defective—rather, the worry is that they work all too well. A more plausible approach would be that the harm arises not from any defect in the product, but from the product itself when it is working properly and used correctly. On this view, manufacturing, distributing and selling AR-15 style weapons would be analogous to making, distributing a lighting system that illuminated an area via dangerous radiation: it would be working as designed and defect free, yet would be a harmful product. The challenge would be, of course, to show that the weapons are inherently harmful to a degree that to manufacture, distribute and sell them would constitute negligence.

While I am not a lawyer, I Koskoff faces an “upmountain” battle. Even if his argument worked and showed that such guns are inherently dangerous to the public, the fact remains that the gun used in the shooting was manufactured, distributed and sold legally. As such, while this sort of argument would support the assertion that it should be made illegal to manufacture, distribute and sell such weapons, it does not support the claim of legal negligence on the part of the defendants: they fulfilled all their legal obligations. Naturally, the question of whether they were morally negligent or not is another issue.

 

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Gun Control

Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine

The June, 2016 mass shooting in Orlando has thrown gasoline on the political fire of gun control. While people on the left and right both agree that mass shootings should be prevented, they disagree about what steps should be taken to reduce the chances that another one will occur.

As would be expected, people on the left (and broad center) favor efforts focused on guns. While this is normally called “gun control”, this is a phrase that should no longer be used. This is not as a matter of duplicity, to present proposals under a false guise. Rather, this is because “gun control” has become so emotionally charged that the use of the phrase interferes with a rational discussion of proposals. If a proposal is labeled as “gun control”, this will tend to trigger immediate opposition from people who might otherwise support a specific proposal, such as one aimed precisely at preventing criminals and potential terrorists from acquiring guns.

Coming up with a new phrase might be problematic. “Gun safety” is already taken and deals with the safe handling of weapons. “Gun regulation” is a possibility, but “regulation” has become an emotional trigger word as well. The phrase should certainly not be a euphemism or sugar coated—doing so would certainly open the usage up to a charge of duplicity. Since I do not have a good enough phrase, I will continue to use the loaded “gun control” and hope that the reader is not too influenced by the connotation of the phrase.

Positions on gun control are largely set by emotions rather than a logical analysis of the matter. In my case, I am emotionally pro-gun. This is because, as a boy in Maine, I grew up with guns. All my gun experiences are positive: hunting with my dad and target shooting with friends. I am well aware that guns are lethal, but I have no more fear of guns than I have of other lethal machines, such as automobiles and table saws. No close friend or relative has been a victim of gun violence. Fortunately, I have enough empathy that I can feel for people who loath guns because of some awful experience. But, as with all complicated problems, one cannot feel a way to a solution. This requires rational thought.

Being a professional philosopher, I have some skill at considering the matter of gun control in rational terms. While there are many possible approaches to gun control, there are currently to main proposals. As is always the case, these proposals are arising from the specifics of the latest incident rather than a broad consideration of the general problem of gun violence.

The first type of proposal involves banning people on the no fly list from purchasing guns. This has been proposed because of the belief that the Orlando shooter was on this list and if this proposal had been enacted, then the shooting would have not taken place. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: people who are evaluated as too much of a threat to fly would seem to also be too much of a threat to buy guns. There are, however, a few problems with this proposal. The first is that the no fly list has been a mess, with people ending up on the list who should not be there. This can be addressed by improving the quality of list management—though there will always be mistakes. The second problem is a matter of rights. While there is no constitutional right to fly, there is the Second Amendment and banning a person from buying guns because they have been put on such a list is certainly problematic. It could be countered that felons and mentally incompetent people are denied the right to buy guns, so it is no more problematic to ban potential terrorists. The problem is, however, that a person can end up on the no fly list without going through much in the way of due process. That is, a basic constitutional right can be denied far too easily. This can, of course, be addressed by making the process of being on the list more robust or developing an alternative list with stricter requirements and far better management. There would still be the legitimate concern about denying people a right on the basis of suspicion of what they might do rather than as a response to what they have actually done. There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun violence in the United States is committed by people who are not on that list. So, this proposal would have rather limited impact.

The second type of proposal is a return to the ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips (what a friend of mine calls “the ‘scary gun’ ban”). This proposal is based on the belief that if only the Orlando shooter had not been able to acquire a semiautomatic assault rifle and high capacity clips, then the casualties would have been far less.

For those not familiar with weapons, a semiautomatic fires one round with each pull of the trigger and will do so until the magazine is exhausted. Each shot “cocks” the gun again, allowing rapid fire. This is in contrast with, for example, a bolt, pump or lever action weapon. These weapons require the operator to manually move a round from the magazine to the chamber for each shot. These weapons fire considerably slower than semiautomatics, although a skilled user can still fire quite rapidly. There are also weapons that fire in bursts (firing a certain number of rounds with each trigger pull) and those that are fully automatic (firing for as long as the trigger is held and ammunition remains).

While many people believe otherwise, it is often perfectly legal to buy an automatic weapon—a person just has to go through a fairly complicated process including a thorough background check. I know people who own such weapons—legally and above board. The strict process of acquisition and high cost of such weapons generally keeps them out of hands of most people. As such, this could serve as a model for placing stronger limitations on other weapons.

While many people fear what are called “assault rifles” because they look scary to them (merely firing one gave timid journalist Gersh Kuntzman PTSD), the appearance of a gun does not determine its lethality. The typical assault rifle fires a 5.56mm round (though some fire the 7.62mm round) and they are less powerful than the typical hunting rifle. This is not surprising: assault rifles were developed to kill medium sized mammals (humans) and many hunting rifles were designed to kill larger mammals (such as moose and bears). While assault rifles are generally not “high powered”, they do suffice to kill people.

Assault rifles are more of a threat than other rifles for two reasons. The first is that the assault rifle is semi-automatic, which allows a far more rapid rate of fire relative to lever, bolt and pump action weapons. The slower a person fires, the slower they kill—thus allowing a greater chance they can be stopped. However, there are also plenty of semiautomatic non-assault rifles, which leads to the second factor, magazine size. Assault rifles of the sort sold to civilians typically have 20 or 30 round magazines, while typical hunting rifle (non-assault) holds far less. Maine, for example, sets a legal magazine limit of 5 rounds (plus one in the chamber) for hunting rifles.

A ban on semiautomatic rifles sales could have an impact on mass shootings, provided that the shooter had to purchase the rifle after the ban and did not already have access to a semiautomatic weapon. While some hunters do prefer semiautomatic weapons, it is possible to hunt as effectively with pump, lever and bolt action weapons. When I went duck hunting, I used a pump shotgun (which I actually prefer, having seen semiautomatic shotguns jam from time to time) and for deer hunting I used a bolt action rifle.

The main impact of such a ban would be that shooters who have to acquire new weapons for their shooting would have weapons with a lower rate of fire. They could still kill many people, but the kill rate would be slower—thus the death toll should be lower in such cases.

A ban on high capacity clips would also have an impact on the kill rate of shooters who have to buy new clips for their mass shooting. If magazines were limited to 10 rounds, a shooter would need to reload more often and reloading time would afford a chance to stop the shooter.

Combining the two bans would mean that shooters who had to acquire new weapons for their mass shooting would be limited to low capacity, slower firing weapons. This could significantly reduce the death toll of future shootings.

As has been noted, these sorts of bans would only affect a shooter who had to acquire a new weapon or clips. Shooters who already have their weapons would not be impacted by the ban. As such, what would be needed would be to remove existing semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips—something that seems politically impossible in the United States.

 

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Orlando & Terrorism

On June 12, 2016 fifty people died in an Orlando Nightclub. 49 of these were victims of the 50th, who has been identified as Omar Mateen. This is the latest and the largest mass shooting in the United States. As always happens in such cases, there are inquiries into motives and, most importantly, into how such a slaughter was able to take place.

Mr. Mateen, the alleged shooter, was a 29 year old American who worked for the G4S security company. It has been claimed that he committed domestic violence against his then wife (although no charges were apparently filed), that he spoke of his hatred of blacks, gays and Jews, and a coworker has alleged that he often spoke of wanting to kill people. He was investigated by the F.B.I. in 2013 and 2014 in regards to suspected connections to terrorism. These investigations failed to yield adequate evidence for action to be taken against him and he was able to legally purchase the weapons used in the attack.

This mass shooting, like others before it, give rise to an important epistemic question: how can we know when a person will become a mass shooter (or terrorist)? While it is certainly tempting to infer that expressions of hate and expressed desires to engage in violence are good indicators, they are not. A little reflection and a little time on the internet show that hate is abundant as are expressions of desires to engage in violence. The vast majority of these people never make the move from expression to mass shooting. As such, while this sort of behavior is an indicator, it is a very weak indicator. What would be needed would be clearer evidence that a person is preparing to go from thought to action.

It might be believed that signs of connection to terrorism (such as expressing support or having some personal ties to terrorists) are good indicators. While this is also tempting, there are many who express support of terror (be it for ISIS or for using terror against minorities, women, LGBT people, etc.) yet never escalate from expressing support to murdering. There are also people who have personal ties with terrorists who themselves never become terrorists—in fact, these people include some who condemn terrorism.  As such, what would be needed is clearer evidence that there will be a transition from support or connections to violent action.

It could be claimed that there was adequate evidence Mateen was going to become a shooter and the F.B.I. failed in its investigation. This is, of course, a factual matter and one that would be addressed by investigating the investigation. While some might be inclined to believe that the F.B.I was sloppy or incompetent, it seems quite likely that there simply was not enough evidence to justify taking action against him. As it stands, this seems to be the case, despite Mateen allegedly calling 911 to express his loyalty to ISIS (and a mishmash of other groups that actually oppose each other). While ISIS has been happy to claim Mateen’s expression of fealty, this seems to be an affiliation of opportunity: there is currently no evidence that ISIS directed the attack nor evidence that Mateen had any substantial prior connection with ISIS. As such, the best hypothesis at this time is that Mateen was seeking to transform a hateful mass murder to a hateful mass murder for a cause and that ISIS was once again happy for the gift of blood.

It could be asserted that action should be taken against people who might engage in a mass shooting or who might become terrorists. In the case of Mateen, it could be claimed that the F.B.I. should have acted against him even without adequate evidence. This is where the discussion switches from epistemology (what can be known) to morality (what should be done).

The matter of determining the level of warranted suspicion that justifies taking action against a person is a rather important moral concern. On the side of public safety, the stock argument is that by acting on a relative low threshold of warranted suspicion, the public is kept safer. This is a stock utilitarian argument in which the morality of an action is a matter of weighing the harms against the benefits. In the case of Mateen and others, the claim would be that if action had only been taken on the basis of the available evidence, then the murders might have been averted. As a specific example, if expressing hatred of the sort linked to mass shootings resulted in a person being legally banned from owning guns, then there would be less likelihood of a mass shooting occurring. As another example, if the state could detain people on the basis of limited evidence of connections to terrorists, then terrorist attacks would be less likely to occur because more possible terrorists would be locked away (perhaps without trial).

On the side of liberty, the stock argument is that acting on a relatively low threshold would violate rights and create more harm than safety. This is also a utilitarian argument; the difference being in the assessment of harms and benefits. For example, supporters of the Second Amendment such as the NRA would be quick to claim there would be terrible harms and dangers of being able to deny people their gun rights based on the mere expression of hatred or a mere suspicion a person is going to engage in a mass shooting.  In fact, the usual claims are being presented that the shooting could have been prevented or mitigated if only more people had guns.

As another example, those who support the idea of having to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt would oppose such a low threshold of detention for suspicion that a person might engage in a mass shooting. These would tend to be people who respect the idea of the rule of law (though law can be made awful).

It can even be argued that such a low threshold policy would make the public less safe: the violation of rights and low-threshold detentions would create anger and resentment that would lead to more and not less harm. My own position is in opposition to a low threshold—the cost is not worth the gain (if any) of such an approach. In regards to the gun regulation debate that the murders have ignited (once again), I really have nothing new to say about guns—nor, does it seem, does anyone else.

 

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Trump Rhetoric: naming Insulting & Mocking

Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.

One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.

Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”

While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.

From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”

If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.

One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”

Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?

It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.

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Trump & Authenticity

Donald Trump has managed to relentlessly prove the political pundits wrong. While the idea of Trump in the White House was once an absurd joke, each passing day makes it ever more likely that America will fall under the Trumpocracy.

Given that Trump lacks the experience and skills that are usually expected in a presidential candidate, it might be wondered how he is doing so well. When his supporters are asked about their reasons, they typically assert that Trump “tells it like it is”, that he is not politically correct and that he is “authentic.”

Trump’s remarks do clearly establish that he is not politically correct—at least from the standpoint of the left. Trump does, however, go beyond merely not being politically correct and his rhetoric enters into the realms of xenophobia and misogyny. While I am fine with a person not being political correct, regarding his crude and vulgar xenophobia and misogyny as appealing seems to be a mark of character flaws. But, it cannot be denied that this is what some people really like. While it would be unfair to claim that supporting Trump is equivalent to endorsing xenophobia and misogyny, to support Trump is to support his professed values.

The claim that Trump “tells it like it is” is both false and absurd. Trump tells it like it is not, as the Politifact evaluation of his claims attests. Those who support Trump might honestly believe his untruths (as Trump himself might) and they can sincerely claim they back him because he “tells it as they think it is.” However, voters should at least make some minimal effort to check on the truth of Trump’s claims. That said, truth seems to matter very little in political support—perhaps because the system generally provides voters with a choice between untruths.

In order to determine whether or not Trump is authentic, I need to work out a rough account of authenticity in politics. Part of being authentic is a matter of not having certain qualities: not being scripted, not presenting an act, and not saying what one thinks the audience wants to hear. In terms of the positive qualities, authenticity presenting one’s genuine self and saying what one really believes.

It might be thought that Trump’s unrelenting untruths would disqualify him from being authentic. However, authenticity is distinct from saying true things. Authenticity just requires that a person says what she believes, not that she say what is true. This is analogous to honesty: being honest does not entail that a person tells the truth. It entails that the person tells what they believe to be the truth. A dishonest person is not someone who says untrue things—it is someone who says things they believe to be untrue.

Interestingly, there could be a paradox of authenticity. Imagine, if you will, a person whose genuine self is a scripted self and whose views are those that the audience wants to hear at that moment. This would be a person whose authentic self is unauthentic. It could, of course, be argued that there is no paradox: the person would just be unauthentic because she would lack a genuine self and genuine views. It can also be argued that no such person exists, so there is no real paradox. In any case, it is time to return to discussing Trump.

With the rough account of authenticity in hand, the next step is considering the sort of empirical data that would confirm of disprove a person’s authenticity. Since authenticity is mainly a matter of the presented self matching the genuine self, this runs right into the classic philosophical problem of other minds: “how do I know what is going on in another person’s mind?” In the case of authenticity, the questions are “how do I know the presented persona is the real person?” and “how do I know that the person believes what they say?”

In the case of Trump, people point to the fact that he rambles and riffs when giving speeches as evidence that he is unscripted. They also point to the fact that his assertions are political incorrect and regarded by many as outrageous as evidence that he is saying what he really believes. The idea seems to be that if he was a scripted and inauthentic politician, he would be better organized and would be presenting the usual safe and pandering speeches of politicians.

While this does have a certain appeal, the riffing and rambling could be taken as evidence that he is just not well organized. His outrageous claims can also be taken as evidence of ignorance. It would be a mistake to accept disorganized ignorance as evidence of laudable authenticity. Then again, that might be his genuine self, thus making it authentic. A such, more is needed in the way of evidence.

One common way of looking for authenticity is to take consistency as evidence. The idea is that if a person sticks to a set of beliefs and acts in generally the same way in various circumstances, then this consistency reveals that those believes and actions are sincere. While this is certainly appealing, a smart inauthentic person (like a smart liar) could create a consistent false persona for the public.

In contrast, a person who shifts beliefs with alarming regularity and acts in very different ways depending on the audience is often regarded as being inauthentic because of this inconsistency. The inference is that the person is shifting because they are acting and pandering. While this is also appealing, a person could be sincerely inconsistent and an authentic panderer.

Trump has shifted his professed positions in his transformation to the Republican nominee and his former opponents and current critics have spent considerable time and energy making this point. As such, it is tempting to question Trump’s authenticity in regards to his professed positions. That said, a person can change and adopt new sincere beliefs.

Former presidential hopeful Ben Carson made the interesting claim that there are two Trumps: the on one stage and the one “who’s very cerebral, sits there and considers things carefully.” If Carson is right about this, the “authentic” Trump that appeals to the voters is, ironically, just an act. The Trump on stage is a persona and not his real self—which would hardly be surprising given that he is a master showman.

One reasonable reply to this is that professionals put on a persona when engaging in their professional activities and everyone changes how they behave depending on the audience. For example, I behave differently when I am teaching a class than when I am running with friends. As such, if such change means a person is unauthentic, most people are not authentic. Thus making the charge of authenticity less stinging.

However, there seems to be more to inauthenticity than merely changing behavior to match the social context. Rather, an inauthentic person is engaged in an intentional deception to get others to accept something the person is, in fact, not. This is something that actors do—and it is harmless and even laudable when it is done to amuse. However, when it is done with a different intent (such as deceiving voters so as to get elected), then it is neither harmless nor laudable. I suspect Trump is not authentic, but since I do not know the true Trump, I cannot say with certainty.

 

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Understanding & “An Open Letter to My White Colleagues”

The May 2016 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate features “An Open Letter to my White Colleagues” by Professor Dana Stachowiak. Since I have a genetic background that is a blend of Mohawk, French and English, I am not entirely sure if I am, in fact, white. However, I look white and I am routinely identified by others as white. As such, my social identity would seem to be white. Thus, the intended audience for the letter probably includes me. The letter provides a five-point guide to “sustainable anti-racist work.” While the entire letter is certainly worthy of assessment, I will focus this essay on the third point.

Professor Stachowiak asserts that whites should “Stop trying to understand how it [racism]feels or relate to it with a personal anecdote.  You are white; you will never ever know what it feels like to experience racism.”

This assertion about what whites can never ever know is a matter of what philosophers call epistemology, which is the study of knowledge. More specifically, it falls under the subject of the limits of knowledge. In this case, the assertion is that a person’s epistemic capabilities are limited and defined (at least in part) by their race. Interestingly, this sort of view is routinely accepted by racists—a stock racist view is that other races have limits on what they are capable of knowing and this is typically connected to alleged defects in their cognitive capabilities. I am not claiming that Stachowiak is a racist, just that she has presented a race-based epistemic principle that whites cannot, in virtue of their whiteness, know the experience of racism.

There are epistemic views that do rest on the idea of incommensurable experiences. One extreme version is that no one can know what it is like to be another being. Stachowiak is presenting a less extreme version, one that limits knowledge about a specific sort of experience to a certain set of people. This can be seen as an assertion about the social reality of the United States: American racism is, by its nature, aimed at non-whites. As such, whites can never experience the racism of being targeted for being non-white. To use an analogy, it could be asserted that a man could never know the experience of misogyny because he cannot be hated as a woman (presumably even if he disguised himself as a woman).

This view obviously also requires that there cannot be racism directed against whites (at least in the United States), otherwise whites could experience racism. At this point, most readers are probably thinking that whites can be subject to racism—they can be called racist names, treated poorly simply because they are white, subject to hatred simply because of their skin color and so on for all the apparent manifestations of racism. The usual reply to this sort of claim is that whites can be subject to bias or prejudice, but racism is such that it only applies to non-whites. This requires a definition of “racism” in which the behavior is part of a social system and is based on a power disparity. To illustrate, a black might call a white “cracker” and punch him in the face for being white. This would be prejudice. A white might call a black the n-word and punch him in the face for being black. This would be racism. The difference is that the United States social system provides whites, in general, with systematic power advantages over non-whites.

It might be wondered about specific institutions that are predominantly non-white. In such cases, a white person could be the one at the power disadvantage. The likely reply is that in the broader society the whites still have the power advantage. So, if a philosophy department at a mostly white university does not hire a person because she is black, that is racism. If a philosophy department at a predominantly black university does not hire a person because she is white, that is prejudice but not racism. Thus, with a certain definition of “racism” a white can never experience racism.

It might be asserted that since anyone can experience prejudice and bias in ways that match up with racism (like being attacked, insulted or not hired because of race) it follows that a white person could have an understanding of what it feels like to experience racism. For example, a white person who finds out she was not hired because she is white would seem to be able to understand what it feels like for a black person to not get hired because she is black. There are also white people who belong to groups that are systematically mistreated and subject to oppression—such as women. One might contend that a white woman who experiences sexism her whole life would be able to know what racism feels like, at least by analogy. However, it could be countered that she cannot—there is an insurmountable gulf between the sexism a white woman experiences and the racism a black person experiences that renders her incapable of understanding that experience.

While it is certainly true that a person cannot perfectly know the experience of others, normal human beings are actually quite good at empathy and understanding how others feel. Many moral theorists, such as David Hume, note the importance of sympathy in ethics. It is by trying to understand what others suffer that one develops sympathy and compassion. It is certainly reasonable to accept that perfect understanding is not possible. But, to use an example, a white person who knows what it is like to be beaten up and brutalized because he would rather read books than play football could use that experience to try to grasp what it feels like to be beaten up and brutalized just because one is black. Such a person, it would be expected, would be less likely to act in racist ways if they were able to feel sympathy based on their own experiences.

Another point worth considering is the moral method of reversing the situation, more commonly known as the Golden Rule. Using this method requires being able to have some understanding of what it is like to be in a situation (say being a victim of racism) so as to be able to reason that certain things are wrong. So, for example, a person who can consider what it would be like to be refused a job because of his color would presumably be less likely to engage in that wrongful action. Given the importance of sympathy and the Golden Rule, it seems that whites should not stop trying to understand—rather, they should try to understand more. This, of course, assumes that this would lead to more moral behavior. If not, then I would concede the matter of Professor Stachowiak.

In regards to the anecdotes, I am more inclined to agree with Stachowiak. Having taught at Florida A&M University for almost twenty-five years, I have lost count of the awkward anecdotes I have heard from well-meaning fellow whites trying to show that they understand racism. On the one hand, I do get what they intend when they are sincere—they are making an effort to understand racism within the context of their own experience. This is a natural thing for humans to do and can show that the person is really trying and does have laudable intentions. As such, to condemn such attempts seems unfair.

On the other hand, when a white person busts out an anecdote trying to compare a personal experience to racism I immediately think “oh no, do not do this.” This is usually because the anecdotes so often involve comparing some minor incident (like being called a name as a child) to racism. This is analogous to a person speaking to combat veterans and talking about how he was punched once on the playground. There is also the fact that such anecdotes are often used to say “I understand” and are then followed by clear evidence the person does not understand.  From a purely practical standpoint, I would certainly agree that whites should avoid the awkward anecdote.

 

 

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