Monday, December 21, 2015

The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Pulled

A fictional character in a movie once said: “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”. Perhaps this is true, but I think certainly that, at the very least, the state of our national debate about guns runs a close second.

The Devil’s work is inherently based on convincing lots of good people to take actions that directly or indirectly cause suffering. He does this subtly, with lies and deceptions, with simplistic arguments that are usually too good to be true, with ideologies and propaganda. He does this by playing on our rawest emotions, on our anger, and our fear, our righteousness and our indignation.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m an atheist. I don’t think the Devil is actually real, in the same way that electrons, black holes or mitochondria are real. I think of the Devil as a helpful metaphorical construct. It presupposes that all the ‘evil’ in the world is created by an intelligent, malicious, despicable adversary. I think that the Devil is real in the way that market forces, the rule of law or the right to bear arms is real: a way of looking at the world with consequences. What makes it interesting are the consequences of looking at the world in that way.

We all have evil thoughts, desires or reactions. Why not imagine for a moment that, when we have those thoughts, they are coming from an external source, from some form of dark intelligence? If we realized that the person behind those thoughts was someone who didn’t have our best interests at heart, then that might make them easier to ignore, condemn and turn away from. If that were possible, might we not become stronger, less prone to succumbing to temptation, anger, malice or cruelty? Might we not become better people?

Inevitably, any discussion of Good, Evil and the Devil might well descend into a religious or moral argument about scripture or culturally-scoped definitions of what good and evil are. I’d like to simply invoke the presence of suffering as a direct consequence of the presence of evil. From minor things (such as racist comments) through to criminality, drug abuse, deadly violence, suicide, murder, terrorism, global warming, war, and even the ultimate depths of horror of which mankind is capable, like genocide, the key aspect of evil is that it causes suffering. How do we where evil is lurking? Find the suffering, and it's probably close by.

A brilliant commercial about racism in Australia shows several situations where white people interact with Aborigines and a man softly whispers to them “What do you think she’s up to?”, “Don’t make eye contact”, or “Go on, it’s only a joke” to trigger nasty little moments of discrimination. This is the Devil in our thoughts; conventionally sitting on our collective shoulders to lead us into temptation and treat our fellow man cruelly. The commercial’s message is about racism, but the image of the whispering man: disheveled, seedy and sounding oh-so-reasonable in his small, shitty way provides us with a working image of one aspect of the adversary at play.

If we build on this image and imagine too that the Devil is slippery, deceptive and insidious. I think that there is a diabolical irony to the machinations of evil. Milgram’s classic study in obedience describe how people can be coerced into performing truly awful things in a closed setting by enforcing people’s obedience. In this famous psychology experiment, test subjects thought that they were issuing painful, dangerous electric shocks to actors pretending to take a test so that they would be ‘shocked’ when they made mistakes. The actors would fake screams in response to the supposed punishments meted out by the test subjects who were themselves under scrutiny to see how far they could be made to push the severity of the punishment through instructions, encouragement or simple orders to do so. A recent book reexamined Milgram’s original findings to show that our common interpretation of his results are wrong: simply ordering someone to do something awful from a position of authority rarely worked. However, a high percentage of subjects would go further if they were told there was a higher purpose to their actions. The people willing to do more damage were not simply drones following instructions, but zealots doing what needed to be done for a just cause.

At least partially, this is how the Devil works. True believers can be more easily persuaded to cruelty, darkness and atrocity. He tricks people irrespective of faith, political persuasion, nationality or culture. He cultivates our desires, reactions, judgments, hatreds, and fears. He gives us a suitably lofty ideal to believe in and pursue, blind to the human suffering lurking in the consequences of our actions, and then sits back and laughs as we tear each other apart. He terrifies and horrifies us, turning some people into monsters so that we then see monsters everywhere.

The idea that the Devil has a sick sense of humor is worth considering too. Consider a recent news story where a woman was captured on camera berating a group of Muslim men in a San Francisco park saying:
“You are very deceived by Satan. Your mind has been taken over... brainwashed... and you have nothing but hate.”
Her speech is sanctimonious, righteous and pious but her actions embody pure xenophobia, religious prejudice and violence (she throws a cup of coffee at one of the men). Clearly, she is doing the Devils work, and her religious convictions render her blind to the contradiction between what she was saying and doing. If you are a Christian, you sincerely believe in God and the Devil, but you don’t think the Devil is directly trying to trick you into being an asshole as a matter of principle, you might want to rethink your approach. This is the sort of sneaky, backhanded slipperiness your enemy is up to.

Furthermore, in our modern, interconnected, information-based world, the lies that lead into darkness can amplified endlessly without effort by politics, by the chitter-chatter of the news cycle and of course, by social media. A clear example of the scale and destructive potential of this amplification can be most clearly seen in the story of Justine Sacco, who posted a thoughtless tweet about AIDS shortly before boarding an 11-hour flight to South Africa and by the time she landed, millions of people actively hated her. The viciousness and scale of the public shaming she received was extreme. Describing how this process played out in a NYT article, Ron Jonson wrote:
Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so.
Where did all this celebration of her downfall come from? Collectively, from a bunch of otherwise well-meaning, ‘good’ people, doing the Devil’s work with gusto.

So, if we put this together: (A) everyone has thoughts, feelings and drives that have us do things with negative, ‘evil’, consequences. (B) It’s easier somehow to ignore or dismiss these consequences if we have an ideological position on ‘how the ends justifies the means’ or if we’re simply unaware, oblivious or unconcerned with those consequences. (C) The amplification provided by mass media means an immense momentum can be derived from popular opinion across huge numbers of people.

If you take these elements and then throw in the hellish, ridiculous clusterfuck that is gun violence in the United States then you have the Devil, dancing a jig and cackling madly on a ripe harvest of 30,000 butchered souls every single year.

According to this report from the CDC for 2013: across the whole US, there were 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides and 505 accidental deaths by firearm discharge in that year. There were a total of 2,596,993 deaths from all causes, so roughly 1.3% of all fatalities in 2013 were caused by guns. This is a little less than the number of people who died in motor vehicle accidents in the same timeframe (35,369). Consider also that in 2013, the number of people with non-fatal injuries from firearms was 84,258, and these injuries were likely to be extremely serious with a lifelong impact. Another tragic aspect of firearm violence is that it disproportionately impacts young people, spiking around age 20–24 so that when those lives are snuffed out, all of the good that they could have ever accomplished is extinguished too.

Now, since we’re talking about the Devil here, a key aspect of the human cost of the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon us is that someone is pulling the trigger to take a life. These are not impersonal medical tragedies or natural disasters but individual human beings acting as killers to destroy people’s lives. What act could bring the Devil greater joy than that? Not only are the souls of the killed flocking to his door, the damned souls of the killers await their judgement when the time comes.

And if we attempt to trace the suffering of bereavement, loss and tragedy that inevitably follows gun violence, the greatest evil present in the conversation is how disconnected the conversation is from the issues at hand. We aren’t talking about practical measures or treating the issues intelligently. We’re lambasting each other, personalizing the conversation, ceding too much power to invested parties with a clear conflict of interest (the NRA) and making this about culture wars between liberals and conservatives, the constitution, government tyranny, a strangely structured definition of ‘freedom’.

There’s so much obfuscation, confusion, powerlessness, rancor, and inaction, I just know that the Devil is behind it all. People demonize and ridicule people on the other side of the conversation; disingenuous arguments are made based on biased advocacy positions with no grounding in logic or data; overly-simplistic arguments are wrapped in illogical appeals to patriotism to justify them and finally, some people make enormous amounts of money from the sale of guns with no regard of the dangers to public health that ensue.

I think that the way forward is to better understand the opposing side’s point of view. The two different ways of looking at the problem are based on the different reaction we all have when we think of being faced with an attacker armed with a firearm.

Gun rights advocates think practically in terms of the tactical requirement needed to defend yourself in this situation. You need to be able to stop whoever is trying to kill you and the best way to do that is to shoot them first. The only way you could possibly do that is if you own and carry a gun yourself. Gun rights advocates argue that they need to able to own and carry guns freely for that purpose and strongly resist any legislative efforts to prevent them owning or carrying these weapons. Rather than calling these people ‘gun rights advocates’, let’s call them ‘tacticians’.

On the other side, gun control advocates think practically in terms of the sociological and strategic conditions of preventing your attacker from obtaining a gun in the first place. It should be difficult for dangerous people to own weapons and oversight needs to be put in place to prevent that from happening. Naturally, gun control advocates strongly push legislation that should supposedly prevent people from owning or carrying guns, and this puts them at odds with tacticians. Rather than calling these people ‘gun control advocates’, let’s call them ‘strategists’.

The sheer horror of the presupposition of what anyone might do in a live shooter situation drives the fundamental, primal contradiction at the heart of this discussion and paralyzes any practical approaches to solving the problem. Simply put, tacticians and strategists tend to be drawn into intractable arguments because the consequences of being wrong is that people die (and of course, we all feel that our viewpoint is the best way of stopping that from happening).

So, let’s push the agenda in a different way. Let’s leave the Devil to argue about ideology, the dangerous stupidity of our opponents, and all the other tired, old tropes that lead us endlessly nowhere. Let’s instead talk about practical ways to reduce sufferering.

How do we stop people from dying?

Perhaps we should have the tacticians talk to police organizations, the FBI, martial arts schools, trauma specialists, and EMT doctors to figure out the best ways to help people protect themselves, and to train people effectively at doing so. This sort of engagement could also help us keep an eye on people for erratic or self destructive behavior, raising red flags if there is any cause for concern. Similarly we could then have the strategists talk to mental health professionals, epidemiologists, criminologists, yet more trauma specialists and EMT doctors to figure out how to prevent truly dangerous people from being able to obtain and use firearms. Most importantly, let’s have the tacticians and the strategists talk to each other and come up with both tactical and strategic measures that can reduce gun violence. Forget everything else. Just stop the killing.

Imagine how furious the Devil would be if we slowed the flood of death, murder and suicide into hell from gun violence? He’d probably try to take steps to prevent this from happening. He might send out corrupt agents to spread incendiary lies and misinformation to set us against one another. He might make the image of being able to kill for justifiable reasons attractive in popular media. He might come up with dodgy pseudo-religious arguments that justify violence by a tortured reinterpretation of scripture .

Oh no, wait, that’s actually what he’s doing right now.

So, naturally, you could dismiss this argument simply because, well, I’m an atheist and I don’t really believe any of this stuff anyway. You might say: “You might not believe in the Devil, but he certainly believes in you”. It’s true, I don’t believe in the literal truth of the Devil’s existence, but my view is that we should use the idealogical constructs of religious faith as effective moral weapons and strive to reduce suffering as our primary goal.

I also think that the Devil has been running a terrific counter-espionage campaign. He’s convinced everyone that he’s easy to spot: he’s got horns and fangs, he’s debauched, and carries a clear malevolence that is easily recognized. I know that if he was real, he wouldn’t look this way. He’d be handsome, rakish, charming, convincing, rich and sexy as hell. He’d convince you do all sorts of thing that would cause suffering in others and then persuade you that you were on the side of the angels all the while. The Devil works in mysterious ways and the only barometer we should trust is the tell-tale scent of the presence of evil: suffering. If we focus on that, and don’t allow ourselves to be distracted by the Devil’s lies, we should be able to actually solve the problem of gun violence in America.

Monday, December 7, 2015

On Fighting

“Americans love to fight,” declared George Patton in his speech to the third army in 1944; it’s clear to me now that although this assertion might well be true in general, most Americans have no real idea how to fight. Many people mistake raw aggression for martial prowess. They don’t realize that this sort of bluster shouted loudly and naively in the media-driven, over-opinionated echo chamber of US politics weakens our capability to form effective military strategy, fight, and defeat our enemies.

We are at war with the atrocity-embracing terrorist warriors of the Islamic State. Now, more than ever, we need to understand what is involved in fighting, and also to understand what the consequences of fighting are. With full disclosure, my thoughts on this matter are not derived from any military experience but from fencing and martial arts; I’m not a soldier, have never served and have only handled a firearm three times in my life. I think there is an important difference between fighting to defeat someone and fighting to kill them (and, thank God, I’ve never known the latter).

In conflicts between animals of the same species, the act of fighting is a small subset of aggressive behaviors that serve to establish dominance in social relationships. Most of the time, situations involving aggressive behavior consists of threats, chest-beating, bullying, and intimidation: schoolyard antics that establish dominance but usually don’t lead to anything serious. This is typically what people think passes for being a badass but is not necessarily anything to do with actually being good at fighting per se. When most people think about any sort of conflict that could possibly involve violence, they might offer such pearls of wisdom as ‘We need to show them who’s boss’, ‘We’re going to fuck you up’, or possibly ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ (my favorite).

This is how most people think fighting is done.

And although this may be enough reason for silverback gorillas to go at it, just establishing some sense of national dominance should not be the reason we send our soldiers to war. Given its costs and dangers, I would hope that the underlying reasons of why we fight would be more evolved, humanitarian, and practical than that (but I could well be wrong).

Beyond that, anyone adopting a blusterous, over-confident, hyper-aggressive approach in a fight typically puts themselves at a tactical disadvantage. Tactics in a combat setting always involves deception and misdirection. Brute force and overwhelming power has its place, but skill, sneakiness, and intelligence are more effective (just read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to see how ancient Chinese military geniuses approach this whole question). Fundamentally, discipline, capability, courage, deception, and skill are the determining factors that make good fighters.

Also, it pays to take your adversary seriously. There’s a great scene in HBO’s The Pacific when Sgt. John Basilone confronts his soldiers for saying that they just want to get out there and ‘slap a Jap’. He screams, “You can call them anything you want but never ever fail to respect their desire to put you and your buddies into an early grave!” Know your adversary and you will be better able to defeat them.

Furthermore, if you can find a way to treat your adversary with humanity and respect then you may avoid paying the grave cost of losing that humanity. In his chilling but brilliant book On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman carefully elaborates how warfare causes moral injury and PTSD to combatants as natural individual consequences of fighting and killing. At length, he describes how some groups resort to the deliberate use of the ‘Dark Power of Atrocity’ as a means of fighting: the use of reprisals, targeting civilians, terrorism, carpet bombing of cities, and sexual violence such as systemic rape. Grossman writes:
There are many benefits reaped by those who tap the dark power of atrocity. Those who engage in a policy of atrocity usually strike a bargain that exchanges their future for a brief gain in the present. Though brief, that gain is nonetheless real and powerful. … One of the most obvious and blatant benefits of atrocity is that it quite simply scares the hell out of people. The raw horror and savagery of those who murder and abuse cause people to flee, hide, and defend themselves feebly, and often their victims respond with mute passivity…
In a following passage, Grossman then goes on to say:
Once a group undergoes the process of bonding and empowerment through atrocity, then its members are entrapped in it, as it turns every other force that is aware of their nature against them.
In simple practical terms, a groups that adopts atrocity in its methodology will create enemies that will never surrender or submit to them. When faced with an adversary like that, the only recourse you have is to fight tooth-and-nail to the death. Also, in so doing, the degree to which you then embrace atrocity and inhumanity to fight your enemy is then the degree to which you will be trapped by the same dark power. To quote Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster. And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Another movie, The Boxer, beautifully illustrates the difference between a fighter and a killer. This is the story of Danny Flynn, a boxer wrapped up in the politics of IRA-controlled Belfast. His character contrasts with that of Harry, an IRA commander responsible for the fight against the English and the Unionists. The main difference between the two men is that Danny simply fights without rancor or murderous intent, Harry fights to kill and destroy his enemies. Of the two men, Harry is far more damaged, more inhuman, and less likely to function well in a time of peace. The horror of war lives and breathes in Harry; he embraces it; he likes it; he uses it.

We should be wary of becoming like Harry when we fight.

So, in the current fight with IS, we face a calculating, barbaric enemy whose main goal is to terrorize us. To fight them well, we must pursue a military strategy that defeats their soldiers (by killing them, capturing them, or causing them to surrender) and undermines the narrative through which they gather supporters. We must also avoid the dark trap of using their own barbarity against them. The cost of that path is too great and will only lead to a greater spiral of death in the next monstrous enemy rising from ISIS’s defeated remnants.

So then, what are we really fighting for? I’m not sure if have a good answer for that question. I do know that we need to fight well with intelligence, cunning, and humanity to win.