Stop the harm

Every decision to act is a cost/benefit analysis, even if we aren't aware of it consciously.

The difficulty comes in deciding what the actual costs and benefits are, and how to quantify them relative to each other.  What is the cost of a broken heart today versus one in three months?  How do we measure the benefit of a random smile?

One thing most people agree on is that a cost born involuntarily is worse than one born voluntarily; in practical terms, intentionally or accidentally forcing a cost on someone is ethically worse than intentionally or accidentally taking one on yourself.

Applying this logic to incidents of violence is generally fairly simple: if you see a fight, you try to stop it and prevent anyone - assailant or victim - from being hurt, even if you don't know what they're fighting about.  Now, we have a legal system that is moderately successful, so we have the advantage of knowing that even if the attack is somehow justified, stopping it likely won't stop the eventual justice.  Even without that, however, it simply makes the most sense to stop the harm first and worry about the rest of the factors afterwards.

When we try to apply this same logic to incidents of discrimination or bigotry, however, that basic calculus seems to get lost somewhere.  We often hear that we should work on helping the perpetrator with education or debate, being "nice" to them rather than chastising or confronting them.  Rather than helping the victim, the arguments often change to minimizing the harm to the perpetrator.

If person X is doing something that harms person Y, it shouldn't matter if the harm is a physical attack or an discriminatory act: the ethical responsibility is to first stop the harm to person Y.  Once that's done - once person Y is no longer being involuntarily subject to harm because of X's actions, regardless of what those actions are or how X is being affected by those actions - we can then look at X's situation and try to determine the most ethical course of action with them.  The harm has to stop first.

If we neglect this duty, if we allow harm to continue to be inflicted on victims while trying to somehow make the act of stopping the harm more palatable or less inconvenient to the perpetrators, we are complicit in the causing of the harm.  We're no better than the perpetrators.

In simple terms: you don't ask the guy attacking people with a knife if he has a bad relationship with his mother or why he's doing it.  You tackle him, disarm him, and then worry about his motivation.  The same is true if the knife is, instead, language, power, or privilege.


The Yellow Clarinet

The illusion of control is a very important thing.

How many superstitions about bad luck are there?  The number 13, walking under a ladder, breaking mirrors, real flowers on stage - there are numerous (probably too many to count) variations on what should or shouldn't be done to influence the luck on has.  Some of them seem kind of obvious - walking under a ladder doesn't seem terribly brilliant to start with, as something or someone might fall off, but I'm not sure how many people need to be advised not to randomly break mirrors (it seems, at best, a fractured hobby).  Some of them likely arise from random collusion of incidents or from historic prejudice.

Most people think most superstitions are silly - except their own.  I know hardened atheists and skeptics who knock on wood.  Of course, the "mote in my eye/twig in your own" phenomenon is fairly common among various belief systems, and they are, after all, a kind of extension of the same phenomenon: the need to exert or at least pretend to exert some control over the random events in one's life.

But there is a more practical, more sinister side to this illusory sense of control.

How many times have you heard, "It's his own fault he got mugged - he was in that part of town after dark!" or, "Tsk, she would have been fine if she hadn't been wearing a dress like that" or similar statements?

It's the same thing: this notion that the person (in this case the victim) had control over how the situation played out.  While this may be true to an extent, in situations where the person is the victim of a crime, there is only one person who had 100% control over how the events played out:

The criminal.

The concept is known in psychology as Defensive Attribution Hypothesis - the notion on the part of the bystander that "if only she/he/they had done (something) different, this wouldn't have happened."  The "goal", if one can call it that, is to determine causal mechanisms for the event that the bystander has control over and, therefore, that the bystander can use to prevent the event from happening.  It's a psychological defense mechanism: "this can't happen to me because I'm in control."

The primary problem, though is that if the bystander is in control, then so was the victim (at least theoretically), which means that, according to the bystander, the victim is at fault for being robbed/attacked/(insert crime here).

On the surface level, this is ridiculous.  I hear, in the virtual echo chamber of the internet, the audience saying, "Well, of course not, but..."

No "but".  No qualification.  The only person who has control over - and thus responsibility for - committing a crime is the criminal.  One can speak of ways to reduce risk - after one has plainly and unambiguously acknowledged this fact.  One can talk of how to defend one's self - after one has admitted that the need for defense is entirely because of the attackers, not the attacked.

The illusion of control is a very important thing.  It helps people to maintain at least a fleeting sense of security in a world where very few things are guaranteed.  However, it is an illusion.  Try to remember that the next time you wish someone "break a leg" or hear about a woman being raped.