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.

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