Hate Crimes: A Fact Post

by sarahconstantin1 min read1st Dec 201620 comments

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To get that experience, you only need a few dozen actual recorded lynchings per year. The indirect impact of living under threat of violence far exceeds the literal death count.

I think you demonstrated this point very clearly, which is something I have struggled with. It always frustrates me when people point out that "More people die from [banal, boring, cause] than [hot-button issue]" as though it were revealing some implication that we are 'irrationally' fearing a certain issue. (It is still a useful point though to remind people of how seemingly big numbers of deaths need to be compared to a huge population) The reality is that these numbers are the observed and measured worst outcomes of a system that spans a large spectrum of negative outcomes, and is hard to measure.

The reality is that these numbers are the observed and measured worst outcomes of a system that spans a large spectrum of negative outcomes, and is hard to measure.

So, let's take a central example: fear of being killed in a terrorist attack (say, for a US citizen on US soil). What is the "system" involved and what is this "large spectrum of negative outcomes" that are hard to measure?

The costs incurred by people through the precautions against terrorist attacks are the indirect harms of terrorism. If people in Jerusalem stop taking the bus, their longer commute times and higher gas costs are indirect costs of terrorism. TSA waiting lines and other civil liberties intrusions are indirect costs of terrorism.

And how do you distinguish harms of terrorism from harms of a hysterical overreaction to terrorism? TSA is almost entirely security theater, it's a self-inflicted disaster (those sufficiently paranoid can speculate on the advantages of stoking fear to promote surveillance-and-control systems: "never let a crisis go to waste").

This point, and the one you make below, are fair points. I think the argument "we are overreacting to terrorism" seems like common sense or a self-evident argument.

The reason I think it's hard to measure is that suffering or reactions to perceived fear is still real suffering and real reactions. On the other hand, while lots of kids drown in pools or lose limbs from lawnmowers, no one suffers or reacts. (although one thing to consider is potential damage of terrorism is unbounded, whereas future changes in lawnmower deaths probably won't spike).

For the LW demographic, we probably don't actually feel fear from terrorism. On the other hand, it makes me more angry than pool deaths or needless deaths due to no organ transplant free market. I often wonder: Can I override my base biological instinct that hates outsiders who attack? I can try to reason my way out, but that visceral anger response is hard-coded into my brain. I can, sort of. I still feel the hot-blooded anger, but I recognize it's an evolutionary miscalibration with the modern age.

At least I, we, have a level of reflection that comes from (typically) higher levels of education, intelligence, and often relative affluence.

That's why I consider it hard to measure. If I could prevent 800 deaths from terrorism, or 800 deaths from pool drownings, I would definitely prevent the first, because I know the negative effects would be much worse.

I have a friend who has been too scared to leave her house for weeks since Trump got elected. She is suffering, even though it seems irrational to me, it's rational within her own brain.

So that's what bugs me: We still have to measure her suffering, even if it is (probably) nonsensical. But if we try to optimize society with respect to our (argued) irrational suffering, we might end up with bad policy outcomes!

suffering or reactions to perceived fear is still real suffering and real reactions

True, but the interesting question is which link in the causal chain do you snip to make it stop (and you need to correctly identify the causal chain before that).

Can I override my base biological instinct that hates outsiders who attack? ... an evolutionary miscalibration with the modern age

What's wrong with hating outsiders who attack? Those who lose the self-defense instinct soon lose everything else.

I have a friend who has been too scared to leave her house for weeks since Trump got elected.

That seems to be a clinical case in need of medical help.

But if we try to optimize society with respect to our (argued) irrational suffering, we might end up with bad policy outcomes!

Not necessarily. To get back to the start of this comment, you need to correctly identify the causal chain and then figure out the easiest (or least expensive) link at which to break it. In this case I might argue that the real cause is overprotective upbringing and high preference for staying in an echo chamber / comfortable bubble. As one blog phrased it, if are growing up as a gazelle in a petting zoo, finding yourself on the Serengeti plains will not lead to good outcomes :-/

Harms arising from hysterical overreaction are harms of terrorism. Such harms of overreaction are (I bet) among the reasons why terrorists do what they do.

(Suppose you have an infection like a cold or influenza. Many of the unpleasant symptoms you notice have their proximate causes in your body's immune response to the infection. That doesn't stop those symptoms being classified as "harm caused by the infection".)

Harms arising from hysterical overreaction are harms of terrorism.

Only if you consider the hysterical overreaction inevitable.

The first wave of airplane hijackings and general terrorism in the West (in recent times) was in 1970s, driven mostly by Palestinians and radical-left groups. Strangely enough, it did not lead to no-fly lists, considering nail clippers to be dangerous weapons, and having to dump your water before going into the airport lounge to buy more...

Generally speaking, if you have some control over whether reaction X to event Y will take place, you can't say that harms/benefits of X are harms/benefits of Y.

Sure. So let's go back to the earlier question: When people say "more people die from having trees fall on them than from terrorism[1], so you shouldn't be bothered by terrorism any more than you are by falling trees", is that a reasonable argument or does it fail to engage with less-obvious harms caused by terrorism?

[1] I have not in fact checked whether this is true. It will certainly be true with all sorts of things in place of "falling trees" that most of us are mostly not very scared of.

I think the answer depends on what sort of botherment we're looking at. If someone feels visceral fear of violent death when they think about terrorism, it's really only actual deaths in terrorist attacks that are relevant, and the fact that they're rare compared with is good reason not to be so afraid. If they're arguing for (alleged) anti-terrorist measures like the TSA, then again it obviously doesn't make sense for them to say "we need to overreact to terrorism, because terrorism is bad on account of overreaction". I think these probably are what those "more people are killed by their own toothpaste[2] than by terrorism" memes are aiming at, so I agree that sarahconstantin's version of NatashaRostova's argument doesn't seem like it works well.

[2] I have not checked whether this is true, and it probably isn't. See [1] above.

But it's not all wrong. I will gladly agree that most of what the TSA does seems to be security theatre, but it would be quite surprising if literally everything we do in the name of preventing and obstructing terrorism were completely useless. So the right point of comparison is either with the harm terrorists would be doing if we didn't do anything to stop them, or with the harm they are actually doing plus that of whatever measures we could be adopting that would be equally effective with less impact on civil liberties, waiting times, not having our genitalia groped by security agents, etc. Unfortunately, I've no idea how to estimate either of those with any accuracy.

If they're arguing for (alleged) anti-terrorist measures like the TSA

I think this is the main context in which the question of whether you should or should not be afraid of terrorists arises. Relatively few people (in the West) are personally afraid of terrorists to the extent of significantly changing their behaviour -- with the likely exception of the situations when terrorism becomes widespread, see e.g. The Troubles. But a lot of people do make the argument that one should present one's underwear for examination on demand because otherwise the terrorists win/kill us all/conquer the world/think of the children/etc. As a timely example, didn't the UK just pass the Snoopers' Chapter?

So the right point of comparison

It's a different question. We started with asking, basically, to what degree should you be afraid of terrorism, but here you are asking how much resources should society allocate to fighting/preventing terrorism.

It's a different question

I'm not sure it is. I think there's always a how-much-resources subtext. People stressing how scary and dangerous terrorism is are (I think) usually doing so to justify expending resources, or trampling on civil liberties, or something of the kind. People stressing how little harm it actually does are (I think) usually doing so in opposition to that, implicitly or explicitly saying "this is not the sort of threat that justifies the huge expense and inconvenience and indignity of airport security theatre".

In which case, the relevant question is not "how much harm does terrorism do?" but something more like "what would the tradeoffs be if we did more or less of this allegedly-anti-terrorist stuff?".

Hence "hard to measure."

I don't think it's a measurement problem. It's like you're looking at a feedback loop spiraling out of control and at each iteration you say "It doesn't matter that we started from that little insignificant seed down there, look at how horrible the current state is, we need to go higher!". Climb to the next level, rinse, repeat.

So, to get back to the original issue, yes, sometimes statistically small numbers are misleading because there are huge indirect effects which are hard to measure or are just missing from data available to you. I agree that, say, you can't estimate the suppression of the US black population in the late XIX - early XX century by the number of lynchings.

But on the other hand, sometimes small numbers are just small numbers and there is no menacing shadow behind them.

It is just our good friend incentives hard at work. People like getting elected. Being tough on whatever is popular. So you look tougher than the existing guy. Buy he got the job by looking tougher than the previous guy, and so it goes.

After a few iterations the system is at nonsense levels. Everyone has been even tougher than the last person, until rank madness is being paraded as the only acceptable alternative. Anything else would be surrender to the unpersons.

Now you've got endless waves of people ready to defend college ladies from stranger danger, while ignoring their relatives who will actually rape them. Endless bills to defend black folks from men in white hoods, while thugs in masks and men with badges actually kill them. Endless efforts to shield children from "bullies" while they are flushed through a system actively hostile to their development.

Bravery is rewarded, so people try to show it. You look bravest when you fight the scariest foe. Imaginary stuff is scarier than real stuff could ever be, so those who would be our defenders squander their energies wrestling shadows, even as actual harms come and go, undeterred. It is pitiful, but entirely understandable.

until rank madness is being paraded as the only acceptable alternative. Anything else would be surrender to the unpersons.

Yep. This is called a "holiness spiral".

After a few iterations the system is at nonsense levels

That's an interesting moment because the system has to continue functioning in some way. So at this point it usually turns out that some animals are more equal than others and that the draconian measures are actually to be applied at the discretion of powers-that-be. The consequences are left as the exercise for the reader :-/

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In case it may interest you: I've bookmarked this link to use as an inspirational reference for the novel I started writing for NaNoWriMo, for a sub-setting therein in which many members of one group can do terrible things to members of another group without any measurable risk of any measurable repercussions.