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Responding to Drone Killings, Incest, Rape, Sex Work & Other Difficult Topics

March 4, 2013, 10:03 AM
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I was reading about "the nasty effect" that Internet comments have on an original article. A summary at Gawker (in case you don't have a New York Times subscription) details a study which showed that two groups, one exposed to civil and another uncivil comments, had alternate responses to the original article. "Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself." Using the example of a news article detailing new technology that most people know little about, they found:

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology - whom we identified with preliminary survey questions - continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I turned off comments some time back. Anyway, this had me considering responses to actually emotive topics, like drone killing, rape and so on.

Critical reflection

One of the most important responses we should have to difficult, emotive topics is a kind of critical reflection. By this I mean we attempt to find a space in which to consider a number of factors, like:

-       why anyone (including and especially ourselves) would oppose, support, promote, etc., these ideas;

-       once we know these reasons, how rational we judge the reasoning to be,

-       how important it is that we, as individuals, make our voice heard, if there’s a danger we haven’t got the facts of particular cases or if we're reacting "from the knee". Will this do anything to aid the conversation aside from help raise the torches of outrage?

Recognising your ignorance, especially on topics you feel emotional or strongly about, is a sign of maturity, not stupidity. Bringing about reflection on why you “feel” a certain way is additionally important: you might discover, as we often do, that our outrage is misplaced, our anger unjustified. Or perhaps these reactions will be strengthened: meaning we have better – and indeed justified - reasons to be outraged and angry, which we can convey to others, without shouting and stamping our feet.

When we recognise that viewpoints, policies, arguments and such stem from fellow creatures who are fallible, and most of whom we can guarantee aren’t aspiring to evil supervillainy, we can build some bridge of serenity to begin reflection. By casting all those who think differently to us on emotive topics – like rape, drone warfare, etc. - as inherently evil, or “obviously” wrong, as ignorant, as stupid, as vile, we are no longer aspiring to engage with the topic in a fruitful way: instead, we are creating a fantasy where we are the good guys and those who oppose us the bad guys.

The world doesn’t work in such a way (which is why I think portrayals of villains are so shallow). Instead, we have multiple factions campaigning for their view of particular topic as being the right, reasonable and justified one: This doesn’t mean one of them is right, since they could all be wrong. The point being, however, that it is the volume of shouting which should make us consider the topic carefully, being thankful that we are not in a particular “camp” or “side” which needs to be seen as reactive and speaking for the voiceless.

For example, when discussions arise concerning sex workers and their rights, many (including myself) advocate looking at data, listening to sex workers themselves, and thinking about the actual effects of legalised or decriminalised sex work. Other factions step in, equating sex work with sex trafficking, how such acts undermine God, destroy the family, and so on. It’s easy to say listen to “the side” which has the data, but if you’re not already invested and have not studied, how are you supposed to know which one that is? In drone warfare discussions, those who support targeted killing claim it reduces collateral damage, is precise, is carefully considered – whereas those who oppose think otherwise. Both claim evidence and data to justify their views. What should we do?

This is a constant problem in a world with too much information and too little time. We can’t be experts on everything: not everyone is Stephen Fry.

Yet, what this means is precisely that we should not react too quickly, too emotionally, to controversial topics! It is precisely because we all recognise we can’t have all the information which propels us toward critical reflection, not slogan asserting, villain-creating mind-sets.

Why it matters

You respect yourself, you respect the goal of self-education (a never-ending goal), and you respect others by recognising that people are often mistaken, stubborn, wrong, and so on, but not aspiring to be evil.

For example, when various gun rights advocates were promoting the idea of having “guns in schools”, to have armed personnel or staff, many reacted with outrage. It meant guns in close vicinity to children, after all. Yet, there are various other dangerous items which can kill or severely injure children: pools, electricity boxes and so on,. Second, if it is proven that having armed personnel does protect or reduce the number of children being attacked, what would the problem be?

The point isn’t that proponents of this view are right and opposition wrong: but I’ve hypothetically engaged with the first point above: Why would anyone propose such a “horrible” view (guns near children)? Obviously proponents do not want more children killed: in fact, they are operating from what they think will protect children, just as a “liberal” might be doing all he can in the opposite direction.

People operate from what they know; continuing with gun rights example, they might have grown up with guns protecting their family, had a childhood friend killed by the father’s gun, etc. It is these kinds of experiences which informs their reasons. However, what makes one better than the other isn’t based on what's more or less disgusting, more or less appealing to liberals or conservatives. What matters is the data.

The problem is trying to obtain, understand and engage with usually complicated statistics, readings, studies, etc., and find ones not crippled and snapped to fit into our preferred box.

Now what?

What we do from there, I imagine, is read carefully, try find the best arguments – not the worst – and recognise any so-called “opponents” as fallible beings like us. This isn’t a justification for relativism or complacency at all: indeed, it’s an encouragement to be scientific and follow the evidence. Yes, it’s difficult but, by definitions, all these topics are.

If drones really do reduce collateral damage, only kill their intended targets, if legalising sex work doesn’t destroy society, if decriminalising drugs doesn’t lead to a society of addicts, we will discover these through investigation, not shouting. You can hate sex workers or drug users or the army all you want: but their claims aren’t aligned to your fondness. They could still be right and you would then be merely denying evidence.

Unless of course they really are wrong: and then their wrongness is dependent on rational argument and evidence, which can be shown to everyone, not based on your intense dislike.

Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

 

Responding to Drone Killing...

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