Friday, December 11, 2015

Sticks in the Spokes: Things that Break Cycles of Hate and Violence

As I child, I never liked going to church, but privately, I was always fascinated by some of Jesus' ethical teachings. While I haven't been a believer since my late teens, lately I've gotten interested in Jesus again; not as a son of God or savior, but as an ethical thinker--even a strategic thinker. His instructions to be merciful and forgiving, to be a peacemaker, to love your neighbor and even your enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to follow the golden rule--these all seem truly profound to me. They have the kind of counterintuitive, almost paradoxical power that you also see in judo, or the nonviolent action of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. It's not just that they're nice or kind, though they are. There's something deeper going on; something more profound than simple benevolence. These teachings also display a strategic sophistication that makes them extremely practical, at least in some circumstances. They combine soft-heartedness and hard-headedness in a really beautiful way.

What I've realized lately about people like Jesus, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King is that they were brilliant, practical strategists, who found ways to turn kindness and self-control into powerful weapons against hate and oppression (perhaps "antiweapons" would be a better term). The things they proposed--mercy, forgiveness, compassion, non-violence, love, etc.--all do the same thing very well: they break vicious cycles of hate, anger, fear, and violence. These vicious cycles arise because those darker impulses feed on each other in a self-reinforcing, escalating cycle. We all know how it works: insults lead to anger, anger leads to insults, and then to more anger, and then push, and then shove, until it spirals out of control.

It's like the wheel in the picture, where anger, fear, and hate lead to aggression and violence, and aggression and violence lead to anger, fear, and hate, and so on and so on. One political party insults the other, who insults back and adds a touch of demonization, which leads to more insults and demonization, until you get to the point where we are today in the United States, where millions of people literally hate millions of their fellow Americans. And then there's the even more vicious cycle, where we respond to Islamic terrorist attacks by starting wars that hurt innocent Muslims, then some of them become radicalized and commit terrorist attacks. So we drop more bombs, and encourage more terrorist attacks, and on and on. Martin Luther King described this cycle well:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.
It's like fighting fire with gasoline--it just makes things worse. That's where things like non-violence, forgiveness, and loving your enemy come in. If hate and violence are a turning wheel, then these things are like sticks in its spokes. As Martin Luther King put it:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
These sticks in the spokes of the wheel of violence may seem like weakness, passivity, or cowardice to the thick-headed, but they're actually incredibly powerful, and require enormous amounts of courage. It takes a strong, brave person to turn the other cheek rather than hit back.

All these things work in slightly different, but related ways to stop the wheel from turning. Mercy and forgiveness can stop it because the person forgiving renounces retaliation and hate, and the person being forgiven is not motivated to prevent, or respond to, violence with violence. Loving your enemies, or at least trying to understand their perspective (that's a whole lot more realistic, after all), is a way of defusing your own hate or anger, and allows you to see things from their point of view, if only temporarily. And that makes conversations with them more productive. Turning the other cheek, or at least responding to insults and aggression with politeness and restraint, works by shaming the aggressor; making them feel small and cowardly. The contrast highlights their own aggression, and uses it against them, the way judo uses an attacker's momentum against him.

Of course, there are problems with these tactics. The biggest, of course, is that people just don't want to do them. Because they're subtle and counterintuitive, and require restraint, it's hard for them to get very popular. Human beings find subtlety and restraint difficult at the best of times (I know I do--just because I appreciate how this stuff works doesn't mean I'm good at it). The fact that millions of people, for thousands of years, have cheerfully ignored the words of a man they think was God, shows just how difficult his instructions were.

The other problem with these tactics, unfortunately, is that they don't always work. Mercy and forgiveness don't work as strategic maneuvers if you're dealing with someone who won't return the favor. Turning the other cheek won't work with someone who will happily keep hitting you. Loving your enemies won't work if they take it as an opportunity to walk all over you. If you look at some of the things Jesus said (and Gandhi too, actually) he was incredibly radical about this stuff. Consider these verses from the Sermon on the Plain in Luke:
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
This is some pretty radical advice. I don't know if Jesus was being deliberately hyperbolic, or if he really wanted his followers to go this far. Perhaps he did. In any case, I'm not going to give all my stuff away, or let someone who just hit me do it again. That's too radical for me, and I wouldn't expect anyone else to, either. But I still think it makes sense to take these things to heart, and follow them in moderation, because they really are both practical and kind, and that's a rare combination. No, it doesn't make sense to let people walk all over you, but it does very often make sense to forgive, to be merciful, to be compassionate, to be charitable, and to try to look for the good in people (most of them have some). It makes sense to be cool-headed enough to respond to aggression with politeness, because responding with aggression just makes that wheel turn faster. That doesn't mean being passive, or not opposing people who try to do harm (this is a key point--Gandhi and Martin Luther King practiced non-violent resistance, not passivity or appeasement). It just means responding to the fires of hate and aggression with water instead of gasoline.

And despite what the blustering macho men of the world may say, there's nothing silly or soft-headed about that--it's just good sense. It's a practical strategy that's worth doing even if you don't care whether you hurt your opponents or not. But if you do care, and you would rather be kind if possible, then it's got the advantage of being kind. And here's the thing: it's not just kind to your opponents, it's kind to you, too. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, "Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide." If you spend your time soaked in anger and hatred for your enemies or opponents, you're going to be miserable. Forgiveness is at least as good for the forgiver as the one forgiven.

The big trick, as usual, is discernment--deciding when it makes sense to use tactics like mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, non-violence, and loving your enemies, and when it doesn't. Again, I think it rarely makes sense to be as radical as Jesus and Gandhi were (Gandhi recommended non-violence even against the Nazis). Maybe what makes sense is to start with the easier, more moderate stuff. Not love--that's for experts. I really think too many people talk about love, when they haven't even mastered tolerance and non-hate. If you can't love your enemies, then at least tolerate them. If what they're doing can't be tolerated (and some things, such as extreme intolerance, can't be) then try not to hate them. Hate just causes poor judgement and makes the hater miserable.

It's all about judgment. It's not always possible, or desirable, to be a Jesus or a Gandhi. But if we can't be as radical as they were, we could at least listen to what they were saying, and meet them halfway. So far, millions of people (including many who worship him) act as though they were trying to do the exact opposite of everything he said. Surely we could do a little better than that? These cycles of hate and violence tend to spin out of control. In an age where our weapons have gotten destructive enough to wipe us all out, we have to get better at breaking those cycles. If we don't, they'll destroy us. Maybe that's another good reason to love our enemies. As a sage named Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Mass Shootings: How Scared Should You Be?

Note: I was just finishing this post when I heard about the tragic shooting in San Bernardino, California today. While it's vital that we take steps to prevent such horrors in the future, it's also vital that we don't live in fear because of them. To do so would be to let the murderers win, and besides, as I hope to demonstrate in this post, mass shootings aren't a very significant risk for most people. We should respond to them with concrete, effective steps to prevent more of them, not with unwarranted fear and paranoia. 

I've never thought it made sense for me to worry about becoming the victim of a random mass shooting. First, worry alone has precisely zero effect on whether it will happen or not. All it does is make you more anxious and less happy. Second, I've always figured that if I do die before my time, it's far more likely that it will be from something like cancer or a car accident. As awful as mass shootings are, and as much as they need to be minimized, the average person's chance of dying that way are pretty small.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don't realize that. This is mostly due to a sensationalist mass media, and to a cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic. It's called that because humans estimate the prevalence of things by how easily examples of them come to mind--how "available" they are to consciousness. The problem with that, especially in a media-saturated age, is that unusually scary and disturbing events stick in our minds, giving us the illusion that they're far more common than they really are.

Knowing this, I've never gotten very worried about being the victim a mass shooting (or a terrorist, shark, or bear attack). But the other day, I finally succumbed just a little bit to the fear of mass shootings that has gripped the country in the last few years. I live in Colorado, where two of the most notorious mass shootings occurred: Columbine and the Aurora theater shooting. And now, this past Friday, a man in Colorado Springs went on a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood, killing 3 and wounding 9. Also, I work in an urban public library, so I deal with all walks of life--including some rather scary-looking and poorly adjusted people. So, I finally caught a little of the fear. I don't like to admit it, but I did. I started looking at some of the mentally unstable people I see every day, and wondering how likely it is that one of them could pull out a gun and start shooting.

So, I decided to look at some actual numbers, to check whether I was being silly or not. I wanted to look up the actual numbers of people killed and injured by mass shootings, and see they compare to the number of people killed and injured in car wrecks, plane crashes, falls, and so on. Since the numbers take some explaining, and are rather grim, here's the quick answer: I was, in fact, being silly. The average American should worry MUCH less about mass shootings than about car wrecks, accidental poisonings, drowning, and many other things--and you're really not that likely to die in those ways if you're healthy and careful. Yes, it's good to know what to do in an active shooter situation, but what really makes you safer are mundane things like watching your weight, not smoking, wearing a seat belt, and not abusing drugs or alcohol.

Now for the more in depth look at the numbers. When I started researching mass shootings, I quickly ran into a small problem, because different definitions of "mass shooting" yield dramatically different answers about how common they are. For example, the Congressional Research Service has a report that borrows the FBI's definition of "mass murder" for mass shootings, defining them as a shooting where four or more people are killed. The chart below is a summary of their data, which runs from 1999 through 2013.
Based on these numbers, there's been an average of just over 20 mass shootings per year during this time period, with around a hundred people killed per year. However, these aren't exactly the figures we're looking for, because they include incidents that aren't what most people worry about when they worry about themselves or their loved ones becoming victims of public mass shootings, including gang violence and other criminal activities, and mass shootings within families. Those are terrible things, of course, but they're different than mass shootings in public places, as in things like the Aurora theater shooting.

To get at those kinds of shootings, the CRS also looked at "Public Mass Shootings", which they defined as incidents in which "four or more victims were shot to death in one or more public locations, such as a workplace, school, restaurant, house of worship, or neighborhood, and the murders were not attributable to any underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (e.g., armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle)". Here's a graph on that kind of event:


These data look a little less awful. The table below breaks down some of the statistical trends:


According to this definition of a mass shooting, there was an average of 4.2 incidents per year between 1999 and 2008, increasing to 4.8 from 2009-2013 (due mostly to a spike in 2012). The number of deaths and injuries per year also increased in that last five year period, with noticeably more victims killed, and twice as many (on average) wounded.

Looking at the numbers this way, it seems that the chance of being a mass shooting victim is quite small. Even in the last five years, when both shootings and casualties increased, there was an average of 70.4 casualties per year--in a country with over 300 million people. If you're like me, you don't have a visceral sense what 300 million actually means. To put it in perspective, if you tried to count every person in the US (counting around the clock) you would be at it for over a decade. If you tried to count the number of people killed in mass shootings in a year, it would take about a minute. So, your chance of being the victim of a public mass shooting, as defined by the Congressional Research Service, is infinitesimally small.

However--the CRS definition seems a good bit too restrictive to me. Using their criteria, for example, the recent Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs wouldn't count as a public mass shooting, because "only" three people were killed. But we all know this was the kind of event that most people think of as a mass shooting. The same is true of an event where multiple people are shot, but somehow nobody is killed. So how do we account for these "lesser" shootings?

Unfortunately, it's not easy to do. I haven't been able to find a data set that accounts for mass shooting incidents where less than 4 people are killed, but which also distinguishes "mass public shootings" from family shootings or things like gang shootouts. The closest thing I've found is the Mass Shooting Tracker, which is a crowd-sourced website that tracks any event in which more than 4 people are shot and injured, but not necessarily killed. While it is crowd-sourced--and should therefore be taken with some grains of salt--it does link each incident to a news report, so it's fairly credible. The problem is that it doesn't distinguish "public mass shootings" from other types of shooting in the same way the Congressional Research Service does, so, while the CRS data underestimate the numbers, the Mass Shooting Tracker overestimates them. But it's still well worth looking at, as a counterpoint to the CRS report.

According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, as of November 27 there had been 352 mass shootings in 2015, resulting in 447 deaths and 1292 injuries. Obviously, that's a lot more than the numbers we see with the CRS. It's not that the CRS is being dishonest--they're just using a far more restricted definition of mass shootings. In my opinion, the data set we really need is somewhere between the two, and would restrict the incidents to the kind of public shooting we are concerned with here, while tracking every such incident where 4 or more people are injured.

But we don't have those numbers, so perhaps the best we can do is split the difference, and take the average between the two data sets. Let's look at the Mass Shooting Tracker data for 2013, since it's a full year's worth of data. In that year there were 364 mass shootings, with 502 people killed and 1266 injured. Let's take the average of these numbers with the numbers from the CRS for the last five years of their data. That's comparing apples and oranges, really, but it's the best we can do.

This gives us the following sad numbers: 288 deaths, and 666 injuries (roughly) per year in recent years. Now the question is, how does this compare to the risk of being killed in other kinds of incidents, such as car accidents, falls, etc.? (It would get too complicated to compare non-fatal injuries, because it's tough to decide what counts as a significant injury). Here are some numbers for comparison. In the year 2013, these are the unintentional injuries that kill the most people, from the Centers for Disease Control:


You might be surprised (I was) to see that the leading cause of accidental death these days is poisoning--mostly overdoses on prescription drugs. In 2013, the average person was about 134 times as likely to die by accidental poisoning as by public mass shooting. Going by the restrictive CRS definition of a public mass shooting, the average person was 1042 times more likely to die by poisoning. Even with my more expansive estimate of public mass shootings, as many people die every three days by poisoning as all year by mass shooting. Next down the scale are motor vehicle accidents and falls, which kill 117 and 105 times as many people, respectively, as mass shootings. According to these numbers, the average person is slightly less likely to die in a mass shooting than they are to die in a bicycle accident. How often do you hear people worrying themselves sick over bicycle accidents?

Again, my point is NOT that mass shootings, or gun violence in general, aren't a problem in this country. They're absolutely a problem, and one that needs to be dealt with. My point is just that it doesn't make sense for the average person, who isn't involved in violent criminal activity or part of  a family with violence-prone members, to spend their days worrying about themselves or their loved ones dying in a mass shooting. It makes much more sense to worry about the things that are far more dangerous, like riding in cars and on motorcycles, abusing prescription drugs, getting old and falling, drowning, and so on. Better yet, stop worrying and take concrete steps to minimize the risks (see chart in the notes*). The same goes for diseases like heart disease, which kills over five times as many people as all unintentional injuries combined, and 2,122 times as many people as mass shootings.

Does it make sense to be sad about mass shootings? Certainly. Does it make sense to be angry, and angry with politicians who won't lift a finger to stop them? Absolutely. Does it make sense to live in fear of mass shootings? Absolutely not.

But...does that mean the United States doesn't have a problem with gun deaths? Unfortunately, no. In 2013, 11,208 people were murdered with guns (over three times as many people murdered as drowned). Another 21,175 people committed suicide with a gun, and 505 people were accidentally killed by guns. It's clearly a problem, and mass shootings are a part of that problem, albeit a much smaller one than most people think.

Still, even with our unconscionably high rate of gun homicide in the US compared to other developed countries, homicide is not a very common way to die, especially for people who aren't involved in violent criminal activity. According to the National Safety Council's sanity-promoting Odds of Dying chart, the average person has a 1 in 358 chance of being murdered with a firearm. That's much too high, but you're still 3 times as likely to die in a car wreck, and 51 times as likely to die from a heart attack or cancer. Mass shootings are a tragic, awful problem in our country, but they aren't worth living in fear over--especially since living in fear is letting the bastards win. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to do that.

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* To take concrete steps to minimize the risk of various kinds of diseases and injuries, you need to know what which ones happen at different ages. Falls, for example, are a much bigger risk for older people than anyone else. The chart below shows what injury-related deaths are most prevalent for people of different age groups. To see totals for the population as a whole, see the far right column.


This data, and most of the injury data in this post, comes from the CDC's WISQARS statistics site, which is very much worth taking a look at.