09 January 2015

Propaganda about police use of force

Apropos of the horrifying video making the rounds on Twitter today, of a police officer shooting into a car full of passengers, a few days ago I was pointed at a Fox News segment including some police use-of-force training.

Check it out. It's a fascinating work of propaganda.

Consider what the exercise has Rev. Maupin do. Without any apparent training in preparation, Maupin is presented with a series of scenarios that are transparently designed to make him panic. First he encounters a possible car thief who surprisingly overreacts and suddenly shoots Maupin. It's startling, and primes him to be quicker to perceive threats. Then Maupin encounters an intimidating person who fearlessly advances on him despite him having his gun drawn. It's scary, and coming right after the previous scary exercise it inspires him to panic and shoot the unarmed man ... in a violation of police use-of-force rules.

I only know what I read on the internet about the police use of force continuum, but I strongly suspect that the exercises we see in the video are intended as the beginning of a responsible police training process, meant to demonstrate to cops how easy it is to do the wrong thing. “Those deadly mistakes you just made are why we are going to drill you hard in this training. So that when that confrontation comes on the street, you won't do what comes naturally, you will do what you've trained.”

This kind of preparation is one of the benefits of a police force, and part of why we respect good cops so much. They are skilled professionals who face stressful, dangerous situations that we know that ordinary citizens would screw up and can be expected to handle them well because of the preparatory training which they receive. In this, police are like firefighters and airline pilots and other people who need to be cool in the face of danger and surprises.

In the Fox News segment, the exercise is framed not as a cautionary tale but as a justification for police shootings.

Watching, one can easily sympathize with Maupin shooting an unarmed man in the exercise. The situation was scary, and it's easy to imagine doing the same thing. But Maupin is not a cop trained in multiple ways to handle a belligerent person, physically and otherwise, he's just a guy who was handed a fake gun and told to see how he would use it. So of course he reached for the obvious tool.

Notice how the exercise is chosen to reïnforce narratives conservatives have offered about the threats police face. Darren Wilson says that Michael Brown charged at him menacingly, despite being unarmed, and here we see that scenario portrayed as a situation which police are trained to handle. It helps to make the genre of Officer Wilson's bizarre narrative of his shooting of Michael Brown seem to make sense. I am well aware that cops have been shot at seemingly-routine stops like the first exercise, or that big scary guys advance on cops like in that second one ... but I also know that a cop is less likely to die on the job than a trucker, cab driver, farmer, or the guy who picks up your trash. On TV, cops get into gunfights every week, but in real life many police officers never have cause to fire their weapon.

Notice also how editing serves the narrative. Maupin says, “People need to comply with law enforcement officers for their own sake,” which sounds like he's endorsing the authoritarian view that I have heard from many commentators who say that if Black people who have been killed by police had just obeyed police orders, they would have been safe. But Maupin doesn't say that deference will ensure one's safety, or that deference is justified. He just says that it is prudent. I wonder what else he said. I wonder what he said immediately after that sound bite. “It's too easy for a trigger-happy cop to panic when you don't obey their orders”, maybe?

Fox News is, of course, propaganda. But it's chilling to see it work as propaganda not just for the Republican Party but for the idea of an authoritarian police state in which police are justified in shooting unarmed civilians.

07 January 2015

Pentagram of the Good Life

This admirable and recondite spell from T. Thorn Coyle can be cast whenever friends gather. Tradition calls for all present to raise a glass of spirits while joyfully intoning the names of the Five Points in call-and-response, then sealing the spell with a sip of the spirits.

Love! Health! Prosperity! Knowledge! And Great Sex!

06 January 2015


A long digression from a characteristically long post at Slate Star Codex, The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories, which I'd like to keep handy because it's just so great.

I’ve made this argument before and gotten a reply something like this:

“Transgender is a psychiatric disorder. When people have psychiatric disorders, certainly it’s right to sympathize and feel sorry for them and want to help them. But the way we try to help them is by treating their disorder, not by indulging them in their delusion.”

I think these people expect me to argue that transgender “isn’t really a psychiatric disorder” or something. But “psychiatric disorder” is just another category boundary dispute, and one that I’ve already written enough about elsewhere. At this point, I don’t care enough to say much more than “If it’s a psychiatric disorder, then attempts to help transgender people get covered by health insurance, and most of the ones I know seem to want that, so sure, gender dysphoria is a psychiatric disorder.”

And then I think of the Hair Dryer Incident.

The Hair Dryer Incident was probably the biggest dispute I’ve seen in the mental hospital where I work. Most of the time all the psychiatrists get along and have pretty much the same opinion about important things, but people were at each other’s throats about the Hair Dryer Incident.

Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job – I think a lawyer – and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

She would be driving to work in the morning, and she’d start worrying she’d left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house, and so she’d look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.

And approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and what if it got out to the broader psychiatric community that instead of giving all of these high-tech medications and sophisticated therapies we were just telling people to put their hair dryers on the front seat of their car?

I, on the other hand, thought it was the best fricking story I had ever heard and the guy deserved a medal. Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back. If one day I open up my own psychiatric practice, I am half-seriously considering using a picture of a hair dryer as the logo, just to let everyone know where I stand on this issue.

Miyamoto Musashi is quoted as saying:

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.

Likewise, the primary thing in psychiatry is to help the patient, whatever the means. Someone can concern-troll that the hair dryer technique leaves something to be desired in that it might have prevented the patient from seeking a more thorough cure that would prevent her from having to bring the hair dryer with her. But compared to the alternative of “nothing else works” it seems clearly superior.

And that’s the position from which I think a psychiatrist should approach gender dysphoria, too.

Imagine if we could give depressed people a much higher quality of life merely by giving them cheap natural hormones. I don’t think there’s a psychiatrist in the world who wouldn’t celebrate that as one of the biggest mental health advances in a generation. Imagine if we could ameliorate schizophrenia with one safe simple surgery, just snip snip you’re not schizophrenic anymore. Pretty sure that would win all of the Nobel prizes. Imagine that we could make a serious dent in bipolar disorder just by calling people different pronouns. I’m pretty sure the entire mental health field would join together in bludgeoning anybody who refused to do that. We would bludgeon them over the head with big books about the side effects of lithium.

Really, are you sure you want your opposition to accepting transgender people to be “I think it’s a mental disorder”?

03 January 2015

Online discussion

I keep needing to explain the terms by which I manage discussion in comments on my Facebook feed, which I have tried to keep lively without being raucous. This is always challenging, and doubly so given my strong interests in cultural politics and politics politics. I like to think that I mostly do pretty well. (I use the same principle in managing comments on this blog, though the discussion rarely gets going here.)

For convenience, and for the benefit of others who find this useful, I’m posting it here.

Long experience has taught me that fruitful online discussion requires the attentions of a dictatorial moderator who mostly manages dicussion through thoughtful comment, but who will ruthlessly and unilaterally seize control on rare necessary occasions. This is not the open internet, this is my space. If you want free speech, go somewhere else.

That said, I like to let out a lot of rope. I cultivate the participation of people I disagree with, even disagree with vigorously. I like debate: to better clarify for myself what I think, to open me to possibilities I had not considered, and for the pleasures of debate itself. But understand, my purpose is to have discussion which offers participants information, entertainment, and the sharpening of our wits. Which means this is not a level playing field. People I disagree with have to be at least informative, entertaining, witty, or polite. People I agree with need not necessarily obey those same injunctions when debating folks I disagree with, as their rude dismissiveness may qualify as good sport for me.

Though I insist that everybody speak in good faith, saying what they mean and interpreting other commenters as generously as possible, and must start from the presumption that others are doing the same1. Bad-faith arguments are poison.

So you know, my cultural politics and politics politics mostly align with the hard left with strong sympathies for the radical left, and my friends tend to orbit the same locus … though I have many idiosyncrasies. If you like to challenge that, great. But bring your A game: it’s a fair bet that I’ve heard all the basic arguments before, and if I haven’t, likely someone among my Friends has.

There is an added dimension to these principles when discussing questions of social justice. This is not meant to be a safe space. If you need that, you have my respect but not my support here. But I do want this to be a welcoming and supportive space for folks on the sharp end of various sticks, so I give folks in privileged positions less rope than I give to folks in oppressed positions. I might well side with someone whom I disagree with who is Black and rude when discussing racism over someone who I agree with who is white and polite. The reasons for doing this should be familiar.

Plus, since Facebook includes a mix of folks who do and do not play a part in my meatspace social network, FB Friends who are realworld friends also get more deference.

This is my house. Play nice.


Yes, I do allow people to play the Devil’s Advocate, and do it myself, because I know what that role really means and I think it’s valuable.

Some folks, accustomed to different discussion norms, take me as dismissing their comments when I interrogate the fine points. (“You seem to be implying X and Y. I strongly agree about X but I have to admit that I’m skeptical about Y because of Z.”) But that’s actually a response that reflects respect; I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t suspect that I’m missing something important.

I have to underline my point about not maintaining a safe space. This reflects a high standard for what qualifies as a safe space. For instance, there are good reasons to think it necessary to exclude white people — or at least have very stringent ground rules around White participation — to provide a safe space for Black people. It should be evident why this standard for safe space makes it impossible to have a forum that qualifies as a safe space for everyone, so I am not attempting that.

I’m trying to cultivate a space in which people can expect to be respectfully challenged. This being an unjust world, I take that to mean that Black people and women and other people faced with systemic injustices deserve a greater measure of caution in order to deliver respect, and I think it’s incumbent upon me to listen for my failings in delivering that in my space. But that does not extend so far as allowing some people to go unchallenged; in my Facebook comments, everyone gets the respect of being asked to support and clarify what they say.


Edited to add “saying what they mean and interpreting other commenters as generously as possible, and starting from the presumption that others are doing the same” in March 2017 in order to make the point about good faith more explicit. Speaking in bad faith or presuming that others are doing so without very good cause is a good way to get un-Friended.

Also I have to caveat that the link points to Slate Star Codex. That is one of the handful of posts there which I still admire despite the site and its author proving extremely untrustworthy.