Jun 17

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

This next rebuttal to “anti-pollyannas” (as I call them) isn’t a logical fallacy, but more a plea: fact check your assertions. More importantly, double check that the person you're arguing against hasn’t already debunked said fact.

John Arquilla, in his Foreign Policy article “The Big Kill”, cites a disturbing piece of evidence: civilians are dying in war at greater rates than the past!

“In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since. Perhaps the worst, but hardly the only, terrible example of this trend can be seen in the Congo war — flaring up again right now — in which over 90 percent of the several million dead were noncombatants.”

John Gray’s article in The Guardian paraphrases (and links to) Arquilla’s argument:

“Around a million of the 10 million deaths due to the first world war were of non‑combatants, whereas around half of the more than 50 million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category.”

There are a number of problems with both these quotes and this argument...

First, this factoid has been debunked. Turns out that academics, like William Eckhardt, studying fatalities and war throughout history, have estimated that “The civilian percentage share of war-related deaths remained at about 50% from century to century." This incorrect factoid about civilian deaths in war was invented in the early nineties and has been erroneously repeated, even by academics, ever since. Thanks Wikipedia!

Second, fact-check your assertions. Gray cites Arquilla, but didn’t bother googling this fact himself.

Third, this is an example of moving the goalposts. The above critics argue civilian deaths matter more than regular deaths. But Pinker, Goldstein, Tertais, and others are arguing that overall violence related to war is decreasing. It’s a different argument. But say you wanted to go with that argument...

Fourth, what constitutes a civilian? Neither Arquilla nor Gray make a solid definition. If they had, they’d run into the tricky problem of explaining why soldiers conscripted to fight in World War I had lives that were less valuable than civilians at the time. (Also, the Sedition Act made it a crime to criticize the draft, so if you wanted to speak out against the draft, you’d go to jail. Ask Eugene V. Debs.)

Is a soldier who was drafted, coerced or conscripted into military service really worth less than a civilian? (Not to mention social ostracization depending on the popularity of a war at the time.) Does this distinction matter? Does this affect John Arquilla’s belief that we need to reinstate the draft?

Fifth, this example is a firmly 20th century example. One of the reasons why deaths in war have plummeted from olden times (think the Thirty Years War as the peak of “total war”) is that civilians are targeted much less frequently. In the 16th century, 18th and 20th centuries, besides conscripting entire armies, those same armies roamed the countryside eating all the food, raping all the women, and stealing all the plunder. If you weren’t murdered, you were enslaved. Listen to Dan Carlin’s series on Genghis Khan and tell me civilians made out great in the middle ages.

Sixth, and most importantly, Pinker himself already debunked this fact. Gray and Arquilla could have read Pinker’s debunking on pages 317 to 320 of The Better Angels of Our Nature.

So anyone writing a review who cites this debunked factoid, is, well, being very disingenuous. And writing a very poor review.

Jun 11

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Probably the most frustrating rhetorical technique you can encounter when you’re debating a topic is “moving the goal posts”, usually used by an opponent losing an argument.

For example, say you’re arguing for marijuana legalization, debating all the pros and cons, and then your opponent says, “Well, if you want to legalize marijuana, shouldn’t we legalize heroin? But heroin is so dangerous!” No, we’re not arguing about heroin or drug legalization more broadly--marijuana is much less dangerous than heroin--we’re debating legalizing marijuana.

Critics of the “world is getting safer” theory (“anti-pollyannas” as I call them) move the goal posts a lot. Though the argument is about whether society is less violent--using real, physical violence--critics move the goal posts asking, what about other metaphorical forms of violence? What about “slower” forms of violence? What about income inequality? Or America’s prison population? (You can find examples of this phenomenon here and here.)

First off, most “slower” forms of violence have also probably gone down. (For example, more countries are democracies today than at about anytime in world history.)

More importantly, the problem with critics citing these “slower” forms of violence is they are moving the goal posts. Pinker, Horgan, and others aren’t arguing all violence has disappeared or will disappear, just that wars and violence are becoming less frequent.

To see one example of moving the goal posts, as will happen a lot in this series, we’ll turn to John Gray,:

Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world. According to many estimates the US also has the highest rate of incarceration, some way ahead of China and Russia, for example.

In short, an anecdote that willfully ignores the global prison population or whether that global prison population is trending up or down. Though America has a massive over-incarceration problem, it’s an exception to the larger trend. Europe doesn’t have a massive over-incarceration problem, which, again, proves that the world is getting safer. Some people debunking Pinker actually point this out, without realizing...they’re proving his point. (And this argument is about more than America.)

Professor Christian Davenport makes a similar “moving the goal posts” argument:

“In my view, states engage in not less but different levels of severity—for example “torture-lite” (e.g., immobilizing individuals to make them more physically manipulable [sic] instead of old-school torture such as removing skin from individuals, stun grenades instead of real ones…”

Me personally? I prefer stun grenades to real grenades. Or not having my skin ripped off. Later, he equates killing someone for theft versus imprisoning them; it takes a real leap of logic to argue that the latter isn’t an improvement over the former. As bad as the American Justice system/prison system can be, our modern legal system is infinitely better than either mob rule (lynchings) or the divine right of kings and aristocrats capriciously doling out capital punishment.

More importantly, arguing that the world is getting better doesn’t mean you’re arguing that everything is perfect. To correct the issues of the “legal system” of the ancient world, we adopted the modern legal and penal system. But that system has problems. What happens next? We fix it.

The reason violence has gone down is that humanity has gotten better, and also gotten better at getting better. I could see, in relatively short time, America reforming its prison system. We’ll be writing about this more in our ‘Most Thought-Provoking Event of the Half Year”. Prosecutors across America are already taking steps to address racial disparities in the justice system and it should be an issue in the 2016 election.

But here’s the rub: say in the next ten years America cuts its prison population in half and abolished crueler practices like indefinite solitary confinement. Would the person arguing against the “world is getting safer” theory change their mind? Will they say, “Huh, I guess the world is getting safer?”

I’d predict no. There will always be other problems in the world, and the pessimists will perpetually find new things to complain about and say, “This new problem exists, thus the world isn’t getting safer”, despite the evidence.

And that’s really why moving the goal posts is a fallacious argument.

Jun 10

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

It’s a cruel world out there, folks. Turn on CNN and you hear about another plane crash. Turn on Fox News and see ISIS taking another town. Hell, even the the local morning news broadcast has a story every day about a shooting or car accident.

Sociologists have a word for this: “mean world syndrome”. Mass media makes violence seems more prevalent than it actually is. This doesn’t just apply to the average person; it also applies to critics and academics who don’t think the world is getting safer. (Or as I dub them, “anti-pollyannas”.) In other words...

They use anecdotes!

Imagine someone who is trying to disprove that the world’s population is growing larger, pointing out that their grandmother just died. Or imagine a global warming denialist pointing out that it’s snowing outside. No one said that people weren’t dying and that there would be no more winters. They said the population is growing and average global temperatures are rising.

For most anti-pollyannas, the best way to disprove the “world is getting safer” theory is to bring up an anecdote of an isolated incident of violence. No one said violence no longer exists, we said it’s becoming rarer. (Ironically, as the world gets safer, incidents of violence may actually get more news coverage.)

Commenters here at On Violence have provided us two perfect examples of using anecdotes. As we wrote about a few weeks ago, someone on the blog argued the world isn’t getting safer because North Korea is a dictatorship. Next, we had a comment on Facebook that the world isn’t getting safer for cartoonists. Looking at the statistics and larger trends instead of isolated anecdotes, the world is getting more democratic and safer for expressions of free speech.

(In response to my question about the larger statistics on cartoonist deaths, the Faceboook commentator brought up gun control.)

Using anecdotes isn’t limited to internet commentators. Take Elizabeth Kolbert (who I love, especially for her work on the environment) in her review for The New Yorker (a magazine I adore) of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. She opens by describing the mass shooting in Norway a few years ago, an anecdote. But homicides in Europe are down over the last 50 years, last 100 years and last 500 years. This anecdote doesn’t prove a thing.

Or take Ross Douthat (who I don’t love) for The New York Times (which I still kind of respect), who opens his op-ed about Pinker’s book by describing the threat posed to Coptic Christians, “They may not survive the Arab spring.” Well, that doesn’t disprove Pinker’s theory. Statistically, mass genocide is way, way down. And it’s not even a good anecdote: the Coptic Christians survived the Arab spring.

This blog post, by professor Christian Davenport, counters the “world is getting safer” theory by arguing, “After looking at political violence data for about 20 years and witnessing Darfur, the DRC, and Rwanda over the last few decades, I have my doubts.” First off, Davenport should have stopped the sentence at “looking at political violence data” then cited that data. But he uses the anecdotal example about violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to debunk Pinker. Using upper estimates, about 5.4 million people died in their various civil wars that closed the twentieth century, or less than 10% of the country’s population.

Was that really worse than Belgian colonialism at the close of the nineteenth century?

According to scholars, ten million people died under Belgian rule from 1885 to 1908 or 20% of the country. In both absolute and relative terms, shockingly, even Congo has witnessed a decrease in violence. (And the Congo Civil war was the deadliest war the world had seen since World War II.) For a conflict scholar who has studied the region, he should know that. Of course, he didn’t witness that devastation with his own eyes and society didn’t have cameras to capture it either.

And I can keep going, citing Andrew Brown in The Guardian (“This news [that wars are less common] must come as a relief to the inhabitants of Iraq.”) or the blog Utopia or Dystopia (“Regardless of tragedies such as the horrendous school shooting at Newtown...”) or Frank Hoffman in War on the Rocks. The website World Beyond War has an entire article that cites a lot of numbers about deaths in American wars, but doesn’t analyze a single trend.

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson only use anecdotes to debunk Pinker, the more American the anecdote the better. They write, “Whereas in Pinker’s view there has been a “Long Peace” since the end of the Second World War, in the real world there has been a series of long and devastating U.S. wars”. I’m pretty sure those wars are included in Pinker’s data about battle deaths, and I’m also pretty sure there were devastating wars (American and not) before that time period.

The problem with anecdotes is that they’re just that, anecdotes. They don’t prove trends. As we pointed out earlier, saying “The world is getting safer” isn’t saying “Violence is extinct.”

Again, think about the “mean world syndrome”. Many of these critics wouldn’t have anecdotes to open their writing without mass media. Andrew Brown, from England, cites the Newtown massacre in America for a newspaper based in England. Elizabeth Kolbert, for the New Yorker, cites an example in Norway. Would either of these writers be able to use these examples without mass communication? Probably not, which is why they think violence is unchanging.

Step away from the coverage, look at the numbers and you’ll see, yes, the world is getting safer.

Jun 08

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

What’s the opposite of a “pollyanna”?

A “pollyanna” is someone who irrationally expects the best. Optimism without evidence. So what’s term for a pessimist who predicts doom as illogically and unreasonably as a “pollyanna”, someone who assumes the worst, even though their world view isn’t based in fact?

Reading the critics of the-world-is-getting-safer “pollyannas” optimists like John Horgan, Steven Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, Bruno Tertais, John Mueller and so on, I’ve decided I (Eric C) need to figure it out. (From Michael C: Real-world-ist?)   

As I wrote a few weeks ago in the introduction to our recent salvo on the world getting safer, I’ve been researching the criticisms of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Mainly, I wanted to make sure I was keeping an open mind, not falling into the trap of a confirmation bias, which seems especially likely on this subject. (I would have focused more on Horgan and Goldstein’s critics, but their books didn’t have the same reach, so they didn’t have the same pushback.)

In short, I’ve been very disappointed with the criticism.

Critics of the “world is getting safer” theory twist logic in ways that, frankly, make no sense. Trying to refute Pinker, Goldstein and others, these “anti-pollyannas” commit obvious logical fallacies. They don’t want to believe (believe being the key word) the world is getting safer, guided more by emotions than logic.

I’ve found at least five examples of logical fallacies critics (or “anti-pollyannas”) use to debunk the “world is getting safer” theory, but there is one bias that overwhelms them all:

Confirmation bias.

Some critics just can’t let go of their current worldview. For the far-left, this means pushing back against the idea that free trade, globalism and state governments have made the world safer. Arguing that the world is getting safer, in their minds, absolves America of its warmongering. The title of “Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence” says it all. The website World Beyond War has an article, “War Is Not Going To End On Its Own” (we agree with this) which argues, “The fictional account of war going away treats Western civilization and capitalism as forces for peace”.

I should point out the irony that those on the far left have aligned themselves with military strategists on this issue, like Donald Rumsfeld advisor John Arquilla, Frank Hoffman and Colin S. Gray who believe war is eternal and isn’t going away. John Grey and Frank Hoffman cite “Plato” debunked quote that “Only the dead have seen the end of war” as proof. (Already debunked by Michael C here.) For right-wing, pro-war politicians and generals, “The world is a dangerous place”.

Both of these viewpoints are dangerous. The pro-war/pro-military intervention types advocate for keeping the American military “ready for war”, which really means keeping it gigantic, which endangers the world. This increases the risk of war around the globe.

The far-left anti-imperialists, on the other hand, have undercut their own success. I’d argue that the work of anti-war activists to document deaths in war zones have made war more unpalatable to the general population. But knee-jerk arguments against Pinker make them appear ineffective. It’s the same problem that faces foreign aid: we’ve been giving money to Africa since the 1980s and people are still starving, so let’s stop trying to help.

No, let’s highlight the successes. (Poverty and starvation are down, globally.)

And by blaming America, democracy and capitalism for violence, despite the evidence, alienates them from the wider population, limiting their anti-war message. As longtime commenter and friend of the blog S.O. has pointed out, the anti-war voices in the world don’t have much reach.

Another bias is at play here, availability bias. More precisely, “anti-pollyannas” fall victim to the “mean world syndrome”. Daily exposure to mass media depictions of violence make people think “the world is more dangerous than it actually is”. If you spend your days studying war (either to decry it or perfect it), a book about how war is on the decline just won’t resonate.

But it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Apr 27

(To read the rest of our posts on "The World is Getting Safer/Better, please check out the articles below:

- Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars? (This post has links to an entire series of people asking this question.)

- Why I Believe Things Are Getting Better: A Review of Rising Up and Rising Down's Premise

- An On V Update to Old Ideas, Round Two

- Things Are Getting Better...Still

- On V Update to Old Ideas: Drones, the World Isn’t Getting More Violent, and “This Ain’t Hell” Doesn’t Take Criticism Well

- On V Update to Old Ideas: Fear and Risk Edition

- When Realists Don’t Live in Reality: The World is Getting Safer

- An On V Update to Old Ideas: The End of War Edition

- Another Update to the World is Getting Safer

- Anti-Pollyannas or: The Worst Arguments AGAINST the World is Getting Safer

- Using Anecdotes or: The Worst Arguments AGAINST the World is Getting Safer

- Moving the Goalposts or: The Worst Arguments AGAINST the World is Getting Safer

- Using Incorrect Facts: The Worst Arguments AGAINST the World is Getting Safer

- Politicians STILL Don’t Believe the World is Getting Safer (And the Media Doesn’t Call Them On It)

- On V Debates: Does America Make the World Safer?

- Eric C's Take: Does America Make the World Safer?

- Michael C’s Take: Does America Make the World Safer?

- Rebuttals! Does America Make the World Safer?

- Don’t Worry about EMPs, WMDs or ISIS: Sorry, Republicans The World is Getting Safer

- “You Know Nothing, Donald Trump”: How Game of Thrones Shows the World is Getting Safer

- Dark Wings, Dark Words: Rebuttals to “How Game of Thrones Shows the World is Getting Safer”)

In the past few weeks, we’ve finished or started finishing up a few long-running topics that, unless a new story breaks, we’re done writing about including: debunking Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy and our work on Lone Survivor and American Sniper. (We’re figuring out where we’re placing a final outside piece of writing on this topic and then we’ll have a few last posts on the topic.)

That leaves us room to expand on some of our other favorite bailiwicks. We’ve decided to devote this week to our favorite topic, (the raison d’etre for this blog if you will):

The world is getting safer! And better!

To this end, we’re devoting the next two weeks to this topic (and a number of other posts as well later this month). We’re going to provide two On V updates to “The End of War”, again filling in this “debate” with all the statistical evidence. (With graphs!) Then, we’re going try to explain why, in Michael C’s opinion, liberalism in foreign policy continues to make the world a safer place, but still doesn’t get any credit.

Unlike our recently discarded topics, we’re going to keep writing about the world getting safer, even once we finish this series.

But, why? Why keep harping-on/retreading/re-discussing this topic?

First, the vast majority of people still don’t know this fact.

In terms of the gap between what people believe versus reality, I would argue that "the world is getting safer" tops the list. Anecdotally, I have to explain it to people all the time.

And this isn’t an issue for just uneducated people. Jad Abumrad co-created Radiolab, one of the most popular radio programs/podcasts on science. Yet, he had a crossover episode with On The Media on nihilism, arguing that present day nihilism is a reflection on the sorry state of the world today. He didn’t realize that the media (which he liberally quoted in that piece) emphasizes statistically rare events.

More importantly, he's even interviewed On V fav John Horgan before, which turned us onto this entire topic!

Second, even if you learn this fact, many people don’t want to believe it.

People, it seems, just want to think the world is a terrible place. I recently researched and read the various rebuttals to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature--I’m open-minded, so I wanted to see if I was missing something--and the counter-arguments some thinkers make to rebut Pinker are down right silly. And illogical.

For example, if you debunk Pinker’s the-world-is-getting-safer thesis by citing one example of violence in the world, that’s an anecdotal fallacy. But people also misuse statistics, move the goal posts, or “debunk” one part of Pinker’s thesis but ignore others. Why would otherwise intelligent people deny this reality? They don’t want to believe it, a response more emotional than rational.

Third, we keep finding more evidence.

We keep finding and collecting links on how the world is getting better. Over the next two days, we’ve got two “On V Updates to Old Ideas” sharing links about how the world is getting safer (and better, in general). In some ways, these links prove the case in the simplest, most definitive way possible. (Just look at the graphs!)

Fourth, we need to cover this because most pundits/journalists/media sites don’t.

To paraphrase Steven Pinker, newspapers and websites don’t run news stories on all the countries that aren’t at war. Not unexpectedly, after the GermanWings airliner crashed, it took over the news, but all the car accidents around the U.S. didn’t. Even the coverage on the nuclear deal with Iran focused more on a possible war than the actual deal.

Fifth, we want to focus on good news.

For a website named On Violence, we don’t want to only write about what’s gone disastrously wrong. (Like the people in the previous paragraph.) Yes, we hate drone strikes (coming soon), possible wars with Iran, NSA snooping, police violence, innocent people on death row, overcrowded prisons and so on. So we have a blog to write about these things.

We shouldn’t lose focus: good news comes out all the time. It’s just not sexy.

Besides harping on the statistical rarity of terrorism--you, an American, are more likely to win the lottery than die (or suffer injuries) from a terror attack--our other favorite bit of optimism comes from the decreasing risk of war. Yes, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan have simmering civil wars. Yes, Israel and Palestine have not come to any agreement. Russia still controls Crimea. And yes, Iraq is in a civil war. But the pace of interstate wars is at historic lows. So are internal civil wars. And the rate keeps going down. (One could also argue that if the developed world/rapidly developing world focused more on peacekeeping and preventing dictatorships, this could go down even faster.)

Sixth, this affects our nation’s willingness to go to war.

Many neo-conservatives, and especially those in the military establishment, believe the world is a “dangerous place” and use this argument to go to war. Or expand funding to fight terrorism. The world is, comparatively, not a dangerous place. It weakens that particular argument.

Counter-intuitively, the things that have made the world safer, at times, make us more likely to go to war. Why does ISIS inspire the world’s rage? Not because they’ve killed thousands of Iraqis, but because they’ve executed a handful of Americans. At this point, the deaths of a few can inspire the world to war.

Seventh, by figuring out why the world is getting safer, we can actually help it become even safer.

Really isn’t that why we do this in the first place?

Mar 19

(We still have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

So this is it. Our (probably) last post on the sheepdog analogy, at least in the foreseeable future.

Obviously we had some space limitations in our Slate piece “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech” We didn’t have room to debunk more of the analogy, without losing focus. So, since we have our own blog, here are some final thoughts:

This is a very troubling analogy...for libertarians and small government conservatives.

Just think, what is the job of a sheepdog?

No, not the fictional sheepdog on this shirt, but a real sheepdog. I’m not a farmer (no surprise), but my sister-in-law once took her border collies to a sheep ranch where they train the sheepdogs. The video she brought back is below.

Notice what you don’t see: wolves. Notice what you do see: a sheepdog herding sheep. Yep, it’s just sheep and an untrained (but instinctual) sheepdog. The sheepdog doesn’t give a damn about wolves. Nope, all it cares about is telling the sheep what to do. That’s right, the sheep want to go left, go right, stop in place, go too fast. The sheepdog says, ‘Nope, you go where my master wants you to go.”

And that my friends, is the ultimate, unintended irony of libertarians (or small government conservatives) embracing the sheep, sheepdog and wolves analogy. They praise the idea of sheepdogs as protectors of freedom, while also worrying that President Obama wants to take their guns and steal their freedom. But presidents don’t steal freedom; sheepdogs do. Police forces and armies steal freedom, not social workers.

The sheepdog, far from being a symbol of liberty, should be the symbol of oppression. Sheepdogs herd the people, telling them what they can or can’t do. They represent fascism, not liberty.

We love unintended ironies.

Structural solutions versus human solutions

This is my (Michael C’s) second least favorite part of the Grossman essay.

“They [parents] can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits throughout their kids’ schools. But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kid’s school. Our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured, by school violence than by school fires, but the sheep’s only response to the possibility of violence is denial. The idea of someone coming to kill or harm their children is just too hard, so they choose the path of denial.”

Grossman is utterly incorrect in his analysis of the situation above. Yes, fires have plummeted in schools, but firefighters aren’t the reason why. Fires have declined across America largely because, as a society, we realized that firemen are a terribly ineffective way to deal with fires. Instead, overhead sprinkler systems douse fires before they spread out of control. Improved construction techniques and improved electrical systems reduce the chances of fires starting in the first place. Same with regulations (yes regulations) banning space heaters or flammable furniture and clothes. In short, America created structural changes to prevent fires in schools. If we hadn’t changed the structures fires occurred in, no amount of firefighters would have helped.

Are there structural changes we could make to prevent school shootings? Absolutely: remove the means of mass murder from society. The above historical analogy about fires versus violence in schools indicates that we need structural changes to prevent school shootings, not more “good guys with guns”.

Occasionally, the entire essay is a “quote behaving badly”.

As long time readers know, we hate “Quotes Behaving Badly”. In our minds, it’s exhibit one of how bad information spreads on the internet.

Quite entertainingly, we can dissect how a quote behaving badly gets birthed. In this case, Grossman quoted Bennett to open his article, people quote Grossman’s essay, but give credit to Bennett. Here are some examples.


Mar 18

(We still have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

We had a ton of material that didn’t make the Slate piece, and that’s the luxury of having your own blog: we can post it here. But we’re almost finished debunking this analogy, after one last post tomorrow.

Today, we’re criticizing the analogy through its own internal logic. Even assuming society can be neatly divided into three different groups, problems arise. For example...

Wolves believe they’re sheepdogs.

To put this another way--again, using the logic of the analogy that these categories exist--there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature: wolves don’t know they’re wolves. As the old axiom goes, a good villain believes he’s the hero in his own movie. (Every terrorist is a freedom fighter, too.)

If you believe otherwise, you fundamentally misunderstand the enemy you’re fighting. ISIS doesn’t consider themselves wolves. They believe America and the West are wolves. If we don’t know why they’re fighting, we’ll never be able to address the underlying concerns of the movement. And we won’t be able to stop it.

How come wolves can’t become sheep?

Grossman writes that sheepdog-ness is not innate, but a choice. How come that choice doesn’t apply to the wolves? Grossman spends a lot of time convincing sheep to become sheepdogs (i.e. arm themselves) but almost no time writing about rehabilitating the wolves instead of killing them.

Using a simple analogy to paint the world in good versus evil terms does little to solve global problems, and probably more to promote them.

The sheep don’t fear the sheepdog.

One of the many things Grossman gets wrong is the sheep’s fear of the sheepdog. In Grossman’s worldview, the sheep fear the sheepdog because he has sharp teeth. They don’t understand him and wish the sheepdog could de-fang himself.

But as James Fallows wrote last month, “This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money.”

In short, soldiers don’t suffer from a lack of praise from the sheep. As we’ve written about before, since the Vietnam war, Americans can’t praise the soldiers enough. Ironically, American Sniper’s box office returns prove it.

To go a step further on the above point, this analogy is just one more way soldiers, veterans and gung-ho supporters of the military bash their critics. If you criticize the military, prepare to get yelled at. And one of the moral justifications is that critics of the military are just sheep who want to de-fang the sheepdog.

Mar 09

(We still have a ton of thoughts on Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

If you want to know how silly the entire “sheep, sheepdog and wolves” analogy is, just read the following paragraph [emphasis mine].

“The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.”

As Michael C wrote last Thursday, Grossman and his followers very condescendingly refer to the “sheep” as “naive”. As Grossman writes, “We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world.”

But you could easily reverse that sentiment to apply to Grossman: “We know that the sheepdogs live in denial. They do not want to believe that there is evil in themselves.” In other words, does Grossman really believe that law enforcement and the military don’t protect their own? He doesn’t write “should be punished and removed”. He wrote “will be punished and removed”.

Really? Bad sheepdogs are always punished?

Both parts of Grossman’s assertion are wrong. First, sheepdogs--either law enforcement or military--regularly harm the sheep. I mean, we wrote the Slate article because of the number of unjustified police shootings that occurred last year. To be fair, they occur every year; the country finally noticed it last year. It doesn’t help that the federal government doesn’t keep a database for police shootings.

Second, and maybe more important, law enforcement and the military have a long history of not policing themselves. Even if you think Michael Brown’s death was justified, Eric Garner was killed using an choke hold that violated NYPD policies. And no one was held responsible. According to a report by the NYPD Inspector General, police officers are rarely punished for such chokeholds.

Banned chokeholds are just one example. Police misconduct then denials or cover-ups are a historical part of policing. Some examples…

1. The police officers who beat Rodney King wrote fraudulent reports that he had resisted arrest. Video evidence proved them wrong...and they still weren’t convicted. (At one point, a judge told prosecutors that "You can trust me.")

2. A recent New Yorker article provides another example of a police department that refused to evict multiple wolves. In Albuquerque, New Mexico the police department has a shockingly high number of fatal shootings. But they always circle the wagons to defend these wolves in their midsts, usually by slandering the victims:

Grover, the former sergeant, said that when officers shot someone the department typically ordered a “red file” on the deceased. “The special-investigations division did a complete background on the person and came up with any intelligence to identify that, you know, twenty years ago, maybe, the person got tagged for shoplifting,” he said. “Then they gave the red file to the chief.”

Instead of investigating the police, they investigated the victims, smearing their character. That’s actually the exact opposite of what Grossman believes happens. (Unless the entire Albuquerque police department has been taken over by “wolves”.)

3. While we were writing and editing this post, This American Life did an episode on the relationship between police and African-Americans. A quote from that episode, after describing an incident where Milwaukee police officers (off-duty and on-duty police officers) beat and tortured someone:

“Eventually, seven officers were fired. Three were sentenced to over fifteen years in prison. But before that, officers closed ranks. No one talked. No one knew anything. It showed the city how cops would turn the other way and protect their own, even if they saw something truly terrible.”

Think about it this way. No one has to define what “protecting their own” means. Everyone knows that concept.

4. Part two of the This American Life episode on law enforcement opened with another example of police misconduct--Miami City police officers arrested one person over 60 times for trespassing...at his job--and ended with the not-shocking revelation that multiple police officers who harassed this man were still working. (As a side benefit, this episode also covered the material in our original piece about implicit bias in the decision-making of police officers, and actually made it sound worse than what we originally wrote.)

5. Or take some of the most defenseless lambs: the wives of police officers. It turns out that police (sheepdogs) have higher rates of domestic violence than the general population (the sheep). Are those police “punished and removed” as Grossman naively believes? Nope. Turns out that police officers are protected by their precincts. (Check out the great work by The Atlantic, The New York Times and FrontLine/ProPublica.)

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list, just a few examples I found following the news recently reading about this topic.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be starting a series on why I (Eric C) don’t trust the military or national security establishment, pointing out examples of the military deceiving the public for their own self-interest. In short, I couldn’t write an entire four or five post series like that if there weren’t dozens of examples for me to find.

Because I’m not naive.