Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Authoritarianism Is Not The Answer To Social Problems. Four Pirate Solutions

Balance and gavel, symbols of justice
I keep seeing conflicting statements in my Twitter feed about social problems and solutions. They tend to fall into two groups: advocates for normalising behaviours and attitudes that many of us find downright offensive, and those who think it best to bring down the banhammer on them. For the record, I think they're both wrong. Allow me to explain why, and to suggest workable solutions.

Full disclosure, I'm a control freak. I fully and completely understand the desire to grab the reins and drive the carriage in the right direction. I'm also a doer. One of my chief beefs in life is seeing a project with great potential get bogged down in committee. At which point I want to grab the reins and whip the thing forward myself. I get it. I just don't like it when other people do that to me. And I'm not the only one. Here are four things I've learned about social problems and how to deal with them effectively.

They're usually demand-side issues

Prostitution is a biggie. Feminist and progressive groups appear to be divided over the benefits (or not) of the sex trade. End Demand is one group that attacks the demand-side, campaigning for the criminalising of buying sex while decriminalising the sellers, i.e. the prostitutes themselves. While there is no doubt their intentions are noble and that their methods have, in some cases, proved effective, they've got a Sisiphean task due to a Cerberus of opposition from pro-sex trade feminists who believe it is empowering to sell your own body, from aggressive "happy hookers" who resent attempts to rescue them, and from the punters themselves, who are not going to stop seeking sex for sale now that it's illegal to do so. Prohibition simply doesn't work on demand-side issues, as I've pointed out before. This particular point bears repeating:

There is such a thing as the market, even though it's not free. Just as we have always had government in one form or another, we have always had money in one form or another... Therefore, we have always had markets in one form or another. This is how humanity works. Pretending that it doesn't causes more problems than it solves.

Not to mention this one:

"The Market" is made up of two sides, sellers (supply-side) and buyers (demand-side), which are supposed to exist in a tension that causes the whole to self-correct when shortages, etc., occur.

Both the Left and the Right keep forgetting about the existence of market forces, and when they remember they tend to either try to control or curtail it, or overly favour one side, creating an imbalance. Yes, that's right, I've said that prostitution is a market-driven problem. Where there is demand there will always be supply. Someone will step in to fill the vacuum so there's no point in banning things like this. For the record, I don't approve of prostitution, but I'm no Sisiphus, I've got better things to do than roll the proverbial boulder up the Hill of Righteous Indignation only to chase it down the other side, then roll it up again because "They won't do as they're told." And Cerberus is a greedy old sod. So what do we do?

Solution 1: Address the market

In my post, Rape Culture: Our Attitude To Sex Must Change, I discussed how the sexual imperative helps to drive rape culture. It also underpins prostitution. If we don't do more to challenge social attitudes, we're not going to end prostitution no matter how hard we work to enforce bans and sanctions, so let's be working on that for starters. Attitudes towards gender, sex, and sexuality have got to change if we truly expect to get results. When punters stop wanting to buy sex, the industry will collapse, and not one second before. In the meantime I advocate legalising, taxing, and regulating the trade because I don't believe we'll ever put an end to it. Demand is too great.

They're embedded in culture

Drugs, alcohol, and other substances have been contentious for centuries. Needless to say, the banhammer came down with great force upon them... and we still have tobacco, despite King James I's Counterblast:

"...a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmefull to the braine, daungerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse."

I couldn't agree more, Jimmy. However, it's still here, sire. The clues are in the article: a culture grew up around the vile weed and the usage thereof, and it became fashionable among the hip and the happening. Needless to say, the servants aped their masters and the habit spread downwards until smoking became a common, normal behaviour despite attempts to put people off.

Clever, consistent marketing to raise awareness of cigarettes that encourages the proliferation of beliefs that smoking is social, that it's calming, that it's normal, and that it's what tough, cool people do. In the movie Aliens, in the scene where they're with Newt, when they've barricaded themselves into the main colony complex, they all sit back and take a smoke break. Product placement, much? This is blatant reinforcement via repetition. That, and other sneaky advertising tricks keep smoking from going out of fashion.

Banning smoking has not done a lot to actually stop people smoking because it's a social thing to do; I've seen reports of some people taking up smoking in order to join people outside taking smoke breaks. So what do we do?

Solution 2: Address the culture

Anti-smoking adverts can and do affect people who may be considering starting or giving up but won't affect the hardcore smokers who claim to hate the habit but continue anyway. The key is to get at the culture. Banning mass advertising and product placement is effective because it addresses the all-pervasive nature of smoking culture. Promoting healthy living also helps. While I'm skeptical of vaping because of the nicotine in the e-cigarettes, they're much better than actual cigarettes, though I've not seen any of my colleagues who turned to vaping actually give up. I can say the same for nicotine patches as well; smoking is a compound problem that's not just about nicotine, it's the whole ritual thing. Stop-smoking clinics, etc., are also great, but more needs to be done to make treatment more widely available. Driving smokers outside has created an image of smoking as a filthy, anti-social habit up to a point but more needs to be done to associate smoking with undesirability. In short, a multi-faceted approach addressing each of the issues I've mentioned and all of the ones I missed is required.

They're addictive

UK-based law blogger Jack of Kent has been railing against the Psychoactive Substances Bill because it's vague and badly worded.
This is, of course, a classic example of authoritarianism run amok. Indeed, as Jack wisely states,
As with prostitution and smoking, drugs are a demand-side issue with a long history stretching back through the ages. There's also a culture around the use and abuse of drugs, particularly the illegal ones. Indeed, Forbidden Fruit Syndrome is one of the main drivers; users tend to see themselves as part of a culturally superior enlightened elite while conservatives like me tend to see them as irresponsible and in need of a haircut and a job. Yeah... about that... drug addicts come from all walks of life, they're not all kids who fell into bad company or celebrities who went off the rails. You might be living in a leafy suburb right next door to a cokehead. So... what do we do?

Solution 3. Treat it as a health issue

It took a fair amount of patient persuasion to bring me round to accepting this but now I'm an enthusiastic advocate for the Portuguese system, which is based on abstinence and treats drug abuse as a health issue. That the British government won't adopt this is mostly down to an authoritarian viewpoint that seeks to avenge itself on the people involved instead of actually solving the problem. They need to change their attitudes and actually try this out.

They're based on emotionally-charged issues

The right to freedom of speech is considered sacrosanct till someone gets offended. Personally, I'm in favour of making the effort to get along with other folk and to make the effort to be considerate of others but not to the point where I'm obliged to bin common sense. See this outrageous article in Popehat for an idea of what I'm talking about. I actually wrote about this kind of thing back in December last year, pointing out that women who cry wolf add to the trope of the lying witness, which impairs conviction rates. Due process is essential to a fair and just society, we can't just bin it for fear of hurting people's feelings.

The right to offend is apparently the limit of our freedom:
This is all true, but being a git to other people is also childish. And words do hurt. Anyone who hasn't taken a media studies course is unlikely to understand this:

Repetition influences belief, and belief influences behavior. Sometimes this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. - The Propaganda Professor, Propaganda Prop # 1: Repetition

Actually, if you read through the props series of posts you'll see how propaganda can be framed as a freedom of speech issue. I've already weighed in on counter-speech as an option. The takeaway: you need an equally noisy opposition or you're sunk.  Nobody likes being told they've got no sense of humour and to pretty much lie back and try to enjoy it when being abused. That's why they try to get abusive speech banned. On the flip side it's horrible to live in a society where you're pretty much walking on eggshells in case you upset someone. So what do we do?

Solution 4: Be willing to stand up for the underdog

Due process requires that the unpopular have someone to speak and act on their behalves to defend them from accusations. Unwanted speech, particularly speech that harangues, derides, or calls down hellfire and brimstone on the infidel, etc. (I'm looking at you, politically-correct people!), requires counter-speech. To preserve our freedom it's not enough to argue for the right to be a git to other people so that people like me can express ourselves without ending up in prison for it, we're going to have to counter the excuses that it's for the kids, etc. That means stepping in when someone is being bullied to offer support. That means speaking out against religious discrimination, etc. In short, we've got to get involved and provide the counter-speech even when it's unpopular and unfashionable. This ought to short-circuit attempts to ban types of speech and maintain our personal freedom.

These are just a few suggestions and I'm not saying they're the only ones. They're just the best I can think of. What do you think?

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