Saturday, November 02, 2019

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

The Talking to Strangers audiobook was produced more like a podcast, with a number of actual clips and re-enactments of relevant events. Malcolm Gladwell how people often do a really bad job of judging people we do not know. One problem is that we have certain facial clues that we think identify feelings and motivation. These features are displayed predominantly by characters in US sitcoms. However, they are not common to all societies or people. Often people can appear "guilty" simply because of their natural mannerisms. The disconnect between what is observed and actual character and feelings ends up causing all sorts of issues.
In one study, subjects participating in a study were given the opportunity to cheat. Later, the study recorded the subjects being questioned about whether or not they cheated. People judging these evaluation could easily identify liars who behaved like "liars" should (blushing, fidgety, etc.) However, they were regularly misled by those that gave confusing clues. A fidgety truth teller or a confident liar were more often than not misjudged.
People that think they can read character often fall victims to these assumptions. Judges that set bail want to meet and talk with the defendant to judge whether they can be set free. However, a blind AI that only looks at the rap sheet produced much more effective results.
Sex, violence, alcohol and protests all play a role in some of the difficult to judge situations. I wonder how often are criminal justice system is making things worse. An example was given of a psychologist who helps people uncover the deep sexual abuse that they may be repressing. Is this really unearthing something or just causing past feelings to be altered? The book also talks about people that were on friendly terms with people that were later accused of child sexual abuse. They later switch sides to fight against the abuser. Did the case turn something that did not impact them into something that they now find damaging? Or perhaps they are just showing solidarity or now see a chance to earn money. Do these cases really benefit victims? Or do they just create more victims. The witch hunts that come out afterwards create more issues. Churches are being bankrupted because of past priest activities. School presidents are being sued because they did not take "appropriate actions" against alleged perpetrators. However, the evidence that they had to consider were often circumstantial at best.

By default people assume others are telling the truth. If not, society will be painfully difficult to manage. However, this allows the non-truth tellers to continue on. How do we appropriately find the bad apples while not grinding society to a halt. The Amanda Knox case provided the counter to the Sandusky case. She just looked guilty. She served time in jail. When she was finally acquitted, there were Italian protests of a miscarriage of justice. In her case, the behavior seemed to indicate guilt despite innocence. With Sandusky, there was apparent innocence despite guilt. How can we make good decisions. (And are these decisions even right? Sandusky still maintains his innocence even after conviction.)

The Brock Turner case introduces alcohol to the story and makes it even messier. Two people at a party are blackout drunk engaging in sexual activity. One of them passes out as the other continues. Had that been all, they would have probably woken up later and wondered what exactly happened and wished they had not had so much to drink. However, two people stumbled across them. Brock ran away. Now he is branded for life as a sex criminal. The judge in the case last his position because he wasn't deemed by the public as hard enough. But is the case really cut and dry. If both parties are too drunk to remember, how could a rape even take place? Neither party could legally give consent. The laws concerning drinking and sexuality create a big mess. Sexual activity is legal if there is consent. However, people don't agree on what consent is. Further more, when drunk people's ability to make judgements and remember events is impaired. Somebody may have granted what appeared to be consent in the moment, but not remembered doing so. The only witnesses are often two people with incomplete, human memories trying to piece things together. They are heavily coached by attorneys to say the right thing. They may believe they are telling the truth. But, that does not mean they are. This is a problem with our entire legal system. Sex crimes can be even worse because whether or not it is a crime depends almost entirely on the victim's intent. The punishment is also extreme, with sex criminals often being required to register as a sex offender for life.

In the court of public opinion can even be worse. The chat rooms love to "speak up for the little guy". Anybody committing an offense against children most be 100% evil. Anybody that employed them or even said something slightly positive about them must also be punished. Thus, the judge in the Brock Turner case lost his job because he agreed with a lenient sentence. The President of Penn State was convicted of child endangerment. (He was able to have it overturned on a technicality - the law he was convicted under did not exist when he was deemed to have committed a crime.) This seems an awfully lot like a witch hunt. And it probably does not do much good for actual victims. Adults that were abused as children may not have been impacted at all by the actions. The accusations may actually create harm where none previously existed. For those that were harmed, they may be required to dredge up something that they have recovered from, or they may continue to be suffering. They could hope to relish in seeing the perpetrator suffer. For most people, that would be it. However, if the abuser happens to be part of a large organization, then the victim may receive a huge amount. The organizations are often ones that devote resources to youth. Because of a few bad apples these organizations are paying huge amounts to a few victims and their lawyers rather than helping youth. To protect themselves they must go overboard implementing strict policies to remove any prospective abusers. This may end up negatively impacting the children. (Abuse may continue outside the purview of organization. Or children may look for other, even worse sources of fulfillment.) The real winners here are primarily lawyers and politicians. They can claim to be doing something to protect children. The lawyers get the bonus of a big chunk of money.
At the same time, we have a movement in the opposite direction focused on police violence, especially against minorities. "Black Lives Matter" is primarily concerned with police being too harsh against black people. The cases that gain attention (and lead to protests) are often seemingly excessive responses to minor infractions. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the case of Sandra Brown who committed suicide in a jail cell after the escalation from a traffic stop due to a failure to signal a lane change. As with the rape case, there was blame on both sides. The cop probably should not have pulled her over in the first place. (She was moving to get out of his way!) He also should not have escalated the situation. However, she could have complied with orders and not had the situation escalate. She could also have made bail. She also committed suicide. While there are a few highly publicized cases of police brutality against innocent people, most cases start with a crime. Somebody commits an offense and then receives an excessive police response. This seems similar to the "throw the book at the sex offender" attitude, only the protestors are on the other side.
Amanda Knox served time in Italy for the murder of her roommate. When she was finally acquitted, people, convinced she did it, protested. When the judge in the Brock Turner case gave him a sentence less than people hoped for, the protestors led a recall campaign to remove him from the bench. When Michael Brown was shot in Missouri, people protested against police violence. The Jerry Sandusky situation was even more surreal with many heads rolling. Students and politicians Tennessee refused an offer to Greg Schiano because somebody provided third hand information that Schiano new something about Sandusky. The merits of a case do not matter so much as the court of public opinion. There is a need to defend the "weak" even if it means needlessly destroying others.
How do we prevent the bad apples, while still living a productive life? Kansas City did have a good experience. They focussed police patrols in high crime areas. The officers would pull cars over for the most minor crimes and then search for any more series violations. This worked because it was focused on the most high crime areas. Actions are often location dependent. Prostitutes like to work their street. Criminals work their turf. Even Golden Gate Bridge jumpers are likely to not commit suicide if they can't jump from the bridge. Alas, this "agressive" policing strategy does not help when carried out on a large scale. Most people committing minor infractions on a random road are innocent of other crimes. A generalized targetting may feel "just", but it is more likely to be a waste of time. How can we find Bernie Madoff's and their ponzi schemes without making financial transactions too onerous to complete? Trust but verify is a good catchword, but is still a challenge when dealing with strangers.

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