Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for October 2018

Treatment of accusations

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The recent accusations* of sexual assault against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and especially the situation around them, is highly troubling.

*Disclaimer concerning the specific accusations: I make no claim about whether the accusations are true or false. (But admit to finding them fishy. Cf. some of the below.) The main point is not whether Kavanaugh, specifically, is guilty or innocent of something, but how various scenarios should be handled in general, including accusations that lack proof, accusations that are raised belatedly, actual events that took place a long time ago, etc.

Again, a mere allegation is used to discredit someone, potentially ruining both a career and a reputation. Worse, now the democratic processes are threatened: If Kavanaugh’s nomination is defeated, then what is next? There are many political fanatics who justify even thoroughly anti-democratic means through their holy end—and if they see that, for instance, Kavanaugh was kicked out based on mere allegations (even truthful allegations), the risk that some of them will raise false allegations against others increases severely.* A justice with the “wrong” opinions is nominated? The “wrong” candidate is leading in the polls? That professor is a registered Republican? Now there is a remedy!

*And, no, in light of many actual, anti-democratic events documented on sites like Minding the Campus, or the very high rate of false accusations in other areas (I have briefly discussed the subject in e.g. [1] and [2]), this is not a hypothetical to just be shrugged off—the risk is very, very real. To boot, albeit with a smaller likelihood, there are at least some cases where such accusations could be used as an extended filibuster, e.g. to block the appointment of anyone to the Supreme Court nominated by the “wrong” President. (The attempts, then by the Republicans, to eliminate Obama by questioning his country of birth is another indication of a faulty attitude.)

In order to reduce such risks, I would suggest the implementation of some or all of the following rules:

  1. An unproved* accusation is void for the purpose of appointments, hiring, firing, … It must** be ignored in the decision-making*** process. Failure to do so amounts to illegal discrimination and considered e.g., in the case of a firing, wrongful dismissal. (This is a special case of the presumption of innocence.)

    *Exactly what level of proof is needed might require further discussion. A formal criminal conviction is certainly enough, but there might be instances where a finding in a civil suit, considerable evidence never presented in court, or e.g. personal knowledge might also suffice. (For an example of the latter, consider a decision maker who personally witnessed a certain event—but not a decision maker who merely is convinced that the accuser is truthful.)

    **Such a ban is doomed to fail when it comes to e.g. voter opinion, but should work reasonably in cases like Kavanaugh’s and very well when it comes to e.g. firings with no other credible support. Similarly, that a judge instructs a jury to ignore a certain statement will not erase the statement from the minds of the jurors—but it is the best he can do. (Assuming that the instruction was justified.)

    ***However, it might legitimately lead to an investigation. Such an investigation can, obviously, provide proof, after which the situation changes. Even so, such investigations should normally be left to the proper authorities, and e.g. the type of kangaroo court used by some U.S. colleges is not defensible.

  2. No accusation is to be considered that was not raised in a sufficiently timely manner. For instance, if Christine Blasey Ford (Kavanaugh’s main accuser) had gone to the police within some reasonable* time after the alleged event, pointing to that accusation today would be a legitimate move on her behalf—but she waited some 36 (!) years before going public.

    *What a reasonable time is, needs further discussion. In the current case, days would have been best, but weeks might have been tolerated if the experience was traumatic or other circumstances made “days” unconscionable. Even months, however, would be very hard to justify. If nothing else, we have to consider the risk of false accusations and the reduced ability of the innocently accused to provide e.g. alibis as time goes by—the rights of the accused are just as important as those of the accuser. A timely report to the police is, obviously, also in the interest of a (truthful) accuser, so that evidence can be gathered in time.

    In addition to arguments in favor of statutes of limitation in general (cf. below), we also have to consider that when an accusation is raised so long after (even a real) event, the memory of the accuser might be too faulty to be trusted. Did the events really take place that way or have they been exaggerated after mulling over them a few dozen times? Were the intents involved interpreted correctly?* Was it really the accused or might it have been his brother? Etc.

    *For instance: Looking at the specific alleged Ford–Kavanaugh situation, Ford seems to frame it as a rape attempt. However, from what is written on Wikipedia, it is not clear that the intentions went beyond molestation (even assuming that the event took place). Such intents even seem unlikely, with two older boys interacting with a girl of fifteen in situation controlled by them. Had this been an actual rape attempt, her chances would not have been great. (Wikipedia on the nomination: “According to Ford, Kavanaugh pinned her to the bed, groped her, ground against her, and tried to pull off her clothes and covered her mouth when she tried to scream.” The one thing potentially pointing to specifically rape is the clothes, but here too much room for interpretation is present, including whether her pants were involved—and what about his pants? To speak of “sexual assault” is justified, but “attempted rape” is, unless vital information has been left out, speculation.)

    Reasoning that e.g. the “risk” of a high appointment for an unsuitable candidate might justify coming out even after a long time, is flawed, as per several below points and the fact that there are plenty of innocents that might need protection in the life-path of almost everyone—not just of holders of high offices. If someone sees a need to act when a high office is involved, then she willfully exposed smaller groups of people in the past. In the specific case of Ford and Kavanaugh, we also have to consider that this is not his first high office. Why did she not speak up e.g. when he was appointed to the circuit court?*

    *The obvious speculation is that we now have a situation where an accusation, be it truthful or false, has a greater political impact, and a “Republican” Supreme Court can at least be delayed—that it is a matter of mere political expediency, by a Democrat with some history of political activism. (Cf. Wikipedia on Ford.) However, I stress that my knowledge of Ford’s character, history, whatnot, are far too limited to consider this more than speculation.

  3. The relevance of an alleged act/event/whatnot to suitability for a certain position must be considered. In many previous incidents, mostly relating to issues like being non-PC (e.g. [3], [4]), no such relevance has been obvious or even remotely proved. With sexual assault and movie producer, a case for relevance is obvious, because the position gives opportunity for further events, and an effect e.g. on what-young-actress-is-hired-why is plausible. With Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court, the case is far weaker: Not only is there no reason to assume that he would have more opportunity on the Supreme Court than in his current position (if at all*), but he does not have an adult record of such behavior—the alleged incidents that have come to my attention have been in the early 1980s, when Kavanaugh was still a teenager.

    *I am not aware of what opportunities, obstacles, whatnot, might be present, but the rest of the Supreme Court is bound to be safe. There might be some possibilities among assistants and similar, but nothing comparable to the opportunities of a movie producer.

    A possibly relevant angle is that of moral integrity: Someone with a known behavior of questionable ethics, morals, whatnot might be disputable, even when no questions of ability and performance are present. For instance, a top-notch accountant with an embezzlement conviction is not an ideal candidate for treasurer of even the local PTA. Similarly, with high offices, we want people who are likely to not e.g. confuse private and public funds, make favorable decisions in exchange for bribes, change regulations in a manner that benefits them personally (for the sake of that benefit), … While I would tend to err on the side of caution in this area, sexual misbehavior is lesser indication than e.g. financial misbehavior when it comes to public office. (Excepting the vulnerability to extortion; however, here we have a Catch-22: Either the misbehavior is known and not useful for extortion, or it is not known and therefore not a possible criterion.) Further, the judicial branch is likely less susceptible than the executive branch.

  4. Even when accusations were raised in a timely manner, some type of “statute of limitations”* must be present:

    *An older post has some discussion of criminal statutes of limitation.

    Firstly, if an accusation is “escalated”*, or even repeated, after too long a time, the accused is put at a severe disadvantage, because his opportunities to defend himself are worsened. For instance, he might have had a witness that has since forgotten too much, moved, or even died; unknown witnesses that might have come forward after two weeks might not even realize that they are relevant when the event took place two or twenty years earlier; he might have had phone records that are now long gone; he might himself be too uncertain about the details to give a plausible statement; etc. (This is even worse when no prior accusation had taken place, and the innocently accused might not even know what he was doing at what time all those years ago. A prior accusation at least increases the chance that some memories are present and that some preparations were taken.)

    *E.g. in that an accusation is raised in a social circle today and brought to the police two years later, or that the police originally dismissed a charge without deeper investigation and the accusation is repeated in a public forum decades later.

    Secondly, the individual changes over time.* He matures, develops a better feel for what is and is not acceptable, gains greater insights into ethics, becomes better at withstanding peer-pressure, sorts out emotional problems, … In the case of a teenage boy, even the physiological maturation of the brain is not yet complete. When enough time has passed, judging someone over past events is not that much different from judging him over something someone else did. When it comes to extremes such as whether a Presidential candidate, once long ago, actually inhaled marijuana or just smoked it, something is seriously wrong.

    *Here I can give myself as a case in point: While I have never done anything like what Kavanaugh is accused of, I was quite “handsy” in my early teens. Not only have I stopped such behaviors as I grew up, but I cannot even, today, understand what motivated me. My best speculation is that it was more “attention getting” than something truly sexual, combined with a yet undeveloped understanding of issues like personal borders (in turn caused by some mixture of youth, family problems, and “spectrum” issues).

    Thirdly, society and what is considered acceptable also changes over time. If we take an old man and go back to what he did sixty years ago, we might find things considered perfectly normal back then—but condemned whole-sale today. Consider, as extreme examples, the horrifyingly flawed concept of microaggressions or stories of how even asking someone out has been considered sexual harassment. Or consider objections against various pre-abolition U.S. Presidents because they, perfectly normally at the time, owned slaves. Or consider how prostitution was relatively recently legal in Sweden, is now forbidden, and how it can be assumed that any politician caught out having visited a prostitute when it was legal will be severely condemned post-facto. If older events are to be considered at all, they must be considered in the light of the norms at the time they took place.

    As a special case of the above, there might also be some need to consider more “local” norms, e.g. those of a sub- or youth-culture. While such norms should be called upon only with caution, they can often shine a different light on something or make it less severe, especially when all the involved parties belong to the same group, follow the same norms, and have the same expectations.

Excursion on statutes of limitation and the changing individual:
One way to handle this complication would be to say that we are only ever culpable for what we did in the previous third* of our lives. What happened before is beyond the reach of the law, societal condemnation, the ire of a spouse, the complaints of a parent, … A human aged six is only responsible for what he did in the last two years, aged fifteen only for the last five, aged sixty only the last twenty, etc.

*The exact fraction and the exact modalities are open to discussion.

Such a system simultaneously reasonably protects from the sins of our prior selves, ensures a reasonable remainder of culpability, and takes the different rate of change as we age into consideration. There might, however, be some complications to iron out. Consider e.g. someone who commits a crime at twenty and is incarcerated with a multi-year sentence at twenty-nine: Should he be let out when thirty? This would be consistent with the idea, but might lead to problems like some perpetrators not being prosecuted due to pointlessness, effectively shortening the statutes-of-limitation phase below the intent. (A possible compromise might be to set some lower limits or proportions for sentences that are exceptional to the overall system.)

Excursion on the Clintons:
Some of the accusations against Bill might be open to similar arguments, although the shorter time-frame must be considered. The Lewinsky affair* might even be something best considered a private issue between her and the Clintons. Others against Bill and all (?) against Hillary are not or only weakly affected, e.g. because of more-or-less immediate action, delays caused by lack of knowledge, the use of formal investigations instead of public-opinion courts, and the greater relevance to the job.

*Per se: Any ensuing cover-ups and later manipulations are a different matter. (My memory is much too vague to make a definite statement.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 6, 2018 at 7:19 pm

What the PC movement gains from silencing Dead White Men

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A very dangerous aspect of some modern excesses of political correctness is the almost whole-sale rejection of anything “Western”, “traditional”, “classical”, … The danger is not* because of typical Conservative counter-arguments about having a common frame of reference or cultural understanding, knowing where we came from, … No: The two much worse, overlapping problems are the following:

*While I do not consider such arguments without merit, they are, with reservations for history, a lot less relevant today, with changing norms and societies, rapidly changing cultural (in senses like fiction and who-is-who) frames of reference, heavy migration, whatnot. For instance, my native Sweden and adopted Germany have very different sets of authors that one “should” know about—and to have a discussion with a modern German teenager, I might be better off knowing something about “Game of Thrones” or Kanye West than about Goethe and Schiller…

Firstly, there are enormous amounts of insight to be found in older works—and, unlike modern works, they have typically been strongly pre-filtered for quality and long-term relevance.* It is neigh on impossible to come up with a thought so truly original than no-one else has published it in the past. Many are even so old and established that they are anonymous adages.** Similarly, more or less any event of today can find at least an approximate parallel in history, making a solid knowledge of history an immensely valuable tool for understanding the current world, including seeing potential dangers. A related issue is that ignorance of history makes it impossible to view historical events, persons, ideologies, whatnot in a reasonable light, especially compared to other events, persons, ideologies, whatnot of the same or another era (including today). Those who denigrate old thoughts, the teaching of history, whatnot, just “because it is old” (“[…] Western”, “[…] by Dead White Men”) slow their own intellectual growth, hinder their understanding of (even) modern society, and are often unable to understand the past in a reasonable context.

*Similarly, that the music of a few decades back appears to be much better than today, is partially a result of the weaker music of then having been filtered out much more strongly over the intervening years than has the weaker music of today.

**A common problem, independent of the PC crowd, is that these are often viewed the wrong way: A proponent might try to “prove” a point merely by citing an adage; an opponent might denigrate them indiscriminately, seeing that they often focus on only one aspect of an issue or a special case. The best gain, however, is when they are seen as “food for thought”, as pointers to some aspect of an issue that we might have overlooked or not considered sufficiently. Generally, the point of exposure to others ideas is not to adopt these ideas—but to use them as stimulation for the development of an own web of ideas.

Secondly, this rejection is a vital part of the survival of the PC movement: People who are well-read in the “forbidden knowledge” are much more likely to see the dangers and errors of the PC crowd than others. A particularly interesting aspect is repeated warnings against censorship, poor reasoning, intellectual dishonesty, and similar. For instance, this text was prompted by encountering a statement by Goethe:

Gegner glauben uns zu widerlegen, wenn sie ihre Meinung wiederholen und auf die unsrige nicht achten.

Translation: Opponents believe that they refute us, when they reiterate their own opinion and ignore* ours.

*Depending on exact intent, especially with “achten” not being a likely modern formulation, I am hesitant in the exact translation. Possibly, e.g. “do not pay attention to” or “do not respect” comes closer to the original intent. The overall sentiment remains the same, however.

This so well matches so many encounters I have had, especially with Feminists, who (a) appear to consider it more important to suppress dissenting opinions* than to give arguments against them and in favor of their own, (b) often argue by mere assertion (or mere slogan), (c) seem to believe that a lie repeated often enough is the truth. Large parts of the German Left appear to believe that the best way to push an opinion is to march along the street and scream it at the top of one’s voice. Excesses in U.S. colleges include systematic disturbances and sabotage of speeches given by not-sufficiently-kosher guest lecturers, including such absurdities as circumventing a ban on disturbances in the lecture hall by using strong loud-speakers immediately outside the same…

*In a parallel to the contents of this text, I have often noted that even perfectly factual statements run a severe risk of being censored on e.g. Feminist blogs, for no other discernible reason than mere dissent. Factual arguments, statistics, etc., appear to increase the risk of censorship.

What if these people stopped for a minute to think about the above quote, draw appropriate conclusion, and adapted their behavior correspondingly? Clearly, it is better for the success of such movements to prevent exposure to such thoughts—or to discredit them by Goethe (or whatever author) being a Dead White Man.

Or consider history: It is so much easier to be on the far Left, when all one knows is the atrocities of Hitler—but not those of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. It is so much easier to paint Blacks as disadvantaged and slavery as a White-on-Black atrocity, when comparing the U.S. Blacks of 1840 with modern society instead of the Whites at other times in history, when not making comparison to other historically disadvantaged groups (notably the Jews), and when not being aware of the greater history of slavery (be it concerning Blacks or generally). It is so much easier to propose censorship, restrictions on occupations, indoctrination, whatnot, without having to make comparisons to e.g the McCarthy-era or any number of dictatorships (not to mention “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, moving on to literature by Dead White Men).

The simple truth is this: If people are exposed to “heretical” ideas, allowed to read “dangerous” books, take the time to think for themselves, …, a certain type of movement will be very hard to sustain. Examples include large swaths of the Leftist and PC movements in e.g. the current U.S., Sweden, and Germany; various (past or current) dictatorships, notably the Marx-inspired ones; various religious organizations and sects; …

Excursion on alternatives:
Could not the same insights be gained from other sources? Often they can; however, why go looking for something that is already under our noses? Especially, when that already available will in most cases be objectively superior to the replacement? For instance, when we already have a certain college course, taught for decades and based on an even longer academic history, why throw it out? If we have a literature requirement, is it not natural to focus on those works actually available natively and in the local language?* If we want to draw general lessons from history, why not look to countries** where historians have gathered detailed knowledge covering a long period of time? Etc.

*Not only will the availability of material in the local language be far larger where local authors are concerned, but we also have to consider that even a good translation is invariably different from the original, that even a good translation will leave issues of prerequisite cultural/societal/whatnot knowledge, that even a good translation is usually inferior to the original, and that most translations are not good… To boot, leaving the Western world, most countries have weaker or considerably weaker literary traditions.

**In addition, it is usually preferable to have a stronger focus on the local country, seeing that the local history will often contain information more useful in understanding the current local society. (Benefits from being local will, obviously, require different choices from country to country, from area to area, from cultural sphere to cultural sphere—and are only a pro-something-Western in the case of a Western country.)

If it turns out that this-or-that other source provides some alternative insights, there is nothing wrong with using it in addition. If it turns out to be better, it might even be used instead—I do not advocate a focus on the Western for the sake of having something Western, and a study of e.g Chinese history, literature, philosophy, …, might give equal benefits*. However, the same cannot be said when we look to e.g. Nigeria. Moreover, this is nowhere near what many of these extremists suggest: They appear to start with the assumption that anything related to Dead White Men is evil, and see its abolishment from e.g. school curricula as an end in it self, giving preference to untested and very likely inferior alternatives.

*Barring pragmatical issues, e.g. the aforementioned translations, or local relevance.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 3, 2018 at 11:27 pm