Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Moral Clarity of Information Overload

A few months ago, one of my friends put me onto this new rapper named Macklemore. He's from Seattle and a lot of his songs have to do with society and its various ills. In one of his songs, A Wake, there's one particular verse that goes like this:
Or Rodney King was getting beat on
And they let off every single officer
And Los Angeles went and lost it
Now every month there is a new Rodney on Youtube
It's just something our generation is used to
Macklemore is lamenting the fact that we've become so desensitized to violence. And this is going to be, at face value, a very unpopular opinion, but the desensitization is a good thing. The reason why is buried in another, vastly more famous quote:
The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.
Give yourself a pat on the back if your mind instantly jumped to Joseph Stalin. When it comes to policy responses, policymakers should be looking at statistics. Not tragedies. Individual stories are tragic. Just look at Trayvon Martin or Newtown or Aurora or any other cause celebre involving gun homicide. These isolated events happen and that's when it grabs our attention. Meanwhile, every day where there isn't a sensational shooting garnering attention in the news cycle, about 23 people die from firearms in the US.

23 people sounds like a lot. But it sounds a lot better than 28 people per day. That was the per day rate of gun homicide in 2007. In 2011 it was 23. Gun homicides (in tandem with all homicides) have steadily decreased since the 1990s. The rate of homicide per 100,000 people per year in 1992 (when the Rodney King riots occurred) was 9.3. It's down to 4.7 in 2011. And 2012 is likely to see a decrease (once the data is released) as well. The homicide rate has halved in the space of two decades. That is an incredible statistic that goes overlooked in an era where individual tragedies are just as sensational, despite what Macklemore rapped in "A Wake".

It's quite possible that the bar has shifted for gaining media attention. You can't just be a career criminal who happened to get his ass beat trying to flee the cops and have it taped. In the words of Chris Rock (here I am again, quoting a third person now in this post), "if the police have to come and get you, they're bringing an ass-kicking with them". Nowadays, you have to be defenseless, presumably innocent, upper middle class, young, female, and/or attractive.

Some people have suggested that information overload leads to people taking the default choice. When it comes to attention, our default choice is apathy. Which is why your garden variety gun homicide gets no play in the national media. It happens 23 times a day, after all. But when there's a hook: the victim is a cute white girl, the transgressor is a celebrity, visibly crazy, or if the victims are multiple and many, that's when it gets media play.

But those hooks are isolated. They don't represent the norm of things. And public policy should be things that have a positive effect for the greatest amount of people. So it doesn't make much sense to craft policy that restricts the freedom of many in order to prevent an isolated incident. Letting exceptions write the rules invites nothing but bad, misguided policy.

There is a moral clarity in information overload. Because, oftentimes, doing nothing is the best route to go. We will never be able to flatten and eliminate the vicissitudes of life. Trying to do so ultimately creates more harm than good. Sometimes we have to accept the fact that shit happens and just move on.

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