Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

US cops, acting on false information given to them by “concerned bystanders”, busted Henry Louis Gates for trying to force his way into his own house and for consequently reacting to the cops in a way that supposedly amounted to “disorderly conduct”.

First of all, I don’t intend to dig up the details of the case or pronounce moral judgment on either Gates or the cops. Probably both had good reasons for their conduct – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Racial profiling is a cancer in society, and when someone like Gates is confronted with it, I understand his anger and perhaps his sense of responsibility to react to it. Given his moral stature in the community, I think it’s even likely that he used the occasion to react in an overly theatrical way in order to get a point across, hoping that the fact that he was doing it on his own property would shield him against arrest. Or perhaps hoping the contrary. If so, he certainly succeeded. The police officer, on the other hand, was probably also doing what he thought was his job and it’s unlikely that he was racially motivated.

But I don’t know any of this. So I’ll cut out the speculation and go on to the substantive theoretical point: should people, when confronted by the police, have a right to speak up, possible even in a “disorderly manner”, i.e. high pitched voices and rude language? I think that’s the case, at least in most circumstances (and so does the US judiciary).

Many cops are overly sensitive to people talking back. It undermines their authority, and a quick move with the handcuffs does wonders to restore it. Of course, people talking back can also be dangerous for cops, since talking back can escalate to violence. I think cops should be able to make the distinction between people talking back because they have a genuine grievance, and other people who simply talk back because they know it can serve them well when they are able to undermine the police action.

This means that cops can, and should be able to, use their discretion when deciding that someone should or should not be able to exercise their freedom of speech. Of course, there’s always the possibility to have this discretion reviewed by a judge afterwards. But that discretion is conditional on the cops’ training. They should have thick skins. That’s an elementary requirement for being a cop. Having thick skin means that you don’t automatically consider talking back as an affront to your dignity and authority as a cop. In other words, it means that you can distinguish between, on the one hand, justified talk – i.e. the expression of rational (but not necessarily justified) grievances, even if they are not expressed in a rational way – and, on the other hand, possibly dangerous talk.

Respect and honor are important, but we all know what happens when we require too much respect and when our honor has the strength of egg shells. It’s inherent in the job of a police officer to have people talking back. As a police officer, you don’t tell people what they want to hear, and you tell it to them when they’re in personally difficult circumstances. You annoy them, almost by definition. Hence, reactions and abuse are part of the job. Going around and arresting everyone who talks back to you would be quite difficult, if not impossible. Try to talk them down. Verbal skills, like thick skin, are part of your cv. Sure, you deserve respect, and people who have grievances should address them to you in a civilized manner. But freedom of speech extends beyond civilized speech.

Also, a lot depends on the circumstances in which the talking back takes place. In the Gates case, it appears that events took place on the property of Gates. It would  have been quite different if a lonely cop was taking abuse from a crowd of people in a down town area, even if the words being uttered were exactly the same.

So it seems that there can be no clear rule for or against the right to talk back. (Bill Easterly has a nice post on “inflexible rules“). We should allow cops to use their discretion, but we should also train them to do so. Civilians have the right to free speech, even abusive speech, but should accept that this right is limited in certain circumstances.

One more point: it has been observed in psychological experiments that allowing people to vent defuses a situation and makes it less dangerous. Shutting people up just multiplies their frustations, and a violent explosion becomes more likely.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (2): Theoretical and Political Life

(please read part 1 first)

Theoretical life, the most elevated way of life and the only life which leads to the knowledge of truth, is incompatible with political life according to Plato. Contemplating the truth with the eye of the mind – this is theoretical life – is impossible as long as one is dominated by appearances, or in other words as long as one follows desires, participates in political deliberation or uses one’s human rights. Democratic politics and human rights are all about appearances, exposure, communication, and persuasion. Plato’s world is a solitary one, where the mind is engaged only with itself.

However, after contemplating the truth the philosopher has to return to earth, or to the darkness of the cave in Plato’s words. He is morally obliged to use his superior knowledge of the good life, acquired in the course of his solitary theoretical life, in order to improve the lives of his fellow-citizens. And the best instrument to do this is politics, but a kind of politics quite different from democratic politics. As a result of his philosophical activity, or his theoretical life, he has knowledge, not only about the good life but also about politics and the organization of society. He has the moral obligation to organize or make his society according to a plan that he knows is best and that he has obtained from his reflections. This plan is a matter of knowledge. Hence, it is the best and only plan. He will have to eliminate opposition and reaction because opposition and reaction to his plan is by definition stupid. It does not result from knowledge or from theoretical life.

This plan, according to Plato, is the roadmap to a generalized theoretical life. The theoretical life of the individual philosopher is the model for society. Everybody, or at least as many people as possible, must be given access to theoretical life through the political organization of society. Only then will there be general wellbeing because theoretical life is the only good and happy life, especially when compared to the life of the senses and of consumption. Theoretical life becomes the goal of politics, the only goal. Instead of the institutionalization of the game of action and reaction around different goals (as in democracy), politics becomes the organization of coordinated action with a single goal.

The philosopher has to become king and has to shape his society in his image, even though in principle theoretical life is far better than political life and should be chosen above political life. However, he has knowledge and the responsibilities that knowledge entails. He knows what theoretical life is, and so he knows how to lead or even force others in the direction of such a life and how to organize society in such a way that theoretical life becomes a general fact.

The philosopher-king, a dictatorial concept later translated into concepts such as the enlightened sovereign, the technocrat etc., results from the logic of fabrication. The expert maker, the one with the best knowledge of the goal or the plan, should be the leader of the construction process, construction in this case not of a product but of society and of the people in society.

Only those with sufficient knowledge of the good life, the goal of politics according to Plato, should be political leaders, otherwise politics will not be aimed at the good life. This knowledge is not primarily political expertise, knowledge of the art of rhetoric or negotiation etc., but knowledge of the way in which to lead a theoretical life. Only those who already lead it know how to guide others along the way.

We should rely on those persons who have acquired knowledge of the good life. This is true in every field of knowledge. If we want to build a ship, we rely on those who know how to build a ship. Everybody else must be polite enough to shut up. The ordinary people, people without knowledge of the good life, should remain silent when it comes to politics, just as they rightly remain silent when a ship has to be build.

Democracy is therefore undesirable. The experts of the good life, and hence the rulers, are by definition a minority. The ordinary people are ruled by their desires and have to be assisted and forced in their development towards a higher way of life. If they rule, politics will necessarily be focused on desires, on quantity rather than quality. Only those who can rule themselves must be allowed to rule others, and to rule others for their own good. That is why Socrates can say to his judges that they should cherish someone like him instead of condemning him. He does not defend himself but the entire city. The city would suffer most from his death, much more than he himself.

The philosopher-king acts in the interest of the good life of his society and not in his self-interest. The latter would be better served by a theoretical life and by avoiding politics. The fact that philosophers take over power reluctantly insulates them from abuses of power (for example, the use of power in their self-interest). They are forced to take over power for two reasons:

  • their moral obligation to improve their society, and
  • the fact that they otherwise would have to follow orders from people who are less wise than they.

Because they are forced they will rule not in their own interest but in the general interest.

A democracy can never rule in the general interest, because democratic politicians always listen to the people, always take over the claims of the people, and these claims are always materialistic and incompatible with the good life. Hence the goal of their rule is always the fulfillment of desires. Automatically, they will start to see power as well as an object of desire and use it in order to serve their own personal desires rather than those of the people.

The material appetites of the common people are not the only reason why democracy, according to Plato, is based on the senses, on appearances rather than underlying, eternal truths. The democratic style of politics is basically sense-oriented. It is about discussion, communication, deliberation. It’s policies change, are refined, repealed etc. Plato’s style of politics is different. It starts with solitary thinking, contemplation of eternal truths, which are then implemented top-down by politics.

Parts 1, 3 and 4

Children’s Rights (1): Infant Mortality

Infant mortality is the number of deaths of children aged one year or younger, per 1000 live births. This gives the Infant mortality rate (IMR). The rates have significantly declined over the last centuries, mainly due to improvements in basic health care, and in all regions of the world.

However, there’s still a long way to go, especially in developing countries. In several African countries as well as in India, 1 in 10 babies die before they reach the age of 1. That’s horrendous.

Inequalities are extreme: Angola had the highest IMR in 2007: 184. And Sweden the lowest: 2.8. In a country like Bangladesh, 153,000 newborns die each year. Multiply this with the number of non-newborns death before the age of 1, and with a number of similar countries, and with a number of consecutive years, and you have an enormous massacre.

The most common causes in developing countries are pneumonia and dehydration from diarrhea. The latter cause is a real scandal given the ridiculously easy remedy: Oral Rehydration Solution, or ORS, a mixture of salts, sugar, and water. In developed countries the causes are congenital malformation, birth defects, extreme prematurity, disease, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Neglect, abuse or outright murder are also important causes.

The infant mortality rate is an indicator of state failure. As the IMR indicates the level of a country’s health, health care system or development, an extremely high IMR can corroborate the statement that a particular state is a “failed state” in the sense that it fails in its basic responsibilities to its citizens. Not surprisingly, wealthy countries – wealthy in the commonly accepted sense of high GDP per capita – have a lower IMR because they have the means to invest in healthcare, sanitation, drugs etc.

I guess it’s obvious why this is a human rights issue: you can hardly say that people can enjoy their human rights when they die before they are 1. Of course, it’s not as if someone is directly violating these children’s right to life. Infant mortality is in most cases not a deliberate act. But rights can be violated by act as well as omission. In many cases, it’s easy to prevent the child from dying, and those who have the power to do something about it also have the responsibility.

Gender Discrimination (2): Types and Causes

The issue of women’s rights, not in the sense of special kinds of human rights reserved for women, but in the sense of the equal enjoyment by women of their general human rights, remains an important one. The Universal Declaration and the human rights treaties forbid discrimination on the grounds of gender. Article 2 states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind”. Article 7 states that

“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination”.

This means that the anti-discrimination rule goes beyond discrimination in the application of human rights. If everyone is entitled to equal protection by the law, then it means that there can be no law which discriminates. Every law which offers unequal protection to men and women is a violation of the Universal Declaration, whether or not this law seeks to protect human rights.

In real life, women and girls continue to suffer from gender discrimination in all parts of the world. Here are some types of gender discrimination:

1. Discrimination in family law

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration is about the equality in marriage:

“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.

In many cultures, arranged or forced marriages are still very common, often resulting in sexual abuse. Women often do not have the same rights regarding divorce or inheritance. Polygamy is also a cause of discrimination.

2. Discrimination at work

Article 23 gives everyone, without any discrimination, the right to equal pay for equal work, but even in industrialized countries there is salary discrimination and there are promotion obstacles for women. In developing countries, this discrimination is even worse.

 

In some countries, the choice of work is restricted for women, de iure, but also de facto because of cultural mentalities or educational discrimination. Often women are not allowed to work at all and are confined to house keeping, which obviously limits their development opportunities.

3. Discrimination in education

The literacy rates and school enrollment rates for girls and women is often much lower than for boys and men. Girls are often forced to stay home and do the housekeeping, which in many countries is hard labor. In later life, when a girl is allowed to take a job, it will be a substandard one because of her low level of education. She will also be expected to continue to do the housekeeping.

4. Physical abuse

Because of the anatomy of their bodies and their relative physical weakness compared to men, women are often the victim of rape, female genital mutilation or other kinds of sexual abuses (such as the sex industry).

Some causes of gender discrimination

The causes vary widely and include:

  • Religious traditions and sacred texts. It seems that especially the Muslim religion contains many discriminatory injunctions, which moreover are often interpreted very literally.
  • Custom and culture. Culture shapes the way “things are done” and the thinking of people who believe that things should be done in a certain way. In many cultures we still witness male misogyny and machismo.

  • Education and upbringing. Mothers (but also fathers) often perpetuate involuntarily the inferior social position of their daughters by raising them according to traditional gender roles.
  • Law. The law often reinforces other causes of discrimination.

Different kinds of discrimination promote each other

In many countries, the birth of a boy is a reason to celebrate, whereas the birth of a girl is a disaster. Selective abortions of female fetuses and female infanticide are no exception, resulting in unnatural gender ratios. In some countries, such as China, the situation is made worse by government policy. In 1997, the World Health Organization declared, “more than 50 million women were estimated to be ‘missing’ in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing’s population control program.”

This negative attitude towards girls is not the simple result of male misogyny. The local law often stipulates that a son inherits his father’s property. Social and legal conditions may also make it easier for a man to get a job to help support the family. One kind of discrimination may therefore promote another.

The misgivings that are created by the birth of a girl are often caused by the dowry system. Dowry is goods and money a bride’s family has to pay to the husband’s family. Not only is it more difficult for a girl to bring in money into the family; when she marries she will become a financial burden. Sometimes, dowries represent years’ worth of wages.

Labeling girls as second rate from the moment they are born obviously creates feelings of low self-esteem, which will make it harder to break out of the vicious circle. When these girls grow up, they will inevitably transpose these feelings to their daughters and so on.

Another case in which one type of discrimination promotes another: women fall more frequently victim to sexual abuse than men. In some societies, the stigma attached to this kind of abuse often forces women to continue to endure their suffering. Moreover, family law can make it difficult for them to divorce their abusing husband. Even the mere fact of allowing the sexual abuse to be exposed can have harmful consequences for the woman in question. Exposure means dishonor for the family, which will then punish the victim. Some families even commit “honor killings” to salvage their reputation. In certain societies, all responsibility for sexual misconduct rests by definition with women.

A last example. A lower level of education results in a substandard job, which in turn results in poverty and dependence on men. This dependence will convince men of the inferiority of women. Women who lack education also lack the tools to improve their situation and combat discrimination.

A few facts

From the Canadian International Development Agency:

  • More than 80 percent of the world’s 35 million refugees are women and children;
  • More than 110 million of the world’s children, two-thirds of them girls, are not in school;
  • At least one in every three women is a survivor of some form of gender-based violence, frequently inflicted by a family member;
  • Women represent, on average, less than 10 percent of the seats in national parliaments; and
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 58 percent of persons infected with HIV/AIDS are women.