Monday, February 6, 2017

Feelings and Data

So over the weekend, someone posted a graphic of a social media post by someone who I presume is a women's advocate. The general gist of their argument was that American women were less concerned with possible violence on the part of immigrants and refugees because of the much greater likelihood that violence would visited upon them by an intimate partner. In other words, American men were a much more immediate threat to American women then foreign-born men are. In the service of this point, the advocate noted that 1,500 women were murdered by their partners every month. That number struck me as high, so I did the math, and that gives an annual number that turns out to be greater than the overall murder rate of the United States. So I expressed curiosity about the nations covered by the numbers, reasoning that it must be a larger area than just the United States. Another commenter on the thread then made the point that even if the number was much lower, it still represented too many people murdered by someone they should be able to trust.

This represents for me the unhealthy relationship that we've created between our subjective understanding of the world and the objective "facts" about the world. I had attempted to take pains to not say that the concern that many women have about violence from their partners is misplaced. After all, for instances where the relationships (or lack thereof) between murdered people and their killers is known, a large number of the murdered are acquainted with their killers. And in about 10% of murder cases, the crime is a man killing their partner. (A number which leads, I learned, to estimates of about 1,500 domestic murders a year in the United States.) I had been attempting to limit my questions to the mind side of the equation, but the follow-up comment that I received was squarely aimed at the heart aspect of the issue, lest I undermine it with my question.

A lot of topics have this dynamic, and we tend to miss it more often than not. This morning, I noticed that someone had posted an article about President Trump (once again) referring to "the media" as "dishonest." This time, the allegation was that stories of terrorist attacks in Europe were being covered up. Donald Trump being Donald Trump, the allegation of media malfeasance had been made without support evidence, and in the social media post, the poster attacked this, and added their voice to the chorus (although perhaps choir is a more apt metaphor) of people accusing the President of open deceit. But this strikes me as a "minds" argument, when President Trump was more speaking to "hearts." For some number of people on the American Right (and it is these people, I suspect, who are the intended audience of the President's comment) Islamic terrorism is high on their list of troubles. And they feel that "the media," having tarred them as "deplorables," are willing to (literally) sacrifice them in the name of an Elite liberal do-gooder project to bring foreign-born poor to this nation to help themselves to its resources at the direct expense of the Working Class. But in order to make this more palatable to Peoria, the fact that some of the poor that the liberal experiment are designed to help are actually murderous jihadis is either ignored, or decried as racism and bigotry. Of course, to be sure, it's not as if people suspect that all of the would-be immigrants, travelers or refugees are dangerous; the M&Ms and Skittles memes are fairly clear about that. But they're also clear that even one instance of "poison" is too many. (There is a certain irony to the fact that, given Americans' tendency to use violence as a problem-solving tool, people moving to the United States are presented with a bowl of candies that has its fair share of toxic individuals. "Safer than where you came from" and "safe" are not the same.)

To a degree, the Executive Order that President Trump signed that barred entry to the United States to all refugees and to travelers from seven Moslem-majority nations was more than a security measure. It was also a rebuke of the previous administration, if an unspoken one. The travel ban halted people who had been cleared by the Obama Administration, while a halt only to processing permissions to enter the nation wouldn't have. So there is a case to made for the idea that the Trump Administration is indicating that it felt the Obama Administration was effectively being lax in its stewardship of public safety. It's not very difficult to argue that an immigration and refugee resettlement pause, with time to review and, as required, revise policies, could have been carried out without blocking people who had already been cleared. It only makes sense to effectively revoke previous clearances if one suspects that they the process that granted them was completely inadequate. And this would fit in with the idea (among others) that the American Left was willing to deliberately (if not openly) overlook a certain amount of danger in order to hand out benefits to poor people from abroad, while allowing businesses to reduce Middle America to destitution.

And that emotional understanding of the world is not going to be undone by attacking President Trump's command of, or apparent disrespect for, the facts. Talking to the mind means little if your audience should be the heart. And in cases like this, it simply cements the very ideas that critics seek to dislodge. Because challenging President Trump on the facts is not the same thing as refuting his appeals to the feelings of his supporters, and, as near as I can tell, it's often perceived as attacking him because he backs up and confirms his supporters, who feel themselves targets of contempt for hostile leftist "Elites."

Whether or not Hearts and Minds campaigns are workable is a topic for historians. From my vantage point, they haven't seemed very effective when employed in war. But they acknowledge the two factors that have to be taken into account. Which is more than we've understood in the culture war.

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