Monday, January 9, 2012

Armchair Hypocrisy

[Johnathan Clayborn]
Author’s Note: This particular posting may offend some people, especially those people who are not able to be honest with themselves.

About a month ago I was a discussion with one of classmates from school about the so-called moral tests. Many people have heard of these tests. The test has questions that go something like this;
you work in a trolley terminal as an engineer. You notice a runaway trolley careening down the track at more than 50 miles per hour. If you do nothing and the trolley continues on its course it will run into a group of five construction workers who are repairing the track and they will all die. They’re too far away to shout to, but you could save their lives. The track has a switch in the middle. If you throw the lever in front of you it will change the switch and make the trolley go down the other track. The only problem there is that there is an inspector walking along the track that will be caught unaware and will probably die as a result of your actions. What do you do?
Now, this classmate of mine was very upset by this question. I pointed out that a major university had just conducted a survey of several thousand people and more than 90% of them said they would throw the lever. My classmate said that these types of studies “annoy her”. She said “Sure there is a third choice. Your choice doesn't have to be the man or construction workers. There are several things that you might be able to do depending on the situation. I would need more information before I would be willing to give my choice. I can almost guarantee that I can come up with a third solution that would save everyone.” Really? You have about 3 seconds before the trolley smashes into everyone and kills them. You’re telling me that you can come up with a third choice in less than three seconds but you’re not even able to articulate what that other choice would be in a response to the question? Interesting. ..
I tried explaining that these tests have a very important purpose as they measure our “moral reflex” as a society. When faced with an impossible choice, what would most people choose and why? Sure, there may be alternative options available, but not always. These studies are designed to be hard, emotionally and mentally challenging questions. They’re designed to test our animalistic instincts. In this particular study 90% of people threw the switch. However, when they altered the scenario and they made it so that you physically had to push the other man onto the truck to save the others, then only 50% of people would do it. And then, back in the control room if the person on the other end of the switch was their child or other family member then only 33% of people would pull the lever. This isn’t at all surprising if you’ve ever studying social or evolutionary psychology. But, by understanding how people react in these impossible situations, we can develop trainings that will be better tailored to achieving the most desirable outcome when these unfortunate situations do occur.
My classmate’s response was classic. “I understand the point of these studies, I just think that they’re pointless”. She also said “Most of them don’t take reality into consideration. Who can say what choice a person might make? If the man was a crimal [sic] or someone the person hated they would most likely push him into the bus to save the unknow [sic] construction workers. However if the construction workers were tearing into a beloved building, the person might choose to save the single man.  By not taking into considerations all the different solutions that might be available no one can truely [sic] say how they would react. There are never just the few choices the survey offers. Human minds are limitless. No one can predict what solution the person might come up with to save everyone or they may choose to save no one. I have to disagree that these surveys can gives an idea of how people can react, it just isn't possible to know.”
My response to her was thus; “I respect that your opinion is what it is. I can understand how you have reached your conclusion. It is true that humans will react differently in different situations and that there may be many different people who can think of alternative solutions, but that's not the point of these exercises. While you may view these exercises as pointless, I actually find a lot of value in them. I can think of numerous situations where I can apply this type of study in a pragmatic fashion to "the real world". I think that you may be overanalyzing these surveys. It's not designed to force you into picking one of these two options when other options exist, it's designed to test people's emotional and psychological reflex in situation where there are only two obvious solutions. There may be other ideas or other solutions, but the problem is that you don’t have the time to think about the situation and arrive at those conclusions.  Take the portrayal of the movie Captain America for example. They picked who would be Captain America by one test. They called the unit to attention and then threw a dummy hand grenade on the ground in front of them. You don’t have time to think. Most people run away, but one person threw himself on top of the grenade to save their squad. That's how they picked him. The military and police departments of the world have been known to use tests similar to that in real life. Furthermore, psychologists can use these tests to predict human behavior. There are plenty of situations where there are people who are face with fast-paced, dangerous situations and they have 2 seconds to make a decision like that. Take the SWAT team for instance. They are thrust into these types of situations every day and they don’t have hours and hours to mull over their choices. These tests can help people predict how people will react when faced with situations like that.”  (more on that last sentence in a second).
Her final response before I gave up arguing with her: “I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I don't see how you can apply these studies to any "real world" experience or to predict how people might react. I agree that in a situation of life and death you don't have time for logic. Even in those situations there (are) thousands of options in every situation. There is no way a survey of only two choices can predict how people might react.”
Okay, now for the potentially offensive part. Suppose you are a police officer. You get called to respond to a call. The suspect has a handgun. He’s fired shots into the air already. Other witnesses have reported that he’s going to kill everyone. This information comes from one of the senior administrators at the building where the incident is taking place, so you have every reason to believe it’s accurate. You see the suspect and tell him to put the weapon down, but he refuses. He’s waving it around at you. He turns and runs away from you, but then suddenly stops and turns back around to face you like he’s about to fire. Do you let him shoot you, or do you pull the trigger? I would argue that most of us would pull the trigger.
And yet the fascinating part is that society is condemning the very people who were faced with this very same situation last week in Texas. “But, he was only 15!” And? A 15 is just as capable of pulling the trigger as a 30 year old. Twelve years ago it was perfectly just for police to shoot and kill the “monsters of Columbine”, a 17 year old and an 18 year old. Or has society already forgotten that teenagers are just as capable of committing atrocities as adults? “But he was the drum major and danced in his church!” Again, I say, and? What’s your point? He took a gun to school and threatened the lives of the students. Don’t let his past behavior cloud your judgment for what he did on the day of his unfortunate death.
Let’s review the facts:
1.       Police received a call from the Assistant Principal of the school saying that the student had a gun, had fired the gun, and was threatening people with the gun.
2.       Officers arrived on scene to find people scared and hiding and other eyewitnesses corroborated the information the police had; the student had a gun, said he was going to kill everyone, and had shot the gun.
3.       The officers confronted the kid and told him to put the weapon down, he refused. He pointed the weapon at the cops and threatened them. He then ran away, but turned abruptly and acted as if he was going to shoot the officers.
Nothing else is relevant to that. It doesn’t matter what race he was. It doesn’t matter what religion he was, or how much good he did, or what he had for breakfast. The facts remain that he threatened the officers and they responded as they would in any given situation. “But he only had a pellet gun you bastard!” Okay, true. But let’s talk about that pellet gun, shall we?

Pictured here is the actual pellet gun used in the Brownsville incident. 

And this is a Springfield XD handgun.

Quick! The crazy gunman who’s threatening to shoot people is waving one of these around pointing it at you. Hurry up and tell them apart! Oh, by the way, he’s flailing his arms and screaming at you so it’s hard to get a really good look at what he has anyway. Better to err on the side of niceness and hope that’s just a “harmless toy”, right?  For Christ’s sake, I think that anyone who had seen a person waving around a gun like what the student had would easily mistake it as being a real weapon. The officers involved certainly aren’t to blame for that. For all the police knew they were preventing another massacre and protecting their lives from an armed attacker. (And let’s not even get into the legal can of worms that although this type of pellet gun is usually sold at Wal-Marts and is legal to shoot in the city it also meets the legal definition of a firearm and from a legislative standpoint can be treated as such).
I think people need to wake up and really re-evaluate what happened here and who are the real victims here. Sure, the family of the boy is grieving and dealing with their loss. And so are the boy’s friends, and his community and his church. But what about the officers? They never asked to be put in this situation. They were thrust in it because it’s their job. I have no doubt that no one wanted to shoot that boy. One person I know of on Facebook said that she hopes the officers lose sleep over this. Well, unfortunately, she’s right, they will, I’m sure. That decision will probably follow them for a long time to come, long after all of these armchair hypocrites have forgotten about this incident, those officers will still be reliving that day in their heads.
A lot of people give the police crap. A lot of them fear the police, hate on the police, etc. But let’s be real for a minute, the police are just people, just like you and I. They’ve sworn an oath to protect their fellow citizens. When we’re too afraid to handle a situation, like an armed gunman in a store or a school, we ask them to go and take care of it for us. If the police hadn’t shot the boy and he killed other students, then the police would be wrong. But they did kill the boy involved, and they’re still wrong.  If you ask me the police deserve a little respect and consideration too. This certainly isn’t an easy situation for them. They have 2 seconds to make a decision and society has hours and days and years to scrutinize that choice and rip it apart.


1 comment:

  1. Here's a photo of the .50 cal Magnum Research Desert Eagle:

    Here is a demo video of the .177 cal Airsoft Replica Desert Eagle pellet pistol with a "Blowback" feature operated by CO2 gas:

    I'm going to place 2 men side-by-side on a field - one with a real Desert Eagle, and one with a Blowback replica - and have them aim their weapons at you. They have instructions to open fire in 3 seconds.

    You also have a pistol, but only one bullet. Shoot the guy with the REAL Desert Eagle and you survive. GO!


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