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December 07, 2012

Nurse Commits Suicide Because Evil, Murderous Radio DJs Pulled a Deadly Prank

I don't believe the headline I just wrote. I just wrote that to make a point.

I heard Hannity talking about this story. The facts are these: A couple of Australian DJs called an English nurse, on a pretext call, attempting to weasel out some information about Kate Middleton's pregnancy. Two days later she died. It's being investigated as a possible suicide (or maybe, at this point, it definitely is a suicide).

Hannity listened to the call and didn't think the woman revealed anything that would cause her later consternation. He thinks the call either didn't provoke the suicide (if it was a suicide), or else there's something else going on, something we don't know about.

However, People on the Internet are calling for the DJs' heads.

And all of this reminds me of the furore* over the murder/suicide of that football player whose name I already forgot.

I think Costas' remarks -- Let's end "gun culture" and pass laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals (or... potential criminals, aka "currently law abiding citizens") -- and the Loud Internet Noises over the DJs' crank call both exhibit the same stupid thoughtless arrogance.

Let's say you typically drive five miles over the speed limit on your way to work. One day, you are forced to brake quickly, but you can't brake fully in time, and you rear-end another car, and suffer $2000 in total damages to you car and the one you hit.

Later on your tell someone about this. You mention, as you think of it, that you were driving 5 mph over the speed limit, and wonder, gee, maybe that contributed to my failure to brake in time.

What's the most automatic, thoughtless thing the guy you're talking to can say? And he's almost guaranteed to say it, too.

"Well, I guess you shouldn't have gone over 5 mph today."

Now the person saying this doesn't want to be a dick. This is a Mom sort of thing to say, and I'm not knocking Moms. I love Moms, especially my own. I'm just noting this a common example of what I'm driving at.

The most reflexive --and I mean that in a bad way, as in "involuntary" and "without rational thought," the verbal equivalent of a sneeze -- thing to say after any setback is to set one's mind back to the hours immediately before the setback, pick out one thing that might have contributed to the setback, and announce, "Well, you shouldn't have done that."

People have this natural, automatic, reflexive thought. Name the setback -- whatever setback you like, from inconvenience to calamity -- and people will automatically, immediately search back for an event somewhere in the chain of causation and then wisely announce, "You shouldn't have taken Action X."

In a way it's kind of true -- if Action X is indeed part of the chain of causation, it is possible that deviating from the chain of causation at an step would avoid Setback Y. Often we never really know which Actions were necessary for the Result, but we can guess maybe Action X, maybe Action B, Maybe Action Delta. If you just hadn't done X, B, or Delta, maybe result Y wouldn't have followed.

When I call this "thoughtless" I don't mean rude, or inconsiderate. I mean more in the basic, original sense of "thoughtless" -- without any thought. Just, as I say, a verbal sneeze, or perhaps more accurately a semi-logical geshundheit.

There's nothing wrong when Mom does it to you after your fender-bender, though you probably will give her a glare and say, "Mom? Seriously? I need this right now?"

The problem comes when this sort of automatic, thoughtless "Well you shouldn't have done X" reflex is ported over to the world of politics, and people begin thinking this is some Serious Thought.

You know how you can actually avoid all road collisions? You can just not go anywhere at all. You can just stay in your house all day.

The fallacy of this type of thinking is that it resolutely fails to consider the other side of the coin -- what is lost by simply not doing something. Usually this sort of thing is said after a major setback, and the thing You Shouldn't Have Done is pretty small, so you don't really argue with it.

But consider that fender-bender. A lot of things probably contributed to it, including the fact you only got 4 hours of sleep last night and so your reflexes weren't at top form, but then, your obligations to your employer and your spouse and children require you to get sleep than you'd like. And you probably could have gotten your tires changed a few months ago, but you needed that money for rent. And fresh brake pads, gee, we haven't even considered brake pads. You could have taken your car to the shop instead of taking your daughter to her soccer game.

You also could have taken other roads -- even if they are slower and not as direct.

You really could have done a hundred other things differently.

And the thing is, you made all of these decisions -- some of which may have impacted your fender-bender -- for the sake of convenience. Some decisions may have been suspect -- if your tires were almost bald, well, that was a bad gamble for the sake of convenience -- and other ones were relatively rational choices. You probably don't replace your brake pads every month, for example.

Could you? Sure. Would that increase your braking power? Probably. Should you replace your brake pads every month, then? No. It's crazy.

People -- not just liberals, but all people -- tend to think like this. Whenever something bad happens, we want to trace in our mind a chain of actions that would not have led to the negative outcome, and then extract a lesson from it. Whenever one experiences a negative outcome, one does try to salvage something from it, and and often that takes the form of a lesson for future behavior.

And that's a human thing. And, in fact, we survived as a species precisely because we did that for 100,000 years. When Yahno the Spear-Thrower was gored by the white-bearded mammoth, and died a horrible, slow, gut-wound death, our ancestors made a note: Do not engage the mammoth from the front, like Yahno did.

However, this type of thinking is best first guess type stuff, and often irrational. For example, another lesson our ancestors might have learned was Never engage a mammoth while wearing a Green Feather in one's hair like Yahno did; green feathers are unlucky, and hated by the Gods of the Hunt. Yahno did wear a green feather; but it's unlikely that had anything to do with his demise. More likely it was that Attack From the Front thing. It was also probably more about him missing with his spear, for that matter.

The problem with all of this is that it indulges the human tendency towards epistemological arrogance, assuming we know all there is to know about a chain of events when we usually don't know jack f'n' shit about it. And it gets far worse when we start talking about politics, because now we're not talking about a personal rule about not wearing a Green Feather in one's hair on hunt day.

Now we're talking about a federal f'n' law, the Safe and Prudent Mammoth Hunting Act of 2012 (aka "Yahno's Law"), which now puts the government in charge of inspecting the coloration of your warrior-feathers.

The human mind runs to two things, which seem contradictory, but aren't contradictory at all: Superstition and science. Superstition is just the first early draft of science. Alchemy became chemistry and astrology became astronomy and searching the Koran for secret messages from God encoded in its text became crytpography.

But we should always remember our first guesses generally tend to superstitions, and not science. Science comes much later, after a lot of thought and a bunch of experiments. The first efforts will tend to be "Don't wear the green feathers, they are taboo" and "Maybe we should just make it a law that you can't use guns to murder people" (um, I think that's already on the books) and "DJs should never, ever call nurses!" and "You should have psychically realized that today, and just today, you should not exceed the speed limit by 5mph but should actually drive 3mph under it. Again, just for today."

This is all, what's the word, total crap. This is all baffled, confused primitives using superstitious thinking to make sense of a big, chaotic world filled with what we call "Random chance" (which is really just shorthand for "casualities too complicated and convoluted for us to trace") by the process of babbling up short, simple statements about How You Could Have Avoided That.

We're the same primitives -- our brains haven't changed all that much -- and while our superstitions take a different form, they're still as stupid as they ever were.

"We need to discuss our gun culture" = "We need to stop offending the gods with all these feathers of unclean colors." Even the language we use for this crap -- "discuss" our gun culture -- is about talking out loud to express our collective tribal concerns over the matter.

You know -- like a prayer chanted at a rain dance.

Anyway, I fear that what I've written here is incoherent. Well, I know what I meant to say, anyway. In my mind it all hangs together beautifully.

But this is a first draft. At some point I'll clean this up and turn my first superstitions into something more cogent and rational.


* British spelling of furor. I'm going for a Klassy kind of blog, you know. Since I'm talking about culture, I think I should start spelling furor as "furore."



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posted by Ace at 06:12 PM

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