About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
What's the matter with racial profiling,with a note on torture
The problem with racial (or other kind of “type”) profiling is that it both works and is unethical. From a purely statistical perspective, if the police knows that, say, drivers of red sport cars are more likely to exceed the speed limit or engage in dangerous driving than the rest of us, then it makes sense for the police to keep a particularly watchful eye on drivers of red sport cars, i.e., it is reasonable to engage in profiling. Analogously, and I know this is highly politically incorrect, it is a matter of verifiable fact that young black men are (for a complex series of sociological reasons) more likely to engage in drug dealings than any other gender/ethnicity combination. Which means that non-randomly stopping young black men is, from the police standpoint, a perfectly rational way to deter and prevent crime.
However, in an open society, profiling of any sort – no matter how effective – is a breach of the fundamental principle that all our citizens have the same rights and ought to be treated equally by the law. To make exceptions, for whatever reason, is tantamount to undermining civil society itself, beginning the slide toward fascism.
This slide has of course been well underway since the Bush administration started its oxymoronic “war on terrorism” (terrorism, like cancer or poverty, isn't the sort of thing one wages wars against). Interestingly, a popular TV show, 24 (produced, of course, by the inane Fox-TV) seems to be helping Bush & co. in their endeavor to make fascist practices such as profiling and, much more troubling, torture, acceptable to American citizens. A recent article in The New Yorker reports how the writers and producers of 24 constantly present torture as a “necessary” evil in the war on terror, depicting “American heroes” as willfully engaging in it to help prevent catastrophes like an atomic bomb going off in downtown Los Angeles.
The case of torture, however, is different from that of profiling, for the simple reason that intelligence experts agree that it doesn't work, thereby being both immoral and ineffective. People under torture largely react in one of two ways: they are either strengthened in their resolve not to divulge the information one is seeking (after all, these are fanatical nuts, and if the bomb is about to explode, all they need to do is to hold on for a few hours or days and they'll be heroes and martyrs), or they will talk but give either already known or entirely false information. Airing a show like 24 is, of course, within the rights of any entertainment channel, and I am most certainly not calling for censure here. However, let the Fox people not hide under the thin defense that “it's just television,” because disturbing evidence from military commanders shows that our soldiers not only watch the show (which is, not surprisingly, very popular at the White House), but come away from it thinking that the techniques shown there are perfectly reasonable and effective. Fox doesn't have a legal responsibility to stop, but it does have a moral one.