Friday, November 26, 2010

ST:TNG, Law and Order:UK and Thoughts on Justice

A day of work started with Star Trek: The Next Generation. "The Best of Both Worlds", a two part episode in which captain Jean-Luc Picard is captured by The Borg. During the scope of the storyline First Office William Riker assumes the position of Captain and is forced to make a decision: destroy The Borg ship with Picard still on board or hold off an try to formulate a plan to save Picard and then, hopefully, defeat the far superior enemy.

For those who know, Picard cannot die and therefore it is merely a matter of following the story to see how Riker solves the dilemma.

It is the classic argument of the one versus the many, expect in this instance the many would be humanity itself. Resistance is futile, as you know.

What Riker does it fore go the crew's pleas for more time as he knows defeating The Borg is far more important than one man's life. In the end, however, it is the act of saving Picard which allows them to place a command into The Borg collective which causes the ship to self destruct.

I am by no means a Science Fiction geek, but I do love the philosophical problems that ST:TNG often presented. It was the my Philosophy of Mind class where we watched Commander Data on trial to determine his personhood which hooked me.

What I didn't expect was the Law and Order: UK marathon which BBC America was running immediately after "Best of Both Worlds". One of the episodes told the story of a youth who killed his friend. There were a few questions the show investigated. One was whether some people are born bad. In other words, can anti-social or criminal behavior be passed on from parent to child.

Nature versus nurture.

A more intriguing question was how justice could be found. The defendant, a 14 year old boy, had already been in the juvenile penile system. Being small in build made him as much a victim within the prison as his victims were outside of it.

The mother of the victim wants punishment: she wants the defendant in prison. But as one of the lawyers notes, what justice can be had by putting the boy back into a world which will only continue to teach him violence? Can he be saved by being in an environment framed by love and hope?

The real question here is who is justice for. Are we looking at justice for this single victim only or are we looking at justice for the society they both lived in? Is it not a greater justice to make every attempt to change this child's person?

The psychology of an adult compared to that of youth is significantly different. As we get older it becomes more difficult to change; either by choice or by ability. It would seem that justice would be more served by trying to secure the future of our society, if the potential exists, than simply satisfying an immediate need.

At the close of the episode one of the lawyers from the D.A.'s office meets with the boy in prison and tells him he is to young to be a lost cause.

It isn't an easy question and our heart will always go out to the victim. But victim and justice, no matter how we try, are not black and white terms. They also do not solely apply to or serve those who are subject of the crime itself. Unlike the clean finish where humanity is saved from The Borg, we can't really be sure what the lost cause is in "real life".

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jamele Hill is not Courageous

ESPN journalist Jamele Hill has a new article which questions whether race is still an issue with black NFL quarterbacks. I was made aware of it earlier today by Michael C. Wright, another ESPN reporter who covers the Chicago sports scene. On Twitter, Mike framed the article by saying it was "courageous" of her to confront the topic.

Before I address the content of the article it is worth noting that I have been following Wright for quite some time and have usually enjoyed his tweets along with his reporting on sports in general. But after reading the article his use of the word "courage" seemed very misplaced.

Upon engaging him in a conversation on twitter, in which I questioned the merits of the piece, he resorted to calling me "typical", stating "the truth hurts" and then blocked me from following him. Above and beyond the generalizations he used the tired and worn out response of "if you don't like it, read something else."

Fascinating that someone who presents material for public consumption would find his only recourse to basically turn around and walk away from the discussion. That Hill wrote the article implies she considers it a point to consider, at the very least. That Wright felt the need to publicly support and defend what he called her "opinion" puts him in a position for public inquiry as well.

The further irony is not lost on me, that he would use the words "truth" and "opinion" within the same discussion. Follow the conversation based on his replies.

I noted I read the article and found it lacking merit.

mikecwright Michael C. Wright


@imbwf Needless to say, I think I see where u stand.

I claimed that she spent the article making claims then back tracking on them.

mikecwright Michael C. Wright


@imbwf No back tracking. It's called handling it w/kids gloves already knowing the typical backlash to something like that.

I stated that if she felt there was a race issue then she might want to evaluate the QB situation in Jacksonville.

mikecwright Michael C. Wright


@imbwf She's been there. Jax has no choice w/QB now. Plus u saw how hard folks worked 2 get Byron outta there.

I do not recall the specific reply.

mikecwright Michael C. Wright


@imbwf It's a column. Her opinion. If u don't like her opinion u can always read something else.

I noted that reasonable discourse is why these articles are written for public consumption.

mikecwright Michael C. Wright


@imbwf The truth hurts, they say. Not worth continuing. Your mind is made up. Typical.

Unfortunately I cannot pull the actual messages I sent as that would allow for a truly balanced picture.

Wright obviously feels that there is a race issue in the NFL and a failure to concede the validity of Hill's article is typical of a certain segment of society. Did Wright know I was white? I did not ask but considering the topic his choice of words begs the question of what his bias is regarding those who would disagree with him.

The question must then go to the article itself.

Hill's claim is based on three examples and she starts with them.

Has anyone else noticed all the drama surrounding black quarterbacks during this NFL season?

• Jason Campbell, who has been fighting for his job all season in Oakland, was benched for the second time this year against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

• Six-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb was replaced by Rex Grossman during the final 1:50 of a close game against the Detroit Lions earlier this month because Redskins coach Mike Shanahan claimed Grossman was better suited to run the team's two-minute offense. Shanahan questioned McNabb's "cardiovascular endurance."

• And on Sunday, Titans coach Jeff Fisher demoted Vince Young to benchwarmer after Young threw a tantrum following Tennessee's 19-16 loss to Washington. Although thumb surgery is the official reason Young's season is over, Fisher made it clear before he knew the severity of Young's injury that his 27-year-old quarterback was being removed as the starter.

The immediate point is that team issues involving black quarterbacks is different than that of white quarterbacks. Now rather than continuing on with supporting evidence, Hill notes the following:

  • Has anyone else noticed all the drama surrounding black quarterbacks during this NFL season? I'm not calling anyone out for being racist, and I realize this might seem like an odd conversation to have considering that Michael Vick is on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated.
  • I'm also not overlooking the facts that Campbell played poorly in the games in which he was benched
  • That Young's antics in Tennessee are largely to blame for his problems with Fisher, and that Shanahan has had difficult relationships with plenty of white quarterbacks in the past.

So then is there a problem? Hill's claim is yes.

• But it still seems as if race is playing a role in how some black quarterbacks are treated, managed, perceived and, ultimately, judged.

Confusing? It is to me. She cites examples in which black quarterbacks were being treated, offers counter examples, then follow up by saying there "seems" to be a problem.

Why then does she choose race to be the cohesive element? When Shanahan made the move to bench McNabb for Grossman I chalked it up to a desperate coach making a bad decision. McNabb has since been signed to an extension. The problems with Young are well detailed and Fisher was never a fan of the draft pick.

That he's had to deal with an immature prima dona hasn't helped ease the friction.

Though she points out "But Campbell's shortcomings are rarely clarified with the same perspective as some white quarterbacks.", she doesn't offer any strong counter examples. The two she does present are Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning.

She claims Manning's lack of criticism for the late game interception against New England would've received much criticism if it were McNabb. With respect to Palmer she asks if why he isn't labeled as an "underachiever" as Campbell has been.

Is this the best we get?

Looking at the body of work, Manning has significantly out performed McNabb. Palmer has been handcuffed by injuries and significant personel problems in Cincinnati. Hill's claim is predicated on the reader accepting that the two comparisons are of quarterbacks with equal backgrounds and upon equal performance.

One attempt at doing so is to note McNabb's 17 fourth quarter comebacks and 25 game winning drives. Per Pro-Football Reference Manning has 37 reported and 28 actual fourth quarter comebacks.

The correlation between Palmer and Campbell is qualified by Palmer's recent record and that he has only had two winning season in seven years. Campbell, however, didn't have a single winning season in four years at Washington. So Campbell gets the pass because of the rotation offensive coordinators? She also further fails to note that Palmer's worst season, in which he started a majority of the games, was a seven loss season and that one of the two playoff games he was in saw him get injured early in the game.

So much for the 1:1 comparison.

My favorite, however, is where she compares Young's injury to Favre's injury, stating that Brett is considered tough will Vince is being a "brat". Considering she already noted that Young is a bit of a head case, and has used injuries to get out of playing, does she honestly want us to believe that Favre's body of work warrants a comparison? Favre gets the nod because he is also mentally tough, which has nothing to do with him being white.

What I found most damning were these statements.

• Most African-Americans are familiar with the notion that we have to be twice as good just to be considered equal with whites. And considering that there are only six black starting quarterbacks in the NFL, there isn't a lot of room for error.

• I'm not saying black quarterbacks are above criticism or that race plays a role every time one of them loses his job. White quarterbacks are benched and second-guessed, too, same as black ones. It comes with the position, regardless of race. But if most of us agree that racism is still an issue in this country, how can we dismiss its influence in sports?

First, the statement that blacks have to be twice as good to be considered equal with whites is a convenient foundation to start from. It paints blacks as victims of an unfair system on the whole. This isn't consistent with Hill's earlier premise that this is happening to "some" black quarterbacks. Obviously they all do not have to be twice as good. But if you want to single out race as the mitigating factor you first have to label your oppressor.

Second, if we agree that racism is still an issue in this country, why does it stop with white on black racism? ESPN recently ran an article on Peyton Hillis noting he is more than just a "white" running back. Is Hill willing to acknowledge that there may be some racism with respect to white positions at certain positions?

When Jamele Hill asks if racism is still an issue for NFL quarterbacks, it actually speaks to society on the whole and the answer is an obvious yes.

However, by throwing around the word "racism" so cavalierly it assumes she knows the intent behind the actions of those involved with McNabb, Campbell and Young. Is she calling Shanahan, Cable and Fisher racists? And if not them, then who?

Hill has presented us with an argument which goes roughly along the lines of "it could be this or it could be that..." She uses the history of bias towards white quarterbacks as evidence that these three examples "could" fall into that same category. The problem is that beyond her speculation there is not any compelling reason to make us accept her premise.

What I see from Hill and Wright are two people who assume racism is an element of the problem and make an effort to find it, regardless of whether there is any validity to the opinion. There is nothing courageous about yelling fire in a movie theater because you think the steam coming from the kitchen is smoke. This is lazy journalism meant to get website hits.

As Wright so appropriately stated: "the truth hurts." Yes, Mike, the truth does hurt.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Greater A Failure?

When I consider the impact that websites like Facebook and MySpace have brought upon society, I am not convinced that our present generation can fairly evaluate the level of positive or negative change experienced. Consider the cultural change of the late 1960's. The rebellion against authority, to some, signaled a decline of western civilization. Yet as time passed and adjustments were made, America managed to assimilate that idealism and move forward.

With respect to the internet and social media, the technology has really done nothing more than create an easier means of gathering. Now you don't need to go to someone's house or a rally, you can simply make a comment and your 300 or so friends can engage you in dialogue.

So while these can appear as nothing more than an opportunity to have someone look at us, we should be careful not to confuse the ease of something with a new vice.

Where we might find problems is in how we process this wealth of information. For example, in reviewing the "info" of friends (and friends of friends) I am able to see their success based on relationships and\or occupation. Naturally I may compare this to my life and evaluate myself and the decisions I have made.

Now in the past this may have been something, on such a grand scale, that I would have dealt with through a class reunion or a holiday party. However, what Facebook (to use a specific example) allows me is immediate access to even more standards of success. It would not be a reach to state that someone with low self esteem might find such information and indictment of their own failures. In turn, others may be comfortable enough with self and feel sincere joy for their friends or they may see this virtual relationship as a means of networking so to improve their condition.

A great question will always be that which asks to what extent our humanity is eroded or complemented through technology. Advertisers know that persistent imagery through pictures or language can persuade the person to make a specific choice. How different is it to see hundreds of people writing of how much money they make or posting pictures of all the events they go to?

In the end we are accountable for knowing our weaknesses and choosing a world in which they do not control us. Maybe it isn't a good idea to accept every friend request. Maybe we should unfriend those who post links and opinions which cause stress or animosity. The attention we think we're getting can never replace the negative impact which might be pushing us towards failure.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How We Process

One thing we should all come to expect from elections is the increased level of hatred and ignorance which is conveyed by citizens across the political spectrum. The "my party" mentality is exhibited in the mantra to "vote the party line", which in itself implies a level of absolutism that should offend. Though masked as an ideological difference, the very idea that a political party, which is framed by a specific dogma, has the ability to solve the problems society presents may be the single most deceptive aspect of their pitch.

When ad campaigns focus their attention on qualifying someone as an "Obama Liberal" or a "Tea Party Conservative", the expectation is that the observer will correlate the phrase to a preconceived notion of the individual or group and subsequently your decision will not be made based on information supplied but distinct experiences and preconceived notions. When we fall for such a tactic we find ourselves lost as our decision is not based on the idea but on the presumption of the idea.

I found a post from 2007 by a Maria Binz-Sharf that referenced a talk on human information processing at the Columbia Business School. The speaker was a Thomas Mussweiler from the University of Cologne. Binz-Sharf writes:

Mussweiler went on to talk about various factors that influence the comparisons we make, most importantly the standards we employ for comparing information. His experiments used a technique called “priming” to activate certain standards – for example, subjects were asked to judge a trait in a person. The result shows that priming a trait concept (such as aggressiveness) will induce the subject to judge the target person according to that trait. In other words, once activated, standards are spontaneously compared to the target person.
We shouldn't be so naive as to expect us to remove "priming" from how we approach the world and the people we experience in the world. Doing so would eliminate a basic element of survival. We are obligated to discern a person or situation based on observable elements and in doing so can react in a manner which might ensure safety or success.

However, not all situations warrant an immediate reaction and it is those times, in which a more academic or cognitive approach is prudent if not responsible. For example, we don't succeed in college by our first experience of the text or idea. We evaluate what is being said, we look at alternate options and then formulate an opinion or response. The key is being able, to the best of our ability, to defend the position while being sympathetic to the counter argument. If I learned anything from my philosophy professors it is that.

Going back to the election, how then are decisions being made? If we are asked to judge a candidate through a narrow lense, how informed and accurate (and accurate is used very loosely here) can that decision be? Liberal, conservative, religious, democrat, republican, those terms don't really mean anything until we approach the idea. And even then it becomes a matter of understanding how the idea is to be applied.

Here is where the processing of information becomes our tipping point. If the scope is narrow then our understanding of cause and effect is narrow. For example, liberal idea A and conservative idea B, though appearing mutually exclusive, actually compliment each other to the extent that they address potential scenario K, O and W. The exclusivity, if we're not careful, is assumed based on nothing more than an association fallacy.

Politics were a convenient example as we just experienced the mid-term elections, but the idea of processing came about from a day spent sitting, talking at the St. John's Town Center. Manner of dress, a look or a physical display is observed and the mind tries to qualify the participant. A specific example that fascinated were drivers as they approached cross walks. Some waved the pedestrian by with such aggressiveness that they almost seemed bothered. I couldn't help but wonder what the driver saw the pedestrian as and therefore how they were processing this impediment to their destination.

While discussing this, my friend Josh spoke of how he marveled at the inherent complexity of the human being. In reflecting upon his comment I find it more appropriate than when he initially said it. How we process can be correlated to a lie and how entangled one gets when lying. The difficulty in not only making a decision but then making that next decision is contingent upon how informed the first choice was. If, like a lie, there is no depth of understanding then confusion prevails and we eventually become overwhelmed by choices for which we are unprepared.

As Binz-Scharf furthered noted, "I kept asking myself how the way we process information relates to how we search for it." This seems to me the integral first step. Am I looking to disprove or prove and if so am I approaching it with a bias. For example, is the pedestrian walking slowly across the street on purpose (i.e. it is a personal attack towards me)?

An old mentor once told me that if you go into a debate with the thought that you have nothing new to learn then there is no reason to engage your opponent. I can't imagine a more difficult task we are then asked to complete: Take the time to formulate the opinion only to hold it open to change. Yet isn't that the very nature of learning?