Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Trayvon Martin, Yoshihiro Hattori: Law and Logic ("Indirect Proof") [17 July 2013]

            Mathematics and logic games can get very difficult, but their world is essentially simple, elegant and frequently beautiful. Liars always lie; truth-tellers always tell the truth; and statements can be simply true or simply false and mutually exclusive, and that is that. For good and for ill, the real world is typically complicated, usually inelegant, and only occasionally beautiful.

            In the neat world of math and logic, let's say you want to prove that a statement, a "proposition" is true or false, but you can't do so directly. Let's name it California style, Prop-1, and you want to prove it true but can't figure out a way to do so and have at least a strong feeling that a direct proof just isn't possible. What you can do — in a world of abstraction — is note that if Prop-1 is true its negation is false, and vice versa. Let's continue California style and piss off some logicians and call that negation Proposition-2.

            What you can assume that Prop-2 is true and proceed logically from there, and, if you're clever, you can show that accepting the truth of Prop-2 leads to an absurdity. Then you go back and check your logic. If accepting Prop-2 leads to something clearly wrong, and your logic is OK, then Prop-2 is wrong. If Prop-2 is wrong, Prop-1 is right, and you get to write "Q.E.D." at the bottom of the proof, with seventeen additional Lifetime Geek Points if you add "per Reductio ad Absurdum." ("It has been proven by a reduction to the absurd.")

            In one variation of this game, you can assume that it's OK to divide by zero and work out from there a logical proof that 1 = 2 (or maybe it was 1 = 0). Since we can be pretty sure that 1 = 1, we can conclude that in ordinary arithmetic and algebra problems, it's a bad idea to divide by zero. (If you want to get into infinities, that's a different thing — and probably a more advanced math course.)

            In literature, things are more complex than math, and there is usually more emotional content: only a small number of people get emotionally involved with math, while more people react emotionally to literature and art generally than is healthy. (If you spend time and expend a good deal of energy complaining about the crap on TV or in the movies, you probably should consider writing letters for Amnesty International or protesting at your State capital against some significant evil.) Still, most of us, most of the time, can keep emotional distance in art, even when that art bears directly on current events.

            This ability of art to distance an issue allows artists to — sometimes, quietly — walk around our prejudices and other defenses and work on our heads, including working on our figurative heads and hearts logically.

            In science fiction, there's the kind of narrative called "If This Goes On," named after a 1940 story by Robert A. Heinlein. In stories like these, a contemporary trend is extrapolated into the future, where we see its very bad results. That is, the science-fictional technique of extrapolation is combined with what in satire can be called — and is called by the SF writer Yevgeny Zamyatin — reductio ad finem, pushing a bad trend to its conclusion, e.g., Vladimir Lenin's going over to capitalist "scientific management" getting trashed in Zamyatin's get SF satire, We (ca. 1920). If we don't like what will happen "If This Goes On," then we should try to stop it now.

            The dramatic action in William Shakespeare's King Lear pretty well undercuts any idea of natural bonds between people logically justified in terms of human society as part of some cosmic Great Chain of Being. In such a world, one can't prove that bonds of compassion exist, but Shakespeare does a nice job showing an effect of not feeling such bonds: in an action and scene often called — SPOILER! — The Blinding of Gloucester (3.7). The Earl of Gloucester is an old man and a feudal vassal of the Duke of Cornwall; he's the Duke's host, and, old Gloucester might think, the Duke's friend. But Cornwall and, maybe more so, his wife Goneril, are angry at Gloucester, feel politically harmed by Gloucester, and have Gloucester in their power. So, what the hell, they gouge out his eyes. On stage. Traditionally, they "Pluck out his eyes" as graphically as the state the art of stage effects can manage.

            The scene is obscene, in the old sense of the word, and intentionally so. Done well, even with an audience raised on torture-porn Saw films, it ought to send one or two wise-ass groundlings running to the john to puke.

            Old Will is saying to us, "as 'twere": okay, I cannot prove that you should — absurdly perhaps, imprudently most likely — feel compassion, but here is one logical consequence if you don't; if that turns your stomach, think about it.

            The classic example, however, is Jonathan Swift's once well-known essay, "A Modest Proposal" (1729), originally published to look like an anonymously written but legitimate and earnestly-argued political pamphlet. In the early 18th century, poor Irish people were again, as often, starving, and at least part of the cause of the famine was a set of conscious economic policies by the ruling elites in England and Ireland. Swift could argue wonkish economics with the best of his time, and had a price on his head for doing so in The Drapier's Letters; but he got to very basic basics in "A Modest Proposal." In classic economics, "The value of a thing is what the thing will bring," and "thing" obviously included sub-human animals — sheep or pigs, say, or even horses — which were bought and sold in markets and whose value clearly was the market price. (Human slaves were also bought and sold, but that wasn't an immediate issue in Ireland — although it's a useful point for background.)

            What's the value of poor Irish?

            The "modest proposal" is that poor Irish should sell their babies at a year old to be slaughtered for food for the rich; and it is crucial that that conclusion follows rigorously from "the cold equations" derived from seeing Man as (Solely) an Economic Animal. More poignantly, Swift's Projector demonstrates that the baby-meat option is less despicable, indeed, more compassionate, than current policies wherewith weakest of the poor are "already dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected."

            Q.E.D., baby — and if you're out there puking again, consider strongly the possibility that the "Proposal" has just reduced to the grotesque, if not precisely the absurd, the idea that "The Irish are animals" or that the only value to a human being is a kind of economic price.

            Got the principle?

            Now consider at least as a thought experiment that in the summer of 2013 trial of George Zimmerman for the slaying of Trayvon Martin, the six women, good and true, of a Florida jury reached a logical decision, to wit, that a large, fully adult White man could shoot and kill an unarmed Black teenager of slight build — legally.

            Given Florida law on self-defense, given instructions to the jury that incorporated Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, such a conclusion was possible.

            Given the premise that any White person might well fear any noncrippled Black male, that conclusion was pretty likely.

            Given the premise that fear is not just an explanation but a generally acceptable justification for even violent action, that conclusion was probable.

            And given the assumption under Florida law and Southern culture that White men at least have the right to literally bear arms and go out armed — added to the assumption that such armed White men would do well to literally go out practicing "self-help justice" and look for trouble — then the "not guilty" verdict was pretty much inevitable.

            As many are saying as I write, "Do not blame the jury."


            Instead note that the George Zimmerman case is hardly unique even recently. On 17 October 1992, Rodney Peairs shot and killed Yoshihiro Hattori in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Mr. Peairs stood his ground and defended his castle against a 17-year old exchange student who got the wrong house for a Halloween party. Pearis, too, was initially not prosecuted and, upon criminal prosecution, was acquitted. Mrs. Pearis had been frightened seeing the teenager come onto their property, and "The defense argued that Peairs was in large part reacting reasonably to his wife's panic." The trial took a week, and the jury voted to acquit in under four hours.

            If you don't like the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, or that in the shooting of Yoshihiro Hattori, consider that those verdicts might be logical and legal and start working to change the premises that make them that way.

            We cannot insist that people be heroic; we can insist that armed men act, as the expression has it, as if they had some balls, and some brains. We can insist that laws in action lead to justice, and when they don't that those laws get changed. We can get appropriately angry and verbally attack films and TV and news shows that demonize young Black men and teenagers generally and romanticize vigilantism and Wild-West gun worship.

            And if the English and, a bit earlier, the Americans, can accept the Irish as fully human, so we can start valuing all human life, even teenagers near our property.

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