Stephen Kahn


In Hard to tell on September 12, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Our physical evolution and our cultural heritage provide plenty of reasons to promote our tendency to be violent against our own kind. Our physical evolution and our cultural heritage provide plenty of reasons for us to refrain from violence against our own kind.

The word “calibration” refers to the process of adjusting our actions to avoid dangerous excesses. When we drive vehicles, we adjust our speed based on traffic laws, objects in our field of vision, weather conditions, and other inputs. We adjust our direction of travel for similar reasons.

For me, calibration is also desirable in evaluating violence. Some sociopaths and some terrified people may turn to violence with excessive enthusiasm and frequency. Some pacifists and some terrified people and some overly empathic people may reject the use of violence even when circumstances probably warrant it for self defense or for rescuing threatened people. Such extreme reactions indicate to me calibration failures.

How can we improve our violence calibration?

  1. With all due respect to the ambitiousness of your analogy, I want to quibble with you. I think that the language of tolerances and calibrations implies a factory model of behavior in which all of our behavior is a product whose specifications can be predicted.

    What if the ecology in which we work allows for multiple niches and systems? And humans occupying one niche might well behave within one set of tolerance while humans in another niche might optimally have different ones.

    What if?

  2. Catfish, I think your concerns are fair. Nevertheless, we have to make the best decisions and take the best actions we can at any given time, even though we may turn out to be wrong in the long run.

    As I started my mulling over this theme, I mentioned about the time a woman pounded on my door. I opened the door and let her in. Probably it was the correct decision. It could easily have been the wrong decision.

    Recently I was talking with a woman who said to me, “Guns are never the solution to a problem.” Although as a general philosophical point, I think her view has a lot of merit, and I do not arm myself with more than a pellet rifle for shooting the occasional rabbit, in some circumstances having a serious weapon on hand would be just the necessary thing to have.

    I am no expert on British policing. It has always been my impression that British police seldom, if ever, carried firearms. Given the recent riots, I am wondering whether they are holding to that policy.

    As usual, the Internet leaves me a bit confused.

  3. In Los Angeles, in 1987, my roommate and I in our upstairs apartment heard awful noises and looked out the window to see down below a woman running to her neighbor’s door banging and begging to be let in, “he’s after me, he’s after me.” Soon, a man came and dragged her by her hair across the lawn. We called 911 and so did others. Soon both the cops and an ambulance came. She was carried on out on a gurney and we never saw her again.

    My roommate and I talked about whether we would have opened the door to her if we were the ones she came to. We were scared. Who knew how far behind her the assailant would be and to what lengths he might go to blast his way into the neighbor’s house who took her in? We agreed, that we were too scared to commit to being helpful, should the occasion arise.

    I admire you for helping your neighbor. Would I “expect” it of others. No.

    I have another story of not helping a neighbor enough, but I’ll save it.

  4. Catfiish, we act as best as we can at the moment something happens. Later it turns out the way it turns out. When I let the woman pounding at my door it, it was an instinctive reaction at the time. It might have turned out very differently.

    Not long after we moved to Seattle from Los Angeles, in the 1960s, a came upon an elderly white man (probably about the age I am right now) shakily pointing a pistol at a young black boy (probably about 12 years old). The boy explained he was trying to sell magazine subscriptions. The old man thought the boy was trying to mug him.

    I gently took the gun out of the man’s hand and sent him back into his apartment.The boy quickly left for his home.

    Do I remember the situation accurately from about 40 years later? Was everyone telling the truth? Who knows? We do the best we can at the moment. Things turn out the way they turn out.

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