A Pandemic of Ignorance and Obfuscation: Why We Repeatedly Fail to Heed the Serious Warning Signs of Major Crises

By Ian I Mitroff and John Radke
Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkeley

A front-page article in the Monday, March 30, 2020 edition of The New York Times is nothing less than devastating : The “Fail-Safe System that the Chinese set up to warn them of major pandemics failed miserably because it was blocked by local Party Officials .”[i] Chinese doctors in Wuhan who saw the first signs of the Coronavirus were prevented by local government officials from passing critical information on to Beijing because they feared that top officials didn’t want to “hear bad news.”  Thus, in order to save their jobs, they not only failed to protect their own country, but the entire world. There’s no better example of the messengers of bad news shooting themselves!

We are no less guilty of not wanting to hear bad news. As early as 2017, Dr. Anthony Fauci was warning of the serious possibility of a major Pandemic and thus of the need to make substantial preparations to weather the worst. Indeed, Infectious Disease Experts have in fact sounded similar alarms for years. Even though they were brought repeatedly to the attention of President Trump, he deliberately ignored the warnings time and again. After all, in his “tremendous mind,” the Virus was nothing more serious than the flu. And, wasn’t the stock market more important, certainly to his reelection? The delays in responding put us in the dire position of reacting to the crisis, virtually making it virtually impossible to get out in front and take control.

If the Early Warning Signals that precede all crises are picked up and acted upon in a timely manner, then many crises can be prevented before they happen, the best possible form of Crisis Management. Unfortunately, more often than not, the Signals are blocked because people don’t want to hear bad news, let alone take action. The crucial point is that to pick up on the impending signals of a crisis, one has to acknowledge the serious possibility of it in the first place.

Since its founding in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, as members of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California Berkeley, we have sat through scores of presentations by representatives of virtually every industry, organization, academic disciplines, and professions. As a general rule, they are prepared for a very limited, narrow set of crises. For example, since they experience major fires and explosions all the time, one does not have to prod the members of the Oil and Gas Industry to prepare for them. But the same is generally not the case when it comes to other types of crises.

Mitroff recalls vividly the time he was working with a major Oil Company and was doing his best to get them to prepare for a broad array of crises. When it came to the category of Product Tampering, they  automatically excluded it as a major possibility because in their words, “We’re not in the business of manufacturing or selling consumer goods and products.”  When Mitroff pointed out that the mini-marts which carried food and a host of other items were a prominent part of their gas stations, then and only then did the proverbial light go on. They were not only subject to Product Tampering, but to all of the known and unknown types of crises.

As one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management, Mitroff and his colleagues have been studying and consulting with major organizations for nearly 40 years regarding their crisis plans and preparations.

And as one of the longtime analysts in Geographic Information Science, Radke has pioneered its use in modeling major wild fires and flood events throughout the state of California and elsewhere. GIS is a critical tool in determining the location and spread of wild fires and therefore how best to mitigate and deploy resources when they occur.

As a result of our work, we’ve been able to see what the best, Proactive, Crisis Prepared Organizations do before, during, and after major crises. In brief, they embrace five core principles:

  1. Everything is connected to everything so think and act systemically. 2. The crises that one believes are the most unlikely to occur are precisely those that need special attention.
  2. Without becoming mired in hopelessness and despair, constantly think and prepare for the worst.
  3. Reward, and most of all, do not punish the bearers of bad news.
  4. Every crisis is a special opportunity to learn what to do better in advance of the next ones that are guaranteed to occur.

First and foremost, no single crisis ever occurs in isolation. Every crisis is connected to a multitude of others in a myriad of ways. Unless one is prepared for multiple crises, every crisis sets off an uncontrolled chain reaction of even worst ones.

The Coronavirus is one of the most dreadful illustrations of the principle. Primarily, the Virus is of course an unruly Global Pandemic. At the same, it’s not only spawned a major Financial, but a serious Credibility Crisis. With his constant falsehoods, outright lies, and ill-advised actions in cutting back the budgets of the nation’s chief Public Health Agencies, the President bears major blame for the crisis spiraling out of control. Both the President and the government’s actions and inactions have seriously hampered our ability to be prepared and respond appropriately. Refusing to accept help from the World Health Organization only increased our inability to test hundreds of thousands who were potentially infected, thus furthering the spread of the virus. By not taking quick and decisive action—indeed once again, punishing those who sounded the first signals of the deadly virus–the credibility of China has been seriously damaged as well. Trust in Governments worldwide, which is always precarious, has plummeted. It’s been further weakened by Social Isolation and the closing down of virtually all public spaces, further exacerbating the Economic Crisis.

To the best of our knowledge, no one simulated and thus warned of the multiple intersecting crises that are the essence of the Virus.

While not perfect, the best organizations actively prepare for a whole slate of crises such as Product Defects as in the case of flawed face masks. We’ve already mentioned major Financial and PR, or Credibility, Crises. Since it is humans, not Nature, who make the critical decisions where to build houses and other structures to what standards and codes, Natural Disasters are better thought of as Natural Hazards. In other words, they become Disasters due to the actions and/or inactions of humans. In this regard, the homeless are especially vulnerable as well as older people with preexisting conditions. Technology plays a major role, especially with regard to the potential spread of Dis and Misinformation, leading back again to who and what one can Trust. These do not exhaust the full range of possible types, but they are sufficient to illustrate the main point that it is never enough to plan for one and only one type of crisis.

The end result is that Worst-Case Scenarios are the very foundation of Crisis Prepared Organizations. To reiterate, Public Health Officials have known for years that we were due for a Major Pandemic. Where, when, and how, and what form it would take, were of course problematic, but it’s occurrence was considered to be just a matter of time.

We know of two organizations that show unequivocally that it is possible to make thinking about the worst an integral part of their everyday operations. One uses in-house Internal Assassin Teams to attack and thereby find weaknesses in their products and manufacturing processes. The other uses a Chaos Team to do the same. In each case, they assume that they are in a perfect position to attack their products and processes because “they know more than anyone else about them.” In short, they are supremely Proactive.

In sum, Crisis Preparedness does not happen by itself. It has to be part of a deliberate organizational strategy to Think the Unthinkable and to do everything in one’s power to thwart it before it happens.

If any good comes out of this terrible tragedy, we hope fervently that it will be a renewed understanding of the extreme importance of Proactive Crisis Management. No organization or society can prosper, let alone survive, without it.


This essay is adapted in part from Techlash: The Future of the Socially Responsible Tech Organization, Springer, New York, 2020.

[i] Steven Lee Myers, “China Had a Fail-Safe Way to Track Contagions. Officials Failed to Use It,” The New York Times, Monday, Mrch 30, 2020, p. A1, A10-11.

 

Posted in Crisis Management | Tagged , ,

Proactive Crisis Management: Learning from the Best

As one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management, my colleagues and I have been studying and consulting with major organizations for nearly 40 years regarding their crisis plans and preparations. We’ve been privileged to see what the best, Proactive, Crisis Prepared Organizations do before, during, and after major crises.

They embrace five core principles: 1. Everything is connected to everything else so think and act systemically. 2. The crises that one believes are the most unlikely to occur are precisely those that need special attention. 3. Without becoming mired in hopelessness and despair, constantly think and prepare for the worst. 4. Reward, don’t punish the bearers of bad news. 5. Every crisis is a special opportunity to learn what to do better in advance of the next ones that are guaranteed to occur.

First and foremost, they have learned that no single crisis ever occurs in isolation. Every crisis is connected to every other. Unless one is prepared, every crisis is capable of setting off an uncontrolled chain reaction of even worst ones.

The Coronavirus is one of the most dreadful imaginable. Principally, it’s of course an unruly Global Pandemic. At the same, it’s not only spawned a major Financial, but a serious Credibility Crisis. With his constant falsehoods, outright lies, and his ill-advised actions in cutting back the budgets of the nation’s chief Public Health Agencies, the President bears major blame for the crisis spiraling out of control. Both the President’s actions and inactions have seriously hampered our ability to be prepared and respond appropriately. Refusing to accept help from the World Health Organization only increased our inability to test hundreds of thousands who were potentially infected, thus furthering the spread of the virus. By not taking quick and decisive action—indeed, punishing those who sounded the first signals of the deadly virus–the credibility of China has been seriously damaged as well. Trust in Governments worldwide, which is always precarious, has plummeted. It’s been further weakened by Social Isolation and the closing down of virtually all public spaces, further exacerbating the Economic Crisis.

While not perfect, the best organizations actively prepare for a whole host of crises such as: Product Defects as in the case of flawed face masks, especially where they are intentionally altered by Nefarious Actors who are out to cause as much harm as possible. I’ve already mentioned major Financial and PR, or Credibility, Crises. Since it’s humans, not Mother Nature, who make the critical decisions where to build houses and other structures to what standards and codes, Natural Disasters are better thought of as Natural Hazards. In other words, they become Disasters due to the actions and/or inactions of humans. In this regard, the homeless are especially vulnerable as well as older people with preexisting conditions. Technology plays a major role, especially to the potential spread of Dis and Misinformation, leading back again to who and what one can Trust. These do not exhaust the full range of possible types, but they are sufficient to illustrate the main point that it’s never enough to plan for one and only one type of crisis.

The end result is that Worst-Case Scenarios are the very foundation of Crisis Prepared Organizations. For instance, Public Health Officials have known for years that we were due for a Major Pandemic. Where, when, and how, and what form it would take, were of course problematic, but it’s occurrence was considered to be just a matter of time.

I’m often asked, “But how much should we spend on Crisis Planning, and will it hurt our ‘bottom line’?” The best organizations spend around 1 to 2 % of their annual operating budget on Crisis Preparedness. As much as this is, it’s trivial compared to the costs of major crises. Indeed, the best Crisis Prepared Organizations are substantially more profitable—some to 6 to 12%–than those that just react without any prior preparations. Being Proactive allows one to address potential problems long before they turn into major crises.

I know of two organizations that show unequivocally that it’s possible to make thinking about the worst that can happen an integral part of their everyday operations. One uses in-house Internal Assassin Teams to attack and thereby find weaknesses in their products and manufacturing processes. The other uses a Chaos Team to do the same. In each case, they assume that they are in a perfect position to attack their products and processes because “they know more than anyone else about them.” In short, they are supremely Proactive.

In sum, Crisis Preparedness doesn’t happen by itself. It has to be part of a deliberate organizational strategy to Think the Unthinkable and to do everything in one’s power to thwart it before it happens.

 

This essay is adapted from Techlash: The Future of the Socially Responsible Tech Organization, Springer, New York, 2020, in press.

Posted in Blog, Crisis Management

Corona Virus: A Prime Example Of A Wicked Mess

As one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management and a lifelong practitioner of Systems Thinking, I’ve been studying and researching large-scale systems crises for nearly 40 years. The Coronavirus is one of the worst crises in every sense. Unfortunately, except for the palpable connection between the virus and the financial markets, all of the other important connections have not been given the serious attention they demand. Worst of all, they have not been considered as a whole given that they interact in strange and unpredictable ways.

One of the worst aspects of the crisis is that whereas the pandemic is a full-blown crisis to doctors, it’s a “hoax” to conservative talk-show hosts. Unfortunately, denial and obfuscation are major parts of nearly all crises.

A constellation of factors are part and parcel of the pandemic. First and foremost is the failure of the authoritarian government of China to curb the practice of selling the infected meat of animals in close proximity to humans thus making the deadly virus all-too-likely. The Chinese government also failed to acknowledge the existence of the virus and thus did not act swiftly to contain it, thereby resurfacing underlying xenophobic fears And, we have created a financial system that is easily disrupted. In addition, the U.S. economy is largely service-based so that it’s especially at risk if large numbers of people stop going out to shop, attend public gatherings, etc. We have a Public Health system that has been seriously hampered by a President who is woefully ignorant of science, and who has repeatedly lied so that when he needed to be believed, he had no credibility. Add to this a long, drawn-out, nasty contest between the Democrats as to whom is best positioned to replace a President who is not only completely unfit for the job, but exhibits daily growing signs of serious mental disturbance, which only adds to the crisis. And of course, vulnerable populations and the closing of schools only add to widespread fear.
In short, we’re dealing with nothing less than a Wicked Mess.

The late distinguished Social Systems Thinker Russell L. Ackoff appropriated the word Mess to stand for a whole system of problems that were so interconnected such that one couldn’t take any single problem out of the Mess and attempt to analyze and treat it on its own without doing irreparable damage both to the problem and the entire Mess. In short, the interconnections between the problems that constituted a Mess were as important as the so-called “individual problems.” In fact, the notion of “self-standing, independent problems” was an outdated and harmful figure of speech. It does not represent in any way the reality with we are struggling to deal.

The notion of “Wicked Problems” for which none of the academic disciplines or professions has the final say in defining the problem, let alone in how to treat it, only adds to the Mess.

The result is that all of the problems of modern societies are Wicked Messes. For instance, Homelessness is a host of interrelated problems. Thus, Income Inequality, Drug Addiction, Mental Illness, a Poor Housing Market, and Low Paying Jobs are all integral parts of the “Homelessness Mess.” If this wasn’t complicated enough, all Wicked Messes are parts of one another. Given that the that the homeless are especially vulnerable to the virus, Homelessness and the Global Pandemic are heavily interconnected.

Unlike simple exercises, which unfortunately constitute the bulk of traditional education, Wicked Messes do not have single, exact solutions, let alone stable ones. We only cope with them as best we can. Thus far, our coping mechanisms have been less than adequate, indeed almost criminal.

Yes, we need to attack each of the major factors as vigorously as we can. But even more, we desperately need leaders who understand that we are dealing with a Wicked Mess so that we can cope with it as it really is.

Sadly, no one to my knowledge has exerted the kind of leadership that is required to deal with Wicked Messes. If we learn anything from the Coronavirus, my hope is that we will learn how to cope better with the next Wicked Messes.

Posted in Crisis Management

Technology’s State of Crisis Demand Crisis Management

San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 2018, p. E7.

Make no mistake about it, technology is in a state of crisis of its own making.

Technology has betrayed our deepest sense of trust and well-being. It has allowed itself — indeed, its values are deeply woven into the underlying business model of tech companies — to be used for nefarious purposes.

It has collected and sold without our full awareness, let alone permission, our personal information to third parties for their gain, not ours. It’s monetized every aspect of our being. It’s provided a platform for fake news and hate speech. It’s allowed foreign governments to interfere with our elections. It’s served as a vehicle for cyberbullying, thereby hounding people every moment of their lives.

One of the deepest fears is that, instead of aiding us, artificial intelligence will take over and control us. In these and countless other ways, technology has sown distrust into the very fabric of society.

Every day brings news of but yet another crisis caused by all-too-powerful tech companies. More and more, the crises affect not only them, but all of us as well. When Facebook’s stock took a big hit, for example, it affected tech stocks across the board thereby negatively impacting the entire economy.

The concerns lie not just with the problematic intended uses of technology but the failure to think about and anticipate the unintended uses. Technologies are fundamentally abused and misused in ways that their creators didn’t envision, and in far too many cases, didn’t ever want to consider. For instance, from my more than 30 years in the field of crisis management, I’m convinced that virtually all of Facebook’s enumerable crises could have been foreseen if crisis management had been an integral part of the company’s culture and thinking from its founding.

Prior to the Facebook technology’s launch, there is reason to believe that teams of parents, teachers, psychologist and kids would have come up with the possibility of it being used as a vehicle for cyberbullying. If steps had been taken before it went live, we still would have had something like Facebook, but hopefully a much more responsible one.

We need a government agency, similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to not only oversee the social impacts of technology, but to protect us from those that present a clear danger to our well-being. We must establish panels composed of parents, social scientists, child development experts, ethicists, crisis management authorities — and kids — to think of as many ways as they can about how a proposed technology could be abused and misused.

Ideally, tech companies would do this on their own. Indeed, research has shown that companies that are proactive in anticipating and planning for crises are substantially more profitable than those that are merely reactive. Crisis management is not only the ethical thing to do, it’s good for business; it heads off major crises before they are too big to fix.

Crisis management needs to be built into every technology, from inception and across its lifetime. As difficult as the invention of a technology is, its management is just as difficult, if not more so. It requires a different set of skills and levels of maturity than that which is needed to invent a technology. We need different types of technologists and tech companies.

But that’s no reason to hesitate: The backlash against technology and tech companies is clearly brewing.

Posted in Crisis Management, Philosophy + Systems | Tagged ,

Ethical Technologies? A Pipedream? My Love/Hate Affair with Social Media

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 22, 2013

Let me admit at the outset that I am anything but a fan of social media. I believe that in far too many cases, they pander to the worst impulses of our society’s juvenile, obsessive need for instantaneous, narcissistic gratification. That said, in the case of the horrific Boston bombings, I also recognize they played an invaluable role in apprehending the perpetrators. I also recognize that they are here to stay. I just wish that we would invent ones that are more ethical.

My greatest reservation about social media — Facebook in particular — is its unmitigated role in cyber bullying. Indeed, if we had intentionally wanted to invent a tool that could bully the most kids incessantly 24/7, then we couldn’t have concocted anything more powerful.

The fact that a number of teenage girls have committed suicide recently as result of relentless bullying is enough to convince me that something is seriously wrong with how our society fosters the latest technologies without doing a proper “ethical assessment” of them beforehand. To be fair — if that’s ever truly possible — it’s not just social media with which I am concerned, but the Internet, cell phones, etc.

To be clear, as a former engineer, I am anything but hostile to technology. I am in fact a confirmed “techno-holic.” I love the latest gadgets.

But more to the point, I am primarily a social philosopher/social scientist. That’s why throughout my career, I have always been interested in the murky concept of “ethical technologies.”

In brief, an ethical technology is one that incorporates ethics from its very inception. In other words, ethics is not brought in once the genie is out of the bottle, for often that’s too late.

Ethical technology starts with a series of questions: What primary assumptions are we making about how our technology will be used? Who will it hurt/harm? Who will it benefit under which conditions? How can it be abused? What can/should we be doing to minimize the improper uses of our technology? Indeed, what’s “improper?”

It’s not that there are easy answers to these questions. There are not meant to be easy answers. Rather, ethics is concerned fundamentally with raising the toughest questions possible about anything that humans do. In this regard, the notion of ethical technologies starts with a prime presumption: nothing is ever neutral when it affects people. In short, there are no ethically neutral technologies, period!

Take the question of assumptions. It’s one thing to develop a Facebook for Harvard students. It’s quite another to develop one for young, immature kids who can and will use it to spew out the worse obscenities to taunt their “enemies” with little or no remorse. One can’t just assume that the general population will behave as Harvard undergraduates. To assume such raises, or ought to raise, an “ethical flag.”

Furthermore, don’t tell me given all our experience with countless technologies that we couldn’t have raised some such questions beforehand. Rather, if we’ve learned anything, such questions rarely, if ever, cross the minds of inventors.

I understand perfectly the feelings of those parents who insist that unless they can monitor their underage children’s smart phones and Internet accounts for salacious content and hateful messages that they will not allow them to have them. But of course this is reactive. Further, no one can monitor the activities of one’s children all the time especially when they are away from home a great deal of the day.

How much better it would have been if Facebook and others had worked with parents, the ACLU, etc. to set up proper safeguards beforehand–monitoring groups, etc.–that at the same time would respect privacy and free speech rights.

At this point, all we can hope for is that our technologies will evolve.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 22, 2013

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The Banality of Evil Arguments, Part II

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 20, 2013

On Thursday April 11, 2013, The Nation of Change published my blog, “The Banality of Evil Arguments.” In effect, I argued that evil arguments against reasonable laws for gun control are the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Unfortunately, one is never finished in beating back evil arguments.

Immediately after the parents of the children who were killed in Newtown met with President Obama and Senators in Washington DC in an attempt to win support for new gun control legislation, the Right-wing began its scurrilous attacks. In the most despicable manner possible, the parents were roundly accused of “politicizing a tragedy.”

Listening to the sickening “arguments” — if they can be called that — the following question immediately crossed my mind, “How should the Newtown parents have responded such that they would have satisfied the Right?” The “answers” I came up with constitutes in effect an evil argument.

First of all, according to the Right, the parents should have suffered in complete silence! They should not have in any way made a public spectacle of their tragedy.

Second, they should have totally accepted the premises and the arguments of the NRA. Thus, Newtown was the act of a single, isolated, deranged individual. In short, there are no such things as “systems effects.” One can have a nation with an average of one gun per a population of 315,000,000 and there will be no spill over effects on violence and public safety in general. In other words, a highly armed society poses no threats. Indeed, it’s safer than one that is not highly armed.

The argument continues: background checks and limits on the types of guns and ammunition are not only completely ineffective in preventing tragedies like Newtown, but they are gross infringements on the rights of law-abiding citizens. When push comes to shove, it all comes down to this: “the ineffectiveness of gun laws and the infringement on the rights of law abiding citizens” is a gigantic stick to beat down any reasonable arguments for gun control. It is the “show stopper” against any and all arguments.

How many times do we have to say that by definition murderers don’t obey laws against murder? But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have such laws. Laws are one of the prime hallmarks of a civilized society. Laws are in part how we declare and support our values.

Contrary to the NRA, gun laws are effective. Of course, they don’t work perfectly. Does anything?

Law-abiding citizens have always had to give up previous things that were thought to be rights and privileges in order for civilized societies to exist. Wasn’t this once true of the so-called “right” to own slaves?

In sum, “protecting the ‘rights’ of law-abiding citizens without considering the greater good” is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 20, 2013

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The Banality of Evil Arguments

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 11, 2012

In April 17, 1775, Boswell recorded one of Samuel Johnson’s most famous lines, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” If he were alive today, I believe that Johnson might well say, “Evil arguments are the first and last refuge of scoundrels.”

On the April 9, 2013 edition of the PBS NewsHour, there was a mild debate of sorts between Jim Johnson, Police Chief of Baltimore County, and Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The topic was of course background checks for gun owners. Predictably, Johnson was for checks and Keane was against them.

Although I’ve heard it many times before, I was particularly shocked by Keane’s use of a particularly insidious argument against background checks. Given that painful interviews with some of the family members who lost loved ones in the tragic Newtown shootings had aired recently on the CBS program 60 Minutes and were thus still fresh, the more I listened to Keane, the more that the phrase “the banality of evil arguments” flashed through my mind.

Time and again, Keane argued that if background checks were required before someone could purchase a gun, then it would place an inordinate burden on “small mom and pop gun dealers.” The particular word that Keane used repeatedly to signify the burden that small dealers would face was “inconvenience.” That is, they would be “greatly inconvenienced” by having to fill out all the forms that background checks would require. After all, why should they be required to do the work of the government?

If this is not a prime example of an argument that is both evil and banal, then I don’t know what is!

As a parent, spouse, relative, or friend of someone that has lost their life in a senseless shooting, how does one weigh the “inconvenience” of a gun dealer versus the inconsolable pain that one will experience throughout all of one’s life? One can’t! This is precisely what makes Keane’s argument banal and evil.

If I wanted to insult those who had lost loved ones and cause further pain, I couldn’t think of a more inappropriate word than “inconvenience.”

By the repeated use of such utterly wicked arguments and words, gun proponents don’t know it, but they have already lost the argument with regard to greater gun controls. Whether this Congress finally votes for background checks or not, gun proponents are in their last throes. To be sure, greater restrictions on the manufacturing, sale, and ownership of guns are still a long ways off, but they will happen.

One shouldn’t even have to say it, but given the hysteria surrounding the issue, this doesn’t mean that honest, law-abiding citizens won’t be allowed to have any guns at all. They will. It does mean that eventually there will be a ban on military assault type weapons in the hands of civilians.

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 11, 2012

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Want to End Gun Violence? Write A Good Bumper Sticker!

Originally published on Nation of Change, February 8, 2013

One of the reasons why the NRA and rabid gun “enthusiasts” are so effective in getting their ideas across is that they’ve perfected the art of writing bumper stickers. They’ve taken extremely complex ideas and reduced them to half-truths and pithy, easy-to-remember slogans.

Why shouldn’t liberals and progressives fight back? Or are we “too pure to sink to the level of communicating effectively with a wider public?”

I think the attitude that liberals and progressives are somehow “above” such forms of expression is not only wrong, but “dead wrong!” Pun intended!

We do ourselves a great disservice by not communicating our ideas as simply and as forcefully as we can. To do so is not necessarily to debase them. It is to sharpen them.

Sadly, I have been unable to find any sites on the Internet that have “bumper stickers for gun control advocates.” They may well be there, but I haven’t found them.

In the spirit of countering the NRA and other organizations, I offer the following as merely one attempt to come up with bumper stickers for those like myself who want tougher gun control laws. Since they merely represent a first attempt, they are a work in progress. This also accounts for the fact that there is a considerable overlap and repetition between the items.

One last thought. If you have to explain it, then it isn’t working.

Baseball Bats and Cars Can Kill, But They’re Not Made for Killing. Guns Are!

Help us speak truth to power. Donate what you can afford to support NationofChange.

We Don’t Abandon Laws Against Murder Because Murderers Don’t

Obey Them! Why Are Gun Laws Any Different?

How Many Mass Drive-by Knifings Have You Heard Of?

Automatic Weapons Kill More People Faster Than All The Baseball Bats, Cars,

And Knives Put Together!

Guns Kill Whether A Good Or A Bad Guy Fires Them.

People Die, Not Guns!

Guns Laws Make It Harder For Outlaws To Get Guns!

Outlawing Gun Laws Helps Outlaws Get Guns Easier!

Get A Gun! Kill Yourself On The First Attempt!

Guns Don’t Give People A Second Chance NOT To Commit Suicide!

Get A Gun. Have An Accident. Kill Your Loved Ones And Yourself!

More Americans Have Died From Accidental Gun Shootings Than All The

Americans Killed In Vietnam!

Buy A Gun And Up The Suicide Rate By 57 Times!!

If more guns made us safer, then the U.S. would the safest country in the world.

Stop the government plot to confiscate our cars by forcing us to register them!

I strongly encourage others to come up with more and better slogans.

Originally published on Nation of Change, February 8, 2013

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Treating Gun Violence as an Addiction and a Cult

Originally published on Nation of Change, January 30, 2013

There is something seriously wrong with a society that even has to debate whether it needs to control the most lethal types of weapons in the hands of civilians.

I want to propose what is to my knowledge a novel way of thinking about and thereby treating gun violence. If as I believe that an obsessive need for guns is akin to an addiction and therefore cannot be dealt with by means of conventional arguments (after all, many alcoholics know “rationally” that alcohol is killing them but they are still unable to resist its near total control over their lives), then I believe that we need to stop beating around the bush and treat the obsessive need for guns as a major form of addiction. Accordingly, I have taken the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and reworded them to apply to our society’s deadly obsession with guns. In proposing this, I have no illusion whatsoever that in and of itself this will help us to better manage what I believe is our society’s completely out-of-control proliferation of guns. What I do hope is this it will encourage us to explore new ways of thinking about guns.

I strongly urge the reader to note that in the second paragraph above I have deliberately stressed the word “obsessive” for I don’t believe that everyone who possesses guns or has the desire to have them is therefore suffering from a major form of addiction. Quite to the contrary. I also don’t believe that all guns ought to be banned. I believe that only those guns that are extremely lethal ought to be strictly controlled. That is, contrary to the NRA, some guns are more lethal than others. All guns are not equal. As a result, I believe that there is no place whatsoever for military-assault type weapons in the hands of civilians. Apparently, neither do many responsible and sensible gun owners.

Here then is my version of a twelve-step program for rabid gun owners.

THE TWELVE STEPS OF GUNS ANONYMOUS

1.      We admitted we were powerless over our fascination with and need for guns and as a result that our lives and society as a whole had become unmanageable. (Notice that this first step is a frank admission that one is no longer in denial of the fact that by themselves guns do not necessarily make oneself and one’s society automatically safer, that there are not dangerous side effects to having guns in one’s home, etc.)

2.      We came to believe that a Moral Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. That is, the lives and well being of children were more important than our desire to hunt, shoot, and collect/own firearms, especially high-power automatic weapons. As such, we came to realize that no rights were absolute. Thus, while we still believed in the Second Amendment, we came to realize that it did not sanction the possession of weapons of war.

3.      We made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of this Moral Power as we understood It.

4.      Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and how our unrestrained possession of firearms harmed the collective good of society.

5.      Admitted to a Higher Power however we conceived of Him/Her/It, to ourselves, and to others the exact nature of our uncontrolled obsession over guns.

6.      We are entirely ready to have our Higher Power remove all these defects of character. That is, we are ready to take action against our obsession with guns.

7. Humbly asked our Higher Power to remove our obsession.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed through our beliefs and actions and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our Higher Power, as we understood Him/Her/It, praying only for knowledge of His/Her/Its will for us and the power to carry it out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to gun owners, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. In particular, we saw the need to design and implement a new organization of Responsible Gun Owners for the Collective Good.

In short, the practitioners of this new Twelve Step Program for Gun Owners would be enacting a new form of a Precautionary Principle for Children. That is, if there was the slightest chance that a specific type of weapon posed an especially dangerous threat to the well being of children in particular, then they would willingly give that weapon (hobby, etc.) up for the greater good of society.

Religious and Cult-Like Aspects

If only the preceding were sufficient to change our deeply held attitudes towards the most dangerous types of guns. Sadly, there is almost a naïve, child-like quality to the preceding. It is not that Twelve Step Programs don’t work. They do. But in order to work, one not only has to “hit bottom,” but to believe that a “cure” is possible and to want to undertake it more than anything else.

Unfortunately, this is not possible for many for there is no denying that there is a deep, fundamentalist aspect to the makeup of many ardent gun owners. This is perhaps the strangest aspect to the whole gun issue for the founding fathers did not intend via The Bill of Rights to aid and abet any kind of “state religion.” And yet, the fervor in which many hold The Second Amendment is akin to an article of religious faith.

No one has said it better than Dennis Henigan, author of the incredible book, Lethal Logic, Exploding The Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy (ISBN 978-1-59797-356-4):

“As one NRA leader put it some years ago, ‘You would get a far better understanding [of the extreme fervor with which many owners often have for guns] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.’ This is not a frivolous comparison. There is an unquestionably religious fervor about the beliefs of many pro-gun partisans. It is grounded in various articles of religious faith that form the catechism of the NRA: that law-abiding citizens are under constant risk of attack by predatory criminals, that the safety of every person and family depends upon the ability of individuals to defend themselves with firearms, that the government cannot be trusted to provide security to individuals and families, that democratic institutions cannot be counted on to protect our liberties as Americans, that those institutions are at constant risk of subversion by tyrannical elements, and that tyranny is kept at bay only by the potential for insurrection by an armed populace intent on maintaining liberty. In the NRA’s world, these are eternal truths. They are not themselves proper subjects for empirical testing or debate, but rather are a priori verities according to which the world is interpreted and understood.

“To the true believers, the gun is an object of religious devotion…The hallowed place of the gun is reflected in the holy text of the gun rights movement, the Second Amendment to the Constitution…”

If this is indeed the case, then all the rational arguments in the world don’t stand any chance of making headway with those who regard guns and the Second Amendment as “holy objects.” It is like talking to the members of a cult. The only thing one can do is to “deprogram them.” But even assuming that we could, there aren’t enough therapists and trained facilitators to deprogram those who don’t see any need for it. Besides, who “deprograms a whole society?”

In the end, all one can do is rely on those who are not members of the cult to come together and to organize themselves politically to take action against collective madness; and of course, to hope that there are enough who are not members to overcome those who are.

The more that the NRA speaks out against sensible gun laws and actions, the more it empowers those who have more responsible views. In sum, whether it knows it or not—and it clearly doesn’t—the NRA is its own worst enemy.

Originally published on Nation of Change, January 30, 2013

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Let No Factor Go Unheeded: Treat Every Causative Factor in Gun Violence as Aggresively as Possible

Originally published on Nation of Change, December 19, 2012

There are at least two widely differing positions in treating gun violence that surface every time there is a horrendous tragedy like that which happened in Newtown, Connecticut. Indeed, they are always just beneath the surface of any argument pertaining to gun control.

The first is represented by the movie/TV and video game industries; the second, by cardiologists of all people.

The first position argues that there is no firm causal relationship between (1) the prolonged exposure of children and young adults to violent movies/TV/video games and (2) their engagement in actual violent behavior. Correlations are all there are, and correlations are not hard definitive proof of causality. Therefore, lacking such proof, there is no valid reason for the producers/writers of violent movies/TV/video games to tone down their creations. Besides, aren’t they protected by the First Amendment?

The second position argues that no cardiologist would ever say that because a certain set of factors are low in their overall contribution to heart disease that one should therefore ignore them. Instead, no matter what their level of contribution, one should treat any and all factors as aggressively as one can.

To draw out the differences between these two positions even more starkly, let me put them in the form of two opposing ethical principles because that’s what they really are. The first says in effect that, “Whenever the correlation between what we do/produce as an industry and some important problem in society is low or beneath a certain ‘threshold,’ then we are warranted ethically in not doing anything; we are absolved as it were.” The question of course is, “How high would the correlation have to be before one accepted ‘ethical responsibility’?”

The second says, “No matter how big or small the correlation, do everything in your power to make it even smaller.”

The first principle is in effect a variant of Utilitarian Ethics. As such, it is a form of Cost/Benefit. That is, one weighs the “benefits” versus the “costs” of doing or not doing anything and if the benefits exceed the costs, or the costs are unclear, then one is justified in engaging in a certain set of actions.

The second is Kantian in spirit. It says do as little harm as possible. Even if the correlation is as low as 0.001 so act as to make it continually even lower.

Of course gun violence is a complex mess, where a “mess” is defined as “a complex system of problems that are so dynamically interconnected such that no single problem can be taken out of the mess of which it is a part and worked on independently of all the other problems with which it is intertwined.” So of course gun violence cannot be separated from mental health, video game violence, poverty, etc., etc. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attack one of the most critical components of the mess, the all-too-easy availability of military style weapons to virtually everyone.

It also means that we shouldn’t ignore the fact that while the correlations between viewing the worst depictions of violence may not rise to the level of “causality,” over 35 years of research demonstrates that the correlations are not negligible. Typically, the correlations vary between 0.2 and 0.4, but even more significantly, they rise considerably with children from high-risk environments. And, they rise with increased, persistent exposure to violence.

The arguments that rabid gun proponents use to justify the manufacture and possession of the worst weapons are so many that I could not possibly address them all. Instead, let me close by hitting straight on one of the most flawed arguments that is used far too often: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” This argument is not only “wrong,” but it is “dead wrong.” The more complete, correct proposition is: “People kill people more effectively by means of guns than by any other known weapon to which they have easy access!”

The time has never been more appropriate to see the arguments of rabid gun proponents for what they are: fundamentally unethical!

Originally published on Nation of Change, December 19, 2012

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