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If you’ve been milling around social media at all the last couple weeks, you’ve probably seen the #CancelColbert campaign being spread on Twitter, followed by immediate backlash of Colbert fans using the hashtag to issue threats to the creator of the hashtag. Then the successful cancelling of Colbert (by promotion to Late Show host), followed by a continuation of the #CancelColbert movement.

The usefulness of hashtags in activism is to bring about unity, assembling disparate groups of people through social media to identify behind a single cause. This has been observed to be effective for popular uprisings in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and now the Ukraine. This hashtagtivism promoted by people such as Suey Park is intended to bring fringe/minority communities together into an inclusive space.

A theory of laughter I’ve proposed with my research group, NERHD, proposes that laughter serves the same function as a hashtagtivism. Groups are brought together based upon shared laughter tastes. Conversely, groups are also segregated based upon laughter tastes. All of this is based upon the evolutionary concept of “play” where animals develop relationships with other animals by playing with them, usually by tickling. Laughter is an evolutionary response for a playful stimulus and signals that the stimulus is appropriate.  For example, you’ll laugh when someone you like tickles you, but when someone you dislike or don’t know tries to tickle you, it feels very offensive.

In that same, way, jokes can either be inclusionary or exclusionary, depending on the nature of the humor. I’ve written before on how exclusionary jokes aimed towards a minority group promotes negative attitudes towards that group (in the case of women, this is manifested through sexist jokes promoting “rape culture”).

Several studies have also shown that humor enforces racial stereotypes of minorities. Like sexist jokes, these jokes are clearly exclusionary in nature; however, the identity of the joke teller is important to determine the response of the audience. A white male telling jokes about how “Jews are cheap” is very different from an Jewish person telling the same joke. Interestingly, studies show that when minorities tell racist jokes or when women tell sexist jokes, audiences are more likely to have their racist/sexist attitudes reinforced than when a white male tells them. You heard that right – minorities normalize racial stereotypes more than white people (I’m as disappointed about this point as you).

Articles expressing outrage over the Colbert piece muse about how the writing staff and Colbert are all white, and come from a place of privilege and are therefore not permitted to tell anti-Asian jokes. However, this criticism is offset by the notion that a white male telling an anti-Asian will promote more outrage and less normalization of anti-Asian attitudes than an Asian person telling the same anti-Asian joke.

Comedy is inclusionary by nature. It is well documented that people will fake laughter to pretend to be in on the joke. Less documented, though equally prevalent, is that individuals will take offense to the joke to deny the rhetoric of the joke-teller. The normative attitude in America is that white people cannot make jokes about minorities.  Therefore, Colbert’s whiteness simultaneously makes anti-Asian jokes offensive as well as prevents normalization of anti-Asian stereotypes among Colbert’s audience.

By being offended by the joke, the audience is less likely to want to hear what the performer has to say.  Just ask any white comedian how hard it is to tell a joke that includes the N-word. As soon as the word is dropped, the audience becomes very tense, and is preparing to either: A) hear proper justification for using that word, or B) to be able to dismiss the white performer as racist and not laugh at any other joke they tell (the more likely response).

Laughter is an effective tool in building bonds among people, as seen by its use in mediation between conflicting parties and use in management of employees. However, rejection of laughter creates tension between the joke-teller and the audience, and actually will lead to rejection of stereotypes proposed by the joke-teller.

So, what makes an audience take offense to a joke rather than laugh along with it?

Most audiences are composed of individuals of various races and genders; however, the comedy process homogenizes all the individuals into an “audience”. People no longer are Frank, Kim, Fernando, Sonia, etc., but instead are just “audience”. Through this process, they conform to an identity that is open and receptive to the comedic rhetoric of the performer.

However, that new “audience” identity is still constrained by the pre-existing prejudices and convictions of each individual member.  One unaddressed question about research on racist or sexist jokes is: “Do racist/sexist jokes make people MORE racist/sexist, or simply reaffirm inherent prejudices within people?” An audience that is racist may find anti-minority jokes funnier than one that is not racist. Conversely, an audience that does not tolerate racism will not find anti-minority jokes funny at all.

Suey Park is depicted as being humorless, stupid, attention seeker. Yet, it really appears that she is simply highly sensitive to Asian stereotypes. While she clearly finds Colbert’s piece HIGHLY offensive, the general consensus is that the piece was not exclusionary towards Asians. This means one of two things:

  1. Suey Park has not subscribed to the Colbert “audience” identity and recognizes that the Colbert jokes ARE racist.
  2. Suey Park’s intrinsic anti-white sentiment precludes her from perceiving any Asian stereotype as inoffensive.

Reading articles on websites like Salon and Jezebel, you can’t help but be bombarded with the notion of “privilege”, implying that a person who is white or male or cis-gendered has privilege and is not permitted to understand the space of the oppressed minority community. However, rather than creating dialogue through humor from minority communities (historically achieved with great success), they dismiss the ability of the “privileged” to empathize simply because they are not of that community, and would rather exclude the privileged from oppressed communities than engage them in open dialogue and build bridges.

I’ve tried to make the case for how comedy can build bridges, even though in some instances humor can be exclusionary. Social media activism, on the other hand, has been summed up quite eloquently elsewhere:

While experienced activists seek to build bridges and establish empathy between cultures, these elitists’ ideas of success involve extracting apologies from media figures for perceived slights. This just drives intolerance underground, where it manifests in more pernicious ways, winning very few over to a new way of thinking and entrenching everyone. Witness #CancelColbert.

Perhaps the response to an racist/sexist joke is to respond with your own humor that builds and engages others to your viewpoint, rather than simply express outrage?

After all, the world could do with more laughter and less exclusion.

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While I have been busy working on a dumber, more labor-intensive post (watch this space), this George Zimmerman verdict has really annoyed me.  It’s not so much the injustice of verdict, it’s the whole “stand your ground” law that helped acquit him.

What’s shocking for me is that the question for the jury wasn’t “Did George Zimmerman kill Trayvon Martin?”, instead it was “Did George Zimmerman unjustly kill Trayvon Martin?” The reason that question of justified homicide is entertained is because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to murder others in perceived “self-defense”.  The Tampa-Bay Times did a really interesting piece reviewing all the cases where the “stand your ground” defense was used.  Here’s a telling infographic:

Out of over 150 cases, 135 times the victim killed was unarmed.  When you break down how each confrontation went down, the data is even more troubling:

Screen shot 2013-07-14 at 8.37.12 PM

It turns out that the accused killer initiated the confrontation twice as often as not (104 instances vs. 48 when they did not initiate the confrontation).  And in 189 instances out of 240, the victim was not committing a crime at the time of being killed.  So, it really doesn’t seem like this law is applied reasonably.  Finally, if you look at the race statistics of this law, it’s clear that it’s being applied unevenly.

Standyourground

If you’re a Black or Hispanic person, the person who kills you is 2-4 times more likely to be acquitted than if you’re a White victim.  That’s independent of the race of the killer (though most crime is White on White, Black on Black, Hispanic on Hispanic).

“Stand your ground” defense has been applied almost twice as often for White accused killers as for Black or Hispanic accused killers. I couldn’t find Florida statistics on violent crime committed by race, but Black and Hispanic people are incarcerated almost 5 times as frequently as white people.

I will definitely not claim legal scholarship, but considering the fact that the concept of “self-defense” is so liberally and unevenly applied, one wonders: “Who gets to stand their ground and who gets their ground stood on?”

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Imagine you are offered the opportunity to run a business.  You are welcome to sell whatever you want, so you think to yourself, “What do I want to sell?”  You notice that a lot of businesses are selling matches and gasoline, so you think, “I’ll open up a Match and Gasoline store!” and business does really well (better than those other idiots who decided to open up cupcake shops).  You’re making lots of money selling matches and gasoline, but over time, people start mentioning to you that some people who shop at your store burn down buildings.

You say, “That’s not really my problem.”

They say, “But you supply them with matches and gasoline. You are complicit in their arson!”

You say, “I AM A SMALL BUSINESS OWNER! YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO! THIS IS AMERICA!”

They say, “We’re just trying to inform you that your actions might be responsible for certain people to burn down people’s homes.”

You say, “I hope someone burns down your home!”

Does this sound familiar?  Perhaps inflammatory (pun intended!), this analogy is similar to a recent kerfuffle in the standup comedy community which arose from disagreements between two parties, standup comedians and female bloggers, on whether rape jokes promote a culture that normalizes rape.

I’ve been working on a project with Jono Zalay* on what makes things funny and why audiences laugh.  We felt that what was lacking in this “rape joke” conversation is actual scientific evidence linking humor and the creation of rape culture.  We (mostly me, but Jono helped out when he was awake) recently began an investigation into scientific studies regarding the impact of humor on rape culture, and were astonished to discover the wealth of literature supporting the notion that humor can be used to create social norms that justify prejudice.  Not only is there a link between certain types of humor and rape culture, but it’s strong and supported by several independent research groups.

That being said, we’d like to make a case for comedians to re-assess what they are doing with their humor, particularly “rape jokes”, for the following reasons:

  • Humor can be used to covertly deliver messages that can reinforce negative attitudes towards women
  • Enhanced negative attitudes towards individuals can lead to aggressive behavior
  • Jokes delivered by a comedian are perceived to reflect the views of the comedian

SECRET COMEDY MESSAGES

It’s pretty well known that advertisers use humor as a persuasion device to convince consumers to buy their product.  Why does this work?  It’s believed by many psychologists that the human brain operates in two forms: serious mode and humor mode. In serious mode, our brain takes incongruous notions and tries to rationalize them critically and logically, trying to find an explanation to strange events, sort of like figuring out a Rubik’s cube or becoming a conspiracy theorist.  However, in humor mode, our brain takes the “leap of faith” on incongruity and basically says “Ahhh… Screw it! This is fun!”  We throw away the Rubik’s cube and go off frolicking in the meadow.  Why are we in a meadow? Doesn’t matter.  We’re in humor mode now.

The decision to make the switch from serious mode to humor mode occurs through a series of events.  What those are is poorly understood by scientists who do this research (i.e. Jono and myself). Typically, all of those priming events are present at a comedy show, which leads us to tell our brain, “Ok, switch off.  Let the yuk-yuks just flow on through.”  Having our brain shut off isn’t normally a big deal for the comedians who are joking about how disgusting Hot Pockets are or how dumb and chubby their cousin is.  In fact, it can work to a comedian’s benefit.  Shifts in culture are often ascribed to comedians such as Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce who, likely, were able to deliver cultural messages to audiences whose critical brains shut off to hear jokes.  The use of humor essentially hypnotizes us to have our opinions “massaged” in one direction or another.

Where this can lead to problems is when comics do material on the topics of rape or sexism.  We’ll get into the motivations of why comedians do this type of material later, but, because our brain is in humor mode, we’ll lap up whatever opinions a comedian proposes. For instance, if a comedian says a joke to the effect of: “Hispanics are lazy”, or “Black people are stupid”, or “Women are asking to be raped”, the response falls in one of three categories in the audience:

  • CATEGORY 1: “HA! THAT’S SO TRUE!” (genuine laugh)
  • CATEGORY 2: “I DIDN’T KNOW THAT, BUT SINCE MOST PEOPLE THINK IT’S FUNNY, IT MUST BE TRUE!” (genuine laugh, or feigned laugh to support genuine laugh of CATEGORY 1)
  • CATEGORY 3: “WHAT THE F***? THAT’S NOT TRUE!” (no laugh, brain switches back on to serious mode)

It’s worth noting that every person we create in CATEGORY 3 is an indication of our failure to make a person laugh.  So, that’s the first argument against doing rape-jokes – getting fewer laughs.  Furthermore, based upon studies, people in Categories 1 & 2 would be described as hostile or benevolent sexists (which could also be applied to racism, so we’ll just use “bigots” instead). Hostile bigots are people who genuinely and aggressively believe in their individual superiority and inferiority of other, different groups.  Benevolent bigots are people who believe that other groups are inferior but it is their job to help those inferior people because they’re so inferior (i.e. White Man’s Burden).  Basically, the only groups laughing are people who believe in inequality (more on the issues with this later).

RAPE JOKES LEAD TO RAPE?

“Ok, big deal, so I laughed at an offensive joke.  That doesn’t mean anything!”

That is the general response when you call a person out about laughing at a bigoted joke.  The recent debate on Totally Biased focused on the notion of rape jokes leading to normalization of rape in society.  So, does hearing rape jokes lead people to rape?  Well, that is difficult to assess, as it would require scientists to allow people to get raped (which is relatively unethical… depending on your predisposed attitudes towards rape).  However, several studies have shown that appreciation of sexist jokes and just being shown sexist jokes leads to:

  • Increased blame attached to victims of rape
  • Increased acceptance of desire to rape
  • Decreased view of rape as a “serious” problem
  • Decreased desire to punish rapists

So, all the evidence point to rape jokes promoting rape culture. Even still, that only reflects people’s attitudes towards rape after hearing sexist jokes; it doesn’t mean that jokes lead to actionable violence.  One study provides evidence that humor affects behavior by using the Buss aggression machine technique to observe the relationship between disparaging humor and non-disparaging humor on people.

In the experiment, students who had received either derogatory criticism or positive criticism from a person were shown disparaging humor, non-disparaging humor, or no humor (pictures of furniture).  They then had an opportunity to “shock” that person who gave criticism (the person wasn’t really shocked, just an actor who pretended he was shocked).  If students received negative criticism and heard disparaging jokes, they generally gave a person a long, strong electric “shock”.  However, if they received positive criticism, there was no difference between whether they heard disparaging jokes or non-disparaging jokes (which was overall a low, weak “shock”).  Most interestingly, listening to non-disparaging jokes after hearing the derogatory criticism decreased the “shock” level BELOW what was administered if the person gave positive criticism.

In one study there was a clear action that resulted after hearing offensive humor compared to inoffensive humor.  In another study, women who heard offensive humor (Don Rickles) made them more likely to aggressively reject female job applicants than when they heard inoffensive humor (George Carlin…apparently).  Clearly, hearing certain types of humor can lead people to perform actions that ultimately hurt others (in the former, perceived physical pain, in the latter, discrimination).

Although there is no smoking gun that shows that rape jokes lead to rape, there is a wealth of evidence that indicates that predispositions towards rape are enhanced by hearing rape jokes (or jokes that normalize rape). And if a potential rapist uses a joke as justification for raping someone, shouldn’t that be good enough reason to not want to perform that joke anymore?

WHAT IS THIS? JOKE CENSORSHIP?

Nobody wants to be portrayed as the “Joke Police”, and we don’t claim to either (as we lack the discipline and racial profiling techniques necessary to be policemen).  Nevertheless, we view the purpose of comedy is two-fold: provide entertainment and promote the betterment of society.  If you’re not doing one, you should be doing the other, and most great comedians do both.  Based upon existing literature, it would seem clear that telling sexist or rape jokes doesn’t promote social welfare.  In fact, the only people rape jokes entertain are those who are against the betterment of society (they are sexist).

Comedy by its nature is inclusive.  The origins of laughter stem from social bonding among early primates. Despite this, rape jokes promote social division, as we described previously.  Still, some comedians are OK being branded as a “controversial comic”, like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks.  But there is a difference – controversial comedians lose fans because of the fans’ inherent prejudices, not because of the comedian’s prejudices.

One of the main arguments by comedians in this debate is the “it’s just a joke” argument.  A study in 1990 showed that many people believed that when they told a joke that might be offensive, it did not reflect their attitudes towards a certain group; yet, when other people told offensive jokes, it reflected their attitudes towards that group.  In essence, saying “it’s just a joke” allows comedians to de-commit from owning their opinion, and allows a person to hide their prejudices behind a “well-structured” joke.

For example, when a comedian makes an observation about a homeless man sleeping on a Central Park bench.  Many comedians will likely make fun of the behavior of this man, calling him lazy, or making fun of his attire.  The underlying message of his joke “homeless people are less than us”.  Why not make fun of the rich people who pay millions of dollars to live around Central Park, while he gets to live in Central Park for free? As comedians, we have a choice about what we choose to laugh at.  The point about this whole debate is let’s stop attacking victims, and start attacking oppressors.

On this point, we are not trying to attack comedians, who we feel have their heart in the right place (NOTE: Though most comedy clubs won’t tell you in a showcase, comedians are different from people who just do open mics for less than a year, and we recognize that).  What if a comedian’s experience is that they don’t like women, or they don’t like Asians?  That informs their hypothetical non-sexist/racist comedy, which is otherwise quite funny.  Nevertheless, a comedian who is racist/sexist needs to limit prejudice in their audiences, as it will eventually limit their fanbase.  Just ask the Republican Party.

Fortunately, it has been shown that when people are made aware that jokes are prejudiced, they are less likely to accept the prejudiced viewpoints.  So, even if audiences’ brains are lapping up sexism in humor mode, a comedian can take a step back and say “Hey, that’s a messed up thing I just said, and you’re OK with it!  WTF?”  The good news is that though comedy promotes rape-normal attitudes in audiences, these attitudes are very labile.  So, if a comedian decided to keep telling a rape joke, they can still prevent rape culture by saying, “Yeah, that’s a messed up joke.”

Finally, while this may seem a lot of white male-bashing, female comedians are not exempt from promotion of rape culture. In fact, sexist jokes delivered by women or from a genderless source [i.e. a joke book (in English, as joke book in French is masculine)] increase tolerance of sexism more than sex jokes delivered by men.

Ultimately, we can’t just open up a Match and Gasoline store and not imagine that some of our customers might be arsonists.  Hopefully, this discussion will lead to more introspection among comedians on what we’re doing with the time that audiences yield their humor mode brains to us, and comedy will be better because of it.

*This post was originally intended for the NERHD blog, but we figured it made sense to explain what we were researching first before actually delving into “rape”.  So, that’s why I’m writing in the first person plural.

What’s So Bad About Rape Jokes?

In a recent episode of Totally Biased, W. Kamau Bell moderates a discussion between a comedian (Jim Norton) and a feminist (Lindy West) over the topics of censorship and sexist (rape) jokes.

It’s an interesting discussion, and I believe both parties sort of dance around the same point – much of comedy is contextual, most rape jokes are performed by bad comedians, and while rape jokes are permissible, they should generally be avoided.

As a comedian, I’ve always felt that comedians should be able to talk about whatever they want on stage.  However, I feel many people take this privilege to be a right to say whatever they want, opinions of audience members be damned.  So, in the mind of many (mostly male) comedians, “Sorry if you’ve been raped, but I’ve got this really well-structured joke that makes people laugh, and therefore validates me as a comic.”

If you go into sociology (and other lesser sciences), there are a few intriguing theories that are worth discussing regarding the use of rape and other “edgy” humor.  One is Intergroup Conflict Theory, which proposes that “groups” are created based upon competition over perceived (or actual) limited resources.  Within Intergroup Conflict Theory is another theory called Prejudiced Norm Theory, which proposes that in-groups are maintained and stabilized by legitimizing myths about the out-groups.  So, for instance, a myth that “women get raped because they dress too sexy” could be legitimized by certain jokes.

A key aspect of the humor theory developed by me and Jono Zalay is that humor is used to segregate between in-groups and out-groups.  What we find funny defines how we socialize and how we create hierarchies.  Humor has the power to transcend race and tear down power structures, but it simultaneously has the power to reinforce oppression and justify bigotry.

Many comedians (again, mostly male) dismiss sexist jokes by saying “jokes don’t influence rape”.  Meanwhile, feminists (mostly female) argue “jokes perpetuate victimization of those who have been raped.”  Just doing a cursory glance through the literature, it shows that there is strong evidence that while sexist jokes do not make rapists, they do make men with hostile sexist tendencies (i.e. they view women as being innately inferior to men) more favorable towards rape.

Two papers show that when presented with sexist jokes compared to non-sexist jokes, a random sampling of college-aged and older men are more likely to have:

  • Increased likelihood of blaming victims of rape
  • Increased tendency towards rape
  • Decreased view of rape as a “serious” problem
  • Decreased desire to punish rapists

While the studies were slightly different, they are interesting in that they just randomly grouped men and presented them with either sexist jokes or non-sexist jokes and observed what their attitudes would be to various scenarios of rape.  What are sexist and non-sexist jokes?  Here are the examples of jokes:

SEXIST JOKES:

  • Why are women like carpets? If you lay them properly the first time, you can walk all over them for years.
  • Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the sink!
  • How many men does it take to change a light bulb? None let her do the dishes in the dark.
  • What is the best thing about a blowjob? Ten minutes silence.

NON-SEXIST JOKES:

  • Psychiatrist: What’s your problem? Patient: I think I’m a chicken. Psychiatrist: How long has this been going on? Patient: Ever since I was an egg!
  • How do you know when elephants have had sex in your house? The trash can liners are missing!
  • What’s the difference between a golfer and a skydiver? A golfer goes whack… “Damn!” A skydiver goes “Damn!” … whack.
  • Why was the leper stopped for speeding? He couldn’t take his foot off the accelerator!

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of these studies is that just FOUR of these jokes is enough to affect the tendency of these men towards rape.  And these jokes were just generally sexist, not even jokes that validated rape specifically.

So, it begs the question, should comedians be held to a higher standard when it comes to joke creation?  While these studies don’t conclude that men with higher rape tendencies are more likely to rape, they do suggest that men with attitudes towards misogyny will feel more comfortable in their anti-female attitudes just from these sexist jokes.  How these attitudes manifest in behavior is unclear, but it would not be surprising if increased rape and abuse are functions of these fortified anti-female attitudes.

As comedians, I think it’s probably worth assessing what type of material we use for jokes.  Do our jokes demean a certain demographic or legitimize myths about them?  Is it OK to insult certain types of people, as long as they are in the context of funny jokes?  I think we as comics really need to evaluate what we’re doing with our comedy, and we should be using humor to speak truth to power, not using our pulpit to further oppression.  My conclusion is that the only demographic I’m willing to make fun of is ME (other comedians are also welcome to make fun of me for a nominal fee).

If you want to read the papers:

J Interpers Violence-2010-Romero-Sánchez-2339-50

Viki__Thomae__Cullen___Fernandez__2007

The Roots of Terrorism

It seems like every week there is a new tragedy, a new attack that kills people senselessly.  One of the things that got me about the Boston Marathon bombing was, was this terrorism? There are many different definitions of terrorism, but the FBI defines it as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

I really was curious about why the marathon bombing was immediately defined as a terrorist attack, but not the shooting at Oak Creek.  Clearly, if the perpetrator is Muslim, it has to be terrorism, according to the media.  But is terrorism exclusively the domain of Muslims?  If a suspect of an attack is Muslim, does that immediately mean he/she is a terrorist?  Why can’t they just be a regular lunatic, like white people are afforded to be?

I decided to get at the data on terrorism in the last 12 years to see if there were any trends that might give some insight or perspective on why terrorism happens.  One of the first things I wanted to examine was the relationship between Islam and terrorism.  I should point out that I’m aware that there is a difference between normal followers of a religion and the perpetrators of crimes under that religious banner.

Before I show the data, some clarification of my methods (since people complained about it before).  So, I took all bombings and armed assaults from the Global Terrorism Database from 2001-2011 that met the following criteria:

  1. There must be evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate, or convey some other message to a larger audience (or audiences) than the immediate victims.
  2. The action must be outside the context of legitimate warfare activities, i.e. the act must be outside the parameters permitted by international humanitarian law (particularly the admonition against deliberately targeting civilians or non-combatants).

Basically, the attacks cannot be associated with a war (though may be in a wartime setting), and must be with the intent to create “terror” in a broader context, not just among the victims of an attack.  So, school shootings in the US and the Norway attacks are not considered terrorism, as they are more isolated acts without a deeper political motivation.  Of these incidents, I counted the number of incidents and casualties that were ascribed to specific terrorist organizations (e.g. Al-Qaeda, Tamil Tigers, Eta, FARC).

TerroristAttribution CasualtyAttribution

I grouped terrorist organizations into groups, based upon shared ideology behind formation of that terrorist organization.  These groups are defined as “Islam-related” (meaning that the terms “al-”, “Islam”, and “Mujahadeen” appeared in the name of the group), Marxist-related (the terms “Red”, “Marx”, or “Communist” appeared in the name), or Freedom Group (meaning the terms “Freedom”, “Liberation”, or “Army” appeared in the name).  Obviously, there was some overlap, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (who can affectionately be referred to as MILF), but the precedence of grouping went from left to right.  So, MILF is an Islam-related group, not a Freedom Group, along with being a popular genre of pornography.

What’s interesting about those graphs is that there are almost as many Freedom groups as there are Islamic groups, and there is no significant difference in the number of terrorist attacks among Islamic groups, Marxist groups, and Freedom groups.  However, there is a significant difference in the number of people hurt or killed in Islamic terrorist attacks compared to Marxists or Freedom group attacks.  So, while Islamic groups are no more prevalent than other groups of terrorists, they are the most efficient at killing people.

Even though I artificially grouped the terrorist organizations, there were three clear major influences on forming an organization: Islam, Marxism, and Freedom.  It seems unlikely that becoming Muslim, Communist, or pro-Liberty is the cause of terrorism, as these types of people exist in most countries without terrorism.  So, it is more likely that some other set of factors promotes the creation of terrorists using Islam, Marxism, or Liberty as a tool for conversion.

So, what are the factors that make people Islamists, Marxists, or Revolutionaries?

Studies have shown that education or wealth are not strong predictors on whether someone becomes a terrorist.  In fact, it appears that most terrorists are middle-class and well-educated, which makes sense, as there’s nothing more entitled and selfish than trying to kill people to prove a point.  So, if poverty and education aren’t responsible, what promotes terrorism?

I assumed that the underlying cause of terrorism is one of personal unhappiness.  People must have given up all hope to kill people to affect change rather than using non-violent means.  Fortunately, the Legatum Institute, releases a yearly “Happiness” index.  It scores prosperity in countries based upon 8 subcategories:

  • Economy
  • Entrepreneurship and Opportunity
  • Governance
  • Education
  • Health
  • Safety and Security
  • Personal Freedom
  • Social Capital

I wanted to see if there was any correlation between terrorism and the 8 metrics of the Legatum index, in hopes of identifying certain factors that are responsible for increased terrorism in a country.  If you’re observant and wondering why the X-axis is numbered strangely, I had to plot the log of the number of attacks against the subcategory index score because the sheer number of attacks in Iraq were so much higher than any other country (~4000 in Iraq compared to an average of 70 for all other countries).

TerroristCountryData

After doing this, I found that there were only two relationships that were correlative, and both of them had a negative relationship: safety and security, and personal freedom.  Safety and security was a very strong relationship (p<0.01), most likely because number of terrorist attacks plays an important part in the calculation of safety and security in a country.  What is interesting is that there is a slight (but significant) correlation between personal freedom and number of terrorist attacks. The more a country values freedom of choice, expression, movement, and belief, the less likely a terrorist attack will occur there.  Societies that promote strong civil rights and individual freedoms have less terrorism.

So, I decided to look at the same index on a religious basis, by comparing the proportion of certain religions in a country against the Legatum Index.

ReligionIndex

Interestingly, there were extremely strong correlations (p<0.0001) when comparing a country’s Muslim population against 6 of the 8 Legatum subcategories.  The other 2 categories, Social Capital and Economy, were still quite significant, but had a weaker relationship (p<0.005).  It’s worth mentioning that all 8 showed a negative correlation between a country’s Muslim population and their “happiness”.  It’s hard to infer causality from correlations, but if you did, one of two possibilities exist: either Islam makes societies unhappy, or unhappy societies are more likely to become Muslim.

Meanwhile, there wasn’t a strong correlation between a country’s population and percentage that are Christian, with the exception of Education (p<0.005) and Personal Freedom (p<0.0001).  And there is no significant correlation to Hindu or Buddhist populations and any of the happiness scores (presumably because the numbers are so small).

I do think it’s interesting that relationships between Christianity and Islam compared to Personal Freedom go in similar, yet opposite, directions.  The more personal freedom a country has, the larger the Christian population, and the smaller the Muslim population.  Again, it’s unclear whether there is a causal effect of religion on the demand for personal freedoms, but it is clear that there is a strong and significant relationship between religion and personal freedoms.

TimelineCases

Lastly, to try and get at what were the causes of terrorism, I decided to look at timelines of a few countries to try and identify potential trends that lead to terrorism.  I looked at 6 countries that experienced terrorism to varying degrees and tried to identify possible causes for changes in the amounts of terrorism seen in these countries.  These countries were:

  • Iraq – If we compare a 12 year window prior to 2003, there were a total of 76 terrorist attacks killing 295 people, and injuring 470.  After the Iraq invasion by the US in 2003, there have been 3,745 attacks that have killed and injured over 25,000 people (again, using the strictly defined criteria for terrorism I used before).  Interestingly, when you look at the announcement of a planned US troop withdrawal in 2008, the number of attacks decreased.
  • Sri Lanka – Since 1983, Sri Lanka has intermittently been engaged in a civil war, with a revolutionary organization (the Tamil Tigers) fighting for independence of the ethnic Tamil minority.  So, identifying what is responsible for increased terrorism is difficult.  One clear impetus for the observed rise in terrorism in 2004 would be the tsunami that ravaged the country.  International relief was not equally distributed between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese population, which likely aggravated tensions leading to a rise in attacks after 2004.  Around 2008, the political leader of the Tamil Tiger movement, S. P. Tamilselvan, was killed, which began the dissolution of the resistance movement and led to a decrease in terrorism in the country.
  • Nigeria – Nigeria had been a relatively terrorist-free country until around 2005, when the Nigerian Oil Crisis served as a powder-keg for a rise in terrorist activity.  The years of unrest of an ethnically disenfranchised minority in the Nigerian delta, which was exploited by oil companies and the Nigerian government.  The conflict in Nigeria can be seen to be similar to that of Sri Lanka, with the rise and fall of the number of terrorist attacks coinciding with whether or not the leader of the Niger Delta independence movement (MEND), Henry Okah, was in prison or not.
  • Spain – Much like Nigeria and Sri Lanka, the number of attacks seen in Spain stem from a relationship that the Spanish government has with the minority Basque population.  Eta, the organization responsible for fighting for Basque independence, declared a ceasefire in 1998, which led to a decline in terrorist attacks until 2003, when the Spanish government banned Batasuna, the Basque Independence party, from elections. This temporarily increased attacks until a 2006 cease-fire was declared with Eta, which ended in 2008.  Terrorist attacks subsided in 2009, where the Basque regional parliament voted in the first non-nationalist government in 30 years, perhaps signaling a lack of support to the independence movement.
  • Thailand – Thailand also faced struggles handling its Muslim minority in the south, along with a harsh drug war that killed over 2500 people in 2003 followed by martial law imposition in 2004.  Instability of government along with corruption led to a military coup in 2006, and eventually a return to civilian rule in 2008.
  • Colombia – Colombia has had an ongoing civil war between a leftist paramilitary group called FARC.  In 2003, FARC announced that they would begin disarming which led to a decrease in attacks until 2007 peace talks failed that led to a rise in attacks.  In 2008, FARC leaders Raul Reyes and Manuel Marulanda both died, halting the FARC movement temporarily.  In 2009, FARC introduced Project Rebirth and began a widespread policy of attacking cities over the next two years.

Perhaps the biggest common thread among these 6 test cases is that terrorism stems from a disenfranchisement of a minority group.  This disenfranchisement leads to terrorism if the populations is particularly susceptible to Islamic, Marxist, or Revolutionary call to arms.  It appears the best approach to curbing terrorism is to either kill the figurehead(s) of prominent terrorist organizations or address the concerns of that disenfranchised minority.  As seen in Colombia, killing leadership only has a temporary effect on curbing terrorism.  However in Spain, Iraq, and Thailand, it appeared that improving democracy and removing the oppression leads to more permanent decreases in terrorism.

So, what does that mean for the US?  Do we have disenfranchised minorities?  Are we doing anything to address these issues, or are we just furthering their disenfranchisement?  I don’t really have an answer to these questions, but I think if we want to really fight a war on “terror”, we need to really understand what it is that we’re fighting.

Link

I’ve been in Facebook feuds for the better part of the week with Libertarians, pro-gun supporters, and any other right-wing trolls willing to argue with me.  Of all their arguments that rankled most, it was when they say “States with the most draconian gun laws had the highest rate of gun crimes.”  This didn’t make any sense to me, as Ezra Klein had the exact opposite take in the Washington Post last week.

So, I tried to find out more information on gun laws by state, and for the most part, there aren’t any.  The wording of Ezra Klein’s infographic is interesting, it says “at least 1 gun law in place”.  This is because most states have NO restrictions on guns.  Here are the breakdown of states with gun laws:

  • Only 4 states have assault weapons bans (CA, MA, NJ, NY).  Another 5 have some restrictions on assault weapons, including Connecticut.
  • Only 9 states requires some registration for owning a firearm (AZ, CA, CT, HI, MD, MI, NE, NY, SD)
  • Only 5 states requires a permit to own a firearm (HI, IL, MA, NJ, NY)

So, clearly, there are no DRACONIAN gun laws in the United States, and 28 states have no restrictions to gun ownership (when looking at requirement for permits to purchase or own firearms, waiting periods for purchase, bans on any specific types of weapons, or required registration of firearms). Hawaii, the state with the most laws on gun control, has a gun homicide rate at 0.51 per 100,000 people.

Nevertheless, I wanted to look if there was a correlation between gun laws and homicide in any given state.  So, I came up with a scoring matrix, where lack of any measure gave a state 2 points, and half-measures (such as Illinois banning of assault weapons in Cook County only) would earn the state 1 point.  I then looked at six questions:

  1. Are you required to register your firearm?
  2. Do you require a permit to possess firearms?
  3. Do you require a permit to purchase handguns?
  4. Do you require a permit to purchase rifles?
  5. Has the state banned assault weapons?
  6. Is there a waiting period for acquiring a gun?

So, based upon these six questions, I came up with a scale from 0-12 (0 being most draconian, 12 being no gun restrictions), I determined the relationship between gun laws and homicides.

First, there was no relationship between gun laws and homicide rate, but if you broke down the data it gets more interesting.  If you look at percent of all homicides that are caused by guns compared to homicides caused by knives, you get this:

Data 26

Interestingly, as gun laws get more restrictive (i.e. they go to 0), gun homicide as a percentage of all homicides decrease, while knife homicide as a percent of all homicides increases.  These relationships are not statistically significant, likely due to the crudeness of my “gun law” metric.  But this is interesting because it implies that more restrictive gun laws lead to more knife crime and less gun crime.

This supports the argument from pro-gun people who say “If there weren’t guns, the same thing would happen with knives.”  The problem with that argument is that if you sum up the knife homicide rate in all the states that have some form of restriction (i.e. on the scale from 0-11) you have 7 people killed out of every million people.  However, if you sum the gun homicide rate in all the states with no restriction (i.e. 12 on the gun law scale), you have 38 people killed out of every one million people.  So, if banning guns leads to knife crime, you would still get a 5 fold decrease in all homicides with any laws restricting access to guns.

I noticed something interesting when looking at the overall homicide rate, it varied pretty drastically from state to state (see below):

Homicide Map US

Looking at that map, I was trying to see if there was any commonality between homicide rate and states.  I also read a recent post from Nate Silver in the New York Times, which basically said that more white people than minorities owned guns.  I was curious about that statistic, so I explored whether there was a relationship between the percent of the population in that state that was a minority (based upon 2010 Census data), and homicide rate.

Data 27

Not only is there a relationship, but there is a shockingly strong relationship if you look at just the 28 states with no restrictive gun laws.  I wanted to compare to a control to see if this is some population specific affect, and when you compare number of movie theaters in a state (based upon BoxOfficeMojo, a site affiliated with IMDB), you see this:

Data 28

A very weak correlation that is drawn out by the outliers of Pennsylvania and Texas.  So, the effect from before was not a population effect.  One conclusion that could be drawn is that white people, particularly in states with high minority populations, live in a constant state of fear.  This leads to a demand for guns to protect themselves, and attitudes against any measure to restrict their ability to protect themselves.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report suggests that the majority of gun crimes is committed by ethnic minorities, which explains the strong association.  And these crimes are mostly black-on-black crimes.  A very small percentage of gun violence is committed interracially, though if it is, it is usually because the other race is a stranger.  So, the presence of minorities in a state means more gun violence, but most whites are pretty safe from this violence.

According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2011, it appears the most vocal gun supporters are white, with 54% demanding legislation protecting their right to own guns, while 30% of blacks and 21% of Hispanics asking for gun protection.  Most minorities requested more gun control measures (with 66% black and 75% Hispanics favoring this), compared to only 42% of white people who favor gun control measures. So, why are whites so vocal about owning guns if most gun homicides are committed within the black community, and most minorities don’t want as many guns in their community?

The problem with the gun debate is that there are two groups having two completely different debates.  Gun control advocates are saying “Guns are dangerous weapons and there should be some measures to control their access.”  Whereas, the NRA and their fringe supporters who fear any form of gun control say “Everyone is trying to kill me! I need a gun to protect myself before they get me! DON’T YOU DARE TRY AND STOP ME FROM GETTING GUNS!”

I don’t know how to reconcile the paranoia of the pro-gun advocates, but until we can convince them to calm down and put their guns away, we can’t have a serious discussion on guns in our society.  Gun control measures definitely reduce the number of gun homicides and overall homicides in states that have them.  And the measures I list as being restrictive, aren’t really that restrictive. I don’t see how having a registration for a firearm, or license to purchase a firearm can be seen as a draconian measure.  But again, I’m on the lunatic fringe that wants no guns in society.

Link

I was at a Brooklyn Nets game tonight, and the announcer asked for a moment of silence before the game for “one of the largest school shootings in recent memory.”  I don’t fault the announcer, but I am really appalled by the fact that you had to add qualifiers to that statement.  The fact that 28 people died today in an ELEMENTARY SCHOOL and it is not even the most amount of people that have been killed by maniacs is ridiculously unacceptable.  While I don’t think you can blame guns entirely for this disaster, I do believe limiting access to guns will dramatically reduce the likelihood of these types of disasters.

I’ve written before about gun violence and how the media is constantly hyping the violence which begets more violence in the long run.  So, to try and make a difference, I wrote a letter to my congressmen, which I welcome others to copy and send to their Congressional representatives.  If you don’t know who they are, click the links to find your House Representative by zip code or Senator by state.

The recommended length for letters to Congress is <1500 characters, so I tried to keep mine short:

Dear ________________________,

As your constituent, I felt it was my duty to write you a letter to express my desire for comprehensive gun reform.  While the 2nd amendment grants us the right to carry arms, this right is not unlimited. Guns were designed to kill things, and they do that very well, and in the hands of mentally ill people, they create disasters such as those seen in Sandy Hook, Aurora, Happy Valley (should I continue to list? I think you get the idea).

Unfettered access to guns allows deranged people to wreak havoc in our society. We should be focusing on the looming fiscal cliff, yet we’re talking about this.  I urge you to immediately promote the passage of a new assault weapons ban.  The criticism of the assault weapons ban is fair, as it did not effectively restrict access to semi-automatic assault weapons.  I would propose a new assault weapons ban that includes the following:

  • Universal background checks on all gun purchases (while most of the attackers we see do not have a history of criminal activity, it is a deterrent to those who seek access to guns for improper usage).
  • A universal ban on all semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines (no hunter or sportsman worth their salt needs a weapon like this to kill animals, so why do we need them in our society?)
  • Microstamping of bullets (40% of murder investigations are unsolved because of missing evidence.  Having identification on every bullet will improve the ability of law enforcement to track the point-of-sale for every bullet used to kill a person and aid in finding potential killers.)

I am tired of waking up each day hearing about a new shooting or killing that has happened in America.  Too many innocent lives have been lost because the gun industry has more influence on elected officials than their constituents.  I do not believe that you will put the needs of the citizens of __________________ above financial assurances of future election victories, so I beseech you to pursue gun reform legislation immediately.  Thank you very much,

____________________________

First blank is the elected official’s name, second is your state, third is your name.  I’m not trying to say that this is the definitive letter to Congress, but I think it’s so much easier to copy and paste a letter to your elected official than write one yourself.  So, hopefully you can help push for gun reform.  And I would recommend un-italicizing the letter, but whatever it takes to get you to harass congress about this, the better.

Also, I’ve attached an Excel spreadsheet of the money donated to each Congressman by the NRA (the aforementioned lobbying arm of the gun industry).  So, feel free to bring up their campaign money from the NRA in the letter if you feel it necessary.  Knowledge is power.  Good luck.

NRA Election Funding