Both policy and hysteria tend to be driven by change, whether it’s a one-off incident like 9/11 that is so shocking that it demands action, or year over year increases in crime. With the former, there’s a huge tendency to over-react, allowing hysteria to seize control over the recognition that it’s more shocking than significant. The latter, however, presents more sober challenges.
First, there’s the problem of numbers, whether it’s the seemingly large percentage change resulting from there being low absolute numbers. This was the case with police killings, where the numbers are so low that a small change in real numbers creates a percentage change that makes it appear as if there is a huge change. Without both real numbers and percentage change, the numbers do little to inform us, and are far more likely to inflame people without illuminating whether there is a real problem.
But the other change is in definition. As has been discussed here many times, when someone talks about rape, are they speaking to forcible rape or post-hoc regret rape? Even if you’re of the view that both are rape, they remain rape of a very different species. By expanding the definition, the numbers will increase not because of an increase in incidence, but a broader definition.
The same is true for child abuse.
A new study found a nearly fourfold increase in confirmed reports of child abuse on the Saturdays immediately after the distribution of report cards at Florida public schools.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, focused on children ages 5 to 11 and relied on reports called in to the Florida Department of Children and Families abuse hotline during the 2015-16 academic year.
Not to suggest that abuse doesn’t happen, there being plenty of people who should never have been allowed to reproduce, but individual cases of outrageous abuse aside, is there really a fourfold increase? The gravamen of the story is about how bad grades are the impetus for punishment, and this doesn’t seem to be either surprising or a reach. But is corporeal punishment in response to bad grades child abuse?
Your grandparents lived in a world where “spare the rod and spoil the child” was the norm. It was harsh. Getting spanked with your father’s belt was common in my youth, when dad would whip it off and say something banal like, “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” It wasn’t true.
While the cultural norm has shifted away from corporal punishment, and spanking a child is now deemed abusive, not to mention counterproductive, the message hasn’t filtered through to everyone, and some people still believe that it’s a parent’s prerogative and the proper way to discipline a child. They aren’t being more abusive, but the definition of abuse has expanded to include what they believe to be proper punishment.
While on the subway the other evening, a young woman startled her end of the car by screaming at a man sitting across from her, “stop staring at me?” We all looked up and, of course, stared at her, and then him. She was quite odd looking, with long hair of seemingly random changes from brown to blond, that probably looked more natural on its original owner. He just looked bewildered.
Mashable named it one of their 14 “innovations” that helped make “the world a better place in 2018,” a new taxonomy for language about sexual violence at work.
This from National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Urban Institute created improved ways of categorizing reports of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault that happen at work. In a big move for a company notoriously plagued with sexual misconduct in the workplace, Uber provided NSVRC and the Urban Institute with internal reports and data to inform the taxonomy.
Included in the classification of “sexual violence at work” was the category, “staring or leering.” It’s now official; “stare rape” is sexual violence, as is flirting, asking personal questions and the attempted touching of a non-sexual body part, such as, I guess, hand-shaking. Not only will this be sufficient cause for termination, if not public castigation, but it will be included in an empirical analysis of the prevalence of sexual violence.
Was I a witness to sexual violence on the subway? It’s all according to how one defines it. Is it a crime to stare? What constitutes a stare from a look, or a leer? Many such offenses are popularly defined by the sensibilities of the victim, whether it made her feel uncomfortable, but this provides no clue to the “perpetrator” of stare rape that he’s looked beyond the point of acceptability to that particular “survivor” and should have averted his eyes.
We’ve come to rely on empiricism to guide policy, as it’s far less susceptible to logical fallacies than anecdotal evidence, the good-old “appeal to emotion” that has driven our choices forever. But empiricism requires us to compare apples to apples, not throwing a women to the ground in a dark alley with looking at her weird hair for longer than she would prefer on a subway. Using a cigarette to burn and torture a child is hardly the same as a smack on the buttocks.
But when we’re told that child abuse or sexual violence has increased, and there’s a study to prove it, the taxonomy obscures the substance. This isn’t to suggest that any particular conduct is acceptable, or should be, but that we no longer know what conduct is being studied, what the underlying claim is about. Certainly no one would find a significant increase in sexual violence in the workplace acceptable, but would that include the 2018 inclusion of staring?
Maybe the innovation that would make the world a better place in 2019 would be a realization that we’re being gamed by the rhetorical abuse of empiricism, compelling us to believe, and make policy choices, based on the conflation of benign conduct and serious conduct with a very scary taxonomy. We can call the innovation “honesty.”