Wednesday, January 30, 2013

You Keep Using That Word; I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

The word I’m thinking of is “security.”

It can only have been a concern for — or should I say, a hypersensitivity to — security that last week made a fellow Quantas Airways passenger perceive an actual threat in Wynand Mullins’ t-shirt bearing the famous The Princess Bride quotation:
I suppose it’s not too hard to imagine someone not recognizing the quote, even though it’s from a much- beloved comedy and has been in circulation for over a quarter century; what is hard to imagine is that a passenger could think the line, printed on a shirt in the form of the ubiquitous “Hello, My Name Is…” sticker/badge, could possibly be a true threat, merely because it contains the word die. Even presuming the passenger wasn’t aware that it was a movie quote, didn’t the flight attendant who took the complaint know that? Did the complaining passenger think this “threat,” proudly emblazoned on Mullins’ chest, had been missed or ignored by the security personnel, gate agents, and flight crew that Mullins had passed on the way to his seat?

This ultimately turned into a no-harm/no-foul situation — Mullins wasn’t bothered further after he explained the line to the flight attendant and said he didn’t have another shirt to change into — and it would be easy to write it off as a cute little human interest story. But when I hear stories like this, I find myself thinking about the peculiar ways we understand risk and seek security.  One of my favorite audiobooks is Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. Leaning heavily on the pioneering work of cognitive scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Gardner exposes our tendency to misperceive and misunderstand risks, often leading us to"fix" things that are not problems (or at least, not statistically likely to be significant problems) while blissfully ignoring genuine threats.

Thus the absurdity of forcing old folks and small children to half disrobe before boarding an airplane, or of school zero tolerance policies that punish children for "weapons" that are actually simple tools and "drugs" that in fact are innocent (and parentally approved) over-the-counter remedies.¹

As we embark on the shared cultural problem of responding meaningfully to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, I fear we'll make the same kind of mistakes, turning our schools into locked-down prisons, at a steep cost to their intended primary role, while doing nothing to alter the sea of guns they head out into when they leave for home. Events like Newtown always prompt calls for more school security, in the form of locked doors, closed campuses, armed guards, and the like, and it's hard to argue against "tighter security in our schools"... but I can't help wondering if students aren't more at risk from the conversion of an open learning environment into a tense and guarded fortification than they are from actual murderers. As the Centers for Disease Control put it:
While shocking and senseless shootings give the impression of dramatic increases in school-related violence, national surveys consistently find that school-associated homicides have stayed essentially stable or even decreased slightly over time.

According to the CDC’s School Associated Violent Death Study, less than 1 percent of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds or on the way to and from school. So the vast majority of students will never experience lethal violence at school. [emphasis added]
Horrific as they are, school shootings and spree killings are rare. What's not rare, in the U.S. at least, is a loaded gun in a nightstand, a cabinet, a car glovebox, or a coat pocket. Are we going to, once again, focus on emotionally satisfying "fixes" to illusory problems while blithely ignoring the more pedestrian, but much more present and deadly, real threat?


¹ Mind you, I always skeptically assume the horror stories about this are largely apocryphal, or at least that there's more subtlety in the details than in the popular retelling... but even allowing for such "windage," it seems likely that zero tolerance policies in general reflect confused thinking about risk.

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