Sep 29, 2023Liked by Darrell Owens

Male psychology: these young men derive their sense of dignity and self-worth from the heightened sense of power that comes from violence. Providing more mental health resources to these communities would surely be helpful at the individual level, but as far as solutions go, it's laughable to suggest it would result in a significant reduction in violence. What these men need is the opportunity to take real risks and have real power [1].

Conservatives dunk on poor urban communities by attacking their family structure, and while I agree that the low marriage rates are a direct causal result of a lack of economic opportunities for young men in these communities, I am pessimistic about the efficacy of throwing money at these communities in the form of tax credits, because it doesn't address the fundamental psychological needs of these men. It's the same reason why the working poor hate people who rely on government benefits (ala Oliver Anthony, or see [2]).

Restricting gun sales is insufficient. Ignoring the fact that it's a complete non-starter at the federal level, most of the guns used in gang-related homicides are illegally acquired [3]. As it turns out, cracking down on illegal firearms is a proven effective way to reduce violence in cities. But the methods involved are likely to be labeled as racist, by the same people (educated progressive technocrats) who are interested in improving the lives of people in these communities.

Which leads me to: What problem are we trying to solve, and for whom? If it's a reduction in violent crime in cities, then the answer is pretty straightforward: more police, and policing focused on random searches and removing firearms. But I suspect the program here is a bit more ambitious: How do we improve the lives of men in these communities, such that we break the cycle of urban violence? While I applaud the well-intentioned and genuine concern shown here for these individuals, I am pessimistic about the tenability of a policy solution. And I also think it's--though unintentionally--hugely disrespectful to these communities. People like you and me are outsiders to this community. The conservatives are cruel to suggest that the bootless should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but it's also condescending and humiliating to think that you can solve their problems for them.

I have no good solution. But it's also not my problem to solve: not because I am indifferent, but because I respect the humanity and right to self-determination of a group of people that I do not belong to.

[1] Charles Johnston, "Addicted to Violence: Has the American Dream Become a Nightmare", Center for Media Literacy https://www.medialit.org/reading-room/addicted-violence-has-american-dream-become-nightmare

[2] Lisa R Pruitt, "What Republicans Know (and Democrats Don’t) About the White Working Class", Politico Magazine https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/06/24/democrats-white-working-class-00041807

[3] Matt Yglesias, "The Illegally Carried Handguns are the Problem", Slow Boring Substack https://www.slowboring.com/p/the-illegally-carried-handguns-are

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Missed this thread but I agree with a lot of it and I agree with the Yglesias piece that we need to stop putting such disproportionate focus on mass shootings when handguns are the primary problem.

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"What these men need is the opportunity to take real risks and have real power". What does this mean in a practical sense? There are many communities of people where "the opportunity to have real power" would seem slight, but only a minority of those communities have serious problems with violence. What chance does a rice farmer in India or a Kentucky coal minor have to "have real power"? Not much, but levels of violence in those communities are far lower than in Oakland.

"while I agree that the low marriage rates are a direct causal result of a lack of economic opportunities for young men in these communities". Again - there's barely correlation and no evidence of a causal relationship. Marriage rates were much higher in urban Black communities prior to the 70s despite the ups and downs of the great depression, legal and de facto discrimination, etc.. And marriage rates aren't suddenly recovering as the lower ends of the job market are at a recent peak.

"right to self-determination of a group of people that I do not belong to". What group of people do you belong to? How do you decide which people in society you're allowed to influence in some way?

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Old comment but regarding the point on Kentucky farmers. Youth violence and delinquency among white children was common back when they were in crowded urban areas, and usually closer to their original European immigrant heritage. In general, being in rural areas and poor doesnt seem to correlate high with violence due to the lack of proximity around others.

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Based on the number of questions you've raised here, it sounds like you are skeptical of my thesis, which I will try to restate more clearly: the problem of urban violence among young (typically minority) men is psychological in origin. It's not something that can be sufficiently addressed with more resources (in the form of cash or mental health counselors). Policy solutions (in the form of gun control, or perhaps more importantly, enforcing laws on gun ownership) can help reduce the levels of violence, but don't address the underlying nihilism that make violence appealing to these young men. At the heart of this issue is what I would call a crisis of meaning.

Though I don't think this was your intention, the Kentucky coal miner you mention offers an interesting parallel (I can't say I know much about rice farming in India). Coal mining is a dangerous profession, but it is also valorized in coal mining communities. It is also a dying industry, and its death has been accompanied by a rise in the rates of "deaths of despair" (suicide, drug/alcohol abuse, overdose) in coal mining towns.

From my perspective, valorizing coal mining is completely illogical. It has cut down many young men in their prime, in the name of extracting a resource that pollutes the air, contributes to climate change, and leaves behind toxic ash. But it is nonetheless valorized. I'm sure deploying some therapists to these communities would help reduce the levels of suicide or drug addiction, but there would still be a vacuum of meaning. What comes next for these towns that were built entirely around the coal industry? Where do they go now?

I don't have a good answer. And I'm not saying you shouldn't be allowed to try to influence other communities, or support people who share different beliefs or values than yourself. But you should take into account their cultural beliefs and their psychology, or you are going to sound clueless. In the case of the Kentucky coal miners, I can tell you that if you go there and tell them to "learn to code," that probably will not be received well.

I used to live in Baltimore, and anyone who's ever visited the city is has been made aware of the so-called "squeegie boys", middle-school Black boys who clean your windshield (without your consent, at times directly against your wishes) while you're idling at a stoplight, and then harass you for payment. Last year, the city finally had enough complaints about the squeegie boys and decided to ban the practice. The squeegie boys were then directed to a large jobs fair, where they were encouraged to apply for jobs with DoorDash and HelloFresh. Although I always understood these squeegie boys to be pests, I also knew what their deal was. These kids owned nothing, had no chance of ever owning anything. So they claimed the streets for themselves. This was their only way of being seen by the rest of the city, making their presence felt.

The only "legitimate" path for these young men currently is as invisible wage serfs in a gig economy. These young men have low self-worth because that's what society says. Even if they managed to get an education and middle class job, they'd still exist in a society that thinks very little of the community they were raised in. Worse, they'd lose a lot of their sense of identity in the process. No wonder they choose violence. I don't think these neighborhoods can improve without outside help, but I also think the outside help needs to better understand the cultural beliefs and psychology involved, rather than projecting their own ideas onto the group.

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Thanks for the thoughtful reply, hopefully I can be as clear in better summarizing my critique. I agree that material and policy levers are insufficient in explaining why some communities are plagued by higher levels of violence. There are far too many counter-examples for those sorts of explanations to be "the Answer".

But I don't agree that these psychological explanation hold up either, at least not as a useful framework. I suppose everything is psychology on some level, just as every physical science is ultimately Physics. So on that level I am forced to agree. But the specifics don't hold up in the same way that the materialist explanations don't hold up.

Neither of clearly know what's in the head of the squeegee boys. But I would be far less surprised than you if their psychological profile was little different from other boys who aren't particularly advantaged but nonetheless tend very little towards violence. Many young men on both sides of the Mexican border would meet that description. The US side is today both one of the most impoverished and lowest violence areas of the US, and the Mexican side today is very violent due to Cartel Wars but only a generation ago was much less violent than Oakland.

The better framework, imho, in understanding tendencies to violence, is culture, just as the best framework to understanding, say cancer, is biology and not physics, even if physics underpins all biology as psychology underpins culture. Plenty of young men in a million places around the world are equally disadvantaged, outcasted or looked down upon, whether because of class, caste, race, religion or a lack of cash. In some places they follow in the footsteps of their fathers and take to violence. In others they don't, and it's the cultural norms that most clearly predict that tendency.

So I aguess I agree with much of your take when you frame it as culture, but really disagree when you frame the issues as psychology. People from advantaged backgrounds are also depressed, outcast or deal with anger management for their whole lives, but they don't learn to express that in deadly violence from role models. Safe neighborhoods aren't places that have learned to eradicate negative emotions or toxic masculinity, they are simply places where norms of violence don't exist.

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Sep 28, 2023·edited Sep 28, 2023Liked by Darrell Owens

I look at the statistics and 2/3 of all gun deaths are suicides, which is another problem, and then half the remaining (1/2 of 1/3) are already identified criminals killing other criminals, both sides probably in the group you described here (some in poor communities of other ethnicities), half the remaining after that (1/4 of 1/3) are domestic violence, half the remaining after that are police killings, and it gets fuzzy after that. A significant fraction of what remains are self defense.

From a harm reduction point of view, if we don’t overturn the second amendment (which I oppose for reasons) you need ways to peacefully (and potentially temporarily) disarm the serious suicidal depressive folks; then break the cycle you describe well here, then get weapons and vulnerable partners away from domestic abusers. Then teach police how to deescalate and use force less and less force when force is necessary. Pilot programs show a very significant decrease there.

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