I’m with Stupid, and So Are You

Campus Security approached me last week just as I was about to start class, in search of a certain student enrolled in the class. As the student hadn’t yet arrived, I was asked to tell the student to report immediately to the Dean of Students–an office located some fifteen minutes away on a different campus. The student showed up about five minutes later. It seemed a matter of great urgency, so I gave him the message as soon as I could. Chastened, he left, missing a fascinating class–on the ad baculum fallacy.

It turns out that my student was being called to the Dean of Students on suspicion of being a moderately active shooter. Apparently, he’s been having difficulty lately with his roommate. During a conversation with a friend on the phone, the topic of firearms came up. On overhearing an ambiguous phrase during this conversation involving the word “guns,” the disgruntled roommate reported my student to Security. And so, my student was brought before the Dean of Students to answer for the loose gun-talk he’d been engaging in on the phone. Luckily, the discussion went sufficiently well to exonerate him of any serious threat, so he showed up today in class to tell the tale. It could have been worse. He could have been arrested!

Welcome to the New Normal. Mention the word “gun,” and in due course, you’re under investigation by someone. Because who, in this gun-obsessed culture, would have reason to mention guns unless he intended to become an active shooter?

I’m being a bit flippant here. You can hardly blame the university’s admin and staff for doing its due diligence. What if they’d missed the signals that my student was an active shooter, and he’d shot up half of campus? Of course, if you really suspected someone of being an active shooter, how much sense would it make to ask for their voluntary cooperation in driving from the Lodi to the Rutherford campus, appearing at the Dean’s Office, and having a calmly re-assuring conversation with the Dean about one’s benign intentions?

It wouldn’t. On the other hand, having over-reacted in one case (mine), I suppose it wouldn’t do to over-react in another. I mean, it’s not as though you can call the police every time you hear some loose talk on campus about guns, can you? The dilemma in such situations is that  you can’t do nothing, but there’s no something it makes sense to do. The obvious option is do what it makes no sense to do. Which only induces a certain kind of irresponsible smart-ass to  write snarky blog posts about the senselessness of what you’ve done.

Remember this whole complex dynamic the next time someone tells you that “the system failed” because law enforcement missed all those “signals” indicating that Nikolas Cruz was going to kill someone. In fact, the “system” tells people that when they see or hear “something,” they’re to say “something.” It doesn’t tell them what they should be looking for. Nor does it tell them what counts as something worth reporting. Put another way, it doesn’t tell anyone to use their brains, and doesn’t tell them how to use those brains if they happen to try. It tells them that if they see something that makes them “uncomfortable,” they can achieve the comfort they desire by dialing a number and snitching on someone.

In other words, the method that gets us porn and pizza delivery has now been recruited to get us security against active shooters and terrorists. It doesn’t “actively” seem to work, but it would–if only we could eat security, put toppings on it, or get off on it.

Against stupidity, as Schiller put it, the gods fight in vain. Consider the possibility that the real enemy we face arises neither from sleeper cells nor active shooters, but from active stupidity. And let’s face it–you can’t expect law enforcement to succeed where the gods themselves admit defeat. Eventually, the gods figured out that there’s no final answer to the question, “How stupid can you get?” We’re still marching toward the furthest horizons of the answer. It’s been a long road so far. But there’s no stopping us.

2 thoughts on “I’m with Stupid, and So Are You

  1. A Facebook friend posted an article skeptical of the supposed “epidemic” of recent school shootings. I agreed, and suggested that the term “epidemic” was better applied to the rash of false alarms prompted by the Parkland (and other) shootings. That prompted a query from another Facebook friend about false alarms, so here’s a quick compilation of them.

    One, of course, is the original post just above. I only happened to hear about it by chance; I’m sure there have been (and will be) more of its kind on my campus all by itself. Another is the recounting I gave of my own detention/arrest at Felician in November.

    Here is the skeptical New York magazine piece that my Facebook friend posted:

    Here’s a piece in The New York Times that describes a “surge” of false alarms:

    Another one from a few weeks back:

    Here’s an update on the Cherry Hill, New Jersey case that I linked to in the post:
    The facts in this case now appear suddenly in dispute. But there’s no disputing that a false alarm was involved. The real question, I suppose, is whether the school authorities will ever allow the facts to come out.

    Here’s another case, also from New Jersey:

    Another one, from Nutley, New Jersey:

    Another story, taken at random, from Ohio:

    And one from Connecticut:

    It’s more or less a given in rumor studies that major events (9/11, the Parkland shootings) are followed by a spate of (mostly false) rumors of related events. Despite the criticisms made of it, the “Allport-Postman Law” applies here.

    Allport and Postman called their most far-reaching assertion “the basic law of rumor.” It declared that rumor strength (R) will vary with the importance of the subject to the individual concerned (i) times the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining to the topic at hand (a), or R ≈ i × a.

    Problems arise when you combine the Allport-Portman law with slogans like “If You See Something, Say Something,” and then combine both with a highly discretionary conception of criminal procedure as applied to anonymous tips. The predictable result is mass hysteria.



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