Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Nasty "Do While" Loop

There is a cycle in politics. It goes something like this.

1. People get really, REALLY upset over something, often at the urging of power-hungry politicians but often rightfully so.

2. Politicians talk about the Urgent Need to Do Something about this Horrible Problem.

3. Politicians find a symbolic scapegoat, and tell the people that they alone are responsible for Everything You're Worried About.

4. After the thing politicians have fingered as being To Blame gets theirs, they congratulate themselves on a Job Well Done, since they've Struck a Blow against Evil.

5. Three years later, people realize that the symbolic scapegoating didn't, actually, get rid of the problem, and may have in fact made it worse.

6. Repeat.

There are so many examples of this cycle it could fill books, but the one that jumps out at me most is the recent censorship-by-threat of Craigslist's "adult services" section. So let's break it down in terms of the cycle.

People got - rightfully - upset about sex trafficking and exploitation that occur under the guise of prostitution. The solution to this problem, of course, is extremely complex, and may involve some counterintuitive measures (more on that later). But when politicians get talking about how we have to Do Something, it's easy to overlook sober analysis of facts and screw up royally.

Enter Craigslist, our scapegoat of the day. They've played this role before, of course, so that makes them an easy target. Politicians took aim, as we can see with the letter above, blaming Craigslist for the exploitation and victimization taking place on their site. Even non-profits such as the normally good Polaris Project got into the act. Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal, who is running for Chris Dodd's old Senate seat, congratulated himself on the results, calling it a "good first step."

Of course, the fly in all this ointment is Step 5, where we come to the slower-than-necessary realization that all this grandstanding against Craigslist actually made enforcement of human trafficking laws more difficult. Anti-trafficking and violence activist Danah Boyd explains it all:
It makes me scream when I think of how many resources have been used attempting to censor Craigslist instead of leveraging it as a space for effective law enforcement. During the height of the moral panic over sexual predators on MySpace, I had the fortune of spending a lot of time with a few FBI folks and talking to a whole lot of local law enforcement. I learned a scary reality about criminal activity online. Folks in law enforcement know about a lot more criminal activity than they have the time to pursue. Sure, they focus on the Big players, going after the massive collectors of child pornography who are most likely to be sex offenders than spending time on the small-time abusers. But it was the medium-time criminals that gnawed at them. They were desperate for more resources so that they could train more law enforcers, pursue more cases, and help more victims. The Internet had made it a lot easier for them to find criminals, but that didn’t make their jobs any easier because they were now aware of how many more victims they were unable to help. Most law enforcement in this area are really there because they want to help people and it kills them when they can’t help everyone.

Boyd discusses the importance of visibility in fighting human trafficking, and that's something that I think a lot of politicians would just as soon avoid. If you increase the visibility of human trafficking, it does a lot of real-world good, because now law enforcement can find it and stop it a lot more easily. But that also lays bare to a lot of people the reality of human trafficking that's already there. But the emotional reaction to visibility is something along the lines of "GAAAAH GET RID OF IT!!!!" So politicians react by suppressing visibility - after all, that makes the problem appear to go away immediately. As a result, they successfully shut down an arena that could have been used by law enforcement to help trafficked and abused women in the sex trade. It's a sweeping-the-dust-under-the-rug solution, instead of the real solution Boyd proposes:
Censoring Craigslist will do absolutely nothing to help those being victimized, but it will do a lot to help those profiting off of victimization. Censoring Craigslist will also create new jobs for pimps and other corrupt intermediaries, since it’ll temporarily make it a whole lot harder for individual scumbags to find clients. This will be particularly devastating for the low-end prostitutes who were using Craigslist to escape violent pimps. Keep in mind that occasionally getting beaten up by a scary john is often a whole lot more desirable for many than the regular physical, psychological, and economic abuse they receive from their pimps. So while it’ll make it temporarily harder for clients to get access to abusive services, nothing good will come out of it in the long run.

If you want to end human trafficking, if you want to combat nonconsensual prostitution, if you care about the victims of the sex-power industry, don’t cheer Craigslist’s censorship. This did nothing to combat the cycle of abuse. What we desperately need are more resources for law enforcement to leverage the visibility of the Internet to go after the scumbags who abuse. What we desperately need are for sites like Craigslist to be encouraged to work with law enforcement and help create channels to actually help victims. What we need are innovative citizens who leverage new opportunities to devise new ways of countering abusive industries. We need to take this moment of visibility and embrace it, leverage it to create change, leverage it to help those who are victimized and lack the infrastructure to get help. What you see online should haunt you. But it should drive you to address the core problem by finding and helping victims, not looking for new ways to blindfold yourself. Please, I beg you, don’t close your eyes. We need you.
I can't say it any better than that.

There's a saying that talks about how emotion is the engine for politics, and rationality is the steering wheel. The political solution to this issue was all engine and no steering wheel, and now our fight against human trafficking is wrapped around a tree and needs a tow truck.

The sad part of all this is that our political process was set up expressly to value rationality over emotionality in decision-making. The slowness of our legislative process and our justice system serve the purpose of allowing people to inspect their initial emotional response for its actual meaning, and act rationally to solve the problem that created that response. It appears, though, that we routinely elect people without the political will to act rationally. Which means, of course, that unless we listen to sober voices like Boyd's, a couple of years from now we'll be reading another story about how there's so much human trafficking online and we have to shut down so-and-so platform in order to stop it.

Also read: Lori at Feministing's take.

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