Thursday, February 24, 2011

MYOB isn't always the best policy.

One of the problems with platitudes about life is that life is more complex than they allow. Consider one that is popular with libertarian types: MYOB or Mind Your Own Business.

It’s not a bad rule if it is properly understood. But often I think it is misunderstood. There are most certainly times when you should NOT mind your own business.

Think about the obvious ones: you see an adult physically assaulting a child. Clearly you don’t want to mind your own business. You need to do something to stop the assault on the child. You have to judge how you do that, but minding your business would be monstrous under these circumstances. Perhaps you merely wish to call the police. Or, perhaps, you feel you have to intervene immediately.

Similarly there are times you ought not intervene.

One of the more interesting television shows is the reality show What Would You Do? It is interesting because the show sets up moral dilemmas for unsuspecting members of the public and then watches how they react.

Often people are heroes who make a stand for what is right. Too often there are just nasty, unpleasant people who turn a blind eye. Worse, some condone the cruelties they witness.

Often the show sets up scenarios where the moral imperative is to intervene. For instance, a teenage boy is seen screaming at his girlfriend in public, she is crying and he is threatening to hit her if she doesn’t obey him. People do step in. Sometimes they watch for a second, some just immediately call the police. But others immediately intervene.

I faced this dilemma once while in New York City. I was at NYU for a seminar and had taken a lunch break and was walking through Washington Square with its famed arch. A boy of about 13 was practicing tennis against the arch. His father was standing there pouring out the most abusive, screaming, tirades I had ever heard directed at a child. The whole reason was that the boy wasn’t perfect with his tennis strokes.

I first heard the shouting from a distance and looked around to see what was happening. I could see the boy cowering from this bully of a father, trying to make him happy. But this jerk kept screaming at the frightened boy. People were close to them. Some were only a few yards away. They all tried to pretend that nothing was happening. Maybe they thought they were minding their own business.

I was furious and when I get furious I rush in first, think later. I came barreling down on this bully and unleashed an equally vituperative volley of verbal assaults on him. As I got closer and closer he started backing away—typically cowardly of bullies like him. I truly felt like slapping this asshole across the face with a 2 x 4. The poor boy was terrified and like so many abused kids starting apologizing for his father and telling me that he, the boy, was the one at fault.

The poor kid wanted to blame himself for the monster that he witnessed in his father. I turned to the boy and said: “Don’t ever say that. It’s not your fault. It’s his fault!” I pointed at the trembling bully when I said it. People in the park watched the whole incident.

I walk away and not two minutes later I heard this jerk of a father starting over again. I turned back; ready to pounce on the jerk. Then I saw a man who had previous witnessed my altercation with the man heading it that direction. He immediately started telling off the father. He acted because my actions gave him moral permission to do so.

But in an episode of What Would You Do? the situation was turned around, sort of. When shouldn’t you intervene?

In this case they had a woman in a wheelchair with a physical handicap. An actress would play a customer who wouldn’t leave the woman alone, always wanting to “help” her. She was insisting on helping even when the woman was telling her to please stop. They then showed how other shoppers responded to this “well-intentioned” woman who wouldn’t mind her own business. The woman in the wheelchair neither needed, nor wanted the help being offered.

There is a lesson in that as well. Yes, we ought intervene when someone is being attacked by others. But, when they are doing fine on their own, and they don’t want you help then MYOB is quite appropriate.

This is what government can’t understand. They seem unable to make that sort of distinction. This is why government is such a pathetic problem-solver, often doing more harm than the problem it attempts to solve.

They see a girl being raped and they intervene. But they define her voluntary relationship with her boyfriend as rape and intervene even when she begs them not to do so. Politicians see individuals who exploited children to make pornography and ban it. But then they equally punish teens who take nude photos of themselves and punish them like rapists.

The obvious difference is helping people against their will. Government has trouble operating with moral nuances. It kills flies with sledgehammers. Now, there may be times to swing a sledgehammer at a problem, but often there are times when that is not wise. Government views life as black and white, not the multiple shades of gray that actually exist. So it is constantly swinging a sledgehammer that does far more harm than good.

Consider the young boy in Colorado with anger issues. His therapist told the boy to draw a picture expressing his anger, to release the anger. The boy got pissed at his teacher—given the state of government schools that is often a justified emotion. He few a picture of a stick figure with a gun and wrote: “teacher must die.” Remember, there was NO indication that he would, or even could do anything to carry this out. He finished the drawing, felt better and was throwing it away.

The teacher took the drawing from him. She talked to the parents and the therapist even confirmed the situation. Everyone was fine, and then the police stuck their nose into things. The child was then arrested and jailed while the parents scrambled to get him out. Police in particular seem to find it difficult to make moral judgments. They rush in, fists flying, when often a simple word or two would solve the problem. Now that government schools are acting more like cops than educators they are adopting the same “zero tolerance” mentality that infects the police.

Take the situation of another student, 15 year-old Nick Stuban. Stuban was suspended for buying one capsule of a synthetic compound that supposedly mimics pot. The product was legal, by the way. No laws were broken.

School officials had heard rumors of illegal drugs and investigated, not finding those they did discover that Stuban had purchased this legal substance and then questioned him, and had him sign a statement, without his parent’s present. This, by the way, is one of the most evil and dangerous features of government schools. The schools act as if they are police officers, but without any of the legal restraints that cops would have. They are doing a policing end-run around the Constitution. All employees at government schools are government employees or agents of the government. But the courts pretend they are not.

A teacher takes a cell phone from a 17-year-old girl and searches it without a warrant or probably cause. The courts say the teacher doesn’t need them. Teacher discovers a photo of the girl topless and shrieks “child porn” and calls in the police officer that is now often routinely stationed in schools to arrest children. The police officer looks at the photo and arrests the girl as a child pornographer and her life is ruined, as she is place on a sex offender list for the rest of her earthly existence.

Stuban was active in Boy Scouts, active on the football team, but these activities took place on campus. With a signed “confession” the school instantly suspended for 10 days and said they would suspend him completely. The appeal process took weeks. The 10 days turned into 20 days. Nick felt increasingly isolated from his friends.

The “zero tolerance” sledgehammer convinced many of Nick’s peers that something far worse had to have happened, otherwise the school wouldn’t act this way—a naïve view of government education. The education bureaucrats who have the kids and parents by the throat say they are merely “helping” the kids. An attorney who has worked with such cases said that the people being “helped” “feel very often that they are in the middle of criminal prosecution.”

The pressure built up for Nick. His mother was on a ventilator suffering from ALS. She struggled to stay alive telling her family she did it because she wanted to live long enough to see Nick graduate high school. The school bureaucrats and their sledgehammer made it appear that Nick would never graduate. Nick’s father, Steve, was confused. The school said they had no idea what the substance was that they were prosecuting Nick over. Steve said, “You have an infraction, you don’t know what the substance is and you arbitrarily apply the harshest standard to it.” Yes, that is the government sledgehammer.

A disciplinary hearing was held and school bureaucrats warned the family against bringing an attorney by the bureaucrats. They foolishly listened. Steve says the hearing turned accusatory and vicious. Sandy Stuban started crying in her wheelchair. Nick started crying. The school officials, no doubt, were proud of their sledgehammer.

Two more weeks dragged on before the bureaucrats told the family anything. Nick would be assigned to another school, where he couldn’t be with any of his friends. The bureaucrats thought they were being lenient. Steve told Nick, “There’s no way to win.” Depressed the teen actually did turn to drugs, something that wasn’t the case before. He was trying to find a way to ease the depression and pain he was suffering. The boy texted a friend that he wanted to take his life. The family took him to a psychiatric hospital where he diagnosed as clinically depressed. They treated him and advised counseling, which Nick started.

Nick took his own life, describing how much pain he was in and how unfair life was. Nick didn’t understand. Life is neither fair nor unfair, it merely is. People are fair, or unfair. In this case the government officials who pretend to be educators were the ones who were unfair. They used the sledgehammer.

They were morally and intellectually incapable of telling when help is needed and when it is intrusive. But that is how government is.

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