In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond accompanies a landlord who rents several properties to low-income individuals in Milwaukee to eviction court. People who are being evicted have the option to appear in court to defend themselves from unfair evictions and unfair rental agreements. The problem, however, is that almost no renters ever show up to defend themselves in eviction court. Regarding the problem, he writes:
“Courts have shown little interest in addressing the fact that the majority of tenants facing eviction never show up. If anything, they have come to depend on this because each day brings a pile of eviction cases, and the goal of every person working in housing court, no matter where their sympathies lie, is just to get through the pile because the next day another pile will be there waiting. The principle of due process has been replaced by mere process: pushing cases through.”
It is easy to simply dismiss this issue. It is easy to complain that people being evicted are lazy, irresponsible, and should have to show up if they really care about avoiding eviction. It is easy not to feel sympathy for people who make poor decisions, who may use drugs or be unemployed, and can’t keep up with rent payments when the rest of us have to work hard and go to our jobs in order to buy groceries, pay the rent or mortgage, and keep out of debt.
However, what Desmond notes is that this is an issue of due process, a constitutional provision backed up by two Constitutional Amendments. The right to due process is so important that it is in the Constitution twice, yet it is an afterthought for people facing eviction. There are numerous reasons why tenants don’t show up to represent themselves in eviction court, and some of those reasons are technical in nature, the results of unequal power dynamics, or stem from other addressable aspects of human nature. Whatever the reason, the high rate of no-shows in court demonstrates that due process is not being upheld, that people’s constitutional rights are being violated. None of us would find it acceptable if we had to clear numerous hurdles to be afforded a constitutional right, but that is what we accept with the failures of eviction court. Throughout the book Desmond shows that many people truly do care, but that the crushing workload and a never-ending stream of low-income renters being evicted makes the process overwhelming. As the quote shows, this leads to a prioritization of getting the work done rather than upholding the rights of poor people.
My last post was about epistemic insouciance, being indifferent to whether or not your beliefs, statements, and ideas are accurate or inaccurate. Epistemic insouciance, Quassim Cassam argues in Vices of the Mind is an attitude. It is a disposition toward accurate or false information that is generally case specific.
In the book, Cassam distinguishes between lies and epistemic insouciance. He writes, “lying is something that a person does rather than an attitude, and the intention to conceal the truth implies that the liar is not indifferent to the truth or falsity of his utterances. Epistemic insouciance is an attitude rather than something that a person does, and it does imply an indifference to the truth or falsity of one’s utterances.”
The distinction is helpful when we think about people who deliberately lie and manipulate information for their own gain and people who are bullshitters. Liars, as the quote suggests, know and care about what information is true and what is false. They are motivated by factors beyond the accuracy of the information, and do their best within their lies to present false information as factual.
Bullshitters, however, don’t care whether their information is accurate. The tools that work to uncover inaccurate information and counter a liar don’t work against a bullshitter because of their epistemic insouciance. Liars contort evidence and create excuses for misstatements and lies. Bullshitters simply flood the space with claims and statements of varying accuracy. If confronted, they argue that it doesn’t matter whether they lied or not, and instead argue that their information was wrong, that they didn’t care about it being wrong, and as a result they were not actually lying. This creates circular arguments and distracts from the epistemic value of information and the real costs of epistemic insouciance. Seeing the difference between liars and epistemically insouciant bullshitters is helpful if we want to know how to address those who intentionally obstruct knowledge.
“Focusing only on this smaller aspect and ignoring the much larger causes is one of the reasons why our responses to this crisis are failing so badly,” writes Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. The smaller aspect he refers to is the chemical hook of drugs. The story we tell ourselves is that drugs are addictive because they have powerful chemicals hooks that grab onto receptors in our brain and leave us continually craving more and more of the drug, and nothing else. He presents information, mostly from tobacco cessation studies, which suggest that chemical hooks are really only a small explanation of drug addiction, and that much larger and more powerful social factors are at play. If we truly want to address addiction, Hari argues, we have to think big and address the larger causes.
It is very tempting to take a small aspect of a problem and make that the entire focus of our solutions. For drug addiction, the chemical hook of a drug is an excellent scapegoat. It removes the moral failure argument, making the addict a victim of a dangerous chemical that can’t defend itself. It may allow us to vilify the pharmaceutical company that made the drug, and it allows us to rail against the rich whose pursuit of wealth causes harms to the rest of us. Finding a narrow scapegoat allows us to pick our wrong doers, and to make sure that we are not part of the group responsible for the problem.
I think this is why we so often fail to truly address problems at the level that is necessary. We want to signal our concern and stand up against a wrong, but only if we are not implicated in the action against the problem. In the example of drug addiction that Hari highlights, a big problem is the structure of American society. Jobs have been changing for decades, but we never did enough to truly invest in our communities to make them resilient in the face of changing work in a new technological society. We have punished drug abusers and addicts for years, because providing them the support they need, truly caring for them and allowing safe places for them to overcome the challenges that lead to their drug use in the first place, would be costly. To solve addiction requires that all of us, including those of us who have never used drugs and think of ourselves as good people, acknowledge that we have fallen short in many ways and that we might be part of the problem.
It is comfortable to focus on a small aspect of the problem, especially when it places blame on others. But it is inadequate, and will never give us the outcomes we want to see. We will always be making insufficient investments, and we will fail to help those who we claim to actually care about and claim to want to help.