Updated: Mar 2
Some of the most concerning things happening in our social discussions right now are false dichotomies about how to address issues. I’d say two of the most potent and clear current examples are homelessness and gun death.
Is it housing supply, addiction treatment, or criminalization of opioid distributors that will address our homelessness crisis? The answer is all of them. This issue is far too big for a single, perfect answer. The affordability crisis is clearly and unquestionably part of the issue (and its own issue), but if houselessness can lead to addiction and addiction can lead to houselessness, how is addressing only one of them going to solve the problem? If someone is addicted and put into a house but given no treatment, there are lots of opportunities for them to end up back on the street. If someone is recovering and still on the street, staying sober is an enormous challenge, especially if there is a torrential and cheap flow of the profoundly addictive drugs in question.
It is not uncommon for homelessness to lead to addiction. If falling asleep means risking having what few items you own stolen or you being raped, why wouldn’t you do what you can to stay awake? If it’s freezing, you have limited shelter of your own, and for some reason you can’t get into a shelter - whether it’s because you don’t know how, they’re full, or there’s some other factor - it might land in the realm of understandability to turn to chemicals to avoid feeling the full brunt of a winter night’s bite in the outdoors. Anyone who’s packed a flask for a cold night walk or a trip to the ski resort might have some limited appreciation of the idea. When you factor in despair from not being able to see a way out of your situation any time soon, this may increase the draw.
Compounding those considerations, there are batches of effectively every powdered or pill-shaped drug right now - up to and including fairly standard party drugs like MDMA and cocaine - being cut with an opioid that is by orders of magnitude the most powerful and most addictive ever created (fentanyl). Looking at all these factors, the picture becomes far more complicated than, “they’re making bad choices and suffering the consequences.” That’s always been a questionable interpretation of addiction in the first place and the emergence of fentanyl and synthetic methamphetamine have turbocharged those complications. Any moral judgments about drug use one may have aside, addiction is one big root of a problem that is negatively affecting everyone. Addressing it is a crucial step in solving the homelessness crisis.
When it comes to the epidemic of gun death in this country, what is the root of the problem? Is it strikingly loose laws around owning the efficient killing machines that are guns? Or is it an atrocious mental health system and sociocultural norms that make it challenging for men, in particular, to receive help for mental health struggles? It is both of them! The mental health crisis - and related self harm, domestic violence, and public violence - is very real and won’t go away with better regulated guns (although the death toll will almost certainly decrease, which is a good thing). At the same time, mental health recovery takes an enormous amount of time so these issues will not go away quickly and something must be done in the meantime to reduce the physical harm of the crisis.
Our culture and society are deep in mentally and emotionally toxic norms. “Toxic Masculinity” is a harmful set of ideas perpetrated on men by others that then bleeds out and results in harm to others by those men - one of which is often the perpetuation of those harmful ideas to another generation. It is generally not a pleasant or healthy state for the men - which is not to minimize the harm they inflict on others, but it is important to understand the roots of violence if we are to address it. Many times, men don’t even realize what is happening to them or that they are playing into it or a victim of it. That is certainly true of myself and many of my male friends. This is unquestionably a mental health crisis as much as it is an irresponsible approach to involving potent weapons as a cultural item.
Do I believe that many of the political entities calling for mental health treatment instead of gun regulation are speaking in good faith? No. But it’s absurd not to call them on their bluff. At worst, another layer of lies falls from their facade. At best we find out we were wrong, they actually act, and we get an improved health care system which is a win for everyone. Appreciating the danger of guns (not to mention the massive difference between the weapons we have now and the muskets of the constitutional era) and putting efforts into keeping them out of the hands of those who are most likely to cause harm with them is important for reducing death right now. Addressing the male mental health crisis in our country will address the root causes of the violence in the long term.
This discussion of the male mental health crisis is not to diminish the mental health crises experienced by other groups, by any means. It does, however, seem notable that the death toll as a result of the male mental health crisis is significantly larger than that of other genders and is, in fact, often the root of those other genders’ trauma. Yet it seems to be rarely talked about unless it’s a political talking point designed to deflect from gun regulating legislation. WIth better mental health in this country there will be fewer suicides, less domestic violence, and less real or perceived need for self defense, all of which can lead more responsible gun ownership for those who want to do so. Unfortunately, we are not there right now.
It seems the two political parties and social media algorithms are playing us for fools. Showing us false dichotomies, fabricated binaries, and sensationalist, fury mongering, fear producing, “engagement” boosting content intended to sell ads. This content is very, very effective at drawing us in or driving us away, depending on which side of some arbitrary line we fall on.
In reality, most people - regardless of party affiliation - have at least some useful insight into issues they are affected by and working together to combine those insights is how we’ll address our complex problems. This doesn’t mean they are right about every part of every issue but, unfortunately, neither are you and neither am I. This is also not to say every bad idea is harmless or equal, and it’s not to undersell the harm possible from some ideas, but it is important to find the complexities of individuals and work together when and where we can to address shared challenges. This can even lead to increased respect which is the foundation necessary to have the discussions about differing ideas that might actually change a person’s mind about something.
We are all losing out from our failure to have open and multifaceted discussions with each other. If we intend to progress and function as a society, we need to focus on issues over parties, solutions over political identity, and look for more than what our algorithms feed us when trying to solve our problems.
When I started writing this, it was not intended to be a plug for ranked choice voting, but I do like at least trying to put forward some form of solution whenever I can and this is exactly why I think it’s important to change how we put people in power. Right now we have a binary system which results in two very powerful parties proposing generally simplistic solutions - of which an important part is often “Not ‘Those People’s’ Idea.” Even when they are otherwise unrelated, these individual ideas are often presented as part of larger calcified sets of ideas that seem to function very similarly to religious orthodoxies. The answers to our problems are complex and our political parties’ narratives aren’t.
We need more ideas - and more variation in sets of ideas - in the positions of power. We need less partisan fan culture and more discussing how to solve the problems we have. We need more parties, fewer dichotomies, and more opportunities to cooperate. These are all things ranked choice voting provides and I encourage you to look into it. Fairvote.org and FairvoteWA.org (if you’re in Washington state) are two good places to get started.