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#38: Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

#38: Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that doesn’t smell nearly as nice as it looks. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a less awful human being. This week is a specially-themed “dark side” newsletter where we look at a few ways that embracing the worst aspects of our humanity actually makes us better people. Let’s dive into it. 

1. Violent movies prevent violence; horror movies prevent horror – When I was a kid, the big moral scare was whether violent video games and movies were ruining an entire generation and we were all going to blow each other brain’s out by puberty. Whenever a kid somewhere committed some heinous act, the media’s first response was to trot out all of the music, movies and video games that particular kid was into and let the moral judgment rain down from above. 

Yet, despite all the media hooplah, the violent crime rate plummeted in the 90s and has consistently hit all-time lows throughout the 2000s. Clearly, violent media wasn’t making anything worse. 

But could it have been making things better

Maybe. In a fascinating study, some scientists took the most violent movies of the past few decades and tracked the amount of violent crime reported on their release dates in theatres. Incredibly, on days that blockbuster movies with lots of violence were released, the violent crime rate dropped in those cities on that date. The study found that for every one million viewers of a film, violent crime dropped by about 1.3%. The explanation is quite simple: if you’re a bloodthirsty maniac, for every hour you spend sitting in a movie theatre, you’re not out there attacking somebody. 

There are similar findings with pornography. Again, back in the 80s, there was a moral panic around the availability of pornography and lewd content on television. Many feminist activists at the time argued that the proliferation of sexual content on cable television would incite greater violence against women. 

But again, the opposite happened. Researchers collected data of when internet service providers first arrived into different cities throughout the 90s. They then tracked the rates of sexual assault and rape in those cities both before and after the internet arrived. Why did they track when the internet arrived? Free internet porn… duh. 

Sure enough, once the internet arrived in each locality, sex-related crimes dropped, particularly among younger offenders — i.e., young men who couldn’t afford to buy porn but could now download it for free online. 

What’s the lesson here? Well, as I’ve laid out before, if your starting assumption is that humans are sick, twisted fucks, then these results will not surprise you. Most of us have some fucked up thoughts and proclivities and the more you give people healthy, safe outlets for those proclivities, the less likely they are to harm others. 

But if your starting assumption is that humans should be pure and righteous, then you will see these other outlets as disgusting flaws and try to suppress them, thus causing more harm. 

2. Giving people drugs reduces drug abuse – In the 1980s, a wave of drug use swept through the western world, infiltrating communities with cocaine, crack, and heroin. Initially, most countries responded by trying to clamp down on the drug trade. They ramped up policing efforts, made more arrests, and tried to scare people with harsher prison sentencing. 

But deterrence backfired. In most cases, attempting to push the drug trade underground only made it more resilient and caused it to proliferate. 

Portugal was hit particularly hard. In the 1980s, it’s estimated that one out of ten Portuguese used heroin. They had a public health crisis on their hands. 

In fact, drug use was so rampant that the Portuguese realized that they didn’t have the resources to fight it. Instead, they were going to have to find some other strategy. So they took the opposite route as most of the world: they decriminalized drug use and rather than spending money on imprisoning addicts, they used it to open clinics where addicts could come and use in a safe environment. They staffed these clinics with doctors, nurses, counselors, and therapists. They treated drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime problem. 

The policy was incredibly controversial at the time. People were afraid that, given access to free drugs, people would go off the rails. Drug tourism would flood into the country. Civilization as they knew it would cease to function. 

But you already know where this is going… the opposite happened. Crime dropped. Overdoses dropped. Overall drug use dropped. 

It turns out that drug addicts don’t really like being drug addicts (I know: shocker). It turns out that when offered help, most people will eventually take it. It turns out that addiction is not a failure of willpower or character but rather a coping mechanism for emotional strife and trauma. Offer people an outlet to heal the emotional pain and the substance no longer seems necessary to them. 

It’s a dynamic that plays itself out in all sorts of dimensions: when something is framed as a moral failing — people double down on it. If you’re going to tell me I’m a bad person because I use drugs, then fuck you, I’ll just use more. But when drug use is framed as a health issue, then most people are more likely to seek and accept help. 

3. Harsher prison sentences encourage more crime – Unlike Portugal, the United States responded to the drug wave of the 80s by doing our favorite thing: declaring war. Man, we got wars for everything. We got wars on terrorism, racism, poverty, and the war on drugs. We never win any of the wars, of course. But that would spoil the fun! As they say, it’s all about the pursuit, not the destination, right? 

The War on Drugs has stretched for almost four decades and filled our prison system to the point of overflowing. The US has 4.25% of the world’s population yet we house 21% of its prisoners. We house more prisoners than China and Russia combined. 

That’s because almost half of these prisoners are there due to extremely high penalties for drug offenses. Yet, do these penalties prevent drug use? No, in fact, hard drug use continues to rise

Many studies have been done on the effectiveness of long prison sentences as a form of deterrence of crime. Most of these studies have simply found that prisons don’t work. Some studies have even found that they have the opposite effect — that is, the longer someone spends in prison, the more likely they are to commit crimes once they get out. 

Doesn’t take a friggin’ rocket scientist to figure out why that might be. The longer someone is in prison, the less opportunities available to them upon getting out. Thus making it more likely that they have to resort to doing the one thing they do know: crime.  

So, if prison time doesn’t reduce crime, what does? 

Education. Not only does improving the quality of schools and education in a community reduce the crime rate there, but giving prisoners an opportunity to complete their education while in prison reduces recidivism. And it does so to the point that these programs could potentially pay for themselves because they would reduce the prison population so much over the long term. 

Yet, this is a hard pill to swallow. When we see someone doing something wrong, our human instinct is vengeance. It’s punishment. Why would we reward someone with opportunity after they’ve harmed their community? 

Well, it’s simple — so they won’t harm their community again. 

Yes, these people hurt us. But clinging to our sense of vengeance is hurting us as well. 

As Martin Luther King famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

It’s time to stop denying the dark side of our nature. We’re all sick twisted fucks to some extent. The denial of that fact only encourages more destruction. It’s only by accepting it that we can bring it into the light. 

Until next week. Stay safe. Stay sane. Stay healthy.