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Three Strikes Laws and the Danger of a Single Story
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single story (video below). It seems to me that the biggest danger of a single story is that the story isn’t factually incorrect; in fact, there is probably evidence to support it rather than evidence against it. And that’s the danger. You have one small piece of the truth, so small as to be, potentially, completely misleading. You may be in possession of a single outlier, of the exception that proves the rule. It’s true. And yet. It’s also not.
So when I saw this video on the making of the Three Strikes laws in California and various other states, it seemed like an excellent example of the Single Story Fallacy. Any particular crime could not have happened if the individual who committed it had been already locked up (or incapacitated due to disease, accident, freak attack by a rabid raccoon). That’s a single truth, about a single story, about a single crime. So a logical response to that single story might be to incarcerate or otherwise incapacitate anyone who may ever potentially commit a crime.
But the problem is that the single story exists among many, many other stories. Infinitely many stories, perhaps. And one story out of infinitely many is, mathematically, insignificantly small. There are the sad stories about lives that are disrupted, even destroyed when a person is cut off from family, community. And there are the happy stories about people who broke the law but then went on to lead happy, ethical lives for all sorts of reasons. Why not pursue those stories?
- The Making of the ‘Three Strikes’ Laws (NYTimes)
- The Danger of a Single Story