Occam’s Razor in Action

So, there’s a study going around the different popular science sites of the internet to the effect that genetic testing indicates most animal species actually appeared about the same time as humanity: 100 – 200,000 years ago. Apparently, they can tell this by the lack of notable variations in mitochondrial DNA between different species.

I’m not a scientist, and I don’t really even understand the test they claim to have used, nor do I have an ideological dog in this fight, but my initial, and as yet unshaken response to this is: “maybe these variations in mitochondrial DNA just don’t mean what you think they mean.”

The Not Mary Sue

I’m rewatching Kim Possible at the moment, after being away from it for several years, and I’m delighted to find it’s even better than I remember it. It’s not quite in the same league as Phineas and Ferb or My Little Pony, but it is a very solid, very entertaining show anchored by two particularly great leads.

It’s also instructive on how to write an absurdly capable character without her turning into a Mary Sue.

First some definitions: a Mary Sue is a character who is unrealistically perfect, whom all the good characters like, who never has to seriously struggle, and whom the audience is really, really supposed to admire. A textbook example would be Rey from The Force Awakens: the girl who can fly the Millennium Falcon, shoot a blaster, and wield a lightsaber better than anyone even with zero training or experience and who has no flaws to speak of, never seriously fails at anything, and who has everyone from Han Solo to the villain gushing with admiration over her.

Now, Kim Possible, the girl who “can do anything” seems like she would be a classic case of a Mary Sue. She’s a beautiful, popular cheerleader who saves the world as a hobby, has climbed Mt. Everest, swam the English Channel, and maintains a perfect GPA. She frequently saves her loser male sidekick, Ron Stoppable, and has a long rolodex of incredible feats.

But the thing is, Kim isn’t a Mary Sue. On the contrary, despite her exaggerated abilities, she’s a very likable, very believable character. One of the ways they do this is that Kim’s feats, impressive though they are, are limited. She can perform fantastic acrobatics and kung-fu fighting moves, but she still has to put up with things like detention, unpleasant fellow students, and getting butterflies while talking to cute boys. She faces instances of temptation and doesn’t always do the right thing, e.g. when she lies to both Ron and her parents in order to go a party where her crush is attending.

Basically, Kim’s ability to excel doesn’t mean that her life is perfect, or that she herself is perfect. It’s simply a fact about her, like the color of her hair. She still has to make the right choices and still has to deal with day-to-day problems. For instance, Kim’s school rival is the smug Bonnie, who never misses a chance to insult or belittle her. But since they’re both on the cheer-squad, Kim still has to try to get along with her as well as she can.

Likewise, Kim is shown to have clear flaws: she’s very competitive, kind of vain, and a bit of a snob. There’s an episode where she takes over coaching a ten-year olds’ soccer team and drives them so hard that they start crying when she shows up. Not only are these real flaws, ones that cause problems for her and others, but they’re very believable ones for someone of her personality type to have. And, despite her assertions, Kim can’t do anything: she’s a terrible cook, gets very irritated over mundane tasks, and becomes a mess when she gets nervous.

In short, Kim’s not always right, not always on top, and doesn’t always excel. She experiences failure, disappointment, and frustration. She makes mistakes and has to deal with the consequences.

Perhaps most surprising of all, given the evident feminist bent of the show, is how much she needs Ron’s help. It’s true she often has to save him, but that doesn’t mean that Ron is simply useless. On the contrary, he’s often the key to saving the day, and occasionally gets to go on his own adventures. Not only that, but the show repeatedly makes the point that Ron is a major factor in Kim’s success, and that her crime fighting is severely handicapped without him. Best of all, he periodically has to rescue her. Basically, for all that Kim is the star, Ron is really just as important to the story as she is (in some ways more so: his character arc is much more pronounced than hers, so that the show could almost be thought of as more Ron’s story than Kim’s).

Beyond that, they balance each other’s characters very well: she’s an overachiever, he’s an underachiever. She prods him to get serious and work hard, he prods her to relax and have a little perspective. The result is that they have a very charming, very believable relationship: a close friendship that grows into romance over the course of the series, and which culminates in Ron coming into his own as a hero in order to save Kim (it’s honestly a very cool progression and my favorite aspect of the show).

Does any of this make Kim less admirable or less of a role model? On the contrary, it makes her much, much more so. If she simply excelled at everything and was always on top of things, she’d be insufferable. The fact that she does have to struggle, does have to face up to her own flaws, and does sometimes need help makes more human and consequently more likable. Her relationship with Ron, and with it the fact that she isn’t completely self-sufficient, puts her incredible abilities in a human context and gives both her and Ron room to grow as characters.

Kim is really a textbook example of how to avoid making a character a Mary Sue: she can be as absurdly capable as you like, but let her have flaws, let her make mistakes, and above all, have her need someone. In short, let her be a little vulnerable and a little human.

 

Lazy Writing and Lack of Consequence

Something I’ve noticed about a lot of contemporary films is that they seem to have an almost childish inability to consider real-world consequences. I’m not talking about complex things that the average person wouldn’t think of; I’m talking major factors about how people behave or how the world works.

Let me illustrate with two particularly egregious examples from two popular films.

The first is in The Force Awakens. Midway through the film, the ‘First Order’ activates a weapon that destroys an entire solar system in one shot, wiping out the New Republic (we’ll leave aside the question “so, the Republic ruled over a single solar system and had no assets, presence, fleet, etc. anywhere else?”). Now, there are many, many things wrong with this, including that it’s a lazy attempt to one-up the original Star Wars, and the fact that it’s patently absurd that a small splinter group could create such a monstrosity without anyone in the galaxy being aware of it. For right now, however, we’ll focus on the consequences.

The world-building in the Star Wars sequels is terrible to an embarrassing degree, but the idea seems to be that that First Order is a relatively small, covert group of former Empire troops and officers. In any case, they do not have a great deal of power or presence in the galaxy, only in certain portions of it. They’re like ISIS, for a real-world comparison.

Now, imagine that ISIS got hold of and detonated nuclear weapons in, say, New York, Washington, and London. Millions of people dead, the world rattled. What do you think the reaction would be from the world at large to this kind of monstrosity? The rubble wouldn’t even have begun to settle before half the planet came roaring to their doorsteps. No nation would dare harbor them, and it would only be a matter of time before they were wiped off the face of the globe.

In The Force Awakens, the universe at large apparently ignores the event, leaving the couple-hundred survivors of the Republic to go after the First Order with a fleet of twelve small ships.

You see what I mean? The Force Awakens was written with absolutely no idea of how people and nations actually behave in the real world, or even with the idea that they’re a factor at all. It’s a child’s perspective: whoever has the biggest gun can do whatever he wants. The big kid can demand your lunch money simply because he’s big and can hurt you.

Now, you might say “it’s Star Wars: it’s not supposed to be realistic.” Except that the original film actually did take this sort of thing into account. For one thing, it was conceivable for the Empire to create a weapon like the Death Star because it ruled with an iron fist and controlled most of the galaxy. But even so, the word of the weapon got out before it was quite finished and the Rebellion moved to stop it, being hampered by their own comparative smallness.

What’s more, the film makes it clear that the Death Star is a gamble for the Empire. We learn early on that there is, or has been, an Imperial Senate, which could make trouble for the Emperor if it found out about his plans. Later some of the Imperial officers are shocked to find that the senate has been dissolved and wonder whether they’ll be able to maintain control without it.

So, the original Star Wars, often seen as a simple adventure for children, had a better sense of how the real world works than The Force Awakens.

Now another example: Black Panther (yes, I do rather like picking on that film). The plot of that movie is kicked off (about two-thirds of the way through) when Killmonger returns to Wakanda and takes the throne from T’Challa. We won’t discuss how stupid it was for T’Challa to even accept the challenge in the first place, nor question how our hero managed to lose to a guy who had never trained with the weapons they were fighting with. Let’s just pick up at the point where Killmonger becomes king.

One of the very first things he does is order the destruction of the flowers that convey the Black Panther powers, thereby effectively ending the continuity of the monarchy (again, we won’t discuss how stupid the flower thing is. You starting to see a pattern?). The next thing he does is inform the high council that they’re going to abandon their tradition of isolation and lead a global war of genocide against the white race and anyone else who stands in their way, explicitly promising to kill women and children.

So, a complete outsider who has never lived in that country comes in, assumes the throne, destroys the monarchy, and announces they’re going to abandon all their traditions in favor of mass-murder of the innocents, all in the space of about a day, and no one does anything about it? He doesn’t instantly lose the support of the army, the governing council, the priesthood, or any of the civilian population; they all just go along with it except a handful of die-hard T’Challa loyalists? The only time anyone even questions any of this is when the one lady protests the flower burning until he chokes her into complying.

Again, this is a child’s view of kingship: he’s the king, so he can do whatever he wants and everyone else has to obey. That’s not how real monarchies work. If a guy no one’s heard about comes waltzing in and somehow takes the throne, then suddenly orders them to start a campaign of genocide with nothing better than “I killed this one guy you didn’t like,” he would instantly lose all authority. Assuming the military didn’t rebel against him for ordering them to commit atrocities, the council would decide that someone else actually has a much better claim to be king and depose him.

Heck, something like that happens in the film, with T’Challa’s friends going to the gorilla guy. Realistically, the entire Wakandan government should be knocking on his door begging him to take the throne and promising the support of the entire military. Actually they should never have allowed Killmonger to even approach the throne in the first place, as they guy is practically wearing a neon sign that reads “angry psychopath.”

Real-life kings can’t just arbitrarily order their subjects to do terrible things or abandon all their traditions, or destroy the continuity of the government in the space of a single day and expect their people to put up with it. Even Hitler had to work his way up to genocide through propaganda and building a powerbase, and he still had to give his people an at least semi-plausible pretext for war. Killmonger just goes in and says, “you’re going to murder the innocent because I say so,” and Wakanda is only too happy to comply, even though it’s contrary to how they’ve done things for thousands of years. Considering they’re supposed to be the most civilized and advanced nation in the world, their government structure is more primitive and has fewer checks and balances than that of an actual tribal monarchy.

You see my point: these kinds of big-budget, hi-profile blockbusters all too often read like they were written by children, with only the broadest, vaguest idea of how people behave or how the real world works. Things happen because we say they happen; if we want the bad guy to have a super-duper weapon, he’ll have it. Never mind how he would have gotten it or how the rest of this world would react to his using it. The bad guy is in charge, so he can do whatever he wants, even if it’s to effectively destroy his own government while ordering the army to commit genocide.

This is the kind of thing meant by ‘lazy writing:’ the writers want something to happen, so they simply declare that it is to be, without considering how it fits into the world of the story.

For a contrast, consider Rampage; the goofy video game adaptation starring the Rock. It’s a silly movie, but plot-wise it’s actually fairly solid. For a specific counterexample of what I mean, the entire plot is kicked off by an evil corporation performing illegal genetic experiments. Yes, that old cliché, but note how it proceeds: they don’t just get to do what they want because they’re rich (contrast Ready Player One, where the corporation had it’s own prisons), they have to do their work undercover, on the side. As soon as their secret begins to leak, they have the FBI show up and demand all their computer servers in no uncertain terms, and that’s even with their attempt at a cover story.

A lazy writer would have made them impervious to official harm, leaving our plucky heroes to take them down, maybe giving them their own private military or something equally stupid. This film presents a more realistic image of a fairly normal company run by a sociopath who runs covert illegal operations on the side, but who has to tread carefully lest the law come calling.

Rampage is a film that, for all silliness, was clearly written by adults. The Force Awakens, Black Panther, and similar films feel like they were written by children, or tossed off in a first draft because the writers figured they could rely on the other elements to carry them through.

 

The Difference Between Flat and Complex Characters

Now that the Ducktales revival is about half-a-season old, I can say that, while it is good, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped it would be. Part of the problem is that they go for the joke far too often, preventing the characters from developing much weight and consequently from engaging us in their struggles. They don’t do this all the time, but often enough for it to detract from the show (e.g. a potentially intimidating mummy monster is defeated by folding it up in a giant burrito).

This especially applies to Launchpad. Now, I haven’t gotten around to revisiting the original show in a long time, so I can’t remember if he was portrayed as this stupid in that one, but whichever is the case, it definitely is to the show’s detriment. See, Launchpad isn’t only an idiot, he’s just an idiot. As in, that’s basically his entire character: genial moron. He’s completely incompetent at what he does (raising the question of why Scrooge hired him in the first place), more childlike than the children, and most of the time seems barely functional. Yes, he’s gets a laugh fairly often, but he’s a very flat character.

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Take a recent episode that focuses almost entirely on him; he’s afraid of losing his job if Scrooge decides to go with a robotically-driven car being marked by a business rival, so he challenges the machine to a race to see who will get the job. There is the potential for genuine character development. But, no; the whole thing becomes just another ‘Launchpad’s an idiot’ joke, with him filling up his windshield with reminder notes, crashing immediately, and trying to finish the rest of the race on different vehicles.

That’s what I mean by Launchpad is a flat, one-dimensional character: if you say “he’s a genial idiot,” you’ve basically described everything there is to know about him, and everything he does proceeds from this description.

Contrast this with a complex and three-dimensional character: Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.

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You could describe her as a lovable goofball, but that’s not all she is. For one thing, though she’s the source of much of show’s humor, she’s not just an idiot. Actually, she’s not an idiot at all; she’s shown to be very intelligent, just eccentric and happy to play the fool if she think’s it’ll get a laugh. But she can be thoughtful and perceptive, especially on matters that interest her (for instance, she’s the first one to notice something wrong with the way the ponies in Starlight’s village are smiling, since “I know smiles”). She puts in the time and works hard in pursuit of her goals, and is a recognized expert in her own subject of baking and throwing parties (By contrast, Launchpad doesn’t even understand the controls of his own plane and destroys it trying to figure out what a specific blinking light meant).

Pinkie’s also shown to have very clear motivations: her mission in life is to make others happy, and her whole being is directed to that end. However, this sometimes causes problems if the person she meets doesn’t share her tastes in fun, or if she misreads what they want, or if she’s too preoccupied with having fun herself to realize the other person isn’t sharing it. Thus she constantly has to work at balancing her own immediate desires with her more fundamental motives. Coupled with that is the fact that she does work very hard and can easily be hurt or depressed if it seems her efforts aren’t appreciated (e.g. there’s an episode where she finds out that Rainbow Dash has been secretly throwing out all the pies Pinkie’s made for her, which causes Pinkie to explode with anger at her).

So, Pinkie’s allowed to be very smart and very competent on her own ground, and she has clear, multilevel motivations. But what really makes her a well-developed character is that she has a full range of human emotions and reactions. She’s not sunny and optimistic, or even just funny all the time; she has moments where she gets honestly angry, frustrated, depressed, sad, and hurt. She experiences self-doubt, she makes mistakes and learns from them, she’s forced to recognize her own limitations and try to overcome them. She has a clear motivation that she has to balance against her immediate needs and desires. None of that applies to a character like Launchpad, whose role is only to make the audience laugh.

For instance, there’s an episode where Pinkie takes on a babysitting job, only to find herself overwhelmed. Then, midway through, Twilight shows up and offers to take over. Pinkie’s all but desperate to have her do so…until Twilight innocently comments that some ponies simply aren’t up for the responsibility of watching little kids. Pinkie then immediately turns her down, determined to prove that she is responsible. That’s a very real, very human progression: Pinkie finds herself overwhelmed and wants someone to bail her out, then realizes that bailing out would mean admitting that she’s just as irresponsible as everyone seems to think, so she determines to see the thing through no matter what.

You can’t picture the new version of Launchpad, or a similar character like Soos from Gravity Falls going through that kind of progression, or experiencing that blend of desperation, doubt, and hurt pride: of being stung by what others think of you even as you fear they might be right.

Or you have things like Pinkie genuinely trying and failing to like her sister’s new boyfriend, then working to figure out how to react to this, or her progression from suspecting Rainbow Dash’s friend Gilda of being a jerk, to suspecting herself of being overly possessive, or trying to figure out how best to help someone who insists they don’t want to be helped.

Basically, even though she’s comic relief, Pinkie Pie is convincingly a person, whereas Launchpad is just a vehicle for jokes. Pinkie’s character makes sense on its own terms and in relation to the others, and she’s perfectly capable of carrying a dramatic scene without breaking character (heck, Pinkie gets some of the strongest dramatic moments in the series). Despite her goofiness, her emotions and reactions are convincingly real, which means we feel them right along with her.

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Launchpad’s presence is dictated by the writers (there’s really no reason for the other characters to keep him around) and he could never convincingly create drama because he’s too inconsequential. He’s so stupid and his reactions so overblown and ridiculous that his emotions don’t matter: we don’t ‘feel’ his pain because we never see him as anything but a source of humor.

That’s the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional character: Launchpad exists to be comic relief. He has very simple motivations, very simple reactions, and he predictably will always be used as a joke. Pinkie Pie, though a major source of comic relief, is an integral part of the cast with her own multilevel motivations, her own conflicts, and her own struggles. Launchpad is a tool for the writers; Pinkie is a person.

Giants were Upon the Earth in Those Days

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There is a strange passage in Chapter Six of the Book of Genesis. In the Duay version it runs thus:

And after that men began to be multiplied upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, The sons of God seeing the daughters of men, that they were fair, took to themselves wives of all which they chose…Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. (Gen. 6: 1-2, 4)

As it happens, this fits with a train of thought I’ve been considering lately. It is this: I rather suspect there is more truth in myths than we generally admit.

For instance: Plutarch quite frankly considers Romulus and Theseus to have been historical figures. He disputes some of the more fantastic elements – e.g. the Minotaur – but otherwise presents their stories as simple historical accounts, including the supposition that they may have been sired by gods.

Now, leaving aside the question of parentage, I for one can see no real reason for doubting that Theseus, Herakles, and other famous heroes of legend were real people. I think we moderns are far, far too apt to consider “made up out of whole cloth” as a reasonable explanation. Me, I don’t think something that important to so many people could have been successfully made up out of nothing. At the very least, I have to figure that these are historical figures whose stories were expanded over time, and that the core events of their lives happened more or less as described. That is, I honestly think there really was a set of illegitimate twins named Romulus and Remus, they grew up to become very powerful in the region and either founded or took over what became Rome, and that the one killed the other in a quarrel.

So far, I suspect you’re with me. Now I’m going to start sounding crazy. I’m going to suggest that, perhaps, some of these very important, yet obscure figures at the dawn of history really were the children of ‘gods.’ That is, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that supernatural beings can and have had relations with human beings and produced children, who subsequently founded dynasties that became the world-shaping powers we know from history.

Before you reject the idea, ask yourself why it is impossible. The Bible seems to take the possibility as a matter of course. If we accept the idea of supernatural beings, then we must confess that our knowledge of their powers and limitations is hardly enough to put hard and fast limits on what they can do. We don’t have anything like enough real evidence of the lives of Theseus, Romulus, or so on to prove parentage. And it doesn’t seem antecedently improbable that Rome, Athens, and other great cultures who have exercised such influence on the world have their origin in beings more than human.

You may reply that, assuming these people lived, it’s much more likely that the stories of their divine parentage were just later embellishments. Perhaps that’s true. Only remember: one, to establish probability in such a case we would have to have knowledge about how and why supernatural beings might be expected to intervene in human history, or might have been expected to do so at that time, which is knowledge we simply do not have (you can’t really expect the gods to submit to laboratory testing). Two, it very well might have happened the way you describe, but, and here’s the big but, there is no way to say for certain that it did. That something may have happened a certain way is not proof that it did happen that way (side note: this is something people who talk about evolutionary psychology really need to keep in mind).

I’m not going to insist that Theseus was really a demigod. I am only going to insist that we don’t know that he wasn’t. Our present state of knowledge does not exclude that possibility: only the present climate of opinion. It is the fashion, even among Christians, to dismiss the supernatural except when forbidden by dogma to do so…and sometimes even then. This, I think, is a mistake and gives us an overly narrow view of the world and of history. Moreover, there’s no reason to do so: science, by definition, cannot prove or disprove the supernatural. We know from the deposit of faith that there are supernatural beings at large in the world, and the general account of mankind concurs while offering an endless line of testimony of how they have interacted with humanity. It seems to me only reasonable that some of those stories are more or less true, and it seems equally probable that such supernatural beings had a hand in the creation of the great influential powers and states of the world.

In any case, it is a possibility to keep in mind. When we hear historians speculating on what caused the prophecies of Delphi, we shouldn’t neglect the most obvious explanation of all: that they came from Apollo.

Anti-Gun is not Pro-Life

[Note: I wrote this piece for another site, but since it doesn’t seem to be being published there I’m putting it here. It’s intended as a bit of a companion piece to my most recent ‘Federalist’ article].

I’ve heard some people talking about the recent student march in Washington saying things like “it’s really a pro-life march” and “gun control is a pro-life position.”

Let’s put a stop to this nonsense right now, shall we? Whatever your ideas of gun control are, anti-gun is not pro-life; it is just anti-gun. To call it pro-life is a cheap rhetorical trick, akin to saying that those who opposed Obamacare opposed all healthcare reform, or that those who are against affirmative action just hate Black people. It’s what’s called the straw-man fallacy: purposefully misstating your opponent’s position in order to make it appear weaker than it is.

To be against abortion, or euthanasia, or other such things is to be against a clear, concrete practice. It amounts to a tautology: don’t kill people and those people won’t be killed. It is a matter of principle that it should not be legal to willingly take an innocent human life for any reason because it is wrong.

To be in favor of gun control, on the other hand, does not generally mean to be against weapons in principle (few people would advocate the overthrow of the military, police, and similar institutions). It means that we believe removing or limiting privately owned firearms would reduce violence. That is, it is the idea that enacting certain laws will result in certain effects.

Now, whether or not they actually will is not the present concern; the point is that we are talking about a means to achieve a goal, not about the goal itself. The end desired is less violence; the means being discussed is greater restrictions on firearms.

You see, having fewer guns available, or even outright banning private firearms (assuming such a thing could be done) is not the same thing as reducing violence. Again, don’t think I’m saying more than I am: for the purposes of the present discussion, it may have that effect, but my point is that it is not an obvious or indisputable connection. It is open for debate. If you make abortion illegal, then quite simply there are no legal abortions. There is an essential connection between what is enacted and what is achieved. That is objectively not the case with gun-control.

The key difference is that, when it comes to guns, the thing we desire to stop is already illegal and we are only discussing ways to further discourage it. When it comes to abortion, the thing itself is what we are trying to outlaw.

In other words, one is a matter of principle, the other of strategy. One is a debate over whether to permit certain practices that by definition involve killing people. The other is a debate over whether or not certain new laws would reduce violent crime and to what extent they would infringe on legitimate individual rights. This is not a matter for discussion: that is objectively what is at stake in each case.

The distinction is further complicated by the fact that guns are often purchased and used to protect lives. The justification pro-gun advocates use is precisely that they need guns to defend themselves, their families, and their rights, and it is simply an objective fact that guns are often used in this capacity. You can debate how great a need this is and how it compares to the potential for abuse, but you cannot argue that it does not exist. Furthermore, if you intend to argue that without guns those killed by them would be alive, then you have to accept the counter argument that without guns those who have used them defensively would be dead or at the very least assaulted. I don’t think either argument is very good, but the point is that can’t accept one without accepting the other.

As this indicates, you cannot simply claim that gun-control is ‘pro-life’ because it is an open question whether it will actually lead to less violent crime. You could just as well say that being pro-gun is pro-life because guns are used to protect life and deter crime. Again, I am not currently arguing one or the other; I’m saying that they are rhetorically equivalent and thus calling either one ‘pro-life’ – equating it with opposing the legal killing of innocent people – is disingenuous. It is claiming a one-to-one progression where none exists.

More importantly, it is dishonest. To say that being pro-gun control is to be pro-life is equivalent to saying that someone against gun control is anti-life: that is, that they want more violent crime, or at least think that violent crime is a matter of indifference. You see, it’s a disguised straw-man attack, obliquely misstating the opposing position to make it appear weaker than it actually is. It is the sort of thing a con-man or snake-oil salesman does: if you doubt the efficacy of his patent blindness cure, that means you think blind people don’t deserve to see.

Do you see the point? The objection is not to the intended goal, but to the proposed method of reaching it. You cannot describe a means to an end as being either pro-life or otherwise, because ‘life’ (here meaning the reduction of violent crime) is the end goal and the debate is over how best to achieve that. Whatever your views on the issue, please have the honesty to acknowledge what is being discussed.