Are you suuuure that policy is a good idea?

Policy is a huge, complex, and sometimes deliberately labyrinthine topic — why say in one page what you can say in fifty? But it’s an important one to understand, and this is particularly important to think about when signing on to policy with your endorsement. Maybe you’re encouraging friends to vote on a ballot measure, contacting elected officials with support or opposition, or asking someone to mimic a policy used in one place that you think would be good in another (‘City experimented with a needle exchange, could we do it too?’).

The thing is that sometimes policy proposals contain kickers that are not immediately obvious to people who haven’t considered the issue with care. I see this happening a lot on the left, where a policy seems progressive, but if you explore the stakeholders and the situation, the story is more complicated. Let me give you some examples.

Hate crimes laws. They’re good, right? Hate crimes are categorically unacceptable, and we should be cracking down to the fullest extent of the law on people who commit bias crimes. Only research shows they don’t actually work (like other ‘deterrent’ laws, say, I don’t know, the death penalty). Furthermore, research shows that they tend to feed the prison industrial complex and exacerbate social inequalities for Americans of colour. This would be why some groups led by people of colour oppose hate crimes laws, like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Yet a lot of progressives push for them because they haven’t interacted with all the stakeholders.

Mandatory medication laws. Mentally ill people who are in crisis should be compelled to take medication so they can get their mental health conditions under control and pursue treatment, right? These laws are again not very effective if the goal is getting people into treatment, and they deprive mentally ill people of autonomy and independence. If you’re concerned about mental health treatment, providing more funding to outreach, education, and early intervention programmes is the way to go.

Crackdowns on opioid prescriptions. We have an opioid epidemic and it’s ‘doctor driven,’ so we should make it harder to prescribe opioids, right? Actually, the mechanics behind the rise in deaths attributable to opioids are complex, and prescription patterns are only part of the picture. Interfering with a doctor’s ability to make evidence-based decisions specific to a patient can hurt people, and make it harder for people with chronic pain and other conditions requiring long-term opioid use to get the care they need.

I’m not going to go on, because I think you get the point. Society identifies a very legitimate and serious problem and wants to fix it, because we don’t like to think of people suffering and experiencing hardship. We believe there’s a clear path to doing so that cuts through a lot of inbetween, getting right to the source of the problem, so we go for it. Stakeholders in the conversation are often swept aside, the policy is enacted, and it doesn’t work.

The thing is that new policy proposals for complicated issues are constantly being developed, and you cannot possibly know every single thing there is to know about the issue, or the potential effects at the policy. You can’t. That’s okay. I can’t, either, so this is a royal you, as it were. However, you have access to tools that can help you evaluate policy proposals to determine if they’re really as great as they instinctively sound.

If your kneejerk reaction is ‘seems reasonable,’ it’s a good idea to pause. Start by sitting down to really ask yourself what the problem is, and seek out information from people who are directly involved. We’ll take gun violence, which is a complicated and multifaceted situation. The problem is that huge numbers of people injure and kill each other and sometimes themselves with guns in the United States every year. We know there are a lot of reasons for that, but the types of weapons available, and their ready availability, are definitely an issue.

So take a look at gun lobby groups. Yes, seriously. Look at the language they’re using and what they’re saying as they speak in support or opposition of a policy. Take a look at gun manufacturers, too. Then flip to the other side and see what advocacy groups are saying, but before you do, look at who is involved in those groups. Do they have a culturally diverse membership and leadership? Does it include people with very real stakes, like gun violence survivors and family members of people killed by guns, along with, yes, hunters and recreational shooters? Does it appear to have a slant or agenda that keeps coming up? Is that supported by evidence? If two parties that shouldn’t agree do, what does that mean?

I use gun violence here as an example because mental illness is often leveraged in rhetoric about guns, despite the total lack of evidence supporting claims that crazy people are the real problem with guns in America. Both sides tend to promote restrictions on gun ownership for mentally ill people. It’s worth looking at how they talk about it and who is involved…and also going to mental health advocacy groups to see what they say.

Earlier this year people were extremely upset that Congress voted to disapprove a rule that would have added people who use representative payees to the gun background check system. Had they bothered to look to disability rights groups — many of which are involved in gun violence prevention too, especially in light of the fact that we are frequently victims of violent crime — they would have heard them saying that this was a horrible and ineffective idea. Instead, people just saw the words ‘background check’ and automatically supported it without digging a little further.

Sometimes a policy sounds like it makes sense because it does make sense — see for example needle exchanges, which very clearly work…but only if they’re administered properly. Sometimes a policy makes sense, but doesn’t actually work for the intended purpose and/or actually endangers people. That’s why it’s important to take a second look and interrogate biases. If you’re white for example, think about how a policy might affect communities of colour, and if there’s something that maybe you aren’t seeing. If you’re cis, consider whether something might be transphobic. If you’re nondisabled, ask how something might affect the disability community.

It’s okay to ask. It’s okay to not know and want more information. Take the time to find that information before you inadvertently support something that will cause more problems than it solves.

Image: Ostrich, Paul Kane, Flickr