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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Priorities

A couple of months ago I wrote about different categories I fit in, ideologically and politically. I was tempted to expand on it earlier this month when PZ Myers wrote a post asking people what kind of atheist they are-- scientific, philosophical, political, or humanist. I understood what he was getting at, but my first impulse was to ask "Why is the 'atheism' part the constant? The most important thing?" Because when it comes to politics and ideology I am, first and foremost, a free-speechist.

If you're not a free-speechist, whatever else you believe and whatever priorities you give those beliefs, you're not on my side. That seems harsh, maybe, but I'll explain why that is, and what a free-speechist is.

A free-speechist is a person who believes that a free market of ideas is absolutely critical to the maintenance of an educated and moral society, and as such the only real justifications for government censorship of speech are those related to safety and property rights-- e.g. you can't shout 'fire' falsely in a crowded theater, and you can't make money off of someone else's creative work by representing it as your own. I value private forums which cherish a relative freedom of expression also, but a) as private forums they don't have an obligation to allow anyone at all to speak, let alone everyone, and b) an "anything goes" atmosphere is not conducive to ideas being exchanged freely and productively, so some amount of moderation in order to eliminate abusive content and commenters is arguably not just permissible but necessary. So if you're one of those people who whines that any sort of moderation whatsoever on an internet chat site, blog, or forum is wrong because it violates commenters' freedom of speech, you're not only wrong (since the First Amendment does not apply to private fora, and couldn't since that would violate the owner's right to freedom of association) but probably a troll.

Briefly put, trying to defeat an idea by either silencing the person voicing it or causing damage to their person or property is the coward's way out. It's an act of aggression against a person because you dislike the content of their ideas; it does not refute the ideas.

And no, a boycott isn't a form of that. A boycott is an individual refusal to contribute to someone's livelihood because doing so amounts to contributing indirectly to something you wouldn't support directly. Similarly to a private forum, not being allowed to boycott would mean abdicating your own freedom of speech by being made to support ideas you don't agree with whether you like it or not.

This might seem like a rather long-winded way to get to the point that I'm livid about hearing that yet another government official has seen fit to wield unique power to prevent someone from doing business because he objects to the content of that person's ideas:
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray says he won't support an expanded presence for Chick-fil-A in the district because the president of the fast-food chain is opposed to gay marriage. 
Gray, a Democrat, referred to the company's product as "hate chicken" in a tweet on Friday. His statement referenced his "long-standing strong support for LGBT rights and marriage equality" and followed similar statements by mayors in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco that the company was not welcome.
You know what's depressing? It's depressing that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, of all people, are pursuing the correct course of action with regard to freedom of expression by encouraging people who agree with their opposition to gay marriage to vote with their wallets and support Chick-fil-A. Of course, neither of them is actually in office and therefore in a position to use legal power to promote or inhibit a view by damaging the business of the person espousing it, so let's not give them too much credit. Let's not give them any credit, for that matter, except to note that what they're doing does not violate anyone's freedom of speech whereas blocking someone's business simply because you don't like the views they support absolutely does.

And I say this as a passionate advocate of LGBT equality since 1993. There is a right way and a wrong way to fight for these things. Silencing and intimidation are the wrong way.

That's why I'm a free-speechist.

Reddit's rape thread

I had a whole blog post written about the Reddit thread discussing what it's like to be a rapist, and now I don't like it. It was supposed to be about the psychology of assigning moral responsibility to rapists and rape victims, but ended up being preachy and not scientifically supported to my satisfaction. So, in the trash can it goes. As I usually do when something like this happens, I'm going to try and walk it back and distill it into a simple list of observations. If I do this and still end up sounding preachy, well...I apologize.

1. That thread is very likely filled with a lot of deception. The very thing which encourages people to come out and actually admit to doing something horrendous like rape-- anonymity-- also allows them to tell a story with no truth in it whatsoever if they want to. So there are doubtless at least a few people in there getting their chuckles by telling a lurid and shocking tale that is also 100% fabricated.

2. Nevertheless, I don't think reading it is a complete waste of time because even a person's totally made-up characterization of a rapist is interesting. It's interesting to see if they agree with the characterizations given by those who claim to be victims (who are also posting in that thread), and because a person who fabricates a story of what it's like to be a rapist is likely telling you what he would in fact do and think if he decided to ever become a rapist.

3. The mentality of a perpetrator of rape, like the mentality of any perpetrator, is worth knowing about. It's disturbing to learn, but necessary to understand. We must always listen to the explanations of victims, but when the victims are the only ones allowed to explain then we end up verging into the myth of pure evil-- the perpetrator's motivations are simplified (must be hate/desire for power) and isolated (must be deliberate and malicious) in order to maximize his responsibility. That isolation is a problem if it turns out to be mistaken, because as I wrote last month, you can't really discourage people from doing something that they don't view themselves as doing to begin with.

4. The self-proclaimed rapists and attempted rapists in the Reddit thread generally (with some major exceptions like this) describe themselves as realizing what they were doing and how wrong it was after the fact, unless they realized actually during, and had to stop themselves when they finally grasped that their female partner wasn't willing. The closest they come to admitting malice is stating bluntly that the comfort and wishes of their partners weren't any sort of priority for them-- they simply disregarded them in favor of getting what they wanted.

5. That disregard is where the term "rape culture" begins to make sense for me. A rape culture is a culture in which women's desires generally, but especially their desires regarding sex, are not regarded. Unfortunately most of the things I could say about this are prone to misinterpretation, by both people who agree and those who disagree, in the same way that statements I make about what it means to be a feminist can be misinterpreted. For that reason I don't place a lot of stock in whether someone brands him or herself a feminist or not, or thinks "rape culture" is a fitting description for a phenomenon existing in the United States or not. What matters is whether we're talking about the same thing. Do we have a culture in which women's desires are commonly dismissed or viewed as subordinate to men's desires? Yes. Does that mentality enable rapists to rape? Most likely, if their own descriptions of their motivations matter and are accurate. That's minefield #1.

6. Minefield #2 is the characterization of rape victims, which goes right to the heart of why rape is wrong. Even the word "victim" is repudiated by some people, at least as a permanent status, because they reject the idea that the rapist continues to have power over them. A commenter on Salon's article discussing the Reddit thread remarks:
As a social worker, I don't find this comment/pronouncement [a description of a rapist being a cheerful, happy person who has traumatized a woman for life] particularly useful. These women are survivors, not victims. Some have moved on from the trauma by not making it the main narrative in their life story. 
This working through does not diminish the culpability of the perpetrator, and more importantly, it does not trivialise the gravity of the crime. 
What it does suggest is that women don't have to make trauma central to their identity. Yes, it will inform who they are and affect them, but laymen and observers must refrain from condemning women to a life of suffering by not making 'damaged forever' forecasts. These include such misguided statements as, "She will never recover", "It's going to ruin her life" or "People never get over that kind of thing". 
At the risk of sounding glib and simplistic, I am reminded of the quote “Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
To which another commenter responds:
Let me guess - you blame the ones who haven't "moved on" for their suffering, because they are obviously simply choosing to "make [the trauma] the main narrative in their lives." 
As both a child abuse and sexual assault survivor, and as someone who suffers from chronic complex PTSD as a result: SCREW YOU. 
Yes, it is great when a survivor can heal adequately enough to "move on," but the timeline for that is different for every individual, and your severe lack of empathy on that point makes me think that either, a) you are lying about being a social worker, or b) you are one of the terrible social workers of the world. 
I can't help but sympathize with that. Whether the (supposed) social worker does in fact blame women for not recovering from their rapes or not, the perverse attempt at self-empowerment that allows a person to describe those women who have recovered from a rape as having done so "by not making it the main narrative in their life story" certainly doesn't make a clear distinction there. I think it's possible to both congratulate and respect the work a person who was raped has done in order to improve her perspective on life and possibly grow as a person without suggesting that such an effort is both a) universally possible and b) merit-based, but the second commenter clearly doesn't view the first as having done that. A rape victim is responsible for how she deals with the attack to the extent that she continues to have an obligation to be a moral person, but expecting her to be her own therapist and "fix" herself does, in fact, both "diminish the culpability of the perpetrator" and "trivialize the gravity of the crime."

There's a simple alternative to this, of course, and that is to not pretend that the damage of being raped is exactly the same for everyone. We don't need to do that in order to avoid adjusting our view of the severity of the crime, any more than it's necessary to say that child molestation isn't such a bad thing because some children who have experienced it grow up to be well-adjusted adults. If you follow "how you respond to it" far enough around the circle of responsibility, you find yourself right back at "what happens," since there is a point at which your response is simply a thing that happens. In failing to acknowledge this, doctrines of self-empowerment play a cruel joke-- while trying to emphasize the ability to be happier by asserting "This is within your power," they implicitly endorse the corollary, which is of course that if you fail to become happier that is also your fault. And that, as you might expect (and see in the second comment), tends to provoke some bitterness from people who are not happier.

7. Because of this thread on Reddit, fantasy author Jim C. Hines (whom you may remember from his awesome blog post in which he tried to pose like the women featured on the covers of books like his) decided to cancel an author Q&A session he was going to do for Reddit readers. I don't blame him, though I wish he hadn't. As many Redditors have pointed out, even if the "how rapists think" thread has no merit whatsoever and all who are involved in it should be ashamed (which I don't believe), it hardly represents the community as a whole, much less the portion who were looking forward to his answering questions about how books. Hines is fully aware of this, but says that in canceling he wants to attract the attention of people who can "make a change" at Reddit. Unfortunately, I think he has simply made the change of providing Redditors with one less non-rape-related topic to discuss than they had before.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chick-fil-A stuff that happened today, in increasing order of difficulty of predictability:

1. Rick Santorum jumps on Mike Huckabee's bandwagon (if that sounds dirty to you, it's not my fault) and declares that he too is going to eat at Chick-fil-A on August 1st-- as well as today with his entire family, which took three tweets to explain-- in support of that beleaguered Christian business which is just standing up for what's right by doing their level best to prevent marriage equality. 
Predictability difficulty level: 0. Santorum never met an anti-gay cause he didn't like.

2. Dan Savage decides that Chick-fil-A totally sounds like a euphemism for the act of a woman rectally penetrating a man with a strap-on. 
Predictability difficulty level: 1. You know that Savage was the force behind the re-definition of "Santorum," right? 

3. Eugene Volokh patiently and calmly explains why banning Chick-fil-A from establishing a business in a city because you disapprove of their support for a political cause is not only an unconscionable abuse of power but also un-freaking-constitutional:
But denying a private business permits because of such speech by its owner is a blatant First Amendment violation. Even when it comes to government contracting — where the government is choosing how to spend government money — the government generally may not discriminate based on the contractor’s speech, see Board of County Commissioners v. Umbehr (1996). It is even clearer that the government may not make decisions about how people will be allowed to use their own property based on the speaker’s past speech. 
And this is so even if there is no statutory right to a particular kind of building permit (and I don’t know what the rule is under Illinois law). Even if the government may deny permits to people based on various reasons, it may not deny permits to people based on their exercise of his First Amendment rights. It doesn’t matter if the applicant expresses speech that doesn’t share the government officials’ values, or even the values of the majority of local citizens. It doesn’t matter if the applicant’s speech is seen as “disrespect[ful]” of certain groups. The First Amendment generally protects people’s rights to express such views without worrying that the government will deny them business permits as a result. That’s basic First Amendment law — but Alderman Moreno, Mayor Menino, and, apparently, Mayor Emanuel (if his statement is quoted in context), seem to either not know or not care about the law.
Predictability difficulty level: 2. As Popehat remarked,

4. The Jim Henson Company severs their relationship with Chick-fil-A as a consequence of the latter company's support for anti-gay causes. Chief Executive Lisa Henson opts to affirm the company's standpoint on this issue by donating their payment to GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).  Jim Henson toys are pulled from Chick-fil-A kids' meals. George Takei posts the following on his Facebook wall:


Predictability difficulty level: 5. That's a pretty decisive move for the muppet makers, and cements the understanding that Chick-fil-A's actions are anything but personal and simply supportive of "traditional biblical marriage."

5. Roseanne Barr tweets that Chick-fil-A customers deserve to get cancer.
Predictability difficulty level: 7. Of course, I don't know if Barr has a habit of wishing mortal illness on people who decide not to protest businesses which oppose civil rights, or if she simply has a bet with Thomas Menino on who can make those businesses seem most sympathetic. Note: there certainly are ethical and health concerns to be had in eating meat from animals who were fed antibiotics, but a) that kind of meat sure as hell isn't exclusive to Chick-fil-A, and b) it isn't likely to give you cancer. 

6. Chick-fil-A claims that the Jim Henson toys were pulled from kids' meals for safety reasons. But apparently they're concerned about being believed in this claim, because it sure looks like they created a profile on Facebook for a non-existent teenage girl to defend their honor. "Abby Farle" turns up on a post made on Chick-fil-A's wall doubting the reasons given for pulling the Jim Henson toys, quoting bible verses and claiming that the toys were pulled long before the company divorced itself from the pushers of biblical-marriage-only. Only thing is...it turns out "Abby Farle's" pictures are actually of a redheaded teenager in Shutterstock stock photos

I dunno. It could, of course, still be legit....
Predictability difficulty level: 9. This seems like a desperate move, or a move made by someone particularly unfamiliar with the Streisand Effect. 

It's hard to say what wackiness remains yet to come. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Persecution complex tastes like chicken

Wishing I'd stop blogging about Chick-fil-A? Yeah, so am I. But you see, the ridiculousness just keeps on coming, and I can't help but remark on it. Two items today, neither of which is remotely surprising, but each is actually rather fascinating in its predictability. Let me show you what I mean:

Item #1: Conservative Christian politician labels criticism of contributions to a bigoted cause "attacks," asks people to stand up for God by helping the bigots out. 

A new Chick-fil-A franchise opened up recently near me. They built a two-lane drive-through with ample room for long lines of cars, but additional security was still necessary in the first week or so they were open, and every day (except Sunday, of course) those long lines continue to form for lunch, dinner, and yes, breakfast too. They don't seem to be hurting for business at all, but former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is nevertheless concerned that Chick-fil-A might be hurting financially from the relentless horrible bullying of people expressing their displeasure about Chick-fil-A's ownership donating millions of dollars to anti-gay-rights causes. So by golly Mike Huckabee is doing something about it, and that "something" is declaring that Wednesday August 1st should be a day of appreciation for Chick-fil-A, when everyone who wants to "affirm a business that operates on Christian principles" will get themselves a chicken sandwich and waffle fries for Jesus. Thus far, Huckabee's Facebook campaign for this purpose has attracted more than 38,000 people who forgot that their savior condemned divorce but said nothing about homosexuality followers.

Item #2: Self-proclaimed "irreverent raconteur," forgetting that he has roughly half the intellect and none of the wit of H.L. Mencken, non-ironically condemns those who have "attacked" Chick-fil-A (by refusing to dine there for ethical reasons) while at the same time maintaining that his own reasons for choosing to eat there are beyond reproach. 

Requisite caveat: It is entirely possible that this guy is a Poe. I am forced to conclude that the column is legitimate since it didn't appear in The Onion or Landover Baptist but an actual community blog section for The Washington Times, but it's...well, honestly hard to believe. Let me give you some examples:
When I decide to buy something I have only one criterion: Is it the best quality at the best price to satisfy my needs or desires?  
I do not believe in social compacts, social responsibility, or any other idiotic political mumbo jumbo. I only believe in getting the best product or service at the lowest price. . . 
I only care about getting a tasty meal fast. That is all that counts. My wants and needs trump social-moral-economic-political-justice equine excrement every single time. . . 
He just believes that marriage is defined as a partnership between a man and a woman. For that he must be tarred, feathered, and lynched.    
To the lynch mobs and exploding heads, his belief about marriage is an egregious, heinous crime. Expression of beliefs that run counter to the lynch mob is not to be allowed.  
The spiteful screechers and scribblers came out with the usual false accusations of hatred and homophobia - whatever that is.
And it goes on, and on, and on like that.

I don't know if I've ever seen such a spectacular display of someone declaring that he doesn't give the tiniest shit about anyone else while simultaneously claiming that their slightest objection to anything he considers important amounts to...well, you saw it. A lynch mob. People who boycott an eatery because they dislike the political contributions of its owners are just like a group of rabid racists who torture and kill people for being the "wrong" color. In other words, people who object to bigotry are just like bigots themselves.

What?

Leaving aside the immediate concern of why a person who professes to not even know what homophobia is should be heeded when making proclamations about when boycotts in response to it are or aren't legitimate...you can understand my confusion and refusal to take this seriously. Social responsibility is "idiotic political mumbo jumbo." Social justice is "equine excrement." Bigotry against homosexuals is apparently not even comprehensible as a concept. Poe, American from 1954 or modern day Saudi Arabian? Your guess is as good as mine, but suffice to say...do not want.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stage fright = selfishness?

Via Big Think, actor Jonathan Pryce characterizes stage fright as selfishness:


It's an interesting thought, and I'm not going to say he's wrong, but will point out a few things:

1. Self-consciousness and selfishness are not the same thing. Portraying it as selfishness isn't just "cruel" because it's hard to hear someone telling you that you're selfish (though it is), but because it suggests that the anxiety they feel while speaking publicly is because they are somehow trying to monopolize everyone's attention and make the audience think they're better than they are. I've seen speakers who give off this impression, and they don't appear to be frightened in the slightest. When a person obviously has stage fright, it's perhaps as painful to watch and listen to them speak as it is for them to do it. Their voice quavers and they speak too quickly, and you want to whisk them away to a safer location where they may relax, have a beer (or two or three), and record their talk so that you can listen to it later. It would be a better time for all parties involved.

2. After describing stage fright as selfish, Pryce goes on to contrast it with something that sounds, to me, more like selfishness: focusing on what you have to give the audience. It assumes that you have something to give the audience, something important, something they perhaps can only get from you. I've never been quite able to make this assumption, though I don't know whether that's ultimately at the root of my own stage fright. I do know that mine is very real, and it has a very physical manifestation: I go faint. It feels exactly like I feel when I try to give blood, which is a light-headedness combined with nausea, and I start to see red and blue spots. I want to throw up or flee the room, or both. I actually did faint once while performing in a competition in high school-- dropped straight to the ground. It was an unpleasant and embarrassing experience, to say the least. Since then I've found that I can speak before an audience only if I have a prepared paper in front of me from which to read, and the prescribed assistance of Propranolol to stop my heart from beating out of my chest as I do so. As you can imagine, I try to avoid the necessity of doing this very often. Some of us just aren't performers.

3. This is, notably, an instance of a person who has succeeded at solving a problem deciding to diagnose the reason why people who have failed, have failed. It seems as though there are degrees of stage fright, and people who get a small amount of it tend to assume that their experience is universal-- that nobody else experiences something worse. People who have a "trick" that makes their stage fright manageable are rather like people who have a "trick" that makes it easier to avoid eating too many sweets. It might work for them, but there's no particular reason it should work for anyone else. And yet because of the popular doctrine of self-empowerment, it seems as if a trick that works for someone else should work for you, and if it doesn't then it's your own fault. I wonder if that creates a similar effect to that of failing at dieting-- the failure brings with it a sense of personal futility that compounds the original concern and discourages future attempts to improve. This seems like something that a person trained in clinical psychology should address, and...that person would not be me.

A rampage killer and the problem of "evil"

"The problem of evil" is the common term for a certain argument against the existence of God. Or at least, the existence of the so-called "omni god": one who is omniscient (all-knowing), omnibenevolent (all-loving) and omnipotent (all-powerful). The argument goes, basically, that evil would not exist in a universe created by such a deity, because he would know about it, care about it, and be able to prevent it if he had these three qualities. For the purposes of this argument, "evil" is generally defined as suffering-- pain and anguish, usually on the part of humans but sometimes in general. Responses to this argument, defenses of the belief that evil could exist in a universe created by such a god, are called theodicy. Generally an argument of theodicy will appeal to free will and assert that humans wouldn't have it if we weren't able to commit evil acts, and further that pain and suffering are certainly bad but they're also the origin of virtues like compassion and altruism. Of course, not all pain and suffering is caused by human behavior-- natural disasters are an enormous source for these, but they generally aren't called "evil" because evil requires an agent. A person is needed to be evil and commit evil acts.

Arguments from either direction on this topic are not terribly convincing to me, in large part because I not only disbelieve in God but also in evil.

I believe in pain and suffering, certainly, but I believe that attributing them to evil explains precisely nothing. And that's a problem, since it is frequently used to explain things, generally when the pain and suffering is particularly heinous, the speaker has no real idea why they have occurred, and the speaker is either the victim of this pain and suffering and/or sympathizes with the victims. It's like a place-holder for the actual cause, but more importantly (and more significantly) it tends to stand in the way of identifying and articulating the actual cause. It essentializes the perpetrator of the heinous act, who is labeled the evil one, and therefore the explanatory buck stops with him/her. In order to portray this person as absolutely responsible for his or her act, the label of evil forestalls any explanatory circumstances in the mistaken belief that they would constitute exculpatory circumstances. This is why I call evil supernatural-- it's an idea that there's some aspect of a person which is distinct and elevated from all causal factors which contributed to his or her behavior. I'm quite willing to say that people can be bad, be immoral, deliberately or mistakenly do things with disastrous consequences for others as well as themselves. But I won't call them evil, because badness and mistakes can be explained while evil cannot.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister wrote a very important book called Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, in which he articulates what he calls the "myth of pure evil." The myth entails the following:
  • Evil is the intentional infliction of harm on people.
  • Evil is driven primarily by the wish to inflict harm merely for the pleasure of doing so (or for no reason at all). Harm inflicted by evil forces is gratuitous and therefore unjustified.
  • The victim is innocent and good.
  • Evil is the other, the enemy, the outsider, the out-group.
  • Evil has been that way since time immemorial.
  • Evil represents the antithesis of order, peace, and stability
These are the characterizations we give the things and the people we want to call evil, because we want to distance ourselves from them and signify at once that we a) are not capable of committing such acts ourselves, and b) certainly didn't commit any such act in this instance. The worse the act in question becomes, the stronger this impulse is. Suddenly it's not only permissible but obligatory to use any words of condemnation possible to describe the act and its perpetrator, even if they are not accurate. Recall when Bill Maher lost his job as host of Politically Incorrect because he refused to call the 9/11 terrorists "cowards"? He wasn't by any means refusing to say that what they did was wrong, and that they are bad people, but he would not describe their actions as cowardly given that they knowingly and willingly were doing something that would necessarily lead to their deaths. But because Maher refused to feed the myth of pure evil, he was viewed as excusing it and therefore at least a little bit evil himself. Describing someone as evil as an explanation for their behavior is a kind of fundamental attribution error-- it attributes all responsibility for the act to the nature of the person rather than his or her situation-- and people who openly refuse to commit this error risk being viewed as sympathetic to the perpetrator and even to the act itself.

In this context, I want to consider the words of Colorado governor John Hickenlooper about James Holmes, the 24-year-old suspect of Friday's mass shooting in Aurora:
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says the mass killing of a dozen people and wounding of another 58 at a movie theater may not have been political terrorism, but it was the act of a deranged, demonic person who wanted to create intense fear. 
The Democratic governor appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday and says officers are getting a lot more evidence from suspect James Holmes’ apartment and are learning more about him moment by moment. 
Hickenlooper told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week” that Holmes was diabolical and he would have found a way to create this horror even if he did not have access to guns. Hickenlooper says Holmes would have used explosives, poisonous gas or some other method to create the terror.
"Demonic?" Does Hickenlooper actually believe in demons, and that they caused Holmes to murder? I seriously doubt it, although if he does believe that he should be evicted from office as soon as possible. It certainly sounds as though he's using the word to express the extent of his horror at the act, and it accomplishes that. But unfortunately it also accomplishes something else, an incorrect or at least far too hasty explanation for the killer's actions. There is no way for Hickenlooper-- for any of us-- to know at this point whether Holmes is "deranged," much less "diabolical." Those two words create an interesting paradox, actually-- if by "deranged" Hickenlooper means that Holmes is mentally ill, then that would effectively prevent him from being "diabolical," since the myth of pure evil entails that the perpetrator commits his or her heinous acts with full knowledge and deliberateness, with a sound mind. That's how we hold the person fully responsible, morally and legally. People with mental illnesses can certainly be responsible, but if mental illness drives a person to do something like go to a movie theater and open fire on its occupants then I think it's safe to say that the person was not in full control of his or her faculties, however much thought he put into it beforehand. It is entirely possible to be both disturbed and calculating.

The last similarly horrible event that occurred in Colorado was the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. Dave Cullen, the journalist who authored the book Columbine, has an editorial in the New York Times today advising extreme caution in interpreting the causes behind this one:
You've had 48 hours to reflect on the ghastly shooting in Colorado at a movie theater. You’ve been bombarded with “facts” and opinions about James Holmes’s motives. You have probably expressed your opinion on why he did it. You are probably wrong. 
I learned that the hard way. In 1999 I lived in Denver and was part of the first wave of reporters to descend on Columbine High School the afternoon it was attacked. I ran with the journalistic pack that created the myths we are still living with. We created those myths for one reason: we were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon. I spent 10 years studying Columbine, and we all know what happened there, right? Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them. 
Not one bit of that turned out to be true. 
But the news media jumped to all those conclusions in the first 24 hours, so they are accepted by many people today as fact. The real story is a lot more disturbing. And instructive. 
At every high school, college and school-safety conference I speak at, I hold up the journals left behind by the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The audience is shocked at what they learn. Perpetrators of mass murder are usually nothing like our conceptions of them. They are nothing like a vision of pure evil. They are complicated.
Complicated.

Evil is simple. Easy. Practically a write-off. And therein lies both its appeal, and its fundamental mistake.

Weekend web readin'

Money quote:
Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, have turned plenty of heads via billboards near Mile High Stadium, with the first featuring a soccer-mom-type woman revealing her preference for cannabis and the second spotlighting a father saying, "Please card my son" -- the implication being that regulation will do a better job of keeping kids away from pot than will prohibition. But the latest billboard, this one in reliably Republican Grand Junction, is arguably the grabbiest yet. It features televangelist Pat Robertson and the slogan "Pat Robertson would vote YES on 64. Will you?"
From Feministe, On Perfume, Chemical Cleaning agents and "Scent-free" workplaces 
Money quote:
My friend, a severe asthmatic, had suffered a massive attack and had to be rushed to the hospital after encountering a perfect storm of asthma triggers while her and her husband were going about their business that evening.  It had began in an appliance store where a customer coming inside had wafted some cigarette smoke in with them. So began the wheezing and discomfort. The situation was further aggravated when my friend and her husband went for dinner and she went to use the bathroom, and another patron sprayed air freshener in the small space. Finally, in their local Wal-Mart, the smell of the cleaning supplies aisle set her right off and within minutes, she was struggling for air while her husband rushed her out the door so he could take her to the nearest hospital. She very nearly had to be intubated, as her airways had quite nearly closed all the way up. It had been an incredibly close call. 
In the aftermath of this near-miss, the government department where my friend works took it upon themselves to implement a scent-free policy, in spite of the fact that the county had out-right refused to put one in place for its offices. My friend found herself a poster girl for the cause, in the position of having to go to each and every one of her co-workers, one on one, and explain her condition and why her very life depended on adherence to the scent-free policy. The reasoning behind this being that simply addressing the office as a group would allow too many people to not pay attention. I guess it’s easier to convincingly say “If you ignore this, I could die,” and have it stick when you’re up close and personal. 
My friend’s case is fairly extreme one, but more and more workplaces are adopting scent-free policies and no wonder, as sensitivity to scent can have a lot of unpleasant, if not devastating, effects. My SO frequently meets me at the end of the cleaning aisle as the smell of the chemicals nauseates him. A former co-worker hung a sign on his office specifically asking the cleaning staff not to use cleaning chemicals in his office, due to migraines.
Over the years, so much public awareness and policy has gone towards minimizing smoking in public places, due to the harm it does not only to smokers but to those around them. In that vein, many work-places have started adopting “scent-free” policies and it’s something I’d like to see spread, at the very least to my own office. 
From Huffington Post, 9 Lies Republicans Tell About Women's Bodies 
Money quote:
2. Abortion Causes Breast Cancer.The New Hampshire House recently passed a bill that would require doctors to tell women seeking abortions that the procedure can cause breast cancer. Here is an excerpt from the bill, sponsored by Notter:
Materials that inform the pregnant woman that there is a direct link between abortion and breast cancer. It is scientifically undisputed that full-term pregnancy reduces a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer. It is also undisputed that the earlier a woman has a first full-term pregnancy, the lower her risk of breast cancer becomes, because following a full-term pregnancy the breast tissue exposed to estrogen through the menstrual cycle is more mature and cancer resistant. In fact, for each year that a woman’s first full-term pregnancy is delayed, her risk of breast cancer rises 3.5 percent. The theory that there is a direct link between abortion and breast cancer builds upon this undisputed foundation. During the first and second trimesters of pregnancy the breasts develop merely by duplicating immature tissues. Once a woman passes the thirty-second week of pregnancy (third trimester), the immature cells develop into mature cancer resistant cells. When an abortion ends a normal pregnancy, the woman is left with more immature breast tissue than she had before she was pregnant.
There is no link between abortions and breast cancer, according to the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society and other major health organizations. Similar provisions requiring doctors to make the abortion-breast cancer connection remain on the books in other state laws. Alaska, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas all inaccurately assert a risk in written counseling materials, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive health research organization.
From The Monkey Cage, The Declining Culture of Guns and Violence in the United States
Money quote:
The massacre unleashed by James Holmes in Aurora, Colo. shortly after midnight on Friday is a tragedy of national proportions.  Like other mass shootings before it—Columbine in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2007 come to mind—it leaves us desperate for explanations in its wake.  There are those who blame our nation’s relative paucity of gun control laws and others decrying the power of the gun lobby.  Cultural explanations abound, too.  On the right, has pinned the blame on long-term national cultural decline.  On the left, fingers are pointed at America’s“gun-crazy” culture.
But as pundits and politicians react, they would do well to keep in mind two fundamental trends about violence and guns in America that are going unmentioned in the reporting on Aurora.
First, we are a less violent nation now than we’ve been in over forty years. In 2010, violent crime rates hit a low not seen since 1972; murder rates sunk to levels last experienced during the Kennedy Administration.  Our perceptions of our own safety have shifted, as well.  In the early 1980s, almost half of Americans told the General Social Survey (GSS) they were “afraid to walk alone at night” in their own neighborhoods; now only one-third feel this way.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tragedy and the ongoing internet circus

The Onion has a really good piece regarding Friday morning's shootings in Aurora: Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting's Aftermath Will Play Out. Excerpt:
While admitting they "absolutely hate" the fact they have this knowledge, the nation's 300 million citizens told reporters they can pinpoint down to the hour when the first candlelight vigil will be held, roughly how many people will attend, how many times the county sheriff will address the media in the coming weeks, and when the town-wide memorial service will be held. 
Additionally, sources nationwide took no pleasure in confirming that some sort of video recording, written material, or disturbing photographs made by the shooter will be surfacing in about an hour or two. 
"I hate to say it, but we as Americans are basically experts at this kind of thing by now,” said 45-year-old market analyst Jared Gerson, adding that the number of media images of Aurora, CO citizens crying and looking shocked is “pretty much right in line with where it usually is at this point." "The calls not to politicize the tragedy should be starting in an hour, but by 1:30 p.m. tomorrow the issue will have been politicized. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if the shooter’s high school classmate is interviewed within 45 minutes." 
"It's like clockwork," said Gerson, who sighed, shook his head, and walked away.
News coverage is easy to predict, but also kind of comforting in that regard and not really a bad thing-- people want to know the details when something like this happens, as many as they can get, and the networks oblige as best as they can. What accompanies that, however, immediately after or even before the details are gleaned, is the discussion. People have to talk about why this happened, and to whom, and what do we do now. And with access to Twitter and Facebook, they'll do so practically instantaneously. Again, not such a bad thing...it's just that lack of actual, verifiable information won't stop anybody from speculating. Those who know the least are prone to speak first.

And you don't really need that many details to, for example, make a tragedy all about yourself and/or your cause. The Raw Story's list of the top five most painfully self-serving reactions to the Aurora shooting includes tweets about how if James Holmes had been a Muslim he would have already been branded a terrorist, Michael Bloomberg demanding statements from both Obama and Romney about "what they're going to do about it," the Brady Campaign asking for immediate action by Congress (and for donations), and of course the stupidest member of Congress Rep. Louie Gohmert (R, TX) blaming the shootings on "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs." This came, naturally, in the immediate aftermath of the attack without knowing anything at all about the shooter's actual motives.

Rick Warren appears to be blaming the shootings on evolution, or at least evolution taught in schools:
...but it's hard to tell since his Twitter feed is normally a stream of Bible verses and general platitudes. Like a certain NRA feed and online fashion store, it's entirely possible he was ignorant of what was going on and didn't realize the very unfortunate connection. You see the problem of Twitter in this regard-- because there is so much immediate access to every major event that happens, everyone (who tweets, that is) is expected to know about those major events all of the time, and recognize that what they tweet will be understood in that context. If you happen to be a rather solipsistic, novice, or generally oblivious tweeter who doesn't recognize this, it's at your peril-- especially if you happen to be a famous and/or controversial tweeter as well.

The internet gives us an augmented ability to absorb and dispense the normal mix of concern, shock, commiseration, self-absorption, macabre detail immersion, political advocacy, and pontificating that follow a tragic event. We would have these things anyway, but an immersion in social media causes them to speed up to an extent that maybe causes people to go from alarm to desensitization a great deal quicker than they otherwise would, causing that sense of deja vu to kick in the next time a similar event happens. I've seen a lot of comparisons to the Gabrielle Giffords shooting last year, which was quite a bit different in circumstance though it included two basic critical components: 1) a shooting (obviously), and 2) an instant internet explosion of discussion, with a lot of people saying basically the same things that they said last year. I even saw someone remark on Twitter "Not to worry, friends...sooner or later Sarah Palin will say something on Facebook that makes it all worse."

On the Extralife forum, I started a thread for discussion of the Aurora shootings since I knew people would want to talk about it. The first post cynically states:
This thread is for people to:
- declare that we need stricter gun control laws
- declare that others will use this as an excuse to enact stricter gun control laws
- declare that this is one guy, and it was entirely his own fault, influenced by no one in particular
- declare that this guy is the pawn of _______ political faction, which coincidentally the speaker happens to oppose
- blame it on "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs"
- remark on the fact that this was committed by a young white guy, and therefore young white guys can be terrorists too
- declare that the young white guy must himself be a Christian, and therefore this is Christian terrorism
- remark on the fact that the guy was pursuing a PhD in neuroscience, so....I don't know how to end this sentence
- blame it on Batman-- wait, nobody going to do that....here, at least
- express concern about Brian Ibbott and his family (they're fine; they were across town at the time)
- speculate on exactly how the shooter's home is "booby trapped," and for what purpose
- talk about what a generally horrible event this is, and what a completely unexpected context, and how the people in that theater must have felt and are feeling
Not to say that doing any of those things is necessarily wrong. Just that at this point, they are to be expected.

Friday, July 20, 2012

How not to protest Chick-fil-A

Yes, I strongly support boycotting Chick-fil-A because of the large amounts of cash they've donated to anti-gay causes. But Boston's mayor Thomas Menino has gone way, way beyond that by declaring that he intends to block Chick-fil-A from opening any branches in his city because of their political leanings:
“Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion,” Menino told the Herald yesterday. 
“That’s the Freedom Trail. That’s where it all started right here. And we’re not going to have a company, Chick-fil-A or whatever the hell the name is, on our Freedom Trail.”
Dear Mayor Menino,

Chick-fil-A does not discriminate, to my knowledge. They do not forbid gays from working for them or mistreat gay employees, and they do not forbid gay patrons or treat them any differently than they treat any other patrons. You are both mistaken in that regard and rather hilariously unaware of the irony of declaring that you're an "open city" in the same breath as you proclaim your opposition to a restaurant conducting business there because you disagree with the ideology of its owners.

Ken at Popehat lays it out:
I haven't seen any evidence that Chick-Fil-A discriminates in hiring or service. Rather, they give money to a cause I despise, one that promotes social discrimination. But the government doesn't get to pick and choose what social causes are permissible, and any government actor who aspires to that power is a lowlife thug. What's particularly alarming about Menino's thuggery is how openly his referencing to licensing "difficulties" reveals how things really work in government: whatever rights you think that you have, practically speaking some bureaucrat can punish you for exercising them on a whim, and there's very little you can do about it. Menino represents the ethos of government actors who think quite frankly that this is right and just and how it should be — that they, our masters, should be able to dictate what we think and do and say if we want to do business in their fiefdom. 
Menino could use his bully pulpit to call on Bostonians to reject Chick-Fil-A if they come to town. He could call for social opprobrium on Chick-Fil-A and its affiliates and even on its patrons. He could organize protests and marches and letter-writing campaigns. He could carry a sign in front of Chick-Fil-A saying "BE LES BIGOT" if it opens. But if he says he'll use the coercive power of government to retaliate against Chick-Fil-A for views he doesn't like, he's totalitarian. If you support him because you agree with him (and with me) that Chick-Fil-A's stance on gays is worthy of condemnation, then you're a damned fool, and don't let me catch you whining if some other government actor retaliates against an individual or business because of a political stance you like.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gay rights or chicken sandwiches?

From what I know, there's no ethical case to be made against Chick-fil-A's food or business model in particular. They use pretty much the same quality chicken as any other fast food place, many of their meals are actually pretty healthy compared to most similar establishments, and they apparently treat their employees well. That makes it especially unfortunate that over the past several years they've been donating millions to groups which oppose gay rights, and they're proud of it:
Its president, Dan Cathy, said this week that his company was "guilty as charged" in response to a question about whether it opposed the concept of same-sex marriage—a forthright admission that surprised even those who have pointed out the fast food chain's financial ties to groups fighting equal rights for gays and lesbians. 
"We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit," Cathy told the Baptist Press. "We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that." 
In the past, Chick-fil-A has given millions to WinShape, a group that donates regularly to anti-gay organizations like Focus on the Family, a fact that has drawn increasing scrutiny from pro-LGBT rights consumers of late.
I've written on this topic last year, so this isn't news to me. I do however wonder how many happy Chick-fil-A customers haven't heard a word about this before.

They are a family-owned, family-led business, who are married to their first wives, and they thank God for that. Fine, great. I don't imagine anyone begrudges them that. They're supportive of only the biblical definition of the family unit-- fine, and I won't ask for clarification on which biblical definition of the the family unit they're talking about. But that's obviously not all-- they're also very much opposed to anything other than what they believe to be the biblical definition of the family unit to be, and are trying very hard to legally prevent it. So Mr. Cathy, you should be honest about that. If a company run by a gay couple who had never been married before, and declared how supportive they are of the same-sex family unit, they would be drastically remiss in failing to note it if they also donated millions to outlawing marriage between a man and a woman.

You aren't just grateful for what you have. You don't just support what you have. You condemn what other people have and want to have, and are doing your best to make sure they don't get it. That goes beyond religious commitment and into bigotry, and we should make no bones about saying so. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Petition to free Alexander Aan

I had no idea that the White House had established a web site specifically to host petitions. Some of them are quite wacky, but the one I got an email from CFI (the Center for Inquiry) about today is very worthy:
Call upon the Indonesian government to respect the freedom and dignity of all its citizens and to free Alexander Aan. 
Earlier this year, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on Facebook that he doubted the existence of God. He was then attacked and beaten by an angry mob, and arrested for blasphemy. 
On June 14, Aan was convicted of “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility,” sentenced to 30 months in prison, and saddled with a large fine. Now many Indonesians are calling for his death. 
By punishing Aan, Indonesia is violating its obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees every person the rights to freedom of belief and expression. We petition the Obama administration to call upon the Indonesian government to immediately release Alexander Aan and improve its protections for religious dissidents and nonbelievers.
There can be no freedom of religion where there is no right to be non-religious. When simply admitting that you don't share the religious beliefs of the majority amounts to blasphemy, it's effectively illegal to not believe. This petition has a long way to go, and I don't know whether it will do any good. But it's simple to sign, so please do!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Being good at slinging a ball around doesn't make you a hero, part 327

As the Penn State report is being reviewed, and people are talking about how a man could rape multiple children over a sustained period with the protection of his colleagues, I see explanations of "hero worship" and comparisons to the Catholic church again and again. I won't say these explanations and comparisons are wrong-- after all, Joe Paterno was a hero to many, and his handling of Jerry Sandusky's behavior did amount to a cover-up and a refusal to allow the law to deal with matters. But I have a simultaneously more specific and more general suggestion for how to avoid such things happening again: stop treating people involved in athletics as role models. Stop treating people who are highly talented athletes or coaches as if they are somewhere therefore morally trustworthy. They are not, and should not be expected to be. They are simply entertainers, akin to singers, actors, or directors. A sporting event is a performance. There is no necessary moral component to performing well.

It is, of course, a form of performance that is incredibly tribal-- and by that I don't mean a fancy dance. I mean that team sports are a kind of entertainment that strongly encourages the formation of alliances on the part of people who have no real direct connection to whatever is happening on the field/pitch/diamond/rink/etc., but who will forge one out of whatever mental materials are available in order to invest themselves in the success of whomever they're rooting for. That makes the performance far more exciting, because it's hard to care about the result of a contest between two parties when you have no reason to favor one or the other. And rather scarily, there really is no limit to how deeply entrenched this feeling of investment can go-- it can become quite literally an investment, as fans (short for "fanatics") sink countless dollars into season tickets, jerseys and other paraphernalia, tuning into games via pay-per-view, playing fantasy versions of their favorite sport using their favored players, and so on. For the dedicated sports fan, there is no end of possibilities to pour oneself into support for the particular sports and particular teams that have been made part of that person's identify. Most people see this as normal. It's also ubiquitous-- sports themselves may vary across the globe, but the value of sports, and the dedication of fans, really doesn't. It's rather like religion in that way.

And like religion, sport too often brings the opportunity to give moral esteem to people who have done nothing to earn it. At least in religion these are generally people who aspire to a moral status, but in sports they are simply those who have proven particularly physically adept and genetically fortunate. There is nothing about winning games and making lots of money that is generally understood to improve moral character-- you'd think that after years of seeing professional athletes take up hobbies such as dog-fighting, domestic abuse, adultery, and casual bigotry, we'd more than aware of that by now.

People certainly idolize actors and singers, pretending that what they have to say about politics is relevant and that their romantic relationships somehow either reflect or determine the kind that the rest of us have. But we don't hold them responsible for being good. We don't assume they are any less likely to be criminals, let alone more likely to be Eagle scouts. Why do we do this to athletes and their trainers?

Here's a suggestion: Let's stop.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

How to destroy a woman

Taslima Nasreen has a horrifying post up at No Country for Women on individual cases of women attacked with acid in different countries. It includes a lot of photos, so be forewarned. Each woman had acid thrown in her face, with the result of being disfigured beyond recognition and often losing sight in one or both eyes and even the eyes themselves, resulting in a person who barely looks human any longer. Why does this happen? Nasreen writes:
Men throw acid on us with the intention of injuring and disfiguring us. Men throw acid on our bodies, burn our faces, smash our noses, melt our eyes, and walk away as happy men. 
Acid attack is common in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, and a few other countries. Men throw acid on us because men are angry with us for refusing sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, proposals of marriage, demands for dowry, for attending schools, for not wearing Islamic veils, for not behaving well, for speaking too much, for laughing loudly and for pure fun.
Nasreen's post is titled "Our men throw acid in our faces, destroy our lives but we never stop loving men."

The aim, as she says, is to disfigure. You can gravely injure anyone by throwing acid on them, of course, but these attacks specifically for women are to mar her face and make her ugly-- beyond ugly; monstrous and frightening. Her primary worth is her beauty, therefore to destroy that is to destroy her. In so doing, you also destroy her family through the burdens of caring for her health, her chances of having gainful employment, her social status since she is now an outcast...you have taken everything from her. Every one of these attacks is motivated by sheer misogyny-- a feeling of resentment for women who do not conduct themselves as desired, for refusing to obey, for simply being women. For this, their faces have literally been melted and their entire existence turned to suffering.

A handful of face transplant surgeries have occurred recently, most notably Isabelle Dinoire in France and Charla Nash and Dallas Wiens in the United States. In each of their cases the disfigurement was the result of an accident, and each was lucky enough to live in a country with advanced medical care and the opportunity to radically improve-- though not completely fix-- his or her appearance and physical functioning. The women who are attacked by acid have no similar opportunity in their countries. They are pariahs not only within their own societies, but in their world.

Nasreen concludes:
We are more abused, harassed, exploited, kidnapped, raped, trafficked, murdered by our lovers, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends, or men we know well than by strangers. Whatever happens to us, we never stop loving men.

Equal opportunity flirt-slaying

I received an email this morning from Change.org:
"Yeah, I killed him, but he did worse to me." 
In 1997, a man in Queensland, Australia killed a gay man who he claimed flirted with him by bashing his head into a wall and stabbing him to death. Today, "gay panic" is still a legal defense for murder in Queensland that can result in lesser charges. 
In fact, just two years ago, a man was brutally killed in a Queensland churchyard, and his killer used the "gay panic" defense in court. He was subsequently acquitted of murder. 
Father Paul Kelly is a priest in the parish where that man was killed, and he started a petition on Change.org demanding that Queensland abolish the gay panic defense. It looked like Father Kelly's petition was headed for victory, but now there's a new Premier in Queensland, Campbell Newman, and he won't say whether he will abolish the gay panic loophole. 
Father Kelly thinks it's crucial to build quick international pressure on Premier Newman, particularly from important Australian allies like the US. 
A recent study named Queensland as Australia’s most homophobic state -- 73% of gay and lesbian Queenslanders are subjected to verbal abuse or physical violence for their sexuality. Father Kelly believes that if the gay panic defense stands, Queensland's gay community will be forced to live in terror knowing that the law is on their tormentors' side.
Upon clicking through to the petition, I saw that an update had been made:
Queensland's new Attorney-General has just said in media they won't end the "gay panic" defence -- instead saying any change is "unnecessary".
Yes, apparently he did say that, but that's not the most bizarre thing. Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie said that it's "not a priority" to change the defense, and also that it's not appropriate to call it a gay panic defense because both sexes can use it:
I think we have to get this misconception out of everyone’s mind that this [is a] "gay panic" defence. It’s a Criminal Code defence open to any Queenslander regardless of sex.
So, two straight men have used the fact that they felt "provoked" by a non-violent sexual advance-- i.e., they were hit on-- by another man as justification for murdering that man, and did so successfully, but it shouldn't be considered a gay panic defense because apparently (for example) women can also use this defense if they murder a woman who hits on them, or...a man who hits on them.

Wow. Can you imagine if every woman who felt threatened-- or even "provoked"-- by being hit on by a man reacted with violence? To the point of murder? And was acquitted of that? In America, I would guess that every woman has been or will be sexually harassed at least once in her life, and about 1 in 5 have been raped. I hope I don't need to clarify that if 100% of women had been raped it wouldn't justify killing a man simply for hitting on them, but if we're talking concern about personal safety then surely women have a need for it. More concern, at least, than a man needs to have about another man who has expressed a sexual interest in him deciding to translate that into a sexual attack.

And yet how often do women react to sexual advances with violence? Rarely, regardless of who they're coming from. Will the crudest of these advances be met with a slap? Occasionally (and no, I do not advocate this). But if violence enters the picture it's far more likely to come from the woman's jealous significant other, provoked not by concern for his own physical welfare or that of the wife/girlfriend, but by a sense of propriety. I say this not to step into some kind of gender war, but to point out that women are hit on all of the time without violence ever resulting, even though they arguably have at least some justification for being defensive. So what's the excuse of the homophobe?

Oh yeah-- he's grossed out. He's offended, both by the thought of the type of sex act he imagines will result from being receptive to the advances of this other man, and by the assumption on the part of the other man that he might be receptive to these advances. At being thought a "fag." Horrible. Horrible enough to justify bashing that man's repeatedly head against the wall and then stabbing him to death.

In Australia this is known as the "homosexual advance defense." It was entrenched in Australian law by a high court decision in 1997 and used successfully as recently as 2009.

But it's okay, because hey-- it's not just a defense against homosexuals. We all can use it!

Imagine a world in which everyone did.

Friday, July 13, 2012

You have the freedom to make rape jokes. Should you?

There is no way, I think, to more thoroughly annoy a proponent of free speech than to claim that criticism violates it.

It's hard enough defending free speech sometimes. People don't see anything wrong with stopping the Westboro Baptists from protesting. Denying the Holocaust? Yeah, go ahead and outlaw that. Hate speech-- what, that's not already illegal? By all means, ban that too. And nobody really needs violent video games or faux-violent porn, do they? Banish those, along with the burqas!

No, I'm not going to address any of those topics right now. I'm just going to say that when you're talking about violations of free speech, more speech which happens to be critical of that speech isn't one such violation.

I am talking, of course, about the Daniel Tosh thing. If you've been under a rock lately and aren't familiar, he made some jokes about rape to an audience and then heckled a female heckler who didn't like them by joking about her being raped. Yeah, I know. I know. And now we have to have this big discussion about the claim made by the woman which was that jokes about rape are never funny, and alliances have to be created and lines drawn between people who agree and people who disagree, and actually some really good and useful and even funny discussion can arise from it. For instance, you should go read Lindy West's piece How to Make a Rape Joke at Jezebel. I really enjoyed her last two examples of funny jokes about rape, because a) I hadn't heard of either of those comics before, and b) as with all four examples she gives, the joke isn't making fun of rape victims. It's about mocking the rapist, and the mentalities that feed into that, and the circumstances of people who go about their lives worrying about either being raped or being thought a rapist, or both.

Two of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt and Louis CK, have weighed in with support for Tosh. Oswalt's has been conflicted and convoluted, and Louis CK is one of the people commonly accepted as being able to do a joke about rape correctly-- he's one of West's four examples, for that matter. To call this disappointing would be an understatement. Both of these comedians are so much smarter and so much funnier than Tosh that it's like seeing Batman sympathize with a police officer who was accused of roughing up a suspect. And there is actually a similar sort of closing ranks going on-- they're sympathizing as fellow comedians, people who also get up in front of a crowd and say things that might make the crowd erupt in laughter or erupt in rage. And they've also dealt with hecklers, and know what a trial that is. Hecklers don't just pop up in the audiences of small time comics, but that's where they're most common. Generally speaking, the "job" of a comedian who is faced with a heckler is to shout him or her down. To make fun of and embarrass him or her. Some comics have developed this ability into a high art, while others prefer to simply say "Shut up, or you're out of here." And that, of course, requires having access to some sort of security personnel who can make good on that threat for you, since the comedian him or herself is not going to interrupt the show, step down off the stage, and personally deal with the person who has been disrupting things.

So yes, dealing with hecklers is rough. And the woman in question was technically a heckler, though in the interests of fairness it's important to point out that she didn't mean to go see a Daniel Tosh show. She meant to see Dane Cook (also offensive, but mainly because unfunny), and Tosh came on afterward. She apparently had no idea who he was, was disturbed to see rape discussed as a possible topic of jokes to follow, and declared that rape jokes are not funny to this person with whom she was quite unfamiliar. And what followed was really unpleasant, regardless of whether you go by the described linked above or the account of the owner of the Laugh Factory, who ended by saying "If you don't want to get insulted don't go to comedy clubs." After being quite happy to condemn Michael Richards for his racist insults, of course, because those "came from hatred."

Patton Oswalt and Louis CK offend audiences sometimes too, and they have an interest in not wanting comedians who offend to be punished too severely. But by and large they have no reason to fear this punishment, because they don't make bigoted jokes. Making bigoted jokes is easy, which is why why lazier and less creative comics do it all the time. It's hard to fail by appealing to the prejudices of your audience, provided your audience actually has those prejudices. And since audiences have warmly embraced or at least chuckled at sexist jokes for a very long time, it's not at all surprising that a lazy, uncreative comic would resort to them. Because they work, and most likely because that comic shares those prejudices himself.  It takes work to make a joke about a sensitive subject that doesn't involve mocking the very people who are so sensitive to it, and it also takes caring about those people in the first place. Comedians have an interest in appealing to a broad audience, obviously, and it's doubly, triply challenging to make it and be successful without mocking minorities or even being a minority yourself-- if you don't believe me, give Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story a watch sometime.

Louis CK is a straight white man, and he makes fun of himself as a straight white man-- constantly. He is the definition of self-awareness, sometimes even painfully self-aware, and that's why his jokes on these topics work. Clearly he's thought about them, a great deal. My favorite Louis CK rape joke isn't mentioned in the Lindy West article, but it's this (NSFW language, definitely):


Here we have Louis CK talking about trying to do the right thing, and not being appreciated for it. And it's funny, because he is earnest. He's thought about it. When Louis CK makes a joke that portrays him as an asshole, you know he's not really an asshole. Possibly people who are assholes laugh at those jokes because they think he's identifying with them, but he isn't. Trusting the comedian is an important element, but you don't really have to trust Louis CK because he makes it abundantly clear what he's being literal about and what he isn't. This is not a description that applies for Daniel Tosh.

Somebody in the comments for the Pharyngula post about this whole debacle linked to this essay articulating why and when rape jokes are or aren't funny, and it's definitely worth a read. It's clear, it's actually very light-hearted and casual considering the subject matter, and it's very thoughtful. Give it a read when you've got some time to think and consider.

You know what it's not, however? A freedom of speech issue. A freedom of speech issue is when you're being censored by the government. Massive crowds of people looking on what you've said or done disapprovingly is not a freedom of speech issue. It is simply the assertion and exercise of their equivalent freedom of speech.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When a cult rules a town

Two former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) found a kitten, still alive, mostly buried in concrete inside a metal tube on one of the men's property in Colorado City, Arizona. The tube was of one of six standing upright in the ground, intended for use in making posts to support a horse shelter. They worked to rescue the kitten-- cut the tubing apart and hacked at the concrete-- and managed to get it out, but it died a couple of days later. Andrew Chatwin was working on Isaac Wyler's property, and was the one who initially discovered the cat. He says he has seen incidents of apparent deliberate animal abuse before, and believes that this was an act of intimidation by FLDS members telling Wyler (and presumably himself) to "get out."

When Chatwin went to local police to report the incident, he says they laughed at him. Chatwin says that the police are themselves FLDS, and Colorado City is effectively a "theocracy.":
The U.S. Justice Department recently filed a lawsuit against government officials in Colorado City, and the neighboring border town of Hildale, Utah, for alleged civil rights violations, including acting as de-facto agents for the church, denying ex-members and non-members of the FLDS Church access to everything from police services to housing and utilities, according to KSTU-TV.
Warren Jeffs may be in prison, but his people appear to still be going strong. According to The 21st Floor,
The FDLS [sic] is one of the largest fundamentalist Mormon denominations and split from the Church of the Latter Day Saints over their suspension of the practice of polygamy and its decision to excommunicate its members who would continue the practice. The sect believe that a man must have three wifes [sic] to get into heaven and a number of members have been convicted of abusing their spiritual wifes [sic] who were aged between 15 and 16. The FLDS Church is estimated to have 10,000 members and was formerly led by Warren Jeffs who is convicted of two counts of child sexual abuse and is currently serving life plus twenty years in Palestine Texas. 
The church believes that women should be subordinate to their husbands and in general, women are not allowed to cut their hair short or wear makeup, pants, or any skirt above the knees. It has been reported by former members that the FLDS Church has excommunicated more than 400 teenage boys for offenses such as dating or listening to rock music. Some former members claim that the real reason for these excommunications is that there are not enough women for each male to receive three or more wives. Six men, aged 18 to 22, filed a conspiracy lawsuit against Jeffs and Sam Barlow, a former Mohave County deputy sheriff and close associate of Jeffs, for a “systematic excommunication” of young men to reduce competition for wives. 
The church is considered a hate group because of it’s views on race. Former leader Warren Jeffs is quoted as saying: ”the black race is the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth.”
Richard Dawkins claims that at least a mild form of mental abuse is "inherent in a typical religious education," and that threats of eternal suffering in hell are an extreme example. What about the abuse of telling young men that they must marry at least three women if they want to get into heaven, and then denying them any opportunity to do so? What about the abuse of telling women that they must acquiesce to sharing a husband with other wives if they want to get into heaven-- and that they really have no say in who that husband may be, and must marry him as a teenager though he could be fifty years old?

I call FLDS a cult, but not because they having teachings I consider immoral-- though they have loads of those. I call them a cult because they are an insular group which threatens and harasses defectors, and indoctrinates children with beliefs that render them unable to function within society outside of the group, terrified and guilt-stricken about trying to do so. I think Dawkins is definitely exaggerating to suggest that abuse is inherent in a religious education, but that it is abusive to tell children that their eternal fate rests on obeying the particular restrictions of your group, especially if doing so is nearly impossible.

And I think that torturing an animal on someone's property as a means of intimidation counts as terrorism-- what more effective way is there to say "We have absolutely no regard for your well-being" than to demonstrate a complete lack of such regard for a kitten? Even among farmers, who are at least accustomed to dealing with the suffering of animals even if they will never be exactly comfortable with it, that recognition seems clear. As Chatwin says "How else would you take the message?"

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Casual Sunday. Casual everyday.

Spotted at infidel753.blogspot.com
I am not one of those people who enjoys dressing up. I do not fault them for it, and wish them all the best, but I am not one of them. Sure, it can be fun for a wedding or fancy dinner, but generally speaking I am at my happiest in a t-shirt and jeans. Or better yet a tank top and jeans, because I like my arms to be as free as possible. There are particular brands of clothing that I like, but not because they are expensive-- because they have a track record of producing durable clothes with nice textures. I rarely wear skirts and almost never wear heels, though again I don't have a hard and fast rule against them. I just like to be comfortable. I spent the final two years in college barefoot about 80% of the time.

I would like to dispense with the notion that dressing formally conveys respect. Sure, you wear a nice black dress to a funeral. But I don't think that occasions in which it is mandatory to dress up out of sheer tradition should be necessarily treated that way. For example, I'd love to have a president who never wears suits. If female, I'd love to have a president who doesn't even wear dresses (but of course we'd have to get one first). I would love to see Congress convene casually, clad in attire that might have come from Target or even a thrift store. Hell, I'd like to see actors and actresses show up to the Oscars that way! Can you imagine? That might be the downfall of the fashion industry, but it would be a beautiful downfall indeed.

One good thing about dressing casually is that t-shirts and jeans don't really go out of style. So you don't have to buy a lot of them, though you could. Yes, trends in different styles of jeans come and go, but you can wear the same basic pair of Levis in 2012 that you wore in 1998, provided they still fit. Trying to be always on-trend and fashionable is a good way to spend a lot of money and acquire a lot of clothes that you won't wear again after this year. Clothes that you have to look in the mirror while wearing, and think "Wow, I don't look especially good in this...but at least I'm trendy!"

Lastly, dressing formally does not make you more virtuous, knowledgeable, or trustworthy. Unfortunately everywhere you look this myth is reiterated, and I would love to see it banished completely. Let's have experts interviewed on the news while clad in shorts. Heck, news anchors clad in shorts...or I guess tank tops, since you don't generally see their legs. Talking heads of all sorts being casual from the neck down. That would actually force us to consider what they're saying by its content, rather than instinctively conclude without explicitly saying it to ourselves "This person looks nice; he/she must know what he/she is talking about and generally be a trustworthy person."

That would be nice. But I'm not holding my breath-- not for that to happen, and not to get my jeans on.