Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A particularly audacious heckler's veto

To refresh: A heckler's veto is when a group objects to something and uses the threat of their own disruptiveness or potential violence to get that thing removed or banned. Or, when someone else who opposes that thing uses the specter of some other (real or imagined) group's potential disruptiveness or potential violence. Basically, the message is "Force these people to stop this or else we'll (they'll) throw a raging fit about it." You can see examples of heckler's vetoes being attempted in different situations, with greater or lesser success, in these previous posts.

A heckler is, of course, a person who attends a performance of some kind, not to appreciate it, but to get in the way of it happening, thereby spoiling it for the actual audience. And a veto is the power to call a halt to something. The main problem with a heckler's veto is that it transfers blame-- it says nothing about the harmfulness or potential harmfulness of the thing being objected to, and everything about the willingness of the objector(s) to cause harm. Anybody could scream, make a fuss, or physically attack people or property for any reason, but in a heckler's veto they try to attach this behavior to some object, practice, or speech which they don't like in order to get that punished or banned, when really the person who is being disruptive should be. This would seem obvious, but unfortunately it often isn't. Either out of sympathy for the heckler's bruised feelings ("This is an expression of their outrage-- you shouldn't be allowed to provoke them; this makes the harm they caused your fault") or a simple angry teacher response ("I don't care who caused the disruption/damage; I just want it to stop!"), sometimes the heckler's veto works.

That's why I'm concerned about a ridiculous but possibly effective ploy being pulled by opponents of the opening of a new clinic which would provide abortion services in Wichita, in the same facility previously owned by Dr. George Tiller (murdered in 2009). It will be called South Wind Women's Center and run by Trust Women founder Julie Burkhart, who used to work with Tiller. But pro-life group Kansans For Life has, completely unsurprisingly, been attempting to fight the new clinic in any way they can think of. Right now they are attempting to have the area re-zoned, because-- get this-- it's bad for the neighborhood to have the disruption that constant protesters cause. Protesters like who? Why, Kansans For Life!
Kansans for Life is gathering petitions to ask the city to rezone the building. David Gittrich, development director of the group, said that when Tiller operated his clinic, a lot of traffic, police calls and other problems plagued the neighborhood. 
“It was not a quiet, peaceful neighborhood when that place was open,” he said. 
Alissa Kirby, an office specialist for Kansans for Life in Wichita, said Tuesday that the group had gathered 10,554 signatures on petitions so far and hoped to have 20,000 to deliver to the Wichita City Council by Feb. 5. 
And they have a stated intention to heckle protest the clinic for...well, forever:
Gittrich said his group won’t stay away from South Wind. 
“It’s never going to happen. Abortion is never going to be accepted in this country. We’re never going to be quiet and let it go on,” he said.

Read more here:
Well, you know what? Abortion is accepted in this country by two thirds of Americans. "We're never going to be quiet and let it go on" is a statement made by opponents of gay rights, of miscegenation, of racial integration, and probably every other civil rights cause there has ever been. Eventually those people do shut up and let it go on, because they realize they've lost. The opponents of gay rights are on their way to realizing it, and the opponents of abortion will realize it eventually. Sometimes the people in charge do favor the heckler, but history does not.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Women who reject their own freedom

I'll admit-- I'm still surprised when I hear an anti-feminist argument coming from a woman. Women who don't just reject the label of "feminist" but are actually opposed to specific freedoms for womankind, forcefully opposed, take me aback. I don't understand how someone could want to be less free, and not just her but every other woman out there. My mind immediately jumps to "Look, lady. Just because it's legal/socially acceptable for you do _____, doesn't mean you have to! You can go right on living in your own private patriarchy if it pleases you. Don't try to force the rest of us in there as well."

But really, that's not the case-- we don't get our own private patriarchies. Sure, in a free society there exists the freedom to live as if men are the leaders and women are followers or "helpmeets" if you so choose, but you will get judged for it. You don't get the privilege of having your choices go unquestioned, assumed to be legitimate. And, let's be clear, that's how it should be. But when women push for men to be in charge, to dominate, they don't want that questioning-- they want it to be the standard. In order for it to be the standard in a free society, those who want less freedom are forced to create their own insular societies with their own rules which everyone follows and which children are raised not to question. But these little subcultures are under constant ideological attack by the outer freer world which has powerful weapons like information and the means to convey it cheaply and rapidly, aka the internet, and in comparison with these, less-freedom stands little chance against more-freedom.

And people who want to be less free know this. That's why they want everybody to be less free.

But why would a woman want to be less free?

The common explanation is that they've been "brainwashed." But that's not really an answer. That just means "they've been manipulated to accept ideas I think are bad," and it leaves out the answers to: Who is doing the manipulating? And how? And to what end? And what are these ideas, specifically? The problem with the word "patriarchy," which is why I rarely use it, has to do with this. The word patriarchy suggests a deliberate, organized agenda on the part of  mankind in general to dominate women, which is grossly inaccurate and grossly unfair. Just gross, really. The single biggest misunderstanding of feminism is that it's a bunch of women who perceive everything men do as an organized plot to dominate and control them, and the word "brainwashing" sure buys into that. Brainwashing doesn't fit into my preferred definition of patriarchy, which is more of an overarching, implicit concept of men's interests being dominant. That definition involves a society in which men have privilege, but doesn't require it to be deliberate (privilege generally isn't) and doesn't require or suggest that all men are complicit. That's the kind of society that has existed in most of the world to greater and lesser extents for most of history, and that's what feminists have a problem with-- and which anti-feminists think is just peachy.

Okay. So, come on...get to the answer. Why would a woman be an anti-feminist?

Because patriarchy-- as I've defined it above-- is familiar, comfortable, and structured. The roles of men and women, male and female, are pre-established and come with obligations as well as rewards. Being a follower is easier than being a leader, and it means that-- if the leader is good-- you'll be taken care of. Feminists (according to this view) are people who don't want men to be the leaders, which must mean they don't want any leaders, which means chaos. Nobody gets taken care of. And that is deeply, deeply frightening.

The woman posting to me on the Cal Thomas column that abortion is an act of violence against women by men in order to shirk their (men's) responsibility is frightened. To her, women want babies. A woman's job is to want babies and to produce them, and a man's job is to find a woman, produce babies with her, and take care of her and the babies. Abortion is therefore a feminist plot to help men abdicate their responsibility and escape having to be leaders. In this view, feminists are "brainwashed" because they are serving the interests of men without realizing it. And, importantly, not men who are leaders, but men who refuse to be leaders. Men who are not holding up their half of the patriarchal bargain.

Which is, as is so often pointed out, how patriarchy hurts men too. Men who don't want to lead. Men who don't even want a woman. Men who, for whatever reason, don't conform to machismo. According to implicit patriarchal mindset, these men are not just different but bad-- they are violating the laws of nature (no, don't ask me how that's even possible-- I wonder it too) to pursue their own selfish interests. They are to be ridiculed, perhaps arrested or even killed.

I would say that, in arguing with a woman endorsing an anti-feminist position, this should be pointed out. But it isn't likely to accomplish much-- to such a person, the only men who are punished are the ones who are doing something wrong, just like the only women who are punished are those who want what women shouldn't-- independence, in general but particularly regarding their sexuality. Women should not want this, because that's abdicating our responsibilities. To be taken care of. To be led.

Friday, January 25, 2013

How to be a moralizing blowhard

Have you always aspired to be a moralizing blowhard, but just can't seem to get your message down pat? Are you unable to find that mix of condescension, ignorance, and absolute certainty that together make the perfect blend of sanctimonious grandstanding fit to publish on the editorial pages of newspapers across the country? Well, let me instruct you on how to make it work, using the Cal Thomas patented method:

1. Pick something either totally harmless or potentially harmful only to the individual practicing it, what is often called a "victimless crime"-- that is, if people think of it as a crime at all-- and condemn it vociferously.

2. Pick a few more.

3. Never shut up about them. Ever.

4. Seize upon every incidence of great catastrophe to blame it on the particular behavior(s) you have chosen, without demonstrating the slightest concern for establishing any kind of causal link between them. Exercise special diligence in doing this when behaviors that are far more closely connected to the catastrophe in question happen to be things you consider God-given rights.

5. Now, seize upon absolutely anything in order to blame the behaviors you've chosen, especially if you can manage to connect them causally with other behaviors you consider objectionable, again without troubling yourself at all to show that there is any actual link between them.

6. Excellent! You are now well on your way to becoming an established moralizing blowhard, in the longstanding and grand tradition of luminaries such as Robert Bork, Pat Robertson, and Tony Perkins. Hoorah! Result:
There are no new arguments about abortion, and most of us can probably recite the old ones by heart. 
It’s a woman’s right. It’s her body. 
No, it’s a separate life that is initially dependent on the woman for nourishment, but is independent of her in that it is a separate human being. 
Who will take care of the unwanted child if it is born? Meanwhile, adoptive parents wait desperately for a child to love. 
If one adopts the utilitarian view, the 55 million abortions in the U.S. robbed America of potential taxpayers. 
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last week about the availability of guns in America. “When I travel abroad and talk to foreigners about the American passion for guns,” he wrote, “people sometimes express a conclusion that horrifies me: In America, life is cheap.” 
He doesn’t say why he thinks foreigners believe life here is cheap, but let me try to explain it. I believe it begins with the killing of unborn babies. Once the value of life is diminished in the womb, it seems to be a short step to devaluing life at other stages, such as killing people for their sneakers or gunning them down in the street for no reason. 
If one wishes to stretch the point even further, add easy divorce, neglected children, out-of-wedlock babies (which is better than aborting them), spousal abuse, sex trafficking and pornography. All of these – and more – contribute to a cheapening of life and of what it means to be human.

Read more here:
Never mind that it's right there in the Kristoff quote why the foreigners he spoke with believe that Americans consider life cheap; Thomas is certain it's abortion. And things like pornography, divorce, and single parenting, to which foreigners are also notoriously opposed. </sarc>

Never mind that there is no established causal link between the legality of abortion and high incidences of abuse, murder, suicide, or general violence-- aka what normal, sane people would use as a means of measuring perception of the cheapness of life. Have America's lately-rather-frequent serial killers been pro-choice as a pattern, let alone as any sort of rule? I haven't checked, and I somehow doubt Cal has either.  I do know that there is no shortage of people willing to commit violence, even murder, who are "pro-life"...

Never mind that, generally speaking and notwithstanding these serial murders, America has become less violent since the 1960's; not more. So in addition to there appearing to be no individual correlation between acceptance of abortion and propensity toward violence, there is no societal one either.

An important point in blowhardsmanship you would do well to learn before this lesson is over: Whatever you do, in the process of tying the behaviors which you've chosen as the focus of your moral scolding to the downfall of society, be sure that you don't make claims which are anything near concrete, anywhere near falsifiable, anything that could easily be disproven! Because it tends to take a bit of hot wind out of the sails.

But only a little bit. Because if you're like Cal Thomas, there's no shortage of people willing to donate a few puffs to the cause.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

No special snowflakes

Dr. X commented recently on just world bias, as displayed by Oprah while interviewing Lance Armstrong:
Just one slightly weird blip in an otherwise good job. She asked Armstrong more than once if he expected his day of reckoning to come. Fine enough question, but with an almost cult-like, true believer, fast-clip delivery, she explained the basis for her question, and I paraphrase: 
Did you expect that this day would come, because the Second Law of Movement says you will get what you put out? 
I'm watching and I'm like, what the hell, Oprah? I assume she was referring to Newton's Second Law of Motion, which is about physics, not mental life or cosmic justice. I found it a bit annoying that she not only misused the concept but, in particular, she used it to assert the Just World Hypothesis which isn't a law of nature; it's a known psychological bias -- a pernicious distortion of reality. 
Oprah isn't just wrong; she came off as having zombie-like belief in a falsehood that does a lot of harm to people. Applied to Armstrong's situation, it may not sound like a bad thing. But the unexamined flip side is, for example, if you were raped, it was because of something you did that was wrong. So the rape was a natural outcome of your own bad actions. It's cosmic law. Excuse me, but that's fucked.
Fucked, maybe, but certainly common, if not commonly described as the "Second Law of Movement." I would dare say, even, that just world bias is the unfortunate glue that binds traditional religions and more New Agey beliefs together. If you believe in God, then God is supposedly the reason that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. If you believe in The Secret (or karma), then you are the reason. Either way, you have a situation in which the universe itself not only cares about the moral significance of your behavior but actually responds to it, positively or negatively.

And Dr. X succinctly points out the problem with and the very unscientific nature of that position-- science never appeals to a cosmic will to explain reality. Not because such a thing is utterly impossible, as because such a thing hasn't been demonstrated to exist, and therefore appealing to it has no explanatory power. Good thing, considering how often very bad things happen to people who are very good, or just minding their own business!

If anything, the truth is that science keeps uncovering more and more ways in which the universe doesn't give a damn, and religion becomes less and less powerful in its ability to punish the scientists who reveal this.

And we-- ordinary, evitable, happenstance beings that we are-- we go on.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Failing to please

In the comments for a Pharyngula post about online harassment of women journalists, Rachel Kiernan wrote:
This insanity isn’t just levered against female writers. Female politicians receive even more vitriol than their male coworkers or females in other lines of work. Otherwise secular and liberal Germany is filled with men who have something pathological against Angela Merkel, usually about her appearance and based in an absolute hatred against any female politician. An Italian newspaper called her a “lard ass,” in spite of the fact she’s considered to be the de facto leader of the E.U. and has bailed out their banks. In addition to the problems associated with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, France has a problem with male politicians molesting their female staff members while female politicians must endure cat calls just to show up to work. Of course, the news also recently broke about a male politician in Bolivia raping a female politician at a party after she passed out from drinking. So… it would seem as though a photo equals consent, clothing equals consent and the inability to say “no” is also consent. The constant threat of rape is just one example of what can and will happen to women if they dare make themselves seen and heard.   
The ugly reality is that “male machismo” is considered a basic human right for most of the world, including many liberal and secular countries. It’s meant to silence and hide women who otherwise might not “know their place” in society, reminding us all that if we ever fail to please, we can and will be humiliated, threatened, hurt and much worse.
The words "if we ever fail to please" stuck out to me. When trying to formulate a simple and coherent concept of everyday sexism-- the kind practiced by generally good people, just people who have spent little to no time thinking about sexism as a concept to begin with-- I end up falling into a Jeff Foxworthy-like game of "You might be sexist if....." And what I often end up with is something like "You might be sexist if you think the most important thing about a woman is whether she's sexy." If you're talking about a woman who is notable for something other than being sexy (such as, for example, winning an award, writing a book, running a business, inventing a product, etc.) and the main or even the only thing you can manage to say about her involves how attractive (or not) she might be sexist. If you think a woman's primary job is to be sexy and her actual job is something other than porn star, exotic dancer, or might be sexist. (Which is not at all meant to disparage actual porn stars, exotic dancers, and prostitutes)

But I like "failing to please" because that encompasses being sexy, but also leaves room for subservience. For the ways in which a woman who isn't yet sexy, is long past being sexy, or never could be sexy might still yet please. You know, like being properly deferential-- not presuming to argue with a man publically, or otherwise exert authority over men. Accepting one's non-sexiness as a character flaw and attempting to make up for it in other ways, such as being a good cook. After all, ideally all women would be both sexy and good cooks, but if you have to choose between the two, go with the good cook because then you'll get the best of her talents without having to fight your mates off to keep her! And so on.

So yes, "failing to please" is a good catch-all. It sums up very well the general notion that women must live for men rather than for themselves, or at least before themselves, and those who don't are to be shunned and ridiculed if not worse-- sometimes far worse.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Aping Morality: video

As a follow-up to yesterday's discussion, here's Frans deWaal's plenary talk from the 2010 American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta. Ann Taves was president of the AAR that year and introduces him.

A30-140 Plenary Address: Frans de Waal from American Academy of Religion on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Aping morality: non-human (secular) humanists?

Whenever I've been involved in a discussion of the evolution of morality, the English language trips things up a bit. Due to the fact that "morality" could mean "being good" or "the capacity and tendency to distinguish right from wrong," it's always important to note which, specifically, you're talking about. Generally speaking, it would seem that the latter entails the former-- if you have an idea of what it means to be good, then you can probably be good. We all have our failings and occasionally fail to live up to our own standards of morality. But when asked what it means to be a good person, we usually give a description that most human beings could live up to, if they put their minds and consciences to it. By contrast, if a being doesn't distinguish right from wrong, we generally don't hold him or her responsible for doing things that would normally be considered wrong. I touched on this last week when talking about what agency means in terms of moral responsibility. An entity with a concept of right and wrong has the capacity to behave morally-- this concept is sometimes called a moral sense. Having a moral sense is not the same as being moral, any more than having a car is the same as driving.

Are we good so far? Not moral, I mean, but clear? Okay.

Whether non-human animals can have a moral sense, and to what extent, is a very hot topic. It calls into question our own capacity to make these determinations, where that capacity comes from, and how we can recognize it. Maybe other animals have a moral sense, but it's so different from ours that we wouldn't know it if we saw it! Maybe other animals make judgments about all kinds of things that humans just don't care about. Humans certainly don't share all of our moral views about things-- moral standards can vary significantly from culture to culture and from individual to individual-- but most of us have both an extensive repertoire of ways to express moral approbation or disapprobation and an adeptness for registering when others approve or disapprove of something. We're excellent communicators, both vocally and non-vocally. We're actually so good at communicating that we sometimes betray feelings we'd rather not. I'm particularly bad at lying about or otherwise misrepresenting how I feel about something, which is why my career as a professional poker player ended before it began.

Our means of registering how other people feel without their telling us, or even in spite of their telling us something to the contrary, is called empathy. It's what enables us to "read minds"-- not via literal ESP, but by  interpreting patterns of behavior and comparing the situation others are in to our own past experiences, and extrapolating from that how they must feel, what they must be thinking. The simplest form of empathy is emotional contagion-- imagine a nursery in which one baby starts crying, and the sound sets off others as well. This form of empathy is reflexive, which means there's no point at which you actually think "This person must be feeling/thinking ______." There's a scene in the movie Clue where Mrs. White describes how her husband was murdered: "His head had been cut off, and so had know." Cut to three men listening while sitting on the couch, all simultaneously crossing their legs at the knee.

With reflexive empathy, you are effectively projecting yourself into another person's body and situation and feeling what you imagine they feel, whether you want to or not. This is generally referred to as sympathy or a sympathetic reaction, and it's very effective in terms of getting us to care about the welfare of others. It's the reason that witnessing suffering bothers us, and it inspires us to help those who are suffering and be angry with those who cause it. If the person who is suffering is familiar to us or similar to us, our sympathetic reaction to their suffering is both more likely and stronger when it happens. If you want to prevent someone having a sympathetic reaction to another's suffering, a good way to go about doing it-- after attempting to disguise the fact that there's someone suffering at all-- would be to make the person suffering seem as unfamiliar and/or dissimilar as possible, so that it's harder to relate to them.

Hume characterized empathy as the origin of morality. That is, he said, how we become moral-- we are moved by the pain of others because we associate them with ourselves, and from this we extrapolate general dispositions about how others should be treated. We derive a moral sense.

So if other animals have empathy, does that mean they have a moral sense?

I think the answer from Frans deWaal is "yes" and "yes." That is, yes he believes that some non-human apes have the capacity for empathy, and that this constitutes a capacity to form moral judgments. That's what I expect him to argue in the new book he has coming out, The Bonobo and the Atheist.

A primatologist-- and one you should read, if for some reason you haven't already-- deWaal has decades of experience observing the behavior of captive chimpanzees and bonobos, and has written copious books and articles on the topic, especially the ways in which that behavior is similar to our own. And then he began writing books and articles defending his emphasis on the ways in which their behavior resembles our own. The charge, as you might expect, was anthropocentrism-- an insistence on incorrectly interpreting things (in this case, non-human primate behavior) in terms of human thoughts and behavior. To this, deWaal responded by accusing his accusers of "anthropodenial"-- an insistence on refusing to interpret things in terms of human thoughts and behavior, even when it's correct (accurate) to do so. You can see this exchange take place explicitly in Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, where deWaal argues basically that chimpanzees and bonobos have the ability to empathize and therefore at least a precursor to a moral sense, which can be recognized in their behavior by its similarity to human empathy-- and there's nothing hasty or unparsimonious (i.e., inaccurate) about  it.

That's not what this post is about, though. Nor is it, really, about the general topic of morality in non-human primates or other non-human animals. It's really about the fact that The Bonobo and the Atheist will be deWaal's first book addressing religion specifically, and what I'm afraid he'll say about it. See, his books to date have (largely) been about the possibility and extent of a moral capacity in the great apes, non-human primates, particularly chimpanzees and bonobos. Now my concern is that he's going to use this body of data to argue that we-- human beings-- don't need morality to come from God, because we've evolved it. That our closest living primate relatives are, in effect, secular humanists (or at least capable of being such), and therefore we humans might as well be, too.

This position-- if indeed that's what deWaal argues, and I don't know if it will be-- doesn't bother me because it's false. It bothers me because it's beside the point.

Let me back up.

If Great Apes-Who-Are-Not-Humans (that would include chimpanzees and bonobos, but also gorillas and orangutans) do indeed have the capacity for empathy, then I would say that "precursor to morality" is a fair description for it. It would seem, on the face of it, that if nonhuman primates  have the capacity for empathy, then it is indeed evolved. I expect deWaal to argue this-- he has before. (However, this isn't necessarily the case. It could be, for example, that the great apes have evolved to have the kind of brains which make it possible for us have an empathetic response, but not be "wired" for empathy per se. To continue the clumsy analogy I began with, this would be like saying that just because you have a car, doesn't mean you have a drive-to-the-store device. You have a device which you can drive to places, including the store if you so desire. This distinction goes to the heart of the "general learning device" vs. "kludge" discussion of how our brains have evolved, which I do not have any desire to get further into here.)

But even if other Great Apes have the capacity for empathy and hence morality, that is not a good point of evidence with which to oppose a theological insistence that morality must come from belief in God. That's why I think, if this is the arrow deWaal will be firing, it will miss the target. Because we don't need to have evolved morality (that is, to have inherited a moral sense) in order to have it-- both the capacity to be moral, and the tendency to exercise it. Clearly, however we came by these things, we have them. And they are universal, and they do not require belief in a deity.

Now you may ask, why does this matter? Shouldn't demonstrating that we have evolved a moral sense answer that question just as well, if not better? I say no, for a few reasons. First, because a lot of the people who believe that if your morality doesn't come from God you don't have morality at all, don't believe in evolution. They very likely don't have a good grip on what evolution is. And plenty of people-- theist and atheist alike-- who do know what evolution is, and are fully onboard with it, nevertheless have a distaste for evolutionary psychology or anything that smacks of it. And even those who don't have such a distaste at all but have a dedication to scientific rigor (which all of us should, presumably) will need to be convinced. And I'm saying this convincing is important-- very much so-- but also beside the point.

You don't need to demonstrate that morality is evolved in order to show that it doesn't need to come from God, or at least a belief in God. The reality of nonbelievers being moral now, and the immoral behavior of not only believers but by believers in the name of the deity who is supposedly the origin of morality (not just the capacity to be good, but Good itself), accomplishes that.

I think of this every time I see, for example, someone claiming that those who oppose him or her politically are opposing morality itself. As if there's a monopoly on morality: it only comes in one brand, and anyone who doesn't have that brand doesn't have morality at all. No knock-offs, even. Fellow nonbelievers-- you're not the only ones who, it's being maintained, are not just insufficiently moral but incapable of acknowledging morality itself because your concept of it is somewhat different from that of the person making the accusation. Often that person will pretend that members of the morally bereft group he/she is describing are nonbelievers, because no "true" believer would support the right to an abortion/separation of church and state/feminism/sex before marriage/ending school-sanctioned prayer/supporting the teaching of evolution/ending the War on Drugs/ending war, period etc. But realistically speaking, there are nowhere near enough nonbelievers to accomplish any of these goals. And yet there is ample support for them. Hmmm.

So...yeah. Perhaps I'm flailing at windmills, and in fact deWaal's book will not go anywhere near making the we-evolved-morality-therefore-we-don't-need-God argument. But since this argument exists, and is actually relatively common to see whenever a believer challenges a nonbeliever regarding where he/she finds his/her foundation of morality on the basis that if God does not exist we should all be out murdering, raping, stealing, etc., I think it's worth discussing why this approach is not actually the best one.

The best one is far simpler: There are loads-- loads-- of moral standards which are not based on divine mandate. Many of them were endorsed by Greek philosophers before Jesus ever set foot in Bethlehem. It's not possible to show that morality didn't come from God, because God's existence itself is non-falsifiable. Fine. But it's easy to evaluate whether the morality that is claimed to come from God, is in fact, moral or not. This will very likely get a person accused of "judging God" (and who has a right to do that?), but since the person making these proclamations is invariably not God, but a man...well. It carries just as much weight as anything else said by man.

I'm really looking forward to deWaal's book, despite my misgivings stated here-- and hey, for all I know, they might be totally off-base. I hope so. And if you aren't familiar with his books, go get Chimpanzee Politics when you can. Everybody should read that one, and will likely enjoy it.


Prior relevant writing: Is Darwin Responsible for the Chimp Attack?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Update on "contempt of cop" cases

People sometimes find my blog by searching for some variation on "Is it okay to be rude to a cop?" It leads them to the post Being rude to the police: dumb, not criminal, which is about the case of a Colorado man who gave the finger to a state trooper while driving by. The man was stopped and given a criminal summons to appear in court to face a charge of harassment, which carries a penalty of up to six months in prison. Six months in prison, for expressing something to a police officer something which you could express to any civilian with no penalty whatsoever. In this case, the ACLU went to bat for the man, arguing that what he did was protected under the First Amendment, and the charges were dropped.

There have been a couple of similar cases lately which have come to the same conclusion.

Last June in Ohio, a woman honked and gave police chief Roger Moore, who was driving his personal car, the finger after he'd attempted to change lanes into the one she was currently occupying. Instead of being embarrassed for his poor driving, Moore decided to pull the woman over and charge her with disorderly conduct. Moore's lawyer argued in court that the woman's behavior effectively constituted "fighting words," but the judge ruled against that. The lawyer said she's considering appealing.

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that giving a police officer the finger is not grounds for the officer to pull you over and arrest you. A married couple had both been arrested for-- you guessed it-- disorderly conduct after they'd driven by a police officer using radar, whom the husband flipped off. In its opinion, the court held that the "ancient gesture of insult is not the basis for suspicion of a traffic violation or impending criminal activity."

So it appears the title of my previous post stands. Dumb, not criminal...and only dumb because it's likely to get you treated as a criminal.

I must have missed that part of PCU...

Yesterday in my hometown, a man received seventeen life sentences for the repeated rape of two minor girls, some of which occurred while they were as young as 11 and 12 years old, respectively. Complicit in these rapes was the girls' mother-- actually no, she was far more than complicit. She arranged for it to happen, and on at least five occasions actually sat and watched this man, who is now 49 years old, have sex with her two daughters. She received a life sentence with no chance for parole for 25 years.

Something else I heard yesterday? That this man, and that woman, are just like people who support gay marriage. Yep:
There is a movement on to normalize pedophilia, and I guarantee you your reaction to that is probably much the same as your reaction when you first heard about gay marriage. What has happened to gay marriage? It’s become normal — and in fact, with certain people in certain demographics it’s the most important issue in terms of who they vote for. So don’t pooh-pooh. There’s a movement to normalize pedophilia. Don’t pooh-pooh it. The people behind it are serious, and you know the left as well as I do. They glom onto something and they don’t let go. [...] 
What is their objective? They want us to all think that pedophilia is just another sexual orientation. You know who’s gonna fall right in line is college kids, just like they have on gay marriage, just like they do on all other revolutionary social issues. Their own definition of the cutting edge, civil rights, freedom, understanding, tolerance. So I’m just warning you here. You think it can’t happen. “Impossible! Don’t be nutso and wacko on us, Rush.”
Pedophilia-- all of the college kids are gonna be doing it!

At Dispatches, Ed points out that in this insane rant, Rush Limbaugh doesn't clearly articulate who "they" are-- presumably "the left" in general (to be defined here as anyone whose politics do not align with Rush Limbaugh), those bleeding hearts who are ready to take up "revolutionary social causes" whatever those might be, because they're just into...normalizing stuff. Stuff that Limbaugh doesn't like, which usually has something to do with women's and minority rights and sexual practices he personally doesn't want to engage in. And hey, pedophilia falls into that latter category for him, certainly, so why not for liberals? Because after all, liberals stand for the interests of people Rush is not and the ability to do things Rush doesn't want to do, and they are therefore the enemy!

No, right wingers are not narcissistic. Not remotely.

But yes, there's a movement to normalize pedophilia-- it's called NAMBLA; it has been around for a very long time; and despite its self-description as a "civil rights" group, their efforts have mysteriously not resonated with left-leaning people generally, possibly because-- going out on a limb here-- having sex with underage boys isn't something they consider to be a civil right.

Because of the consent thing, and all.

Given the slew of jaw-dropping comments made by conservative politicians in the news lately regarding rape, however, my confidence in right wing comprehension of what consent means, let alone their regard for it, is on seriously shaky ground. In case you're having trouble keeping track (and I know; it's like trying to keep track of who's been caught with a rent boy most recently), here's a handy infographic:
Credit: The Frisky
Now, it's not at all news to see a right winger, especially someone like Rush Limbaugh, compare homosexuality to pedophilia. It's beyond common-- Rick Santorum has practically built his reputation on it, Rick Warren has done it and then issued "notpologies" for it...heck, in the (continuing) wake of child molestation scandals in the Catholic Church and Jerry Sandusky's locker room, homosexuality and pedophilia have been directly equated: If you're a homosexual, you're probably a pedophile, or at least there's nothing stopping you (and please don't mention that the vast majority of child molestation and rape cases are like the one which begins this post-- straight adult man and female child). they realize what they're saying?

Do they realize that they're saying that they, personally, don't grasp the importance of consent? Especially the female kind?

I don't think they do.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Secret Agent Woman

Jennifer Shewmaker, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, has a blog post blaming the Steubenville rape case in part on objectification of women. You should go read it, but first read about the Steubenville matter if you haven't already. I have some theories about what would possess teenagers to create videos of themselves mocking a fellow student for getting repeatedly sexually assaulted at a party and then post the videos online, but they're half-baked. And right now I want to talk about the aspect Shewmaker focuses on.

First, I agree that objectification does contribute to this, but a "me too" isn't good enough here. "Objectification" has become to pat a word, too cliche. It's not wrong, but it's so commonly used that I think the meaning has been largely sucked out of it and people's eyes tend to glaze over when they see it. And I say this having written about objectification and the problems with it multiple times before, each time cringing a little internally while thinking about how the word, a very important word, has become a slogan.

So let's focus instead on the opposite of sexual objectification-- sexual agency. Or just, you know, agency to start.

An agent is a being with a will, desires, motivations, and responsibility. An agent does things for reasons, and can be blamed or praised when those things are wrong or right, respectively. In order to be a fully realized agent, you need to be capable, adult, mature.

An agent, when it comes to legality, is someone who can be party to a contract. We do not hold a person to a contract if important information was withheld from him or her in the contract's arrangement (that would be fraud), or if the person him/herself was for some reason not mentally competent to enter into such an agreement, because these are factors that diminish agency. They make a person less capable of making an informed, responsible decision. And it's wrong to deceive people into doing things against their best interest (that's taking advantage of them), and it's wrong to blame people for behavior that either wasn't immoral or over which they had little or no control, or both.

When a child or someone with a severe mental disability does something bad, we temper our judgment according to their diminished agency. When an animal does something bad, we blame it scarcely at all. Children, the mentally disabled, and animals are placed in the care of rational, caring adults, fully-realized agents, who make decisions for them. Even though they are not fully-realized agents-- especially because of this-- we consider it wrong to abuse them. Though they are not moral agents, they are moral patients-- beings we should treat morally, even though they may not be able to treat us in that same manner.

There are men who think that women are like children, the mentally disabled, or animals in this regard. No, they probably don't think in terms of moral agents and moral patients, but to them the only people who can be fully responsible, mature actors are adult men. To this sort of person, sexually assaulting a woman is wrong-- but primarily because it goes against the interests of whatever man is in charge of her, her husband or her father. A woman's sexual "purity" (scare quotes here because having sex is not like dropping a bit of black paint into a can of white, or a fly into a pitcher of milk) is a commodity, the strength of which determines her value to these men. In that regard she hovers somewhere between child/mentally disabled person and animal, because children/the mentally disabled aren't expected to provide a service, whereas animals often are. It would be more accurate to say, actually, that they are used for something-- dogs for hunting or sniffing out drugs, horses for pulling carts, various livestock for eating, and so on. Women are used, to this mindset, for sex and baby-making. If they can no longer be used for these functions or nobody wants to use them for these functions, they are irrelevant. As Tina Fey said, "crazy" is a woman who keeps talking when nobody wants to fuck her.

To this mindset, rape is only as wrong as theft-- and it's theft not at her expense, but at the expense of another man. If no man is in charge of a woman, or if she's been "used" too much, If you take someone's dog and beat it with a stick, you're in serious trouble. If you take a stray dog and do the same thing, not nearly as big a deal.

A study performed earlier this year indicated that people, male and female, literally see women as more like objects and men as more like people. Of the images that Shewmaker used to accompany her blog post on objectification of women, the worst one to me is an ad depicting a woman in her underwear lying on a bed, with a Playstation controller lying nearby, its cord leading directly into her belly button. With this, you can control the woman, haha. The caption reads "Keep on dreaming of a better world." Of all depictions of woman-as-sexbot in media-- and there are so many the idea is well past cliche at this point-- that's certainly one of the clunkiest. Congratulations, Che Men's Magazine-- you're even lousy at sexism!

But even so, even in spite of these, I find it easier to focus not on how women are turned into objects, but how they're denied having agency. It seems more accessible to take what a man is generally considered to be, and then examine what is subtracted for a woman ("How do you write women so well?" "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability"). And then look at the ramifications.

There are people, and then there are women. 
There are two kinds of people: men and women.
There are people, and amongst them are men and women.

Yes, that's better.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Governor brings religion into the public sphere"

KS governor Sam Brownback. Photo credit: Brent Wistrom, The Wichita Eagle
Fearing terms is odd. But in terms of terms to fear
I'd suggest "public square" and "public sphere."
When it comes to church and state separation
these words are oft used for equivocation
of an individual's right to express a thought
and a government's ideological onslaught,
to swap the former for the latter.

The "public square" or "public sphere," you see
can refer to a literal town square or public access TV
or to the podium where a governor stands
issuing edicts and waving his hands.
It's not a difference of ideas transmitted
but the weight of actual law permitted
to enforce their content that matters.

A religious politician is no pioneer.
All people are religious in the public sphere
if they are religious, that is, and openly so.
No laws prohibit prayer in school, and no
rules forbid statements of faith in the street.
But you won't hear this from theocrats you meet
who confuse gov't endorsement with speech.

They say God has been forbidden from class
if the teacher can't make you get off of your ass
and pray to a god you might not believe in
or a different version than you were conceiving.
Your personal faith, though, is perfectly kosher.
It's mandated worship that we should be so sure
to avoid, for that's overreach.

Likewise, pols wanting laws made at God's behest
would do well to consider the lemon test:
legislation must have a secular reason.
This means that those who contemplate seizing
the power of office to make us obey
their faith fall afoul of what their own laws say;
their job is to govern, not preach.

I know when it comes to private and public
it's hard to determine the best way to stick
to church/state separation. But really, these
efforts to conflate, trick, and tease
make it harder. Jurisprudence and God
must be distinguished. Brownback has trod
on a freedom that we now must teach.