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Sunday, July 27, 2014

It should go without saying

Yesterday Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins both published, on their respective blogs, a brief joint statement on how atheists should disagree. It's really unfortunate that such a thing should be necessary, but encouraging that it happened. The statement condemns bullying and harassment generally, and then goes on to cite specific examples of such:
In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.
It should go without saying, but this statement comes into the wake of some particularly disgusting instances of people doing exactly these sorts of things, and defending others who have done them. In the comments on this statement on Dawkins' blog, there are people continuing to defend this kind of behavior:
The reason that people make photoshops of her and her fellow travelers and make derisory comments about her is that they tried very hard to engage in honest discussion with her only to be met with conveniently selective moderation practices, ridiculous accusations of misogyny and a habit of playing the offended victim card to death. People might still have left her to stew in her own juice if not for the attacks on high profile figures over contrived offences. When bloggers jump on board with unevidenced accusations of sexual crimes then they can expect to be lampooned. The rationale behind the ridicule is that there is no point at all in trying to reason with her because she will not give an honest reading to what you say and will likely selectively moderate for effect, so why bother trying to engage politely with her.
No. See, that's not how it works.

Harassment is not wrong unless you can find some justification in your mind for a person deserving it. It's wrong, period. If you disagree vehemently with someone, you express this disagreement as an argument. You do not draw childish pictures of them making fun of their appearance. You do not call them demeaning names. You do not, in the same breath, endorse rhetorically punching someone because they won't listen to you and then, because they complained about the first punch, justify doing it again. You don't fake a punch and then give them two for flinching. That's what children and bullies do.

Personally, I see a false dichotomy between harassment and politeness-- there's a world of ways to be rude to and about people without acting like a five year old. But if you're unable to find a course of action in this realm, I would suggest not engaging with those people. No, going off and drawing a cartoon of them with a pig nose, or spreading around somebody else's drawing of such, doesn't qualify as disengagement.

Tribalism is a huge problem in the atheist movement, and my thoughts on that subject are muddled. I haven't honestly worked out when it's okay to draw lines in the sand and insist that "we" should no longer value what a certain person has to say because of what they've said in the past, or even continue to say, although I think Greta Christina's recent post on the subject is pretty damn persuasive. There's only so much time, and only so much attention we have to give, and it's valid to say that a person's actions have been so egregious as to disqualify him or her from deserving attention. That doesn't mean much when you're talking about someone's personal attention, but it means a hell of a lot when you're talking about who to invite to a conference or whose blog to host on your network.

There's no official code of conduct that people in the atheist movement are forced to follow. If someone behaves reprehensibly, group ostracism is really the only way to deal with it. As a consequence, we continually have people trying to influence the group against someone, or against an organization, because that person or organization is believed to have rendered all charitable assumptions about him/her/them unjustified. I couldn't tell you how many times I've seen someone say (invariably in the comments on the Facebook post of some prominent person in the atheist movement) that they've quit "the movement" altogether for this reason. I then laugh inwardly, bitterly, and move on, because the frustration and non committal nature of the statement is so palpable. "I wish I knew how to quit you," indeed.

Not all "infighting" is created equal. The existence of disagreement, even strong disagreement, does not justify pettiness and childishness. The fact that someone is a "public figure" does not justify it either-- public figures are still people. I don't think it's tribalistic to tell people who insist otherwise that their behavior disqualifies their views from consideration by people who want rational, respectful dialog, because it's always possible to find someone expressing the same otherwise worthwhile sentiment while not being a heinous asshole at the same time. We just have to follow up on this promise, and vote with our attention.

I hope we can. I think this joint statement is a move in that direction.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Things you might not want to say about hot car deaths

I live in Wichita, Kansas. Kansas is a place of extreme temperatures-- it can get bitterly cold in the winter, and deathly hot in the summer. Today, for example, the high is supposed to be about 106.

On Thursday, a baby died here in the heat. Another hot car death. She was 10 months old, and left in the car for two hours while it was 90 degrees outside.

In this case her was name Kadylak, and she was the foster daughter of two men in their late 20's who also have several other foster children.

If you live in any place where it routinely becomes very hot in the summer, you're probably familiar with the story-- the father forgot that the child was in the car. He went about his day somewhere else while she remained there. In that confined space, the baby died of heat stroke. The father is distraught. He didn't mean for this to happen. That father, in this case named Seth Jackson, wants to die himself, according to his mother.

On average, 38 children die in the United States every year from hyperthermia, or heat stroke, inside of hot cars according to the advocacy group Kids And Cars. Over 600 have died in this way since 1998. In roughly half of the cases, the parent/driver forgot that the child was in the car.

Proposals have been made for technological solutions to this problem; a way to force parents to remember that there is a small child in the car. A child who may be asleep and therefore making no noise him/herself, a child whose car seat is in the back of the car because he/she is too young to sit in the front seat of a car with airbag technology, a child whose car seat might not only be in the back of the car, but facing the back of the car so the driver won't even see his/her face without a mirror installed.

A high school student from Albuquerque (another hot place) named Alissa Chavez won an award last year for designing an alarm system called "The Hot Seat" which notifies the driver if a child is left in a vehicle. There are also, as you might expect, apps for that. Kids And Cars has a petition to the White House asking for funding to be allocated to the Department of Transportation to research technology (the nature of which isn't specified in the petition) to tackle the problem of children being left in hot cars, and also to "require installation of technology in all vehicles and/or child safety seats to prevent children from being left alone left alone [sic] in vehicles."

After so many years of hearing about children dying in this way, and listening to people's reactions to the stories, I've noticed a few trends in these reactions. Not positive trends. Trends that sound, quite frankly, a lot like concerted efforts at empathy avoidance. I'd like to address a few of these and explain why I find them so problematic.

1. "I can't believe he/she forgot that she had a child."

In the roughly 54% of occasions on which a child was left in a hot car because he/she was forgotten, it wasn't because the parent forgot that he/she had a child. He/she forgot that the child was left in the vehicle. Big difference.

2. "This parent must have been drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid/evil." 

In this case, at least,
Neighbors described Jackson and his partner as doting parents. 
"They are two of the most kind-hearted guys that I have ever met. And I hate that there's so much controversy right now with babies' being left in the car, because I truly don't feel from the bottom of my heart they would ever do this on purpose," said Lindey TenEyck, who lives across the street.

3. "This parent should be 'forgotten' in a jail cell for about 50 years and see how he/she likes it."

.....
Never mind, your capacity to empathize is clearly broken. I dearly hope you have no children of your own-- not because you might leave them in a hot car, but because I can see you banishing them to Siberia the moment they first burst into tears at the hospital. They wouldn't even make it to car.

4. "I just can't imagine doing/having done this with one of my children." 

All right, this is the big one. This is the main thought I want to address.

The fact that you can't imagine something like this means very, very little on the one hand, and quite a lot on the other.

Your not being able to imagine something means very, very little, I should say, in terms of its truth value. Not being able to imagine something is called a cognitive constraint, in that it's hard to meaningfully process a concept if you lack the ability to get your mind around it in the first place. But that doesn't mean it's not true.

Plenty of people misconstrue evolution, for example, because they just can't get their minds around the length of time it would take for the genetic structure of a species of organisms to change sufficiently for their progeny to become a different species, and so you get bizarre straw man characterizations of evolution that have no correlation to reality, like the crocoduck for example.

Now, just because Kirk Cameron is unable to properly imagine how evolution really works, that doesn't mean that evolution doesn't work. It just means that his poor brain, for whatever reason, is unable to grok the concept. He can't grasp that evolution is true because the only version of it he's willing or able to entertain is a caricature.

Likewise, your inability to do something like forget your own child in the back of your own car might be a caricature of a different sort-- an unwarranted but entirely understandable mental distancing from the idea that such a horrendous tragedy could have ever happened, or especially could ever happen in the future, to one of your own children because of your own negligence.

Let me emphasize those two words again-- entirely understandable. It's entirely understandable to banish from your mind the thought of something like this happening in your own life, because if a parent went around seriously considering that any and all tragedies which have ever ended the life of any child could happen to his or her own children, he/she could be rendered paralyzed with fear. It's possible that this person would become unable to function as a parent if that happened, because parenting involves risks, and imagining the worst possible consequence of every risk has a way of preventing people from being willing to take any risks.

Right?

Okay, but here's the problem with that, and this is the part that means a lot, as I mentioned-- being unable or unwilling to conceive of yourself doing something, especially a thing which involves forgetting something important with disastrous results, has the effect of inhibiting your ability to empathize with people who have done that thing. People who-- this is important--  it's very likely also would've said that they would never forget their child in a hot car, who would have themselves condemned any other parent who did so as drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid and/or evil. Yes, I'm quite sure that Seth Jackson himself would've said that.

So what ends up happening is that when someone like Jackson does forget, and a child ends up dying, there are endless other parents out there, who aren't necessarily any smarter or more responsible or loving or conscientious, who nevertheless have to condemn what he did in the strictest terms. This person who is described by his neighbor as lying on the ground near his car, "practically in the fetal position," experiencing the sort of pain that no parent ever wants to experience. The kind no parent could ever forget. This person is assumed to be the worst sort of human being imaginable. And it's very likely that right now, he would not disagree.

Except the problem is, he isn't. He's a parent who made a mistake. The problem with shutting off empathy to this person out of a sense of self-preservation, or rather a preservation of the image of oneself as a good parent who would never do this, is that it doesn't fix anything. It does absolutely nothing to prevent this from happening again. And again, and again, and again. Which brings me to the last thought.

5. "Pushing for [insert proposed safety measure here] means blaming [insert manufacturer here] for this sort of thing instead of the negligent parent." 

No, it doesn't. No more than any other safety device invented since the beginning of time has meant this.

When you and I were babies, we didn't travel in super-safe car seats in the back seat, facing backward. Maybe we were in car seats. But they weren't the same kind, and they were probably in the front seat or maybe even on the floor. In such a position, I can't help thinking that our presence there, even while asleep, was more of a reminder to Mom or Dad driving us around that we were in the car.

Does that mean that the backward-facing seats in the backseat are bad, and the practice should be ended? No, of course not. It means that in the act of moving car seats to the back seat, which was done in the first place because of the introduction and standardization of air bags because one of those being triggered could be dangerous to a small child in the front seat, may have created a new risk of its own which deserves its own safety concern. It makes absolutely no sense to slam on the brakes (figuratively speaking) when it comes to this concern, and insist that this is where safety measures end, that nothing should be done to prevent parents from forgetting a child in a car because it's just their own fault. They're horrible people and deserve to suffer, and that's where it ends, right?

No.

Do you care more about making sure parents suffer when their children die, or do you care more about preventing the children from dying? Because trust me, the first one is going to happen regardless.

Parents can make horrible mistakes. Good ones. Smart ones. Capable ones. That's the risk of being a parent-- you're going to screw up sometimes. If you're lucky, the results won't be devastating. That of course doesn't mean that it's all up to luck, but there is definitely a lot of luck involved.  It's okay to acknowledge that. It doesn't mean you're admitting to being a terrible parent. If it helps, you don't have to announce it to the world-- I'll do it for you.

I know that the pressure to appear perfect is neverending. But don't let that get in the way of empathizing with people who have clearly experienced tragedy, because they're already suffering enough. And certainly don't let it get in the way of supporting help for parents who need it. Because in the end, it's better that they get that help, isn't it?

Who knows, you might even benefit from it too. Or your kids will. Or their kids.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sex without fear

"Consequence" is one of those words that has taken on a connotation of the negative, even though the denotation does not require it. Strictly speaking, a consequence is an effect, an outcome, a result. That's all. Consequences are the reasons we do things-- if our actions had no outcomes, there would be no point in performing them. Everything we do, we do for the consequences.

The consequences of Colorado recently making some forms of birth control, IUDs and implants, free or nearly free to low-income women through the Colorado Family Planning Initiative have been very good indeed:
The teen abortion rate dropped by 35 percent from 2009 to 2012 in counties served by the program, according to the state's estimates. 
Young women served by the family planning clinics also accounted for about three-fourths of the overall decline in Colorado's teen birth rate during the same time period. And the infant caseload for Colorado WIC, a nutrition program for low-income women and their babies, fell by 23 percent from 2008 to 2013. 
"This initiative has saved Colorado millions of dollars," Governor John Hickenlooper said in a statement. "But more importantly, it has helped thousands of young Colorado women continue their education, pursue their professional goals and postpone pregnancy until they are ready to start a family."
If you're taking issue with my use of the words "free or nearly free" right now...stop. Yes, I know full well that "provided by the government" does not mean "free." Nothing is free. However, please read that first statement by Governor Hickenlooper-- providing birth control to low-income women has saved the state money. Quite a lot of money, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Nobody, that is, who is familiar with the notion that when women can't afford babies, they often can't afford abortions either, and so become stuck with those babies they can't afford to have. And then who becomes responsible for paying for those babies? The state-- which means all of us, via welfare.

So between the cost of contraception, the cost of birth, and the cost of welfare, contraception is chronologically the first cost, which also happens to be the lowest cost, and also prevents the following two costs. That, in a nutshell, is how the state saves money by spending money. Spend a small amount now, save a large amount later. You could call that an "entitlement" if the notion of chronology is tricky for you, but for someone with no such difficulty, it just makes common fiscal sense.

You'd think.

But no, the same people who trumpet fiscal responsibility for the government most reliably are, astonishingly, not in favor of measures like this. That is, of course, because their dedication to ending abortion in America does not lead to the ardent support of contraception that one might logically conclude they should have. And that is, unfortunately, because the goals of ending abortion and encouraging fiscally responsible government are both ultimately supplanted by yet another goal: to prevent "consequence free sex."


Now, let's ponder this notion for a moment. "Consequence free"?

Sex using effective contraception such as an IUD (the objectionable form of birth control cited by Hobby Lobby in its Supreme Court case, which Erickson is addressing in the above tweet, and which Colorado made attainable for women on low incomes) is anything but consequence free. The consequences of sex using effective contraception potentially include:
  • Intimacy between partners without fear
  • Pleasure between partners without fear
  • Bonding between partners without fear
  • Enjoyment and creation of memories between partners without fear
The fear in question, of course, taking two possible forms:
  1. Unwanted pregnancy
  2. STDs
So since it's clear that sexual intercourse using contraception doesn't prevent consequences, and that there are certain consequences which are in fact the point of having sex using contraception, desirable, good consequences, it appears that actually Erickson's tweet should have referred not to consequence free sex, but to fear free sex. As in, nobody should be able to have sex without fear of creating an unwanted pregnancy or contracting an STDs. 

Why should nobody be able to have sex without this fear? 

Because they don't think people—young people, poor people, unmarried people, gay people—should be able to enjoy "consequence-free sex." Because it's sex that they hate—it's sex for pleasure that they hate—and they hate that kind of sex more than they hate abortion, teen moms, and welfare spending combined. Knowing that some people are having sex for pleasure without having their futures disrupted by an unplanned pregnancy or having their health compromised by a sexually transmitted infection or having to run a traumatizing gauntlet of shrieking "sidewalk counselors" to get to an abortion clinic keeps them up at night.
Yeah, I'm inclined to think so.

So hey, conservatives? At least, social conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson? Try just saying what you mean, okay?

You don't think people-- especially women and gays-- should be able to have sex without fear. And it's easier to makes sure poor women and gays can't have sex without fear, because it's easier to make sure that poor people don't do anything that costs money. And contraceptives? They cost money.

Just say it. Sexuality should be controlled, and it's best controlled by fear, so you want to preserve the fear.

It won't happen, in the end...but hey, at least you can say you were honest.