White privilege – An example of exactly how not to think about racial inequality.

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Over the last few hundred years, Western liberalism has enjoyed a long series of well-deserved moral victories over the evils of  slavery, sexism, racism, ableism, ethnic bigotry, religious prejudice, anti-LGBT bigotry, and a host of other social ills.  All of these battles were fought to advance the principle that every person deserves an equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And so Western liberals found themselves repeatedly fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, the minorities, the oppressed.  These victories were hard fought and rife with misery, to be sure, but we in the West undoubtedly live in a better world today due to the efforts of our liberal forebears.  And there are many more battles to fight – more work to be done.  Remnants of the old prejudices and bigotries still influence many people to this day, though it is far less socially acceptable than it once was*.

Despite these many victories, I’ve begun to notice a faction within the Western political left (a bastion of western liberalism  since the latter part of the civil rights movement) that has begun to see the world through what might be called “oppression-tinted” lenses.  To many on the western political left, we continue to live in a bigotry smorgasbord of sorts.  And while I strongly identify with the desire to support the downtrodden and oppressed, I must also recognize that not everything can be reduced down to a binary description of oppressors and the oppressed.  Being a big fan of John Stuart Mill’s idea that a person who knows only their own side of a case knows little even of that**, I will do my best to summarize the opposing side’s arguments in a way they would accept before criticizing those arguments.  In my first post of this series, I’ll be discussing the concept of “privilege.”

Privilege

A privilege is generally understood as a right or benefit given to one person or group, but not to another person or group.  In teaching their children, for example, parents use privileges all the time.  A child might be given regular healthy food for dinner, for example, but have to earn the privilege of getting dessert by behaving well or doing homework/chores.  In this case, all of the children are treated equally with respect to receiving the necessary basics (healthy food), but some might receive the privilege of dessert based upon the quality of their behavior.

But I don’t think that modern leftists are really referring to this type of privilege.  Instead, they describe a wide range of advantages given to some – but not others- due to systemic inequalities in the legal and social arena.  They sort these categories of privilege into things like white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, Christian privilege, cis-gender privilege, and many others.  They argue that our society is structured to provide these privileges in a systematic fashion to only certain groups.  To return to the parenting analogy above, many modern leftists seem to be arguing that some children are receiving the necessary basics (healthy food) as the default while others must earn the healthy food – and let’s not even get into desserts.  And many modern leftists encourage those benefitting from privilege to “check” their privilege.  The intent here is to get someone to understand how they benefit from their privileges and how the lack of those privileges affect others.  You can even check your own privilege here.

Privilege

In this short piece, I won’t have time to go into every version of privilege on offer.  So I’ll instead talk about the most common privilege mentioned – white privilege – and discuss implications from there.  In her influential piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“, Peggy McIntosh lists 50 privileges that she thinks she is afforded due – primarily – to her white skin.  I doubt McIntosh would claim that her list is exhaustive, but since it is nevertheless quite extensive I’ve reproduced it here in the below three columns:

  • I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for  advancement than to jeopardize mine.
  • I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  • If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  • I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
  • I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fi t school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
  • I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
  • I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  • If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps,  professionally.
  • I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
  • I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  • I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
  • If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
  • I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
  • I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
  • I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
  • My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
  • I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
  • I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

 

You may be wondering why the left column has so many items listed and so few are listed in the middle and right columns.  That is because I recognized some common themes in the items and sorted them by column accordingly.  The column on the left can be thought of as the “healthy food” column.  I think it’s entirely fair to say that – in an ideal society – everyone should have these.  Race should be completely irrelevant to whether a person experiences the items in the left column.  No one should need to earn these.  Like healthcare in the US, having them should be the default as they are (largely) a prerequisite for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The middle column might be thought of as the “dessert” column, in that they shouldn’t be the default (or available at all, really).  In an ideal society, no one’s race should give them extra credibility, or an increased chance at getting accepted at University, or give them an excuse to be ignorant of other cultures.  (I won’t get into the topic of affirmative action at the moment, but suffice to say I can see legitimate concerns on both sides.)

The right column contains items that I was genuinely confused by.  I’m not sure that it’s just because they’re worded poorly or if they’re just really situational.  For example, as a Caucasian I shouldn’t expect to see members of my race widely represented on the television if I move to Kenya, Mexico, or South Korea.  Academic departments should focus on the published work relevant to their disciplines (and related disciplines) rather than the race of those doing the work.  Being able to avoid people who I’ve been trained to mistrust (or who have been trained to mistrust me) isn’t necessarily a good thing.  Maybe my training was based on an unwarranted stereotype or prejudice?  And the same could be said about those who mistrust me.  Lastly, I’m not confident that anyone should be able to arrange to be protected from the negative consequences of choosing to ignore minority perspectives.

The most interesting thing about the above table to me is that the items are disproportionately “healthy food” items.  Which, if we grant McIntosh’s premise that white people are receiving a disproportion number of benefits in our society, means that the majority of McIntosh’s so-called “privileges” of being white are actually just necessities that most white people are appropriately receiving – but most racial minorities aren’t.  In an ideal world, we would expect everyone to have these.  Which makes them not really “privileges” at all.

So I would suggest that the way forward isn’t to alienate potential white allies by calling them out for having what everyone should have (e.g. “How dare you have the privilege of healthy food to eat!  Check your privilege!”).  It’s to ensure that everyone is, in fact, getting what they need.  From McIntosh’s list, it seems that white people are already largely where they should be in terms of having access to necessities.***  The important work is in bringing other racial minorities up to that same level.  That is where our outrage, our passion, and our efforts should be focused.

And the next time someone suggests the presence of some form of inappropriate privilege, think critically about it.  Are they talking about some benefit that is being unfairly given to someone on an arbitrary basis? (e.g. race, religion, sex, gender, disability, etc…)  If so, this “privilege” may well be something worth our concern.  On the other hand, are they really just using “privilege” to talk about something more like healthy food?  If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time to delve a bit deeper with that person and help them explore the unhelpful consequences of this idea.

 

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*Imagine the response you’d receive today, versus 100 years ago, if you spoke in favor of racial apartheid in, say, a job interview.

**paraphrased

*** Though anyone who has spent any time amongst poor white people will rightly call this into question as well.

 

Appropriating geek culture. Mine! Not yours!

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Last Saturday night, I joined tens of thousands of people across the world in watching Critical Role – a live streamed game of Dungeons and Dragons played by some of my favorite voice actors. In this case, they streamed from Hillbert Circle Theater in Indianapolis during Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in North America.  Early reports suggest approximately 1000 people bought tickets to watch the live session at the Hillbert Circle Theater.

The accessibility and success of the Critical Role series has brought in hordes of new fans and players of Dungeons and Dragons. One potential consequence of this influx of new fans is very familiar to those who have been part of geek/nerd culture for the last few decades: the dreaded Gatekeepers.  With the increasing permeation of geek/nerd culture into mainstream culture, some older (and mostly male) members of the culture feel that it’s their job to police who can take part in their culture.  Those of us within the culture have heard all the stories:

  • Teenage girl walks into a comic book store and starts looking at comic books. Dude behind the counter asks her if she’s here with her boyfriend (implying that she’s a girl so she wouldn’t come in here herself).
  • Female cosplayer comes to a convention dressed as Wonder Woman. Older man proceeds to grill her on her knowledge of Wonder Woman trivia going back decades. If she doesn’t happen to know every single piece of esoteric lore, older man dismisses her as being a “fake geek girl.”
  • Girl playing a tabletop game with guys at a store mentions that she may step out for a bit to grab some food. One of the male players suggests that she could just ask the male store employee for a piece of his pizza. When she balks at his suggestion, he asks her “Are you easily offended?” She responds “no.” He then points out that she has boobs, so of course the store employee will give her a piece of pizza. Uncomfortable that she’s being reduced down to the characteristics of her body, rather than the contribution she’s making to a shared fun gaming experience, she never comes back. (I happened to witness this one personally.)

There are a couple of major underlying themes with gatekeeping. Firstly, it largely comes from males.  Sadly, sexism remains a problem even within geek/nerd culture.  Secondly, it involves a form of identity politics born out of shared feelings of oppression.  Older geeks/nerds know what it feels like to be ridiculed, bullied, and taken advantage of by their peers.  Those of us who grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s remember this very well.  Waxing philosophical about Star Trek, reading the latest X-Men comic during lunch, or gushing about the recent escapades of your 5th level Moon Elf Rogue were all the sorts of things that were guaranteed to get you laughed at, ostracized, and/or punched repeatedly in the face.  Best to be demure and quiet.  Best to stay off the other kids’ radar.  We kept that shit to ourselves for a reason.  And on the occasion when we could attend a convention with others within our culture, we reveled in the shared passion for the things we loved.

Fast forward to 2016 and geek/nerd culture is now mainstream culture. And everyone wants a piece.  (Just look at the movie box office results.)  Sometimes people show what I consider to be a genuine and loving appreciation of the source material (see: Deadpool, Gamers: Dorkness Rising, Critical Role).  For other media creators, I feel that their work is just an attempt to cash in on my culture – and it ultimately comes across as shallow and fake to me (see the film Knights of Badassdom or any of Uwe Boll’s films).  Sometimes I even suspect that these kinds of mediocre efforts do more harm than good, creating a stereotype of geeks/nerds that harms their ability to integrate into the broader culture.  But even though I feel this way, I nonetheless guard myself against being a Gatekeeper.  I don’t own geek/nerd culture.  No one does.  I have no right to tell someone how they should appreciate or understand or represent the culture to which I belong and love.  I’ll certainly vote with my wallet, and I’ll certainly say whether I like or dislike someone’s work.  And, given the opportunity, I’ll even try to talk with the creator of the thing I dislike to share with them how much more there is to experience and appreciate in my culture.  But that’s generally about as far as I feel I can go.

Gatekeeping is an age old human tendency that arises out of a sense of victimhood coupled with divisive identity politics. We see it in religions.  We see it in political parties.  We see it with various ethnicities or sports fans.  And today we even see it in western progressive leftists – a group that prizes inclusivity and acceptance.  There, the idea of “cultural appropriation” is taking hold.  Cultural appropriation is the notion that a person can adopt cultural elements from marginalized groups without understanding or acknowledging the value of those cultural elements to those groups.  A person is said to be “appropriating” a marginalized culture if he/she 1) is a member of or identifies with a dominant culture, and 2) fails to appropriately appreciate the culture.  So this is something that only a member of a dominant culture can do to an oppressed culture.  A sampling of examples include:

If you’re like me, you found yourself increasingly scratching your head at these the farther down the list you went.  It certainly starts off seemingly well.  Personally, I have a hard time differentiating the use of the “Redskins” name from other derogatory racial epithets, so it seems like a case of being pointlessly insulting.  And on the occasions that I’ve had to discuss the matter with others, I’ve argued that the team should change its name or adopt a representation of Native American culture that isn’t so pointlessly insulting.  Either that, or we should be just fine with a bunch of non-white soccer players naming their team the “Crackas,” “Gringos,” or “Hilbillies” while using a picture of a shirtless redneck drinking beer and racing a lawn mower.

Samsung

Someone get that man a beer, stat!

 

Perpetuating stereotypes about any racial or ethnic group, good or bad, is something I agree we should avoid.  Instead of trying to reduce cultural groups down to stereotypes, we should be doing our best to accurately represent the tremendous variation within those groups.  And that’s a hard thing to do, particularly because no one is in a place to say that they understand the totality of any group.  Social Psychologists spend their lifetimes trying to do this, and nevertheless still are extremely reluctant to make specific generalizations.

But as we continue to move our way down the list, I’m seeing an increasing level of what looks like Gatekeeper behavior.  No one speaks for or owns all of Hinduism.  And yet the Universal Society of Hinduism, the group that leveled the initial cultural appropriation charge against Gomez, seems to think that it does.  This is a strange claim to make given that “Hinduism” is a tremendously varied group of religious beliefs.  To paraphrase what Professor William Harman, author and editor of Dealing with Deities, once told me, “When it comes to Hinduism or India, anything you can say about them is both true and not true – depending on where you are and who you talk to.”  And to say that Gomez should only wear the Bindi if she appreciates it to the satisfaction of certain Hindus smells strongly of Gatekeeping.

And I can’t help but think that the same principle applies to Halloween costumes, yoga, and foreign food.  No one owns the culture(s) to which they belong.  I can’t honestly tell someone that they should appreciate some element of nerd/geek culture to my satisfaction before they can make use of it.  And neither can you.  If someone is making an attempt to enjoy something or be passionate about something, who are we to tell them that they’re doing it wrong?

Instead, we should think of these kinds of situations as an opportunity to be more inclusive – not less.  You don’t like how someone represents or uses something you’re passionate about?  Engage with that person.  Share what you love about it and why.  Now you’re giving them a chance to look a bit deeper and appreciate your thing even more.

Prime example:  Remember when The Book of Mormon came out on Broadway?  The show poked all kinds of fun at Mormonism.  It certainly didn’t take the religion seriously at all.  But the Mormons didn’t get angry at the show’s creators and accuse them of appropriating something they didn’t appreciate the right way.  No, the Mormons took this as an opportunity to have a conversation.  They sent their missionaries to stand outside of showings of The Book of Mormon and offer to talk to theater goers after the show.  By all accounts, this strategy was an exemplary success – giving thousands of people the opportunity to learn more about Mormonism directly from people who were very familiar with it.

That’s how I’d like to see my fellow western progressive leftists approach this.  The next time we see someone borrowing from our culture in a way that we don’t like or we see as harmful, take it as an opportunity to talk with that person.  Give them an opportunity to expand their understanding of the thing you love.  Don’t shut down any possibility of discussion by accusing them of appropriating, or demanding an apology.  Talk to each other.  Give them the benefit of the doubt that you would hope would be given to you.  And do it while honestly admitting to yourself that you don’t own the culture(s) to which you belong.

My principal problem with the “God as Heavenly Father” analogy

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FATHER AND SON PLAY ON SHORE AT SUNRISE.

Image from Reuters

In Christianity, it’s common to describe God as being a kind of super father character. He always watches over you, knows you better than you know yourself, protects you, helps you grow through giving you challenges, etc…  These mostly sound like the sort of things that good fathers do, and they’re things that I aspire to as a father myself*.  I do want to know my son extremely well, protect him, and give him challenges that offer him the opportunity to expand his mind and learn new things about himself and the world every day.  And since he’s my son, I especially want to ensure that he has the opportunity to get to know me – if anything to help him learn what I’ve learned and not repeat my mistakes.  In these ways, I can certainly understand the “God as Heavenly Father” analogy.  But it has long occurred to me that there’s one major problem with this analogy right up front.

And it’s this: My son has no reason to be uncertain about the fact that I exist.  I’ve ensured that my existence is unambiguously clear to him.  Why?  Because it’s the crucial first thing I need to establish in order to be a father.  I can’t get to know my son, protect him, or help him grow if he doesn’t even know I exist in the first place.  So I’ve worked to remove all doubt from my son’s mind about this.  If I failed to ensure that my son knew I existed, I think it would be fair to call me an abysmally awful father.

So how well does the Christian God do in this regard? Has the Christian God removed all doubt of his existence from the minds of his children?  The answer is a resoundingly simple “No.”  The existence of non-believers, as well as believers in non-Christian religions**, is all we need to conclude that the Christian God has failed to remove all doubt from his children’s minds about his existence***.  And this is a problem given the other common descriptions of God – namely that he is all powerful, knows all, and is infinitely benevolent towards his creations.

So either:

  1. God wants us to know who he is but can’t, or
  2. God can show himself to us but won’t.

Option 1 means that God isn’t all-powerful or all-knowing. Option 2 means that God isn’t infinitely benevolent (i.e. not the super father character he’s described as).

Now, when I present this criticism to believers, the consistent response is that God would be violating our free will if he removed all doubt from our minds about his existence. We have to choose to follow him, their response goes.  As my criticism is a variation on the Argument from Divine Hiddenness, I can’t say I’m surprised to see people responding this way.  But when I ask believers why it’s ok (if not mandatory to being a good father) for me to remove all doubt from my son’s mind about my existence, but not ok for God to do it for his children, I get blank looks followed by some variation on it requiring faith to believe.  And that, of course, leads to other interesting discussions.

 

*Except for the “always watches over you” part. Kids need unsupervised time to grow and develop their own self-worth and capacity to solve problems on their own.  The last thing my son needs is for me to be watching over his shoulder all the time.

**See Hinduism, certain variations of Buddhism, folk religions, etc…

***I suppose that you could go so far as to doubt the sincerity of all non-believers and non-Christians and argue that they really do believe in the Christian God – but are just denying it.  You’d need to have really good evidence to back up that claim, though, and I haven’t encountered any influential theologians or mainstream Christian apologists who are willing to go that far.

 

Science vs. Religion – An Epistemic Cage Match

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In this post I’ll be discussing the value of the scientific method when coming to conclusions as compared to the religious method.  It is split into two complementary halves.  The first half is in a basic discussion format, while the latter is in a syllogism format that might be more enjoyable (and easier to critique) for the philosophically inclined readers.

Wrong-Distance-Estimation

Image from Topbow.net

Discussion

How important is accuracy?  Well, I suppose it depends on what your target is.  If it’s a series of circles like in the picture above, it’s probably not a huge problem if you miss.  You can just keep practicing.  If your target is something that’s trying to kill you, however, your ability to reliably hit your target becomes crucial.  The same could be said for the accuracy of your beliefs.  If the question is whether the Taco Bell down the street is open for breakfast, the accuracy of your belief that Taco Bell is open for business probably isn’t that crucial.  If it isn’t open, you can just drive over to a restaurant that is open for breakfast.  Likewise, if the question is whether to devote your entire life to the service of an invisible all-powerful deity, the accuracy of your belief about the deity’s existence (and commands) becomes crucial.

Given the above, I think it’s fair to say that the importance of accuracy increases as the importance of the target increases.  Hitting a target with a bow and arrow is far from easy.  It takes time and a great deal of practice.  Arriving at beliefs that accurately describe the world around us is similarly difficult.  For, as physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We are, indeed, very good at fooling ourselves.  Our species is well known for arriving at conclusions that confirm what we want or expect to be true (also see “motivated reasoning“).  We are very good at ignoring anything that conflicts with what we have already concluded.  And if we do become aware of something that suggests our conclusions may be questionable, we can even continually deny it outright such that – over time – we can begin to internalize and actually believe our denials.

I’ll take it as a given that, in principal, none of us want to fool ourselves.  So how do we avoid it?  How do we safeguard our beliefs from inaccuracies, or at least reduce the number of inaccuracies ?  The best answers so far come from psychological studies like those linked above, as well as from the hard sciences.  We’ve learned that we have to first be aware of our biases and then figure out how to lessen their effects.  We have to develop a method that makes it very difficult for our biases to affect our conclusions.  This takes work.  And the more important the question, the more important it is that we put in the work to make sure we’re getting as close to an accurate conclusion as we can.

Thankfully, psychology and the hard sciences have gifted us a variety of tools that make this process much easier.  Firstly, knowing that our biases can affect us without our being aware of it, we should always give provisional acceptance to any belief.  That is, we should always be willing to revise or discard a belief if we later find better explanations.  Secondly, our beliefs should be predictive of other ideas.  The more specific the predictions the better, as this allows us to more easily observe whether our beliefs actually pan out* in reality.  Philosophers often call this process falsification.  When we do this, we are much more likely to arrive at a consistent set of beliefs.  Thirdly, we should expose our beliefs to the marketplace of ideas.  Oftentimes, other people are much better at seeing our biases than we are.  Lastly, we should follow the advice of William of Ockham (see Occam’s Razor, or the Law of Parismony), who advised that we not add unnecessary elements to our explanations.

After reading the above paragraph, try to think about the last time you encountered a scripture or heard a modern religious leader that encouraged any of the above methods?  If you can think of many, then that’s awesome!  Leave a comment and let me know which scripture or religious leader this came from, as I’d be genuinely interested!  If you can’t think of many (or any), then ask yourself why this is.  Why wouldn’t our religious traditions encourage this kind of accuracy in how we form beliefs?

And as a follow-up question, I would ask you to think about how many of our religious traditions threaten punishment for those who openly doubt or question them.  Does the western religious concept of Hell ring any bells?  Everlasting torture** for those who are not convinced of God’s existence?  Ever sat through a sermon about “Doubting Thomas,” or listened to someone describe how the Devil works to deceive us into questioning God’s word and losing our salvation forever?  Ever heard Pascal’s Wager, in which we are strongly encouraged to bet on the existence of one particular version of God so as to avoid His punishment and enjoy salvation?  These kinds of threats aren’t just a failure to encourage good methods for arriving at beliefs.  They aren’t neutral.  They are, in fact, actively opposing the kinds of methods that help us weed out inaccurate beliefs.  Ask yourself why that is.  Why would anyone develop a religious tradition that encourages its members not to carefully assess their beliefs.

When you’ve arrived at your answer, I suspect you’ll have a very good sense for why religious methods for assessing beliefs should be discarded in favor of the scientific method.

And now for something completely the same: the syllogism half of this post.

Syllogism

Premise 1:  All beliefs exist along a scale of accuracy, with “Increasingly Inaccurate” on one end and “Increasingly Accurate” on the other.

Belief Accuracy

Premise 2:  It is preferable to hold beliefs that fall more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Premise 3:  Some epistemological methods are more successful than others for arriving at beliefs that fall more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Conclusion 1:  Therefore, it is preferable to revise or discard epistemological methods that are found to be less successful for arriving at beliefs that fall towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale when compared to other known methods.

 

Premise 4:  Religious belief is a kind of belief.

Conclusion 2:  Therefore, it is preferable to revise or discard religious epistemological methods that are found to be less successful for arriving at beliefs that fall towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale when compared to other known methods.

 

Premise 5: Due to its strong emphasis on provisional acceptance, predictive power, bias mitigation, observation, falsifiability, consistency, and parsimony (see Occam’s Razor), the scientific method is demonstrably the most successful method currently available for arriving at beliefs falling more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Premise 6: Religious epistemological methods are not required to incorporate any of the above characteristics of the scientific method noted in Premise 5.  (In fact, they are often diametrically opposed to the characteristics noted in Premise 5.)

Conclusion 3: To the extent that they fail to incorporate the characteristics noted in Premise 5, religious epistemological methods should be revised or discarded in favor of the scientific method.

 

 

*A hypothetical example: If I arrive at a belief that gold reliably forms alongside a specific type of mineral (let’s say calcite), I can then more easily determine how accurate my belief is.  I merely need find some calcite deposits and look for gold.

**or utter annihilation,  depending on the religious tradition.

Yeah, but she asked for it… How my mind changed on victim blaming.

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Liberty Responsibility - George Bernard Shaw

Quote from Shaw’s play titled “Man and Superman.”  Image from AZQuotes.com

 

In my teens and twenties, I remember thinking that a woman who went out into a questionable area while dressed provocatively was responsible for increasing her risk of being the victim of a crime (e.g. mugging, kidnapping, rape, etc…).  It seemed a purely matter-of-fact, logical, and unavoidable argument to me.  In the form of a classic syllogism, my argument looked roughly like this:

  • Premise 1: Many men* have very little impulse control, and can easily be provoked into committing crimes against women.
  • Premise 2: Women can provoke men into committing crimes against them by dressing or acting provocatively.
  • Premise 3: Women don’t want crimes committed against them.
  • Conclusion: To avoid crimes being committed against them, women shouldn’t dress or act provocatively around men.

It seems clear as day, right?  I mean, isn’t it like suggesting that going out into a blizzard without shoes is going to cause me to get really cold really fast?  Isn’t it just one of those Newton-esque “equal and opposite action/reaction” kind of things?

Or is it?

In the example I gave of going out in a blizzard barefoot, we’re talking about pure physical processes.  Human tissue reacts very poorly to extreme cold.  And the cold acting upon my feet is not a conscious agent.  The blizzard doesn’t choose to freeze my feet.  Can we really say the same about men?  Are men just purely physical processes?

As a male, I’m pretty confident in saying “Umm… No.”  Despite our sometimes simplistic thought processes, men are a bit more complex than that.  Men make decisions, and thus can be considered responsible for their actions.  And when men choose to commit crimes, we hold them responsible.  When a man chooses to steal your car, break into your house, or commit fraud, we hold him responsible.  Even if you left your car or house unlocked, or were fooled into wiring him your money, we don’t hold you responsible.  We hold the criminal responsible.  He chose to break the law.  You are not responsible for crimes committed against you.  And neither are women when they dress in a way that some men find enticing.

If our first inclination is to focus on blaming the victims of crime, telling them how they should have acted differently to avoid enticing the criminal, then we’ve failed to focus on the conscious agent who was motivated to (and did) commit the crime.  We’ve distracted ourselves from the actual problem.  And in so doing, we’ve precluded any actual improvement in the culture that helps to form these criminals.

But there’s another problem with my old argument.  You see, I failed to explain a very important term.  What counts as “dressing or acting provocatively?”  Who decides?  The man who just committed a crime after being “provoked?”  (The spineless wanker who either A) couldn’t control himself, or B) is claiming to have been provoked to shift the responsibility for the crime away from  himself?**)  We’re going to trust his judgement as to what was so provocative that he just couldn’t help himself?  Or are we all going to become fashion and behavior critics, together deciding on exactly which clothes, types of makeup, gestures, or levels of inebriation are sufficient to provoke a man?

If you don’t already think this last suggestion is ridiculous, allow me save you some time and point towards a an example culture that has implemented this style of formal fashion and behavioral critics for women.  Consider Iran, the most influential proponent of Shia Islam in the modern world.  There, officially sanctioned “morality police” patrol the streets looking for salaciously dressed ladies.  They routinely arrest, imprison, and/or publically shame women for provoking male lust with their behavior or dress.  And the male criminals?  They’re punished rarely, if ever.  Women have even begun to start cutting their hair and dressing as men to avoid persecution.  Amazingly, we’re told that all of this legally sanctioned harassment and bullying will protect women***.

So let’s stop pretending that making women responsible for the choices male criminals make is a reasonable position.  You want to make a real difference in this kind of crime?  Start talking to the men in your life – the younger they are the better.

  • Be the example you want them to be.
  • Give them as many opportunities to socialize with women as you possibly can.  Don’t encourage boys fetishizing women by keeping them separate.
  • Don’t keep two different sets of rules for boys and girls.  Everyone plays by the same rules.
  • Focus on our commonalities, not what separates us.  The more we pick out and focus on what differences there are between the sexes, the more different males will consider females to be.
    • This can be a bad precedent to set, as it can be easy to attach moral significance to any of these differences (e.g. a woman’s virginity – but not a man’s –  is the repository of hers and/or her family’s honor).
  • Support women learning self defense.  Give them every tool available to either avoid/escape from criminals or make them think twice about committing a crime.
  • And lastly, when you hear about a crime – blame the criminal – not the victim.

*More specifically, a significantly higher proportion of males than females have very little impulse control.

**Feel free to decide which of these two options is more likely.

***Or their family’s “honor.” You pick.  They’re both equally asinine rationales.

 

Edited on 6/1/2016 for grammar and clarity

 

Visiting a gas station with a transgender friend

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I am human

A few months ago I accompanied a transgender friend (we’ll call her Julie) to pick up some snacks from a local gas station just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee where I live.  She was about to join my wife and I for some hobby board games back at our house, and we needed snackage.  So we drive down to the nearest gas station to our house.  I remember walking in next to her and splitting off to grab a couple of things.  Meeting her back at the line to the checkout counter, I began to take note of how both the customers and the employees were looking at her.

Everyone was intensely and unabashedly staring at her.  Seeing as we live in the American South where folks tend not to approve of transgender people, I quickly moved closer to her and began to chat amiably.  The stares made me feel immediately concerned for her, so I wanted everyone to see that she wasn’t alone.  I’m not a small man, and sometimes my mere presence has diffused situations.  But even that seemed to have little effect.  I remember trying to appear as comfortable as possible while chatting with Julie, and she seemed to adopt the same approach.  We finished our business at the checkout counter and left to then enjoy a day of delightful board games.

I’ve never asked her how she felt while we were there.  And when I consider asking her, it occurs to me that this is what it’s like to be Julie on any given day that she doesn’t happen to “pass” perfectly as female.  Everywhere she goes, this sort of response is quite possibly the norm.  Being with Julie in that moment gave me a small window into what it’s like to be her – to never know if someone might try to make good on the threatening stare they’re leveling at her.  I’m used to being able to cruise below everyone’s radar, making my way through the world without most people even batting an eye so long as I don’t behave strangely.

But Julie doesn’t have that luxury.  Despite how she feels on the inside, she doesn’t pass perfectly as female all the time on the outside.  And that makes me terribly afraid on her behalf.  I fear getting a call and hearing that my friend has been beaten up or killed by some idiot bigot.  And this is no idle fear, mind you.  Transgender people face a significantly higher risk of physical and sexual abuse from strangers when compared the general population.  I’m sure that Julie has developed a pretty effective sense for which places are safe, but she isn’t perfect.  And she won’t always have someone to stand alongside her against bigots wishing to do her harm.

This is one of the reasons that the recent “Bathroom bills” making their way through the American South concern me.  Ostensibly enacted to protect children from an imaginary wave of transgender bathroom predators, these laws merely function to put people like Julie in extremely dangerous situations.  The last thing someone like Julie needs is for a ridiculous law to force her into a men’s bathroom here in the South.  We may as well be putting a big “bigots please beat the hell out of me” stamp on her forehead.  And all in the name of protecting people?

As a father of a six year old, I’m absolutely in favor of protecting kids from sexual predators.  But let’s focus our energies on places where this is actually a historically demonstrated threat. (Far more children have been molested by authority figures in churches than by transgender people in public bathrooms.  How about we start with church authority figures?)  Transgendered people aren’t any more likely to be pedophiles or child abusers than are cisgendered people (i.e. people whose gender identity matches their genitalia).  They just want to pee in peace.  And as civilized people, we have no reason to deny them that peace.
P.S.  If you’d like to provide support to transgender folks who just want to pee, take a look at the IllGoWithYou Ally Project.

Update: I invited Julie to read the above, and she noted that she doesn’t even notice the stares anymore.  This may be because they’re so common, but it may also be because people look away before she can notice them staring.  I don’t recall her looking any of the gas station employees or customers in the eye during our visit, so I’ll have to keep an eye out the next time I accompany her somewhere.  To this day, what strikes me about the situation I described in this post was how unabashed the people were in staring, and how immediately threatened I felt on Julie’s behalf.  To be sure, feelings of threat don’t necessarily equate to actual threat.  I may well be biased in favor of seeing threats where they don’t actually exist.  (I also tend towards taking on a protector role with people I care about.)  That said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I should discount those feelings either.  And the above-linked national statistics on violence against transgender people do suggest that my fears are not entirely baseless.

 

Alienating good people

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“No battle for equality has ever been won by alienating good people.”

-Stephen Knight on his Godless Spellchecker blog

In the blog post linked above, Stephen Knight details a Twitter exchange with Mona Eltahawy, a feminist activist and writer working primarily on Arab/Muslim issues.  In their exchange, Mona asserts that women should be the ones leading the fight for women’s rights.  She further suggests that men should “[…] shut up and listen to women about women’s rights.  Women lead feminism. Not men.”

I find this argument problematic.  Full disclosure:  I’m a white male, so if you’re the sort who thinks my race or genitalia automatically disqualifies me from having a worthwhile opinion on women’s issues then you can save yourself some time and browse elsewhere.  (I highly recommend Sarah Haider’s presentation on Islam and the Necessity of a Liberal Critique at the American Humanist Association last year.)

Still here?

Ok.  Now I’ll certainly admit that Twitter, with its 140 character length limit, is hardly the place to have careful reasoned discussions about complex topics.  And were I a part of this discussion, I would have done my best to charitably interpret Mona’s comment.  Perhaps she wasn’t intending to completely discount male contributions to feminism?  Perhaps she really meant to just say that men should simply do more listening?  If so, I think she’d be right.  Far too many dudes go about their lives far too ignorant of what it’s like to live as a woman in their culture.  We do need to listen more.

Unfortunately, when questioned by multiple folks, Ms. Eltahawy doubled down and resorted to criticizing the identity and motives of those questioning her argument.  She even went so far as to very negatively generalize and disassociate herself from ex-Muslims, suggesting that too many of them have allied with “right wing, racist shits.”

This is really a case study in how not to defend your position.  Recognizing and avoiding these kinds of abusive or “guilt by association” ad hominem arguments is one of the first things you learn in any introductory philosophy or rhetoric course.  And if you’re still reading, it seems safe to assume that you see the problem with arguing that the value of a person’s ideas or contribution is determined by their genitals, race, religion, hair color, favorite food, etc…  (We have a word for that kind of thinking)

Typically, I only see this kind of logical fallacy employed when someone is embarrassed at the lack of reasons available to support their argument and wants to try to save face.  That seems very likely to be the case here for Ms. Eltahawy, though I’ll add the caveat that I’m no mind reader.

But what’s most frustrating in all this is that Mona Eltahawy, Stephen Knight, and Ex-Muslims in general are natural allies on a host of issues, not the least of which are gender equality, religious freedom, and the right to live without someone else’s religious beliefs being imposed upon you.  They certainly don’t agree on everything (who does?), but it seems an utter waste of pooled resources to alienate someone like Stephen or all Ex-Muslims just to save face.  Liberals can, and should, do better than this.