Sunday, March 30, 2014

In Defence of Unsophistication

This (well, most of it, anyway) came up in my Google Plus stream yesterday:

It is no defense of superstition and pseudoscience to say that it brings solace and comfort to people [and that therefore we "elitists" should not claim to know better and to take it away from the less sophisticated.]
If solace and comfort are how we judge the worth of something, then consider that tobacco brings solace and comfort to smokers; alcohol brings it to drinkers; drugs of all kinds bring it to addicts; the fall of cards and the run of horses bring it to gamblers; cruelty and violence bring it to sociopaths. Judge by solace and comfort only and there is no behavior we ought to interfere with.
Isaac Asimov, The Humanist
Mr. Asimov was perfectly correct in saying that solace and comfort are not the sole standard by which we should judge behavior. But what this quote lacks is any indication of the standards by which we should judge. The standard that comes immediately to my mind, that of unwarranted and/or unjust harm or cost to others, is independent of whether or not the behavior that caused it is rooted in superstition, pseudoscience or some other form of irrationality. In this regard, superstition and pseudoscience do not, in and of themselves, define "behavior we ought to interfere with." Or to my way of looking at it, even behavior that we have an affirmative right to interfere with. The simple fact that a belief can be demonstrated to be false, or that it commonly understood to be, is not enough reason to campaign against it. Smokers, drinkers, addicts, gamblers and sociopaths, while they may be disagreeable people, are not automatically barred from solace and comfort. Tobacco, alcohol, drugs, the fall of cards, the run of horses, cruelty and violence should not be interfered with simply because we don't like the people who engage in them, but because we have identified a harm that is being visited upon people unwillingly. If a sociopath can somehow indulge in cruelty and violence without bringing hurt to the unwilling or breaking the law, what business is it of mine? Therefore solace and comfort need not be a defense against a charge of superstition and pseudoscience because it is no indictment of a person's solace and comfort to say that it is rooted in superstition and pseudoscience.

This is not to say, however, that given solace and comfort, all things are permissible. Or that all beliefs are of equal merit or worth. It is simply an argument for defining beliefs that we should take away from "the less sophisticated" and "behavior we ought to interfere with" by a more consequential standard than whether or not we, as the self-determined intellectual élite, understand its genesis to be rational. The fact that we may know better than those less sophisticated than ourselves does not grant us authority to dictate to them what they should understand about the world. If it is important to us what they believe, then we should be prepared, not simply to debunk their superstition and pseudoscience, but to demonstrate to them, on their terms, that we can provide the solace and comfort they sought in them just as well.

P.S.: Part of the problem with quotes, perhaps especially those found on the Internet, is that divorced from the remainder of the context in which they were first made may or may not mean what we understand them to mean. I do not know where this quote by Asimov first appeared, and so have not read the whole of the work in which it was included. One thing that I have noted, though, is that when many secular people post this, the section between the brackets [] is absent. it was presented to me this way, and so even though I have supplied to quote in its entirety, I bracketed the section that had been missing.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Culture - The Quick And Dirty

It's easier to understand if a given disputed culture exists if you have a working definition of culture and then compare the proposed culture to it, and see if it meets the definition. Having borrowed a definition of culture from the University of Minnesota, I looked at "African-American Culture" and "Rape Culture," two cultures that some people understand to be real, others understand to be fictional, and that my meanderings through the Web have drawn me into thinking about over the past couple of days.

African-American culture bears the greatest resemblance to the UM definition. But it's worth noting that African-American culture is fairly narrow. And not all African-Americans are members of it, and not all members of it are African-American. But the idea that culture and race operate in lockstep is strong in the United States and leads to an incorrect understanding that culture and race should be able to stand in for one another. And because, I believe, people tend to over-estimate the similarities between people different from themselves the narrow similarities between different African-Americans can easily be perceived as the sum of the African-American experience. But because people are also just as likely to see the narrow similarities between all Americans as the sum of the American experience, the cultural differences that exist can easily be chalked up to individual idiosyncrasies.

Rape culture, on the other hand, lacks a specific group of people to which you can attach the aspects of a culture. Accordingly, it may be best thought of as a related cluster of cultures, that share a certain acceptance of levels of sexual violence. Because it's defined more by behaviors and interactions, rather than a specific group of people who share a number of traits, this understanding that there isn't a single rape culture is needed to keep it in line with the UM definition. But, you could also just as easily say that what we understand to be rape culture is actually the pieces of other cultures that lend themselves to specific sexual acting out. By this understanding, rape culture ceases to become a singular thing, and is instead a byproduct of other cultures.

In the end, the ecosystem of cultures can be considered a forest. What tends to drive debate is the degree to which a culture is or is not a single, locatable tree. For me, African-American culture is, but it's nowhere near the only tree that describes the experiences of African-Americans in the United States. Rape culture, on the other hand, isn't, but it's such a dense tangle of limbs, leaves and branches that it appears to be a singular object.

The Culture - Two

For the purposes of the Intercultural Studies Project, culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.
University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition
Two things had me thinking about culture this morning. A discussion that turned to African-American culture is one, and an article about rape culture was the other.

Being a guy, I stumbled into the idea of rape culture primarily through its use as a bludgeon. Something I would do without thinking about it would earn me the charge of perpetuating rape culture. Of course, I would push back, mainly because I had a hard time understanding the difference between being labelled a member of rape culture and being labelled either a rapist or someone who was okay with rape.

Having the definition of culture from the top of this post in mind when I read "How Not to Talk About a Culture of Sexual Assault" on The Atlantic gave me a better frame of reference to think about the topic. (As an aside, do "Men's Rights" activists and anti-Feminists have radar for these sorts of discussions, or what?) Still, what constitutes members of the rape culture group is a bit fuzzy for me, and so it's difficult to use the definition of culture as clearly as I could when thinking about African-American culture. Linked to that is the idea that rape culture is more about normalizing and legitimizing a specific set of behaviors. So perhaps the definition should be worded differently:

A culture is defined as a group, distinguished from those of another group, that, through a process of socialization, learn specific, common, cognitive constructs and affective understandings. This group learning identifies shared patterns of behavior and interactions that are seen as legitimate and normative.

That work? I think from there, we can better define "Rape Culture" because now we have rape, and other forms of sexual assault, on one side of the equation, and we can then work to solve for the other side. Actually "solve" really isn't what we're after here - the question isn't what is on that side of the equation, but is there something on that side of the equation. Sure, it's helpful to know what it might be, but we don't need a high level of precision in the answer. So the question becomes: "Is there a defined group, distinct from other groups, that socializes its members to see the world in a certain way and understand others' emotional and mental states in such a way that it normalizes and legitimizes rape and other forms of sexual assault?"

Now - here's where I run into trouble. I'm not a researcher. I'm not really in a position to evaluate whether or not there is an independent rape culture or not. It's something that I had always understood to be baked into other, more accepted understandings of culture. So, for instance, in many different cultures, a man's sexual desires are referred to by "a man has needs." And, it's common in a lot of cultures to view needs as begetting entitlements. Cross the two, and you wind up with the idea that if a man needs sex, he's entitled to take it, even over certain objections. This, to me, was less indicative of a specific "rape culture" than it was of aspects of other extant cultures that lent themselves towards an incidence of sexual assault. But here's where an understanding of the definition of culture is helpful. As I noted before, cultures are not mutually exclusive. When we're talking about groups of people, "the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization" can be viewed as a single, cohesive set. That is, the same set of people can always be one culture. As long as the same set of people is involved, any changes to the rest don't spawn a new culture. But, there is nothing about any specific behavior or interaction, a particular cognitive construct, or individual affective understanding that limits it to a particular group. Groups, even those that are clearly different cultures, can share.

So perhaps it's more accurate to speak of rape culture as a group of cultures, where what they share is certain behaviors and interactions. In other words, if a certain legitimization and/or normalization of sexual assault are the "behaviors and interactions" that we're talking about, there are multiple groups for which this is true. It is simply a subset of the groups broader shared patterns.

In the end, the one of the issues with "Rape Culture" is one that it shares with what one can call "Racist Culture." It is, to a degree, something that is defined by the viewer, moreso than by the members of the culture themselves. While there are people who understand what the rest of term as rape is justified (just as there are people who happily self-identify as racists), that is a small, and often considered fringe, group. Most people who are identified as being part of rape culture want nothing to do with the practice. That is, they don't intentionally socialize themselves or others with an eye towards making sexual assault acceptable.

Just as a culture can be invisible, and thus seemingly non-existent to people outside of it, it can be the same to people within it. But the issue with invisibility is that it becomes difficult to understand if someone doesn't see something because it's invisible, of if they don't see it because there's really nothing there. Just from my own musing about the subject from writing these blog posts, I'd be inclined to say that there is no singular "Rape Culture," given the understanding of culture that I'm working with. But I would say that several different cultures have aspects to them that, when viewed from a distance, can create the appearance of a homogeneous rape culture. It's in the forest, but it isn't a single tree.

The Culture - One

For the purposes of the Intercultural Studies Project, culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.
University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition
Two things have happened recently that have me thinking about culture. One was an online discussion about McDonald's outreach to black communities in America. (As an aside, do White Supremacists have radar for these sorts of discussions, or what?) The other was reading an article in The Atlantic about the debate over the term "rape culture" (and how that debate has become dysfunctional).

Now when we talk about "African-American Culture" and "Rape Culture," it's worthwhile to keep in mind that these are related concepts, but very different things. African-American culture in the United States identifies members of that culture and distinguishes non-members. As a marginally attached (at best) member of African-American culture, I can attest to this, as I'm often effectively a non-member. When we talk about rape culture in the United States, it's more about the process and cultural constricts behind normalizing sexual violence against women - membership or non-membership is very much secondary.

But are these concepts "real?" For many people, the idea of African-American culture is simply racist people-sorting with an academic-sounding name - they would attach the words "so-called" to the front it whenever they could. But having grown up black in a nearly exclusively white neighborhood, I noticed that there are specific patters of acting and dealing with others, thinking about the world, and understanding other people's emotional and cognitive states that I learned through being around people and fitting in with them. And the patterns that I learned from my parents and extended family were somewhat different than those that I learned from my peers, my classmates and the adults that we interacted with. But what really drove it home for me was going to college. I spent my freshman year at Hampton University, a Traditionally Black College/University in (not-surprisingly) Hampton, Virginia. It was the first time that I'd ever been in a large group of exclusively African-Americans that weren't relatives. And they, I found out, had shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understandings that were more or less consistent between them - and nearly completely foreign to me. It was literally weeks before I could understand people well enough to converse with them without screwing it up.

Where the cultural and the racial collided was in the idea that as someone who was visibly black, I was also, by default, automatically culturally black. And so the white suburban culture that I expressed (the one that I had grown up in) was a deliberate affectation - an attempt to mimic a culture that I had not been socialized into, in order to identify myself as a member of a "foreign" (and often hostile) culture, while distinguishing them as being of "another group." They felt that rejection keenly, and we fought over it. While members of my extended family understood me as different (and I them), family carries a lot of weight. They understood that my parents had moved away from the inner city in search of better jobs and less dangerous streets on which to raise my sister and I. The people I met for the first time in college saw me as just another random person, and were unaware of any mitigating history.

I only stayed at Hampton a year. The culture clash resulted in a constant, behind the scenes, conflict that I was tired of navigating. And when the whiff of money entered the picture, things became even more complicated. And so I went to school closer to home, more on the borderlands between cultures, so that I knew my avenue of retreat was always open. But, it's not like white people were immune from the idea that race and culture went hand-in-hand. My ability to play their game as well as they did was often a source of surprise (I lost count of how many times people remarked on how "articulate" I was - as if someone with a Liberal Arts Bachelor's degree should be anything but) and I often dealt with first impressions where people assumed that the fact that I looked a certain way meant that I would behave in a certain way, and understand certain things. I was being distinguished as belonging to another group.

It's worth understanding that racial/ethnic culture in the United States is learned, and I'm not the only person who failed learn the one that people expect of them. There are a lot of cultural outcasts - some by circumstance, and others by choice. The reality of the concept does not lead to its ironclad universality. The United States is a large place, full of groups that don't always interact with one another. This allows for the evolution of many different shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understandings as the processes of socialization vary from place to place. And cultures are not mutually exclusive. What we term "African-American Culture" is actually a fairly narrow set of cultural artifacts that tie a widely disparate group of people together. The consistency I noted in college was simply a result of proximity - interaction demands a common frame of reference, and so the individual, local cultural aspects people brought with them were downplayed in favor of the common, broader ones. To my freshman math teacher, an African immigrant, we were likely all a single homogeneous group. The conflicts between me and the other people in the class were likely completely invisible to him. Similarly, to a Greek student I knew later in college, the entire United States was a single, homogeneous cultural group. The narrow set of cultural artifacts that wound throughout America were the whole of all American culture to him, and the bits and pieces of different subcultures were simply individual quirks.

And I've learned that it's not simply people from outside the United States that understand things this way. For many Americans, certain cultural constructs are invisible, and so are the cultures that they then represent. From high enough up, everything is the same.

P.S.: By the way, if you're not hip to "affective understanding" here's a quick rundown. This describes how people would like it to work for machines, but since that's basically just a model of what people do, you may find it enlightening.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Working For Work

[W]e want people to reach their potential and so the dignity of work is very valuable and important and we have to re-emphasize work and reform our welfare programs, like we did in 1996. We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
Paul Ryan (R) Wisconsin
When I go to work every day, I am unconcerned with dignity, value or culture. I, for my part, am concerned with a paycheck. If, by some chance, the paychecks stop, then I will no longer go to work. Instead will apply myself to either looking for a new job - one that comes with a paycheck, or to acquiring certain skills and/or tools that I may lack that, once I have them, will make it easier for me to find a new job, and the resulting paycheck.

But I have known, and still know, people who do not work. And I do not consider them to be lacking in values, culture or dignity. Living, as I do, in the general vicinity of Microsoft, I've encountered a few Microsoft Millionaires - some of whom have availed themselves of the opportunity to retire early and fill their time doing things that are important to them, but that we do not normally consider “work.” Would Representative Ryan decry them as not having the value or culture of work? Or consider them to have fallen short of their potential and lacking the dignity of work? (Not, I suspect, as long as their checks are good.) And what about those people who retired after a lifetime of work, but are now, effectively considered poor and making a living from welfare programs? Are they in this tailspin of culture? If not, why not?

On the flip side of the coin, as anyone who has fruitlessly hunted high and low for a job in “this economy” can tell you, employment, work, does not grow on trees. We are no longer a significantly agrarian society. The resources required to keep oneself clothed, housed and fed are not available simply by going back to the family farm and picking up a hoe or a scythe. But even back when it was a possibility for many people, their labor wasn't about dignity, value or culture - it was materal support for their livelihoods. The famed “Protestant Work Ethic” that many people claim is lacking from the inner city was not about a love of toil - it was about not starving to death. And, for the record, some people starved anyway.

But as the Industrial Revolution took hold, and people moved from the farms to the city, they didn't do this because they decided that were uninterested in the dignity, value or culture of farm work - they did so because they saw better opportunities.

When I was growing up, my parents drummed into me the idea that I had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. I finally asked my mother to stop saying that, asking: “Do you know how demotivating that is?” The Japanese, I am told, have a saying along the lines of “don’t do worthless things.” In an economy where there are more job-seekers than jobs and people with low skills are consistently last hired and first fired, looking for a steady job is often a useless thing. (We won’t even talk about the effects of having an arrest or conviction record, both common in poor neighborhoods) Work, effort, toil - whatever you want to call it, is not an end in itself. It’s intended to be a means of support, and once the idea that it isn’t takes hold, what’s the point of it?

In this light, the best way to create a “culture of work” is to create a culture in which work pays off. If one wants people to learn the “value of work,” then the rewards from work need to be valuable. And that means creating an economy where labor is needed, so that work is needed, and therefore pays. Put that in place, and dignity or none, more people will go to work.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Stop and Fish

In an article for The Atlantic, Paul Larkin makes the point that the much-maligned "Stop-and-Frisk" policy should be targeted mainly in black neighborhoods, because that's where the crime is. But it's uncertain why that would be. After all, Mr. Larkin points out in the beginning of his piece that:

[...]99-plus percent of the residents of those neighborhoods are not involved in drug trafficking.
And, supposedly, the point behind stop-and-frisk is to protect them from crime. Yet...
The real problem is the high concentration of poor blacks in blighted communities who turn to drugs as an escape or as the most readily available income-generating opportunity. 
I think that this touches on the issue. The idea that in a community where less than one percent of the residents are involved in drug trafficking you nevertheless have a high concentration of people involved in drugs. Implicit in this is the idea that somehow, the drugs follow blacks. Otherwise, why is the real problem not the high concentration of poor people in blighted communities who turn to drugs as an escape or as the most readily available income-generating opportunity? Don't poor whites, hispanics or asians view drugs as an escape or a financial opportunity? If they don't, then we have the solution that Mr. Larkin is searching for - find whatever legal escapes and readily available income-generating opportunities exist outside of black neighborhoods and import them. Wouldn't that "make progress on that problem?" Because it seems that crime sweeps that net nearly ninety percent non-criminals weren't needed to get poor non-blacks in blighted communities to straighten out.

Part of one of the steps that Mr. Larkin recommends for preventing stop-and-frisk "from being used oppressively" is to "have [officers] apologize sometimes if they are wrong." He notes that officers may be dubious about this:
Officers will object that admitting a mistake undermines the authority necessary to maintain dominance in a world of lions, not lambs. 
This needs to be dealt with at greater length because the issue is often that people in the targeted communities, understanding that other blighted and impoverished areas don't merit the same tactics, often feel that the police establishing dominance over them is an end in itself. Especially because there is the perception that in whiter and more affluent neighborhoods, stopping the wrong person on the street while on a fishing expedition for unreported street crime absolutely (rather than just "sometimes") calls for an apology, which officers understand are a necessary part of maintaining good relationships with the community.

This feeds into a perception among the residents of poor, blighted black neighborhoods that initiatives like stop-and-frisk are instituted and supported by a greater society that seeks to prevent them from reaping the finite benefits that society has to offer. There is an understanding of zero-sum thinking - when there is only so much to go around, it should first go to the deserving - and communities with high concentrations of people who turn to something criminal are not deserving. And, as in many such things, the beneficiaries of such programs, or at least are not harmed by them, have an active incentive to ignore the self-serving aspects of it.

In the end, the issue with stop-and-frisk isn't that its critics are unafraid of crime in their community. Instead they understand themselves to be the "them" in an us-versus-them equation that seeks to perpetuate and justify inequality. As long as that perception remains, poor blacks are going to be suspicious of the idea that law-enforcement targets their communities in order to save and improve their lives. Regardless of what a member of a conservative think-tank might tell them.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Privileged Position

Reading the story of Jared Remy and the out-of-control spiral of his life that lead to a woman's death, I think, leads one to an understanding of what privilege is about. At it's core, it's a simple matter of categorizing.

When I worked with children it was understood that there was no such thing as a bad child - there were only bad decisions. We often want to abandon this with adults, and decide that they good or bad is something that someone is - rather than something someone does. Mr. Remy, it appears, was consistently categorized as "good." And that allowed people to tell themselves that his behavior - the bad acts he was constantly being hauled into court for - were aberrations that didn't require the corrective measures that were otherwise meted out to others in his situation.

There were many factors that played into people wanting to understand Mr. Remy as a "good guy." In the end, they're not as important as the understanding itself. Bias, whether privilege or prejudice, justifies different rules for different people by creating distinctions where none actually exist.


When people complain about a lack of civility in public discourse, it occurs to me that there are occasions during which civility is not considered a virtue. And when civility is seen as a cover for weakness, it's considered an active character flaw. There are many circumstances under which it's expected, if not demanded that one will respond with a certain level of vitriol, at least. I think that what we're seeing is an expansion of those circumstances because we have moved (and society moves in and out of this) into a place where people want to see their positions as self-evidently good, just and right. Therefore disagreement moves from being a debate over means to a conflict over ends. And if my ends are on the side of Truth, Justice and the American Way - your disagreement with me must mean that you are either inappropriately irrational, gullible or deliberately Evil - all positions that, it is commonly felt, can justify opprobrium.

(Note that I am not, at this point, dealing with intentional trolling of others as means of expressing power over them, limiting my comments to sincere incivility.)

Many people do not make a distinction between what works for them and what is best for the society as a whole. To paraphrase Charles Wilson: “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for me and vice versa.” That conflation of public and private interest means that people can take differences over public policy personally and differences over private policy as an attack on the public. Both can create circumstances in which people may feel that even remarkable levels of incivility are warranted.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


"Thank you," he said to me, as he picked up his now-full jerry can, and stuffed the bill I'd handed to him into a pocket.

"No problem," I replied.

"Thank you," he continued. "Bless you."

There was a moment's silence between us.

"Thank you," he said again.

"You're welcome," I said. "Take care of yourself."

He turned to leave. I went into the attendant's station to collect my change.

I'd seen the gasoline can, bright red plastic, sitting on top of the transformer box by the corner and thought, "What a strange place to abandon a jerry can." It wasn't until I looked towards the corner, to gauge the progress of the cars in front of me, that I noticed him. An older, white man in a shabby brown hoodie, paunchy with thinning hair. He held a piece of cardboard. "Stranded," it read. "Out of gas Out of town Please help."

My car is older than my teenaged niece, and lacks a number of modern conveniences. Like power windows. So I raised my voice and pointed down the block after I stopped in front of him. "Meet me at the gas station." He looked in the direction I was pointing. "Okay, okay."

By the time he'd gotten there, I'd claimed a pump. He filled his jerry can. I gave him some extra cash. So that he could put some more gas in his car, or maybe buy himself something to eat. He thanked me, blessed me and thanked me again before we parted company.

I find blessings uncomfortable. To me, they're only words, but to the faithful, they have meaning, and I can't escape the feeling that they don't belong to me. Perhaps I take the words too seriously. Part of it is that it seems odd, for someone whom I've just given something to ask their deity to favor me with a blessing. I always feel that they need it more than I do - and then feel ungracious for feeling that way. Part of it is that it seems unearned. Sure, in a couple of weeks, all I'll notice is that I stopped at an ATM two days in a row, and be confused as to why, but in the end, it's an inconvenience, rather than a pain point. The generous give until it hurts.

I am not generous.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Moral Is...?

When I was in high school, I came to the conclusion that the reason my classmates were jerks had little or nothing to do with some pitchfork-wielding pseudo-faun and more to do with the fact that they were simply unpleasant people. But, after learning that I no longer had any use for Satan, these selfsame classmates informed me that God and Satan came as a package deal - you had to take or leave both of them. And so I left them. And, in the minds of many Americans, left behind any claim "to be moral and have good values." Whatever that means.

And what does it mean? Every so often I run across the odd (sometimes very much so) evangelical who tells me that I can literally do anything I want, for any reason, but the number of religious people I actually know who appear to honestly think that I'm capable of murdering them in their sleep or setting their home on fire is precisely 0. Part of it is simply the familiarity effect. To my religious friends and acquaintances, I might be an unbeliever, but I am, more or less, their unbeliever, and the fact that I'm a known quality overrides whatever misgivings that they may have about the unchurched as a whole. But, for the most part, few people routinely attribute random murders or arsons to roving gangs of atheists.

I mention this in the context of a recent Pew study that tells us that for a lot of people throughout the world, it is "necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values." But what we don't understand from the study is what it means "to be moral and have good values." There is commonly an assumption that "morality" and "values" are neutral terms - that what I would consider being moral (ethical) and having good values is the same as what a devoutly religious person would consider it. And so, when certain believers note my non-belief in God, implicit in that is that they doubt that I would live up to my stated ethical standards. But is that really the case? In some cases, yes. I have been told by the odd evangelical that I'm not actually above murdering people in their sleep, or that I would stand idly by while mass abuses were carried out in front of me.

But in many cases, I think that there are also other considerations at work. Some of these are, from my outsider's perspective, circular. If to be a truly moral person, for instance, is to obey the will of God in one's life, then, regardless of the rigor with which I uphold my own ethics, I fall short. The same is true if belief in a higher power is considered on of the perceived good values. Others, I would characterize as a failure to go far enough, such as not being bound to perform a certain amount of charity or not avoiding otherwise innocuous activities that cross moral bounds.

In the end, the question may be mainly academic, at least here in the United States. Despite the number of Americans who may believe that it is "necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values," people are much more likely to attribute seriously "bad behavior" to race or class than to religion. Non-believers may be considered libertines, but that's often simply a form of making people into "others." The idea that not being a person of faith leads to such a high level of immorality and poor values that one is an active threat has mostly gone the way of the Dodo.

So what the Pew study tells us is mainly something that most of us already knew - that there are two worlds. One in which people tend to view faith as a central pillar of ethics, and one where people can believe differently without being consigned to immorality. But to better understand what that might really mean, we need to know more.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Debt of Thanks

When I called Stretch to quit, he wasn’t happy, but he didn’t try and convince me to stay, either, as I’d hoped. He did, however, manage to deliver a dig that all but summed up my time as a retail employee.

“So, your new job,” he said, his irritation coming through the phone as he realized he needed to fill my shift for the week ahead. “They’re hiring you away from here. I guess [you] don’t care about hard work or loyalty.”
Joseph Williams. My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Cheap
Work is intended to be one of the voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships that we encounter in our lives. The sort of thing where both parties come out ahead, and therefore each has their own reasons for entering into the transaction. But as our overall economy has become skewed, the understanding of work has changed, and it doesn’t seem to be for the better. While one could always think of labor as a commodity, it’s also possible to see the ability to labor as a commodity. And that shifts the relationship between workers and employees.

Mr. Williams hoped that his manager at the pseudonymous “Sporting Goods, Inc.” would recognize the work that he’d done there as valuable enough that it was worth asking him to stay. But “Stretch” (also a pseudonym) apparently didn’t see it that way. (Remember that the whole story comes to us via Williams, who is an inherently unreliable narrator.) While it's not possible to know, one can conjecture that Stretch, like many other people believes that the opportunity to work should be grounds for gratitude, and repaid by hard work and loyalty.

The Great Recession, as economic downturns are wont to do, generated an uptick in the idea that one should consider oneself fortunate to simply have a job. I’ve never been all that on board with the way I’ve understood people to mean this. I’ve considered myself sometimes VERY fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and thus be in a position to be considered for a job - there are usually more people than there are jobs available, and some of the best jobs I’ve ever landed weren’t widely advertised. I stumbled into them through sheer happenstance, and understand that I was lucky (sometimes, remarkably so) in that regard. But keeping a job once I had it, that was the result of the work that I put into it. (Even moreso when I found myself working for companies that would move people around to place some in the path of layoffs, while sparing others.) Now, I’m not always going to claim that I knocked the ball out of the park every time. Unless a company is actively shedding personnel, keeping one’s gig is often just a matter of it being less hassle to keep you around than it is to backfill your position. But the basic calculation is still the same, you’re providing value to the company, and you’re drawing a paycheck for it. Win-Win.

But one of the basic effects of economic inequality is that the parties have differing abilities to walk away from a deal. To be technical about it, their Best Alternatives To a Negotiated Agreement are different, as Williams realized when he learned that his new employer was, as he puts it, “obsessed with theft.”
[...] Abraham Lincoln, in the form of the lone $5 bill in my wallet, had the last word: You, sir, are unemployed and homeless. You cannot pay for food, goods, or services with your privacy.
For Sporting Goods, Inc., the calculus was different. If Williams had balked about being searched every time he left the store and quit, oh, well. There are plenty more where he came from.

And this difference has lead to many of thinking of large areas of work, especially low-paid or unskilled work, not as a transaction, which in theory is supposed to leave both parties better off, but a form of charity, in which the undeserving are overcompensated, and thus in debt to their employers even after having done their jobs. Because while the employee earns their paycheck in the form of work, being allowed to work (and sometimes, we dispute even that) - the very ability to labor for pay, is seen as a benefit, and a form of employer largess, even if it isn’t always given with both hands.

Bad economic times make it difficult to push back against that idea. But it’s important that we do so. Enough of us are in debt as it is. Where do we find the resources to pay for access to resources?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Truth and Snobbery

Normally, I dislike quoting at length, but here I have to make an exception to that.

And this is where the intellectual snobbery comes in: Watson assumes that because a group of smart, respected, insightful people thought and felt their way out of believing in God, everyone else should, too. Because intellectual history trends toward non-belief, human history must, too.

This is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, it suggests that believers are inherently less thoughtful than non-believers. Watson tells stories of famous thinkers and artists who have struggled to reconcile themselves to a godless world. And these are helpful, in that they offer insight into how dynamic, creative people have tried to live. But that doesn't mean the average believer's search for meaning and understanding is any less rigorous or valuable—it just ends with a different conclusion: that God exists. Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism, and that's just not true.

We know it's not true because the vast majority of the world believes in God or some sort higher power.
This argument for "The Intellectual Snobbery of Conspicuous Atheism" is really an argument for the intellectual snobbery of ANY conspicuous Truth-seeking. Atheists, loud or otherwise, have no monopoly on the idea that being fully engaged with one's humanity will lead to a particular, specific set of beliefs any more than Moslems have a monopoly on the idea that being fully engaged with one's humanity will lead on to Islam and Sharia.

With a few well-paced edits to prevent nonsensicality, you could easily re-word the quoted excerpt above to refer to any belief system you care to name. Every single belief system's search for meaning and understanding ends with a different conclusion than every other. And to the outsider, neither is any less rigorous or valuable.

Truth, especially Truth that cannot be objectively demonstrated on command, is not particularly relevant. What is relevant is what we chose to do with that Truth, if we've actually convinced ourselves that we've found it. And it's worth keeping in mind that one can opt out of the search. When a pair of Mormon missionaries came to my door, I told them that I did not believe in deities. And when they asked me why so many other people did, my reply was simple: "Because it works for them." I believe as I do, not because I'm convinced that it's True, but because it fits in with my broader understanding of the world around me. And as my understanding of the world changes, my beliefs flow with it.

Conspicuous atheists are often (overly) fond of the understanding that belief in a higher power will hold back human progress and enlightenment. Conspicuous Christians, for their part, tend (often stridently) towards the understanding that lack of belief in God must inevitably end in a combination of wanton decadence and unchecked criminality. Even a casual attempt to falsify either of these positions ends in a rousing success, and both sides tend to fall back on an increasingly disingenuous Cataloging of Sins as a means of maintaining a tenuous high ground.

The snobbery in not understanding how fragile our absolutes can be comes from the fact that the snob must often dictate to other people what their subjective experience of the world must be, in order to justify seeing their own as an objective reality. To the strident insider, any conclusion to the search for meaning and understanding is (sometimes infinitely) less rigorous and valuable than the one that they themselves have reached. To the snob, the searcher themselves is also less rigorous and less valuable, and so must be conspicuously corrected or openly devalued.

And down that road has lain much worse than simple snobbery.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Graven In Stone

I was reading The Altantic's article on once (and possibly future) Florida Governor Charlie Crist over lunch today. Of course, it mentions the anger that he has sparked in people over his shift from Republican to Democrat. Many of the comments were predictable, slamming Crist for lacking a core or not being strong.

My first impulse was that this is the nature of winner-take-all politics and a desire on the part of voters to "buy" the "loyalty" of politicians with their votes - while voters complain about politicians who follow the majority wherever it goes, they want those same politicians to follow them wherever they go, hence the complaints about "ignoring the will of the people."

But while I was formulating that thought, I considered what a "strong politician with a core" would look like in reality. For the duration of that person's term in office, their policy stances would be a reflection of a majority of voters up until election day. And this would not change until the next election. And if that's the case, then why have politicians in the first place? Why not just vote on a set of policies and declare them inviolate for some span of years? If the idea behind political representation is to represent people, why only do that in the weeks leading up to an election?


The American electorate is notorious for its active, pervasive and deliberate disengagement from politics. And the demand for WYSIWYG politicians who will only alter their positions on issues during campaign season - if then - plays right into that. Even those people who come out to vote are often disengaged when it isn't election season. Politicians who (apparently) lock themselves into positions selected during the campaign season facilitate that disengagement. Moreover they actively discourage people from engaging with issues outside of campaign seasons - if a representative or other elected official is going to hold the exact same position on an issue mid-term as they did during the campaign, regardless of the majority of their constituents' current views, why even bother to engage with the issue at all before the next election? And if we expand this out to cover the entirety of a politician's career in a given office, one can disengage even further - you only have to consider politician's stances on issues when there isn't someone running that you already support.

Of course, I don't suspect that people consciously decide that they value constancy over engagement. I think that disengagement is simply most people's natural status quo. But I think that there is an understanding, even if an unconscious one, that demanding political fidelity makes disengagement less risky.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Democracy, whether direct or representative, is designed to punish those who value concern with their shadow over concern with the issues of the day. Great souls or not, we have suborned our politics into supporting our desire to be shut of it. I do not think that she should be satisfied with where that has lead us.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


"I recently learned that in America one third of the homeless population are military veterans. It is our shame and disgrace that we don't take better care of those who served."
As far as Random Internet Comments go, this one is better than most. At least it has it heart in the right place, which seems rare these days. But I found my self wondering why there was no "shame and disgrace" that we don't take better care of ALL of our citizens. Why are ex-military so much more valuable that they should be above the trials and tribulations that so many others risk?

And that prompted me to think about the nature of service. I'm not a veteran myself. My window for a successful career in the military was shorter than I suspected, and by the time I attempted to enlist, it had closed. (I'm glad the Army told me why, even though it turned out to be very unpleasant for me.) I mention this because if we're going to say that those who serve are due special consideration, perhaps we should expand the definition of what it means to serve one's nation. I've never been a fan of universal military service, despite my own willingness to enlist. I've come to the conclusion that our refusal to volunteer for duties that seem ill-advised is our final check on unwise undertakings, and it may not be smart to give that up. But if we're not going to place the entirely of the populace at the disposal of the government in some military capacity, what other activities should count as "service?"

It has been suggested that some universal civilian service (for everyone who does not join the military) be put in place, but I'm dubious about that, for the same reason that I'm leery of universal military conscription. A large, captive workforce is the Devil's plaything just as much as idle hands, and when refusal to follow instructions can result in penalties, it's likely that people will follow orders, even when their conscience tells them otherwise.

But why must legitimate service to one's nation be a matter of placing oneself at the direct disposal of the government? Surely there must be ways to do a service to the society as a whole, yet not be directly commanded by its representatives? The answer to that question is: Of course there are. We "simply" need to come together and decide what we want them to be. The fragmentation of the country along partisan lines makes that difficult - as people define themselves more and more my who they are not, it becomes harder and harder to bring people together without their suspicions of one another tagging along for the ride. So we have to ask ourselves whether or not a new and more inclusive understanding of what it means to serve one's nation would be worth it.

I, for my part, see any number of small, everyday things as being of service to the country, if not all of humanity. Fighting and possibly dying, or spending a life severely injured, should not be the only ways in which we view others as having done us a service. Or that we should understand that they have done something that earns them a better life than the streets.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Meeting the Need

Job training programs are failing to turn out enough skilled workers to fill job openings in the U.S., a phenomenon that puzzles some European companies that expand into the U.S.
Nationwide, about 4 million job openings are going unfilled, but 10 million people are unemployed, according to Labor Department statistics.
What Germans Know Could Help Bridge U.S. Workers' Skill Gap
It seems to me that if it were important to fill those openings, then the compensation (direct and indirect) attached to them would go up. This would make it worth people's while to go into these fields and learn the skills required. I don't think that we're really looking at a skills gap. Instead, we're looking at discretionary hiring. Yes, employers want these skills, but they can do without them, and so they don't want to bear either the expense of attracting people with the skills or the expense of training for them. Instead, they're hoping that a populace desperate for "jobs" will put pressure on elected officials to have government (i.e. the public) shoulder the costs of training, and thus lower the cost of obtaining skills in two ways, employers don't have to pay for training, and common skills command lower wages.

And this is to be expected. Companies are in business to make money, and so they naturally want to reduce their costs as much as possible. And moving from a situation where employers compete for workers to one where workers compete for jobs reduces the costs of employing people, if for no other reason than it creates a distinct downward pressure on wages. The German vocational apprenticeship programs that supply skilled workers to employers there come with a three-year commitment to an employer. There were programs somewhat like that here - companies would often pay for skills training for workers, with the proviso that leaving within a certain time afterwards would require that some part of the tuition be repaid - but you had to be an employee first - which gets back to one of the basic catch-22s of the American employment market - you need work to obtain experience, yet need experience to obtain work.

We should resist the urge to buy greater employment. Rather we should let wages rise. Skilled trades are not subject to enough scalability to trigger a winner-take-all effect, and thus, needs in those areas can result in significant income transfers to labor. We should be careful about giving that up.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

We Hates It, We Hates It Not

Conor Friedersdorf, over at the Atlantic, wades into a hornet's nest with the assertion that refusing to photograph a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony (or, as long as we're being precise, refusing to provide a quote to photograph said ceremony) is defacto evidence of animus towards homosexuals. (If nothing else, you must credit the man for game bravery in the face of a certain teapot tempest.)

In doing so, he strides into a minefield that very few have braved. Yet, strangely, he does so without managing to ever really engage with the central issue. What, really, is hate - and is there a difference between being hated and feeling hated? If I despise someone with a passion that burns more brightly than a thousand Suns, yet they have no idea of my animus, are they hated? If my indifference knows no bounds, yet they perceive me as implacably hostile, which is true?

Offense, as I understand it, is in the eye of the offended, because it is simply not possible, by any means, to offend someone who simply does not take offense under the circumstances. So does hate work in the same way? If someone is unaware of, or refuses to acknowledge hate, does the hate have any meaning?

If not, then hate ceases to be a "real" thing and exists only in the perception of the recipient. And then, Mr. Friedersdorf's argument, as well reasoned as it may be, falls apart. But then it leaves us where we really are, but often refuse to acknowledge - in the position of judging whether or not someone's subjective feelings of being hated (or fearful or offended) are actually important. And that loss of objectivity matters, because it means that people who complain that it's really whether or not the greater public sympathizes with your plight are, effectively, correct.

People on all sides of the "conscience" issue, as well as those who steer well clear of a side, tend to be selective in their determination as to whose hurt feelings they understand to be worthy. But with emotions, perceptions are reality. The Christian who feels put upon because people perceive them a bigoted suffers no less subjective injury than a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer person who feels judged (and found wanting) for not adhering to conventional sexual norms or the college student who feels threatened by the reactions of her schoolmates to the fact that she's paying her tuition by acting in pornographic movies. These things are all important to them. It's the rest of us who pick and chose, and in so doing, heighten or assuage the feelings of those people who have invested themselves in our decisions.

So in the end, whether or not I do something (or refuse to do something) with hate in my heart is immaterial. It's what blossoms in the hearts of others as a result of my choices, words and deeds - and whether or not their peers legitimize that blossoming - that matters.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

We’re Number One

I understand the concept of racial, ethnic or nationalist pride, but I have to admit that the reality of it doesn’t really compute for me.

One of the things that my parents taught me growing up is that pride should be a function of individual achievement. I don’t, however, think that they quite meant it in the way that I internalized it, which is that the only legitimate source of pride is one’s own accomplishments. This viewpoint caused friction between my father and I; he was somewhat put out that I refused to express pride in being Black. But, as I pointed out to him:

I am not Black because of any action on my part - I am Black because you and Mom are Black. It’s not like the doctor could have come into the maternity ward and said: “Hello, Mister and Missus McLin. We’ve looked over your son’s prenatal test scores and congratulations, you're having a Latino.”
My father was unamused. (My mother, on the other hand, thought this was the funniest thing she'd heard that year.)

Affinity sentiments have always struck me as dangerous and more trouble than they are worth. So have to admit that I am dubious about an article in The Atlantic that describes South Koreans being upset by Kim Yuna not winning the gold medal as “perfectly healthy.” While I understand the point that the piece is making, that nationalism can provide “a sense of security, a feeling of belonging, and prestige,” but don’t racism, sexism, ethnocentrism et cetera also provide those things? We don’t see those as particularly healthy.

Perhaps there's something different about nationalism that makes “in-group favoritism” and “out-group devaluation” (mainly by putting down people we define as “others”) worth it. I don’t see it, myself. It’s always struck me as simply a cheater's shortcut, a way to claim accomplishment by piggybacking on the work of someone else, and the claims that it can help foster things like “selflessness, courage, and idealism,” never resonated with me, mainly because they never seemed to be in particularly short supply in people who weren't nationalists, or noticeably more common in say, sexists, and others who set themselves apart.

According to Joshua Searle-White, author of The Psychology of Nationalism: “Nationalism can be remarkably unifying, and unlike class or some versions of religious identity, it can do it across gender, class, and political lines.” But it can also come with “great cruelty against [...] enemies,” that a commitment to shared humanity would necessarily preclude.

Attachment and identity, or “us versus them” thinking, seem to me to be a reasonable response to multiple groups of people competing for scarce resources. But now, I think, it’s preventing us from moving past the idea of perpetual scarcity. I don’t see how that’s healthy for us.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lovely Awful Things

Apparently atheists aren't the world's best grammarians, either.
One of the oddities that has attached itself to modern Christianity, especially, perhaps, in its evangelical form, is the idea that right and wrong can only be conceived of through a religious lens. While I think that the degree to which some Atheists are critical of this rises to the level of bludgeoning a horse that has long since decayed to its skeletal remains, it does seem to be blind to history.

Christianity tends to credit itself with the creation and spread of such ideas as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, but there's nothing particularly noteworthy about the concepts involved. Human beings are overwhelmingly social creatures, and those rules that deal with ethics are going to be central to any grouping of people. Without them it's difficult, if not impossible, to form trust relationships between individuals, especially in the face of potential scarcity.

While some religious people claim that the rules of their faith have solved the problem of creating an ethical framework that is indisputable, universal and eternal, the real innovation of Judeo-Christian-Moslem morality in particular is its reliance on an omniscient, unaccountable and incorruptible judge. When religious people accuse the secular of having no reason to not be as anti-social and psychopathic as they can practicably manage, they are really merely pointing out a disbelief in the universality and unavoidability of punishment. But this is nothing new - and, in fact, Christainity itself does not posit the universality and unavoidability of punishment. For many Christians, this is the whole point of being "saved;" no matter what sins one has committed in the past, redemption is always available.

In my own experience, what often confounds or even frightens atheists is not the idea that morality is governed by a divinity whose existence cannot be proven, but the idea that moral behavior is motivated solely by the fear of eternal punishment in Hell. In the stereotyped (but not entirely inaccurate) view put forward in the picture, humanity, as a species, is utterly incapable of maturing to the point where it internalizes a workable, if not always consistent, moral/ethical framework, and thus only the constant threat of punishment keeps humanity for self-destructing in a worldwide orgy of the strong openly victimizing the weak. Turn the concept on its head, and a person is effectively saying: "The only thing that stands between me and victimizing you is my fear of damnation." As the picture says, not very reassuring.

This view of humanity as descending into utter lawlessness and "depravity" in the absence of universal, unavoidable and eternal punishment raises the question of how human societies prospered prior to evolution of the concept. Even reading the Bible as a literal history, one understands that there societies that predated the Ten Commandments - we are not told that any of them condoned, for instance, wanton homicide. And the non-Christian societies that European explorers, and later, missionaries encountered were not without sophisticated moral structures.

In the end, as it appears to me, the issue is one of Lovely Awful Things - the idea that wrongdoing is a more intrinsically appealing way to others behave. This is, for the most part, an article of faith. Part of the conflict between believers and non-believers is the truth of that worldview. Because it goes deeper than empirical fact, it's a conflict that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Random Answer

Back in the day, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer posed what it posited was a Burning Question:

Is the eclipse of marriage a threat to our civilization or a step toward liberation?
While I never sent it in, I did take a stab at an answer:
Neither. I would submit that it's a recognition of a changing reality. I have always understood that in the past, marriage was primarily for the families and the community, rather than the individuals involved. With love between the individuals involved having eclipsed the traditional political and economic reasons for marriage, it is little wonder that fewer people are choosing to go through what is more and more simply a ritual. As time goes on, marriage is ceasing to be the commitment, and is becoming more a public affirmation of said commitment. But the more personal nature of the relationships involved, as well as the greater role that personal satisfaction with one's partner is playing, are working to undermine the idea that marriage will be a lifelong commitment. What is causing us difficulty is that we are having problems adapting other family institutions to the more fluid nature of the relationships involved. This, coupled with the staunch opposition of traditionalists to allowing the marriage relationship to evolve to track broader social trends is leading to problems becoming more difficult to solve than they need to be.
Looking back on it, I think that I was overly serious. Given the clear false dichotomy involved, perhaps I should have had a bit more fun with things.