Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Theology of Rape Blessings

Attention to the GOP convention has helped to eclipse the furor over GOP Senate contender Todd Akin’s remarks suggesting women have a built-in birth control mechanism to prevent pregnancy due to “legitimate rape.” So perhaps now is the time to reflect more soberly on an underappreciated dimension of that controversy, a dimension that I suspect will unfortunately stay with us long after Akin loses his election and is forgotten.

I'm not thinking about Akins' dubious views about women's biology, nor the implicit suggestion that some significant number of purported rapes are as illegitimate as babies born out of wedlock (although that's a serious matter). The idea I want to consider is the notion that pregnancies resulting from rape are a blessing from God.

Several conservative voices have gestured towards just this idea. Shortly after the Akin story broke, Mike Huckabee remarked during a radio interview with Akin that “even from those horrible, horrible tragedies of rape, which are inexcusable and indefensible, life has come and sometimes, you know, those people are able to do extraordinary things.”

Now Huckabee is surely right that being a child of rape doesn’t determine your future character or talents or contributions to society (a point that VP candidate Paul Ryan recently made in terms that outraged some pundits). A child of rape can grow up to be a fine human being. A child of consensual sex can grow up to be a serial killer. I’m sure most pregnant rape victims know this (although they may question their ability to guide the child towards the former and away from the latter).

The question is why Huckabee points this out during a soft-serve interview with Akin. I suspect it was a gesture towards a notion quite common in the conservative Christian circles in which Akin and Huckabee travel--namely, the notion that rape-induced pregnancies are a divine way of bringing good out of evil. That is, they're a blessing from God. If so, Huckabee was politically astute enough merely to gesture. Missouri GOP central committee member Sharon Barnes did more than that. In coming to Akins’ defense, Barnes maintained that while few rapes result in pregnancy, when they do then “at that point, if God has chosen to bless this person with a life, you don’t kill it.”

Let’s be clear about what victims are likely to hear in Barnes’ words: “The rapist may have been bad, but you want to murder an innocent baby that God planted in your womb as a blessing to make it all better.”

Now I want to say two things here. The first is brief but important: In a society committed to freedom of religion and church/state separation, public policy should not rest on how you answer the question of what’s a blessing from God and what isn’t.

The second thing is more involved. It’s about the theology implicit in Barnes’ claim, a theology according to which God works even through the horrors perpetrated by sinners, using them to serve His providential plan.

Let me be clear about something: I don't think Barnes and those like her necessarily believe that every act of sin and wickedness is part of God’s plan, every rape predestined by God to serve God’s glory. There are some theologies which say this, but if rapists were predestined to rape then, presumably, rape victims who abort were predestined to abort and the society that allows them to abort was predestined to allow it. I doubt that’s Barnes’ view.

Rather, I think it’s more plausible to take her as asserting a theology of the following sort: God allows humans to exercise unrestricted free choice, and while desiring that they make loving and just choices and condemning them when they don’t, God is so resourceful that (put simply) He can turn every lemon that sinners throw at Him into lemonade.

In other words, God turns every curse into a blessing, and it’s up to us to see how God makes use of tragedy and villainy to make the world a better place. If a rape victim becomes pregnant due to rape, it’s because God chose this way to transform curse into blessing. The rapist shouldn’t have committed the offense, but God can redeem even the most terrible acts.

This theology is part of a broad class of theologies--what I'll call redemptive theologies--which share the idea that God cares about the evils of the world and is acting to redeem them. Since my own theology is a theology of redemption, I obviously don't think the redemptive aspect of Barnes' theology is where the trouble lies.

But not all theologies of redemption are created equal. Barnes' theology makes God into a micromanager of sin, redeeming sins one by one, turning each in turn into another cool refreshing sip of spiritual lemonade. God is sovereign over every outcome, stepping in at every instance of wickedness to miraculously turn it to the good of those who trust in Him (sometimes by making babies out of rapes, sometimes in other ways). If we don't see this happening in our lives, then presumably it's our own fault: a failure of faith, perhaps, or simply a failure to polish up our Pollyanna glasses. Or maybe the miraculous good that will spring from these hard lumps is yet to come, if we only wait faithfully for it (but of course that wouldn't be the case with a rape pregnancy, since the miracle of new life is right there for everyone to see, hard on the heels of the violation).

Not every redemptive theology is like this. In fact, the core redemptive theology of Christianity isn't like this. Traditional Christian thought has it that God redeemed a broken world through a singular intervention in history. On this view, God redeems the evils of the world, not by turning them one by one into lemonade, but by building a broader cosmic context around them that erases their nihilistic power.

I should note that a redemptive theology is not quite the same as a theodicy (a response to the argument from evil). A theodicy attempts to explain why God would allow the evils of this world to exist in the first place. A redemptive theology begins where a theodicy leaves off, granting that God cannot or morally may not prevent the evils from occurring, and offering an account of how God redeems evil so that evil doesn't have the final world in creation (or, we might hope, in any part of it).

Based on this distinction, Marilyn McCord Adams' theological work on horror is best classified as a redemptive theology. Adams proposes that God defeats the horrors of the world by participating in horror on the cross. By choosing to be most truly present in the world at the very place of dire affliction and forsakenness, God thereby ensures that our worst moments cannot strip our lives of ultimate meaning.

I don't want to go into a detailed account of Adams' redemptive theology here, but I do want to contrast it with Barnes' micromanager theology. For Barnes, when a rape victim becomes pregnant it's because God has decided to redeem the horror of rape by making it the vehicle for producing a precious baby. For Adams, God redeems it by choosing to inhabit the world most fully at the very place of affliction where the rapist thrusts his victim. In so doing, in standing with the victims, being classed among them, enduring what they endure, their humiliation and degradation is transformed. The rapist means to turn his victim into a mere thing. But if she's a mere thing for being pushed into this forsaken place, then the very creator of the universe is a mere thing for choosing this forsaken place to be where the creator most fully inhabits the creation. Or put another way: when the rapist seeks to turn his victim into a thing, he succeeds instead in turning her into an image of God.

This is not to say that she feels or should feel uniquely blessed by her violation, or anything so obscene. It is, rather, to say that in that moment of being uniquely cursed, God is being cursed with her, screaming every outraged scream, weeping every hopeless tear. And in standing with the victims in their moment of greatest degradation, because it is the very source of all being and worth and meaning that is standing with them, their degradation cannot turn them to nothing, cannot erase their worth, cannot strip all meaning from their lives.

Now Adams’ theology may have problems, but there are good reasons to think that something along these lines fits far better with Christianity and the realities of the world than does the micromanaging God who squeezes each sin-lemon as it comes along into a sip of blessed lemonade. But Barnes’ claim about pregnancies due to rape presupposes the micromanager-theology. And one reason I find this theology so troubling is precisely because of its implications in cases like rape.

It's one thing for the victim of rape to decide, perhaps after herculean struggle, to embrace the child that springs from horror and treat is as a blessing—and for others to view such embrace as an astonishing, wondrous response to violation and trauma. It is something else to say that whenever life springs from rape, it’s because God has seen fit to transform a horror into a blessing—and if you don’t view it in those terms, if you somehow don’t succeed in separating what is growing inside you from the violation that invaded your flesh, tore into you, and left this blessing behind—if you aren’t able to pull off this astonishing, wondrous response, if instead you find yourself clawing at your gut and raging for someone to get it out of you, get it out of you for God's sake...then you’re at odds with God Himself.

To respond to the victims of rape in this way—with mandates, with the specter of cosmic condemnation for failing to see the fruits of victimization as a blessing—seems a fundamental failure of empathy. But empathy is at the heart of love. A theology which affirms that God is love must be a theology of divine empathy. And that means a God who dwells with us in that harrowing place—who so identifies with Her creation that every time someone is raped She goes to that place afresh, violated and degraded and left clawing at Her gut and raging for someone to get it out of Her, get it out of Her for God's sake.

If Barnes and those like her want rape victims to view their pregnancy as a blessing, they’re asking for a miracle. And if they want to see that miracle occur they’d be well advised to change their theology. Because the God who’s most likely to pull off a miracle like that is the God who’s down there in the pit of horror with the victims, screaming every scream.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

News Update: Louisiana Congressman Demands that Universities Stop Being Universities

I just finished co-authoring an essay (for an anthology) in which my co-authors and I argue that teaching the humanistic disciplines, and more broadly ensuring that higher education isn’t all about “getting a good job,” is critical for a society that hopes to escape what Max Weber called “the Iron Cage.”

And then, today, I read this: a congressman from Louisiana, Jeff Landry, opposes a new LGBT studies program at the University of Louisiana atLafayette (ULL) because the program "offers nothing for direct employment prospects" and the university ought to “allocate its resources on programs that will help college students increase their hiring viability and earning capacity.”

Not only does this statement betray a dangerously reductionist view of higher education, but it applies this reductionist view in a very selective way, specifically singling out one of the few remaining social groups (the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community) that it is still legitimate in some circles to target for discrimination and social marginalization. In short, Landry invokes a bad argument rooted in a destructive view of higher education in order to play into and reinforce the homophobic prejudices of his constituency.

Since I’ve said plenty on this blog about discrimination against sexual minorities, I don’t want to dwell on that dimension of Landry’s remarks here. Rather, I want to dwell on why it is so dangerous to reduce higher education to “hiring viability and earning capacity.”

Now let me say that these goals—being employable at a decent wage—should be part of what higher education offers. But the university loses a crucial element of what higher education is about if these vocational goals become such a priority that they claim the lion’s share of the university’s resources, eviscerating programs which expand the horizons of students, which challenge their prejudices, which inspire reflection on the values of society and lead them to think deeply about what is really important to them in their own lives.

This is where Max Weber’s metaphor of “the Iron Cage” comes into play. Weber worried that in the modern world, our exponential increase in technological skill (and the justifiable admiration of it) leads to a kind of artificial and dangerous elevation of one sort of rationality—means-end rationality or instrumental rationality—over other sorts.

Most significantly, we lose sight of the importance of deliberating thoughtfully, both as communities and as individuals, over which ends we should be pursuing. The ability to determine how to most efficiently achieve our ends is very important. But this ability can be invoked by a genocidal ruler to more effectively exterminate an undesired population. Or it can be invoked to direct human resources and human lives to the production of widgets whose main value is their usefulness in producing widgets.

Something like the latter is what Weber takes to be the Iron Cage that threatens to trap modern people. There is a real danger in the modern world of “efficiency”—cleverness in promoting effective means to achieved one’s ends—taking on such a life of its own that it becomes the ultimate end and aim of society. People spend their lives navigating institutions and bureaucracies whose rules are all about efficiency. But efficiency towards achieving what? The answer, sadly, is often nothing beyond efficiency itself. A is valued because it's useful for achieving B, whose value lies in its usefulness in achieving C, whose value lies in its usefulness for achieving D, which is valuable because of how useful it is for achieving A through C.

Efficiency is about reasoning well about the best means of attaining one’s ends. If it becomes the end in its own right, then it’s a hollow end.

There are different ways such hollowness can manifest. Money, of course, is valuable—but only as a means to an end. It’s what you can buy with money that makes money valuable, and so you need to think about what life goals really matter to you, and how much money you need to achieve those goals (and how much time spent making money would be a distraction from achieving those goals).

For some people, however, making money becomes their end. They just focus on making more and more money as if that is what life were about--hiring viability and earning capacity. But money doesn’t fulfill us. It can’t, because its value is wholly parasitic on the value of the ends that money can help us achieve. As an end in its own right, then, it is utterly hollow.

But as society becomes more and more caught up in efficiency, institutions start treating efficiency as the end and goal of life. Rules are established to maximize efficiency. People focus on navigating the rules. We are directed towards organizing our lives around achieving the means to attain our goals, but have no goal beyond achieving these means—or at least have given up on critically reflecting on our goals and values. The aim is to get a good job that pays well, regardless of whether the work is intrinsically satisfying, and regardless of whether the time and resources required to earn a living eat up so much of one’s life that one has nothing left for actually living.

Our spare time is taken up with surrogates for meaningful life projects--watching TV shows and movies about people pursuing meaningful life projects, or playing video games in which you are challenged to achieve artificial goals that have no reality outside the game. And so the question of which goals will really satisfy, really enrich us individually and collectively, is forever put off or ignored. The time we're not spending being useful at work--vacations and weekends--becomes seen as a way to "recharge our batteries" so that we can return to being useful. But useful for what? Instead of offering an answer, we are encouraged to consume commercial good, filling our closets with more clothes than we can wear, since this is useful in stimulating the economy so that there will be more jobs, so that we will be able to make enough money to buy more stuff.

In short, we become trapped in a system of efficiency run amok, and have lost the ability to sit down and think about what really matters to us and why—and which ultimate goals society as a whole should be pursuing and why.

Universities have always been as much about these deeper questions. Yes, we need to develop our capacity for instrumental thinking—for technical and practical know-how that will help us to better realize our ends. But such technical know-how, without critical reflection and deliberation about the goals or ends we should pursue, becomes like an engine detached from any steering mechanism. Universities have always been about both improving our “engines” and about giving us the resources to steer wisely towards a meaningful goal.

In the modern era, we are not in danger of losing sight of the importance of efficiency, of technical know-how, of the ability to reason out the best means for achieving a goal. What we are in danger of losing sight of is the crucial importance of reflecting and deliberating wisely about where we should be heading, both in our own lives and collectively.

If we don’t develop the latter, we will just blindly live out goals and values that have been handed to us uncritically, more often than not by the mechanistic demands of a society focused on efficiency.

Landry’s words are operating here (at least in part) as a gear in the efficiency machine, demanding more efficiency from ULL in the attainment of the goal of college graduates able to efficiently navigate the business world, with the ultimate social goal of a nation that can efficiently achieve efficiency.

Were the University of Louisiana-Lafayette to bow to Rep. Landry’s scathing critique of their priorities, they would be abdicating the priorities that can help our nation realize wisdom rather than mere efficiency. In short, they would be abdicating their purpose as an institution of higher education.

Friday, August 24, 2012

When to Boycott

A few weeks ago, in response to my first Chick-fil-A post, someone left the following comment:

"We should boycott OPEC by not purchasing gasoline. After all, Saudi Arabia executes homosexuals."

At the time I ignored the comment for a few reasons:  (a) the comment was off-topic, since I wasn't arguing in the post that we should boycott Chick-fil-A (although I certainly won't be caught eating there); (b) the commenter, in leaving something so brief and glib anonymously, didn't strike me as likely to be interested in a genuine exchange; (c) Patrick offered a fine response a few days later; and (d) the comment struck me as obviously silly in any event.

But I've since learned from my wife that this comment has become something of a meme. People in her circle of acquaintances keep repeating it, mostly on social media. And things don't become memes unless there are a significant number of people who don't find it obviously silly--who, on the contrary, think it's a good point well made.

And as I reflect more on the issue, it seems that taking the time to actually engage with this comment can offer some insight into a broader question with some social significance: When should we boycott?

There are actually two questions here: First, when do you have a duty to boycott? Second, when is it a noble or praiseworthy thing to boycott, even if you don't have a duty to do so?

In considering these questions, we need an understanding of what boycotting is. Boycotting a business or a product is more than just choosing not to frequent that business or purchase that product. There are all sorts of reasons you might not go to a particular restaurant: you don't like the food, you hate the atmosphere, the manager's your ex. To boycott involves not only withholding your business, but doing so for reasons of conscience: the business is engaged in practices that you find morally objectionable, practices that at a minimun you don't want to underwrite with your dollars.

It typically also involves an effort at collective action: you encourage others to withhold their business as well, or join in with others who are already deliberately and publicly withholding their business, again for reasons of conscience. And associated with this collective action is the aim of putting pressure on the business to change the behavior you find objectionable (or, if not that, to send a message to other businesses that it might not be wise for them to behave in similar ways, since they may lose customers).

Those with a moral conscience anything like mine, however, have a problem in this world: There are so many businesses doing so many morally questionable things that it's hard to keep track of them all, and it would be practically impossible while still living in the world to withhold your business from every company that did something you found morally troubling (or that used raw materials from a supplier that did something morally troubling, etc.).

The example of OPEC oil is actually an excellent one for the purposes of highlighting the problem. Basically, fossil fuels are so implicated in our way of life that to boycott them would require that we remove ourselves from society in a rather decisive way. After all, fossil fuels are used in the growing of our food, in the production and transport of most goods, in powering our homes, as well as in getting us to and from work, getting our kids to and from school, etc. It's not as if our world is set up so that we can easily distinguish between goods that were brought to market only using fuel derived from non-OPEC oil fields. We can't even choose a gas station that can give us such a guarantee.

And this means that the decision to boycott OPEC is the decision to fundamentally withdraw from modern social life, to turn our lives radically upside down. It would likely involve giving up our jobs and homes and communities in order to...well, maybe hope the nearest Amish community will take us in, and failing that learning to hunt with a homemade bow and moving into some remote wilderness.

Now I don't want to say that people can never have an obligation to so radically change their lives, to make staggering sacrifices. But it does seem that as the cost to oneself of boycotting something goes up, the presumption of a moral duty to boycott weakens. And so the case for such a duty must become correspondingly weightier.

There are, I think, at least three distinct factors that make the case for a duty to boycott weightier: (1) the gravity of the wrong; (2) the chances that boycotting will do any good in reducing or eliminating the wrong; (3) the level and directness of your own complicity in the wrong (were you not to boycott).

If a wrong is very grave, but boycotting would probably do no good and it's not the case that your dollars are being used to directly finance the wrong, then the overall case for a duty to boycott may not be especially strong even though the wrong at issue is serious. Still, the seriousness of the wrong all by itself may be enough to generate a duty if there's little or no cost to you--if you can get by just fine without the product. But if the cost to you is a complete upheaval of your life, even if the wrong at issue is grave you may not have a duty to boycott. It might be a noble or praiseworthy thing to do, but it wouldn't be a duty.

So, bringing this to bear on the difference between Chick-fil-A and OPEC: To boycott Chick-fil-A costs me very, very little. Unlike my wife, I don't actively dislike the taste of their chicken. But I don't especially crave it or anything. And there are countless alternatives for getting fed each day.

When the costs are that low, a duty to boycott might arise when you have a significant wrong (e.g., the business finances organizations that actively seek to perpetuate the social discrimination against and marginalization of my gay and lesbian neighbors), some chance of sending a message that could make some difference in the world, and some direct complicity in the wrong were one to give money to the business (since a percentage of Chick-fil-A earnings are donated to anti-gay groups).

On the issue of when it is praiseworthy to boycott, even if not a strict obligation, we need to think about some other issues. For example, boycotting something may not merely create hardships for me, but for others who are dependent on me. As a father, were I to boycott OPEC I would be choosing the weighty implications of this choice not just for myself, but also for my children. And so we need to see how those implications relate to my duties to my children--what I have a right to choose for them and what I don't, how I ought to provide for them, etc. Taking these things into consideration, boycotting OPEC might not be praiseworthy at all. It might even be impermissible.

More broadly, if a boycott has ripple effects that do more harm than good for all those affected, then a boycott might not be praiseworthy even if the wrong one is protesting against is significant.

Finally, while boycotts can be a powerful tool for influencing corporate behavior, their potential to be such a tool may depend on a certain selectivity in their use. If I call for a boycott whenever there's a business misstep, I may have far less effect than if I save that call for those issues that score high with respect to at least one of the factors (1)-(3). And so it may not be praiseworthy to call for boycotts too often or too indiscriminately.

When it comes to the Chick-fil-A controversy, it may be that culturally we have reached a juncture where boycotting a business that funnels profits towards the marginalizations of LGBT persons acquires a certain symbolic significance, one that resonates beyond the particular controversy and succeeds in calling widespread attention to the issue of why so many in our society regard the marginalization of sexual minorities as being the very opposite of the morally upright choice that the Chick-fil-A leadership takes it to be. If  so, then a boycott in this case, at this time, may actually make a difference in a way that it wouldn't have at another time and place. So, perhaps, it wouldn't have been praiseworthy to call for a boycott against Chick-fil-A fifteen years ago, but now it is--even if the wrong being committed, and the consumer's complicity in the wrong, hasn't changed.

In any event, these are some of the factors that I think need to be weighed when deciding whether to boycott a business. Since this is the first time I've ever thought explicitly about this question, I'd be especially curious to know what other people think.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Progressive Religion vs. Fundamentalism, Part 2: A Slippery Slope?

Two Kinds of Religion

A few weeks back I offered the first post in a promised series--a series in which my aim will be to consider objections to the legitimacy of religion in general in the light of the distinction between progressive religion and fundamentalism.

In that first post my purpose was to explain what I have in mind by the two kinds of religion--not in rigorous philosophical terms, but in an accessible way that I hope is useful. As I made clear in that post, the distinction I have in mind is between ideal types. Actual religions can be more or less progressive, more or less fundamentalistic.

In brief, the key feature of fundamentalism is certainty: This creed, these texts, this leader or institution offers us the Truth with a capital "T"--that is, a deep and ultimate truth about the nature of reality (in theism, about the nature of God), and a decisive account of how we ought to live so as to be in harmony with this deepest reality (in theism, living in tune with God's nature and will). In fundamentalism an equivalence is asserted between the teachings of a particular book or other authority and the self-disclosure of the creator. The Bible is the Word of God. Hence, no distinction is made between doubting that the Bible is God's Word and doubting God's Word. Anyone who doubts the chosen holy book or prophet or clerical authority is thus an enemy of Truth.

In brief, the key feature of progressive religion is critical appropriation and living out of inherited worldviews and ways of life: A religious tradition, with its creeds and sacred narratives, its scriptures and its sacraments, is embraced on account of its perceived promise in helping us to grow in wisdom. It's a matter of trajectory. The religious tradition is seen as offering a powerful template for engaging with the world, one that promises ever deeper insight into fundamental truths about ourselves and the world if only we are open to having that template itself evolve in the light of what lived experience--our own and others'--teaches us.

In other words, like fundamentalism, progressive religion reaches for profound truths about ourselves and reality that transcend what ordinary empirical inquiry gives to us. But while fundamentalism claims to have grasped these truths, equating them with the doctrines and practices and narratives of their religion, the religious progressive sees these doctrines and practices and narratives as instruments for progressively moving towards truths that, by their nature, may never be fully within reach.

The Slippery Slope Premise

A recurring challenge to progressive religion, especially in the last few years, is that there's something about even religion in its progressive forms that facilitates fundamentalism. If we endorse or legitimize progressive religion, we thereby endorse or legitimize a pattern of thinking or approach to life that opens the door to fundamentalist belief. You can't have one without the other.

Let's call this the slippery slope premise: There's a slippery slope from progressive religion to fundamentalism, not in the sense that every person who embraces the former is inevitably going to slide into the latter, but in the sense that if society lets the former in the door, the latter will slide in with it.
The most sweeping recent critics of religion (the "New Atheists" such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) have offered various reasons for thinking that this slippery slope premise is true, and have then made use of it to conclude that even if what they call "moderate" religion is in its own right harmless, it should be opposed because (in Dawkins' words) its teachings "though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism" (The God Delusion, p. 306).

There's a sense in which my first book, Is God a Delusion?, was largely about this slippery slope argument. I wanted to delineate a way of being religious (which I perhaps unwisely sometimes called "true religion") that wan't touched by the New Atheist challenges. I responded to these challenges, in essence, by saying, "Here's a species of religion that doesn't have the vices you rail against; and your glancing efforts to show that 'moderate' religion provides succor to more extreme forms don't succeed in showing that the species of religion I have in mind does anything of the kind."  

But, of course, there are different ways to support a premise. Just because Dawkins and Harris haven't shown that progressive religion is "an open invitation to extremism," it doesn't follow that it's not. There might be better arguments for the slippery slope. In fact, there are probably different sorts of slippery slopes, in the sense of different ways in which endorsing one form of religion might inevitably advance the cause of another. Dawkins and Harris focus on what we might call logical slippery slopes: They think that you cannot consistently complain about or critique fundamentalism if you respect "moderate" religion. But perhaps there are slippery slopes that are less logical and more sociological, or perhaps psychological. What would be the arguments for those sorts of slippery slopes?  

While I hope to devote more attention to these questions in future posts, I don't want to do so here. Rather, for the rest of this post I want to consider what follows if you buy into the slippery slope premise.

Letting in the Bugs

If we accept the slippery slope premise as described above, should we conclude that religion in general ought to be opposed?

The New Atheists think so, but this is one of those places where they seem to be jumping to conclusions. Consider: What if the patterns of thinking that open the door to fundamentalism--and which are purportedly present even in progressive religion--are so deeply rooted in the human condition that there is no real hope of reducing their presence in human society? Our best hope, then, might be to channel those patterns into benign forms of expression. And what if progressive religion is the most effective way to do that?

In that case, promoting progressive religion could help reduce extremism even if it also legitimized a way of thinking found among extremists.

Or what if religion, in addition to having the harmful effect of promoting patterns of thinking that generate extremism, also has an array of positive effects? What if the negative costs of extremism can be overridden by religion’s benefits whenever the fundamentalist/progressive balance is weighted sufficiently on the side of progressivism? And what if such a progressive weighting is within reach?

In that case, legitimizing progressive religion might make the world a better place despite the negative side-effect of offering space for fundamentalism. To return to an earlier metaphor, perhaps it is true that if you open the door to progressive religion, fundamentalism will slip in, too. But likewise, when I let my dogs inside at night, bugs inevitably slip in with them. The opening for my dogs is wide enough, and my dogs slow enough, that sometimes a dozen insects pour in, attracted by the light, before I can get the sliding door shut again.

It hardly follows from this that I should forego the joys of pet ownership. Perhaps if I lived somewhere swarming with mosquitos carrying deadly diseases, the costs might outweigh the benefits. But even then, whether the costs outweigh the benefits might depend on whether there are steps one can take to minimize the number of bugs that pour through.

With my own dogs I've become quite adept at such steps. I avoid letting them out and in at twilight, when the mosquitos are most prevalent. When I let them in at night, I dim the lights inside the house, turn on a floodlight outside that attracts the bugs, open the door enough to call the dogs, shut the door quickly, and don't open it again until they're right there ready to come inside. Sometimes, I'm afraid to say, I almost nip off the tips of their tails sliding the door shut again.

Likewise, there may be strategies that we can take as a society to let in progressive religion while minimizing the number of fundamentalist bugs. If there is some sort of slippery slope--and if, as I believe, there are substantial and important contributions that progressive religion can make to society--then I think an exploration of such strategies is worth having.

And meaningful conversations about such strategies is hindered by polarizing language that throws all religion into a single basket, insisting on all or nothing.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Anatomy of a Distortion

Have you ever played that kids' game where a message is whispered from ear to ear at a party or other gathering, and then the final version is compared to the original--often with hilarious or astonishing deviations?

Sometimes political communication ends up looking a bit like that game--except that the distortions are helped along by carefully chosen words that are intended to leave the listener with a mistaken impression.

The other day, the following poster, apparently originating with The American Center for Law and Justice, appeared in my Facebook newsfeed:


My first thought was that this had to be some sort of distortion. After all, to launch a lawsuit aimed at limiting military voting rights would be political suicide in an election year. Since there's no indication that Obama is suicidal--even in the political sense--something else must be going on. But what?

It didn't take long to find out. The Washington Post's Fact Checker and have helpful overviews. Here's my culling of the facts. Ohio used to allow early in-person voting up to the day prior to the general election, mainly to ease burdens on polling places on election day. But in 2011, the Republican controlled state legislature passed legislation that moved back the deadline for early voting to the Friday before the election--essentially prohibiting early in-person voting in the last three days leading up to the election.

But this legislation ran afoul of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act (UOCAVA), and the problems were resolved by exempting UOCAVA voters (which includes military personnel) from the Friday deadline. Everyone else, however, was now denied the right to do something they had been able to do in the previous presidential election: Turn up on the Saturday, Sunday, or Monday before the election to cast an early vote. Apparently, some 93,000 Ohio citizens voted during that time period in the 2008 election.

This is significant in part because, in the 2008 election, it seems that many African American churches took the opportunity afforded by early voting to drive church members to the county board of elections office after church on the Sunday before Election Day. In short, the new legislation could negatively impact voter turnout, especially the African American vote--which would likely hurt Obama.

So, the Obama administration initiated a lawsuit whose aim was to restore early voting privileges in these key days leading up to the election. The aim was not in any way to truncate soldiers' voting rights. It was to restore voting privileges that had been taken away from everyone but soldiers.

So how did that turn into the above poster?

Well, the explanation appears to be rooted in how the lawyers for the lawsuit made their case for restoring the three lost days of in-person voting privileges. Their argument was based on the fact that some citizens would be denied voting opportunities that others were being afforded--something they argue violates the equal protection clause of the constitution. According to the Obama campaign's filed legal complaint, the result of the Ohio bill is "arbitrary and inequitable treatment of similarly-situated Ohio voters with respect to in-person early voting." The complaint continues:
...both UOCAVA and non-UOCAVA voters are identically situated, i.e., they are qualified electors who are physically present in their home county when they desire to vote in-person at their county board of elections office prior to Election Day.
The proposed solution to this differential treatment was to restore the extra voting days to everyone, not to deny them to soldiers--but the language of "arbitrary" and "unconstitutional" was seized upon by Obama's  opponents. Here's how it's spun in a memorandum from the Romney Campaign's General Counsel:
In their lawsuit, the Obama campaign and the DNC argue it is “arbitrary” and unconstitutional to provide three extra days of early, in-person voting to military voters and their families. At least 20 times in their legal papers, they argue that there is no good reason to give special flexibility to military voters – and that this policy adopted by the Ohio legislature is so wrong it is unconstitutional.

We disagree with the basic premise that it is “arbitrary” and unconstitutional to give three extra days of in-person early voting to military voters and their families, and believe it is a dangerous and offensive argument for President Obama and the DNC to make. It is not only constitutional, but commendable that the Ohio legislature granted military voters and their families this accommodation. It is despicable for the Obama campaign to challenge Ohio’s lawful decision.
This way of framing matters led to more extreme distortions, such as what one finds in an article entitled "Obama Trying to Limit Military Voting Rights," on the ACLJ website.

Now behind all of this, there is a legitimate worry about the Obama team's legal argument, one which has been expressed by a number of military organizations: If the prior early voting rights policies are restored on the basis of the equal protection clause, the fear is that doing so might set a legal precedent, one in which extending special consideration to members of the military is more generally regarded as at odds with the equal protection clause.

This strikes me as a worry that needs to be taken seriously, although I'm not convinced it is substantiated--since the Obama campaign's legal argument rests on a very delimited similarity between UOCAVA and non-UOCAVA voters with respect to a very specific opportunity. It doesn't follow that soldiers are generally in the same situation as ordinary citizens, or that the distinct hardships created by military life could never serve as a legitimate basis for differential treatment.

Not being a legal scholar, however, I can't say for sure (although at least some legal scholars seem to agree with me). But it seems that the origins of the poster above (and similar messages) has its roots in this legal worry about a possible unintended side-effect of a lawsuit that is not meant to take away anyone's voting rights, let alone military voting rights.

In short, we have a progression of messages a bit like that kids' whisper game. We start with this:

A: "The Obama campaign says every Ohioan should get back the voting privileges that the new law has taken from everyone but UOCAVA voters. To deny this to other Ohioans--including veterans and police officers and a range of others whose life circumstances might lead them to benefit in similar ways from voting access on those three days--is unfair."

With the help of some people focusing in on the possible legal precedents that might be set, we move to this:

B: "Obama says it is unfair for enlisted military personnel to get extended voting rights that other Ohioans don't get."

And then, with the help of some careful phrasing of "B" intended to mislead, we move to this:

C: "Obama says enlisted military should be denied the extended voting rights that Ohio affords them because of their unique situation."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Princess Parties Revisited

Yesterday, I read a New York Times article entitled "What's So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?" It seemed to connect with some of my recent posts on gender issues--and it reminded me of one of my posts from a year ago. So I thought I'd repost that earlier essay for those who may not have seen it then. Here it is:

Sometimes, the lives of ordinary, mild-mannered philosophers mirror the madness of media melodrama. Not long ago on this blog, I talked about one such case of media melodrama: The Fox-News Induced Toemageddon. And a few weeks back, as if to mock me for mocking Toemageddon's gravity, I came face to face with my own little variant of it.

I was grading term papers in the corner of a local restaurant when the controversy broke--in the form of a text message from my wife. Between spoonfuls of French onion soup I hissed out a fiercely eloquent diatribe—under my breath, of course, but I’m sure nearby patrons were nervously gauging the distance to the nearest exit.

The message started with the confession that my wife was so angry she “couldn’t see straight.” And then she told me why. The tale that emerged was one about judgment, and about my son—my beautiful, almost-eight-year-old son...who, it so happens, had worn a dress to his sister’s fifth birthday party the day before.

You see, my daughter had a “Princess” themed birthday party in the back room of a local ice cream place, and everyone was invited to come dressed as a princess. My son, a thespian to the core, wasn’t going to be left out. We did suggest the option of going as a prince, or in some other costume. "No," he replied. "I'm going as a princess."

(He then asked me to take him wig shopping. I refused.)

Just before we left for the party, my wife took him aside to point out that there were going to be a couple of older girls there, and some of them might laugh at him. This did not deter him. In addition to being a thespian, my son is a very savvy social operator in his own peer group. He knows how to face down seven-year-olds who have the temerity to question his party attire. And so, off we went with two princesses in the back of the minivan--one of them with a crew cut.

An older girl at the party did, in fact, laugh at him. He didn't care. And halfway through the party he shed the princess dress (which was "scratchy") in favor of the shorts and t-shirt he was wearing underneath. We all had fun, ate ice cream cake, opened presents, and went home. Best of all, I had an extended excuse to put off grading.

Now I'm not going to tell you who it was that questioned our parenting skills on the basis of this series of events, because it's none of your business (and few readers of this blog would know the relevant players anyway). But I do want to talk about the nature of the charges against us. They featured two ideas: first, that we were threatening our son's "healthy development" by allowing him to attend his sister's pre-K party in a dress; second, that we were setting him up for bullying.

Now let me be clear about something. My son is entirely comfortable in his own skin. In other words, he shows no signs of being transgendered in the sense of feeling like a female trapped in a male body. And while he doesn't slavishly conform to traditional gender roles (he's loved dance since the age of two, and he's as utterly indifferent to baseball as his father is), he far prefers Shrek to Sleeping Beauty. He delights in a good fart joke, and he can spend hours entertaining himself by combining baking soda and vinegar in a ziplock back, sealing it, and waiting for the explosion. On Sunday mornings, he neither wants to wear a dress to church nor envies his sister for being able to do so. He's a little boy, and he doesn't dream of being a little girl.

But he's also a performer, and dress-up is one of his favorite activities. Our daughter always dresses as a princess, but my son is more ecclectic. He'll dress as a vampire or pirate or dragon or witch, or as some kind of wierd clown-monster hybrid...or as a princess. Whatever strikes his fancy. He takes on a role and plays it to the hilt.

But if my son were transgendered, taking a hard line against wearing a dress wouldn't change that. Imposing strict gender role expectations on children whose native sexualities defy those gender roles is a recipe for suppression, for relationships based on pretense and fear of rejection rather than on honesty and trust. You might succeed in producing women-trapped-in-men's-bodies who pretend to be mountain men, out of the conviction that those close to them can't possibly love them for who they really are. You won't produce healthy, well-adjusted mountain men.

My theory is this: Attend to who your child is, and then support them in becoming the best example of that sort of person they can be. If your child is a budding mountain man, then by all means help him to become the best mountain man he can be. But if your child is a budding ballet dancer, trying to turn him into a mountain man is just a way of telling him that you don't love him. What you love is some human template he can only pretend to fill.

To put on a dress for his little sister's Princess party--well, that's part of who my son is. Casting off the dress halfway through the party--well, that's also part of who he is. For him, it was no big deal. A game he played for about an hour. But it would have been a big deal if (as some apparently think a good father would have done) I'd "put my foot down" and refused to allow him to wear a princess constume to a princess party where the invitation specifically encouraged the wearing of princess dresses. That would have driven home a message--a message about gender, about the rigidity of gender roles and the importance of enforcing them, even at the cost of stifling innocent childhood play. If he internalized that message, I think it would kill some beautiful part of who my son is.

But what about the specter of bullying? Let me say that I do worry about that with my son. He is, after all, small for his age. And brilliant. And he's a dancer. When he was two we watched the Tony awards as a family and he was transfixed by the dance numbers. He pointed excitedly at the screen and said, "Mommy! Daddy! I go there!" He begged to start dance lessons, and so my wife called around only to learn that the earliest they started children in dance was three. She told him as much. Close to a year later, on his third birthday, he suddenly announced, "I'm three now! Now I can start dance lessons!"

He's been dancing ever since. It hasn't always been easy, here in Oklahoma. He is, as of this moment, the only boy in his entire dance studio. A couple of years ago he almost quit, when he first became conscious of the gender-based judgments. (Once, a father and son were waiting in the lobby when he walked by in his leotard. The son said, "I didn't know boys danced." The father replied, harshly, "They don't!") But my son isn't immune to the benefits of being the only boy. And no, I'm not talking about the ones which will likely become obvious to him in a few years. I'm talking about the fact that he's a novelty, and so is more likely to get top billing. This year, his ballet class performed a number to music from the Peter Pan movie. Guess who was Peter Pan?

So I do worry about bullying. I find it horrible to think that my son might be targeted because of strict gender-role expectations that have no room for a boy doing what my son loves to do. And I find it especially pernicious that other children may become the agents of that intolerance, enforcing rigid gender dichotomies through peer teasing and bullying.

But if I were to prohibit my child from dancing, or from taking engaging in some playful bonding with his little sister on her birthday, out of fear of such teasing and bullying, the I would become the enforcer of the very social intolerance I oppose. By "putting my foot down," I'd only be bringing the bullying home.

If you are concerned about your child being the target of intolerance, because your child is unique in some special way, the solution is not to pre-emptively practice intolerance yourself out of fear that if you don't do it someone else will. The solution is to be your child's advocate in the face of intolerance. That is the kind of parenting that promotes healthy development.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why I'm not a Randian

Romney's VP pick Paul Ryan may or may not be a Randian, but I'm certainly not. And I thought this was a good occasion to explain why not (what with the prospect of having someone a heartbeat from the presidency who at least flirts with Ayn Rand's philosophy).

Here then, in no particular order, are three reasons I'm not a Randian.

1. I'm not a fan of false dilemmas

"False dilemma" is the fallacy of setting up two alternatives as if they were exhaustive, refuting one, and then embracing the other by default. Things are either black or white--no gray allowed, let alone red or green or fuchsia.

Rand is the Queen of false dilemmas. Her essay, "The Virtue of Selfishness," is an all-out attack on an ethic that advocates total self-sacrifice for others, that is, caring for everyone but yourself.  Her defense of selfishness is based on this attack (combined with a bit of equivocation on the meaning of "selfishness" that I won't get into here)--as if there were no middle ground, no possibility of an ethic that balances caring for self and others.

Her dystopian novel, Anthem, offers a similar false dilemma in narrative form. She spends the entire novel highlighting the very real horrors of a society that's utterly collectivist, in which there's no word for "I," no respect for individual liberty--a society in which everyone lives for the community and it's forbidden to care about yourself. This horrific situation is justly repudiated by the narrative force of the novel. But more than that, the horror of it is made so vivid that, when you get to the end, the narrator's sacramentalizion of "ego" is experienced as a kind of liberation:

The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory.
The sacred word:

How do we get to the conclusion that "ego" is not just sacred but the heart and meaning and glory of the world? Rand attempts to do it by demonstrating that completely ignoring the self is bad.

Um...yeah. I agree. But maybe, just maybe, vaunting your own ego so highly that you treat is as the heart and meaning and glory of the world...well, maybe that's bad too. Maybe what's best is some mean between the extremes (as Aristotle tended to think).

But in Rand's universe there are no such middle grounds. In my universe there are.

2. I believe that human beings are social animals who flourish in a network of interdependence

Ayn Rand's philosophy finds its literary summation in Atlas Shrugged, especially in the lengthy radio speech  delivered by the character John Galt. In that speech, Galt lifts up the trader as "the moral symbol of respect for human beings." And who is the trader? "A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws."

Of course there is something to be said for working hard to provide for yourself, for not expecting others to provide for your needs in a non-reciprocal way. When human beings deal with strangers, trade is far better than war. Systems of voluntary exchange are crucial in a world like ours, and Rand is right that the incentive of offering something in trade is a better way to get what you need from others than is manipulation or force, guilt-tripping or violence.

But as with all of Rand's thought, there is a tendency to absolutize what can't and shouldn't be absolutized. For most of human history, people lived is tribal kin-groups: extended families living and working together for the good of all. We evolved to be social creatures, not solitary ones. Our survival depended on collaboration and cooperation--a kind of mutual reliance and trust in which the logic of the business transaction, the trader's logic, would be fatal.

If your fellow hunter needed your help in order to avoid being trampled by the mastodon, you helped. You certainly didn't sit down, formulate, and agree on a trade of services while the mastodon was charging. You just helped. And you didn't, afterwards, keep a careful score card of tit-for-tat, attaching a specific value to the service rendered so that you could make sure you got paid back in full. Anyone who's tried to run a personal relationship that way knows how ruinous that would be. After all, not everyone always keeps score in exactly the same way. The response to a perceived injustice in the tallies is perceived by the other as a new injustice, and each successive response ratchets up the retaliatory anger.

Ratchet up the bitterness too much, and the cooperation necessary for survival becomes impossible. Humans are social animals. We live in community. And communities don't survive if the defining model of interpersonal exchanges is the business trade.

Furthermore, human children are born in a state of total helplessness, and their prospects of making it into adulthood are determined largely by the quality of care they receive from adults upon whom they are utterly dependent. Humans get sick or grow old, and their welfare hinges upon help for which they are no longer in a position to reciprocate. They become, again, dependent on the good will of others.

Let me reiterate that word: Dependent. In childhood and old age, every one of us depends on others for the quality of our lives. Every adult who claims some measure of independence does so as someone who was once completely dependent on others, and one day will be largely dependent again--dependent in the sense of needing the good will of others in order to flourish; dependent in the sense of not being in a position to earn that good will or the goods bestowed on its basis.

My children have yet to earn their keep. I feed them because they can't feed themselves. I teach them because I know things they don't know. I do this out of love. This is not to say they should stay children forever, that they should expect free handouts all their lives. Remember that thing about middle grounds? Between total dependence and total independence, there is this thing called interdependence.

There are periods of our lives when we depend largely on others, and periods where others depend largely on us. So what do we do? Do we expect to flourish only in those fortunate times of vigor and competence? Obviously not. We all start out helpless, so if we only received goods when in a position to pay for it, none of us would ever grow to become people who could pay for it.

So do we pay back each and every one of those who helped us growing up, in proportion to the level of help they gave--somehow keeping a tally of all who contributed to our development and earmarking our earnings to go to each of them in fair payment--while neglecting the needs of our own kids, since we don't have anything left for them?

No. Of course not. The give and take of social life can't work on such a strict business model of payment for services rendered. More often than not, we pay forward rather than back; we remember those who gave to us in our moments of need, without any expectation of mutual benefit, and in gratitude we give to those in need.

The reality of human differences means that some of us will have fewer years of vigor and competence than others. Some of us will have skills and talents that are uniquely needed in the era in which we live; others will have skills that would've taken them far, if only they'd been born into a different time and place. In real human societies, the tallies won't come out even. And if we insist that they must, that no unearned goods end up in anyone's hands simply because of need, we are insisting on a world that only the lucky would like to live in. And guess what? They didn't earn their luck.

3. I believe in love

At the trumpeting conclusion of John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, Galt makes a vow that some today seem to think would be a good one for us all: "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine."

There is, in this vow, the echo of the Randian false dilemma: live for yourself or live for others, with no room for the more complex balance of self-regard and care for others that fits with the realities of the human condition. Galt's vow is motivated by horror at a society defined by a call to sacrifice, in which virtue is equated with denying oneself for the sake of others regardless of their worth.

Rand, like Nietzsche before her, sees the Christian love ethic as an ethic that rewards mediocrity and calls for the strong to sacrifice what is theirs to the undeserving masses. In the middle of Galt's speech, Galt explicitly targets this Christian "agapic" love (calling it "your morality") with an impassioned (mis)characterization intended to paint it as absurd:

Your morality tells you that the purpose of love is to set you free of the bonds of morality, that love is superior to moral judgment, that true love transcends, forgives and survives every manner of evil in its object, and the greater the love the greater the depravity it permits to the loved. To love a man for his virtues is paltry and human, it tells you; to love him for his flaws is divine. To love those who are worthy of it is self-interest; to love the unworthy is sacrifice. You owe your love to those who don't deserve it, and the less they deserve it, the more love you owe them--the more loathsome the object, the nobler your love--the more unfastidious your love, the greater the virtue--and if you can bring your soul to the state of a dump heap that welcomes anything on equal terms, if you can cease to value moral values, you have achieved the state of moral perfection.

Of course, what comes under attack here is not Christian "agapic" love but a caricature. To love the enemy, to love those who persecute you, is not to become a doormat in the face of persecution or to believe that wickedness and cruelty don't matter. You do not love the cruelty of a villain when you love the villain in the Christian sense. You despise the cruelty on account of your love for the person who has descended into villainy, on account of your love for a person who could be so much better. To love another is to wish that their potential be actualized--and this desire for their good and their goodness extends, in Christian love, even to those who are not yet good.

But even if we account for the caricature, there is an element of Rand's critique that one might think persists: love of the Christian sort idealizes sacrifice of the self: it is right to give up your own good for the sake of the comparable good of someone else, to live as if others matter more than you do--to live for others rather than yourself, and have them live for you.

But again, I think Rand has missed something essential when she conceives of Christian love in terms of such sacrificial living-for-others. Loving others and caring for their good amounts to sacrifice only if it is love without love and care without care.

Let me explain. To love another is to expand your sense of self, to pay attention to the other so truly that the same concern that rises up spontaneously for the needs and wants of your narrow ego also rises up for the one you love. This is what it means to love the neighbor as yourself.

When you love others, you become bigger than you were before. Love is the only thing with the power to do this. And by virtue of this power, love opens up a path to something greater even than self-actualization. It becomes a path to self-transcendence. Paradoxically, by virtue of our capacity to love we have it in ourselves to be greater than ourselves. Actualizing this capacity means replacing our narrow ego with an expanded self. This is what it means, I think, to say that the first shall be last and the last shall be first--what it means to say that we find ourselves by losing ourselves.

Through an empathetic love that enables us to identify with more than our narrow ego, we escape the confines of that ego in a way that Rand's vaunting of the ego simply does not allow. When we treat "ego" as the sacred word, we make our world as small as we are. Through love, we have the potential to make ourselves encompass the world.

And there is a potential for joy in this, a potential for fulfillment, that transcends what comes with actualizing the narrow ego alone. From this space of joyful self-transcendence, to share what little you have with a hungry child isn't a sacrifice of yourself but an expression of who you have become through love. The loving sacrifice is only a sacrifice from the standpoint of the narrow ego--but it is precisely this standpoint that love lifts us out of.

At the heart of it, this is the most important third-alternative that Rand's false dilemmas miss: Perhaps we are tuest to ourselves, living for ourselves most fully and richly, when we do not live merely for ourselves. We find a happiness deeper than would otherwise be possible, and nurture ourselves in a uniquely satisfying way, only when we live a life of love--a love that isn't about liking what others do for us, but caring for others for their own sakes. Such love is not about tearing out what is essential to ourselves and handing it over to another; it's about taking in the other and so becoming more than we were before.

Outwardly, at least sometimes, the two acts may look similar--although if you look at the broader pattern of a life characterized by real love, you'd be hard-pressed to confuse it for the life of the codependent doormat. But some people don't notice the broader patterns. And when the one is confused for the other and the virtues of love are attributed to self-denying doormats, that can indeed be a grave and dangerous thing. Then, the pall of duty pressures us to make sacrifices that empty us of what we have and give us nothing in return.

But between self-immolation and selfishness lies love. I believe it's there, a possibility to strive for. Rand doesn't.

And that, above all, is why I'm not a Randian.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Straw Men and the Chick-fil-A Kerfluffle

As I've followed the heated Chick-fil-A kerfluffle, one thing I've noticed is the plethora of straw men.

The "straw man fallacy," as it's called in critical thinking textbooks, is the fallacy of rejecting a view (or argument) by attacking a related but different view (or argument) that's easier to discredit. You thoroughly discredit a position that your opponent wasn't actually endorsing but act as if you've refuted your opponent (perhaps hoping no one notices the trick, perhaps not noticing it yourself). The fallacy is, I believe, named after the practice of burning in effigy a straw stand-in for the real target of outrage.

Sometimes the straw man fallacy is deliberate, sometimes inadvertent. I think the latter is more common: We don't listen carefully, we jump to conclusions, or a pithy retort springs to our lips before we can examine whether it's really fair. We fail to notice a distinction, and so attack what strikes us as outrageous rather than what the other person actually meant (a point which suggests that the straw man fallacy is related inversely to the principle of charity). I'm sure I'm guilty of this myself.

So, for example, Abe encounter progressives who are upset by Chick-fil-A's unapologetic financial support of organizations committed to perpetuating discrimination and social marginalization of sexual minorities. Abe then represents them as being upset about Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy exercizing his right to express an opinion, and trumpets how importance freedom of speech is to the American way of life and how awful it is that people are trying to deny Cathy this right. That's the straw man fallacy. To be opposed to practices that promote discrimination isn't the same as being opposed to someone's right to express an opinion.

There are other examples, from both sides of the debate. I know that some who came to Chick-fil-A's defense were actually opposed to Cathy's anti-gay practices but were equally appalled by certain city mayors who seemed to be threatening the right of Chick-fil-A franchises to operate within their cities. They were worried about the precedent that would be set if the right to do business could be jeopardized by where you donated money--but they were treated as if they thought there was nothing wrong with those donations. Defending someone's right to do X is not the same as saying X is right.

I'm sure you can provide your own examples.

My own favorite example comes in response to my own post about the Chick-fil-A business. Not many days later Methodist pastor Brent White, on his blog, vigorously critiqued a distorted variant of my post--rendering my argument easy to attack by ignoring terms like "many" and "in most cases," and by uncharitably interpreting an ambiguous use of the phrase "these people" so as to make the people referenced a much broader class than I had intended to be talking about. I suspect, given his tone of righteous indignation, that the straw man fallacy in this case was inadvertent--that his sense of affront led to a failure to read with care and charity. The result is that the view he was attacking, although it wasn't mine, burned very brightly indeed--as straw is wont to do.

So the question is, what do you do when you've been "straw-manned"? In fact, I think the most useful response is to use it as an opportunity for clarification. If a distinction has been missed, you now have the chance to make it explicit. If a qualifier has been overlooked, you can call attention to it. If you've left something out of your discussion for the sake of focusing on a particular issue--but what you've left out leaves you open to misinterpretation--you can fill in the blanks.

It's easy to get mad and defensive when you've been straw-manned. But it's better, I think, to treat it as an opportunity. One might say something like this: "I actually agree that the position you're attacking is mistaken for the reasons you offer. But I'm afraid you've misread or misheard me if you think that view is mine. Perhaps I wasn't as clear as I could have been. Here's what I meant to say..."

If you're a blogger, I think responding to straw-manning in this way is especially important. Because if one person has misconstrued your position and dismissed it based on the misconstrual, then it's quite likely that others have as well.

But if all of this is right, then I suppose I should do all of this in relation to Brent White's critique of my Chick-fil-A post. Here's how White understands my argument:

The author, Eric Reitan, says that the Christians who turned out last week during “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” did so because they have an “allegiance to an untenable theory about the Bible, a theory about how the Bible’s words are connected to divine self-disclosure, a theory that, as I see it, cannot stand up to any serious engagement with the Bible’s actual content and history.” They are, he says, inerrantists.

Really? For the record, while I’m not aware that my position on marriage and homosexuality differs from Dan Cathy’s, be assured, dear reader, that I am not an inerrantist. John Wesley wasn’t an inerrantist. Neither was Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Athanasius, Origen, or St. Paul, for that matter.

This is classic straw-man reasoning. After all, go back just a few words in the very sentence White quotes, and you hit on the qualifying phrase "more often than not." While a universal claim can be refuted by a short list of counterexamples, the corresponding non-universal claim cannot be thus refuted. "All X's are Y's" is refuted by finding an X that isn't a Y. But "Many X's are Y's" is not thus refuted. For White's retort to work, he has to attribute to me a universal claim I didn't make.

But while this is adequate to expose the fallacy, I don't think stopping there is sufficient if one's aim is to use the straw-manning as a springboard for helping to clarify one's position.

So let's step back a little further and put the passage White quotes into its broader context. I begin by claiming that the Chick-fil-A "appreciators"--more precisely, those who stand with Cathy in endorsing the social and legal marginalization of gays and lesbians, as opposed to those who showed up simply to stand against any infringement on Chick-fil-A's right to do business--are guilty of a short-coming in love. But I think the problem lies with their actions more than with their motives: while what they are doing is unloving towards their gay and lesbian neighbors, they don't want to be unloving. They mean well. There is a disconnect between motives and actions.

Of course, this way of putting the issue is premised on the view that the categorical condemnation of homosexuality and the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage really is harmful to gays and lesbians. It wasn't my aim to make the case for that premise in a definitive way (one can only do so much in a blog post)--and so all I did was sketch out my case.

Here's the sketch, put in slightly different terms: Those of us who have really paid close and compassionate attention to the lived experience of gays and lesbians--those of us who have really sought to uncover the fruits of conservative anti-gay teachings--have a very hard time finding those teachings even remotely plausible. In practice, systematically excluding gays and lesbians from access to the bedrock instiution of society, treating their intimate life-partnerships as something less than familial, regarding their love as sin and hence treating their most meaning-bestowing relationships as something that ought to be broken up--all of this damages the lives of gays and lesbians in a holistic way. Hence, all of this is unloving in practice, no matter what the motives.

But it seems to me that many of those who engage in this unloving practice are no less loving in their underlying character and motives than most of the rest of us. So what is the source of the disconnect between heart and action? One answer lies in false beliefs.

So which false beliefs can cause well-meaning people, motivated by love, to endorse practices that bear such bad fruits--often tragic ones--for our gay and lesbian neighbors?

There are, of course, multiple answers. Back in the respective eras of Wesley and Calvin and Luther and Aquinas and Anselm and Augustine and Athanasius and Origen and St. Paul, the answer wouldn't be belief in biblical inerrancy--since, as White rightly points out, inerrancy is a fairly modern notion. But before the modern era, people knew next to nothing about homosexuality. The concept of sexual orientation as we understand it today was essentially unknown. The cultures of these eras lacked the conceptual categories that would have enabled those with a homosexual orientation to make their experience understood in the way that we can understand it today.

And so, in these earlier eras, it is quite likely that the theologians White mentions would have had false beliefs about homosexuality and false beliefs about the effects of church teachings (since those most affected by those teachings lacked the public voice to make their experiences known and understood). If, in relation to sexual minorities, there was a disconnect between their motives and their actions, I'd locate the source, not in a doctrine of inerrancy, but in understandable ignorance.

But the question I was posing wasn't about what caused the disconnect among long-dead theologians. It was about all those decent, ordinary American Christians who showed up on Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day to "appreciate" and facilitate Dan Cathy's financial support of discrimination and social marginalization. What explains the disconnect between their ordinary decency and their committed endorsement of the indecent treatment of fellow human beings?

Again, there are multiple answers. But the modern notion of biblical inerrancy has developed enormous currency among contemporary Christians in the pews, even in mainline churches that do not (at the level of their theology) endorse inerrancy. While I haven't done a sociological study of the matter, I suspect from my personal experience that the opposition to homosexuality among conservative Christians today is most often supported by an appeal to "what the Bible says"--an appeal of the sort that at least implicitly presupposes biblical inerrancy (in the sense that, without inerrancy as a hidden premise, the conclusion simply wouldn't follow).

But this is hardly true of all those who oppose homosexuality and same-sex marriage. White is absolutely right about that (which, again, is why I said "more often than not"). Among Roman Catholics, appeals to various natural law arguments or to Church authority are likely to be invoked. Others offer a range of arguments based on the purported social harms of normalizing homosexuality--which is why I have considered various arguments of this sort on this blog. It's also why I haven't contented myself with critiquing arguments against same-sex marriage, but have sought to make positive arguments in support of it.

And because conservative Protestant theologians from mainline denominations are likely to be conscious of the limitations of proof-texting and more conventional natural law arguments, my first published work on this issue (back in the '90's) took on a holistic biblical and natural law argument offered by a Lutheran theologian, one which tried to read into the Bible a "heterosexual order" to creation and attempted to ground opposition to same-sex relationships in their "violation" of that order.

Perhaps, at some point, I should summarize the argument from that paper (co-authored with John Kronen and published in Faith and Philosophy on this blog. Perhaps I should also devote a post to the various permutations of the natural law argument. There's something to be said for completeness.

But to take up all of these possibilities in the Chick-fil-A blog post would have distracted from its more focused aim--which was to zero in on what I take to be the most influential force underwriting anti-gay discrimination among lay Christians today. And that's why I prefaced my discussion of inerrancy and the way it prevents people from connecting compassionately with their gay and lesbian neighbors by saying that "more often than not" (not "always") the source of the disconnect between motives and actions on this matter can be attributed to an unreflective assumption of inerrancy.

And to be clear, I didn't mean "more often than not" in the history of Christianity. Prior to the modern era, the source of the disconnect was more likely, as already noted, to be invincible ignorance about the nature of homosexuality. Wesley and Luther and Calvin, etc., formed their understandings of sexual ethics without the benefit of being able to appreciate what it is like to be gay. They knew none of the things that can and should inform our thinking today. The question is why so many today don't inform their thinking in the light of this new knowledge. For some it may be misguided allegiance to a traditional teaching that was formed in the midst of profound ignorance. For others it may be something else. But for most Christian conservatives in America today, it seems to be allegiance to "the Word of God."

When I said that "these people aren't biblical scholars," I was referring to most of the conservative Christians lining up to give money to Chick-fil-A last week. Most of them were, I suspect, convinced they were standing up for what the Bible teaches--but not in some nuanced sense of "what the Bible teaches," according to which the teachings of the whole may deviate from and override the teachings of the parts. They weren't there because they had done a study of the Bible as a whole, uncovered the roots of its overarching sexual ethic (perhaps in the light of a careful critical reading of L. William Countryman's Dirt, Greed, and Sex) and taken a side in a controversial theological debate about what the Bible's sexual ethic is (if it has one at all) and how its authority for contemporary Christians should play out in the case of homosexuality.

Perhaps one or two among thousands fit this description. If you're one of them, I'll note here that your arguments should emphatically not be discounted just because they aren't the most prevalent. If they are to be rejected, they should be rejected because they aren't sound. If you are in this camp, you should know that I haven't been convinced yet by the arguments of your peers, and I think your burden of proof is extremely high given the despair and suicidal self-loathing that the views you support sow in too many gay and lesbian hearts. But if you want to share your own substantive positive case for the moral rightness of something that I have observed to cause so much life anguish for my gay and lesbian friends, I'll skeptically consider what you have to say, perhaps in the book on this topic that I've started working on.

But I'll also note here that you aren't typical of those who showed up for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. My post was about the typical conservative Christians who stood in solidarity with the Cathy family and the Chick-fil-A franchise, who stood with Chick-fil-A because of shared values. And what would these average conservative Christians waiting in line, if asked why they believed Cathy was in the right to use Chick-fil-A profits to support discrimination, have said?

I'm pretty convinced from the body of anecdotal evidence available to me that they would have pointed to the fact that Paul calls homosexual acts unnatural and indecent in the first chapter of Romans. Or they would have invoked some other "clobber passage." Or offered a vaguer claim to the effect that "the Bible calls it a sin."

But I will concede that my evidence is anecdotal--and my experience may be colored by the fact that for the last 12 years I've lived in the Bible belt. Suppose the numbers game turns out differently. Suppose it was only 40% who fit the description I was focusing on in my earlier post--that is, well-meaning Christian Chick-fil-A supporters who failed to allow their choices to be shaped by an appreciation of the anguished cries of their gays and lesbian neighbors, and failed because they were trapped behind walls created by an unreflective allegiance to a doctrine of inerrancy.

Then I'd be wrong in my claim that "more often than not" inerrancy shaped their views. But my deeper point wasn't about how many were trapped behind walls of inerrancy. My deeper point was about how inerrancy can trap otherwise decent people behind walls, how it does so with many Christians, and how in those cases we should treat the misleading doctrine as the villain rather than the people who are misled.

But none of this is to say that every opponent of same-sex romantic intimacy is an inerrantist. That is clearly not true. I agree wholeheartedly with Brent White on that point. Where we disagree is on the issue of whether every opponent of same-sex romantic intimacy is mistaken.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On the Occasion of Tragedy: Symbols of the Sikh Faith

Today's news about the mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Milwaukee immediately evoked for me the memories of the Sikh friends I made in India years ago. My heart aches for the victims, for the Sikh community which has been targeted for reasons yet unknown, and for all of us who have to live in a world in which such senseless and unexpected violence takes place.

It occurs to me that few Americans know very much about the Sikh religion. Absurdly, Sikhs are often confused with Muslims--I suspect mainly just because Sikh men wear turbans in public as a matter of religious observance, and some Muslims wear turbans (albeit in a very different style). This is a bit like confusing the Amish with Hasidic Jews because they sometimes wear old-fashioned-looking hats (except that there is a much closer relationship between the Amish and Hasidic Jews than there is between Sikhism and Islam).

It is not my place to give Americans a lesson on the Sikh faith. There are better resources than me. But one of the fears I have, when a tragedy like this strikes in our country, is that we won't experience the tragedy as our own. We'll think of it as someone else's tragedy. Of course, in a sense, for most of us it is: No one we know and love has died. But that didn't stop most of us from taking ownership of the Aurora, CO, tragedy of a couple of weeks ago--in the sense of identifying with the victims and their families, of feeling an ache, of imagining that it could have been us or those we love.

But sometimes it's harder to identify with those we know little or nothing about. And so, for what it's worth, on the occasion of this tragedy I want to share a portion of an essay that originally appeared on this blog back in February 2009. That essay was sparked by the controversial termination of a Sikh IRS agent, fired for refusing to remove her kirpan--one of the symbols of her faith.

The portion of the essay I'm reprinting here has to do with a moment of friendship that I'll never forget--a moment in which I not only learned more about the Sikh religion than I had before, but in which this faith came alive for me in a very personal way.

My teacher was a Sikh my own age, a young man named Raju who I met when I was invited to attend a Sikh service at the Gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship). All of this happened back when I was a college sophomore spending a semester in India with the rest of my family--mostly in the city of Dhanbad, in Bihar, where my father had a Fulbright lectureship at the Indian School of Mines. Here is the passage I want to share:

Raju became my best friend while I was India. He was a frequent visitor at the guest house where we stayed, and I was at his home a number of times (a modest place with two main rooms, a kitchen area, and a larger courtyard where many in the extended family slept). The family ran a small kiosk where you could buy everyday items such as soap and packaged cheese. I saw much of Dhanbad riding on the back of Raju’s light blue scooter, which he was expert at steering through streets crowded with rickshaws and cows, pedestrians and black Ambassador cars.

Somewhere there’s a photo of me wearing a turban wrapped in Sikh style. Raju put it on me after he unraveled it from his own head. This was something he did in order to show me the comb that he wore in his hair as well as the hair itself, a long coil that had never been cut. The unshorn hair and the comb are two of the five articles of faith, or kakars, that "baptized" Sikhs (that is, Sikhs who’ve been through the commitment ceremony of Amrit) are required to maintain on their person at all times. The other three are loose-fitting undergarments, a steel bracelet, and the kirpan.

Each of these items has symbolic significance for Sikhs, and Raju was patient enough to explain each to me while we sat in my little room at the guest house. The unshorn hair, or kesh, represents a commitment to respect God’s creation as God created it—that is, not to tamper with God’s intentions for the world. It also represents a guard against one of the five vices that Sikhs are committed to resisting in their lives: the vice of “ego.” Ego encompasses vanity. Vanity, an excessive interest in one’s own appearance, is really one manifestation of a broader fixation on self. As I understand it, kesh pretty much blocks any impulse you might have to fuss over your hair, and thus reminds the Sikh of the broader obligation to set aside any sort of undue fixation on oneself, and instead to give oneself over to God.

The comb, or kanga, is used to untangle the hair and maintain it, and as such is a reminder not only to maintain cleanliness but more broadly to preserve the hygiene and health of the body one has been given—that is, to take care of what God has given you. Also, as one combs through the length of one’s hair (usually twice a day) dead hairs fall away. This can serve as a reminder that this mortal life is a passing thing, and so can help to guard against another of the five vices: a false attachment to the impermanent things of this world.

The undergarments, or kacchera, are a symbol of modesty, but more broadly of the commitment to resist unseemly desires, especially the vice of lust, and to exhibit self-control.

The steel bracelet, or kara, is the symbolic item that the Sikh is most likely to see most often through the day. Worn on the right wrist, it is a sign of the unbreakable bond between oneself and God, and among one another, and to the Guru (which today is actually a sacred text--a collection of hymns and teachings called the Guru Granth Sahib, since the tenth and last human Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, declared that it should be his successor). The kara also serves as a visible reminder that one’s hands should be put to good purpose. Since one steals with one’s hand, it is a broad symbol to resist the vice of greed.

And finally, there’s the kirpan, the ceremonial sword that’s usually today little more than a blunted knife kept in a sheath. A typical pair of scissors would be a more dangerous weapon than your typical kirpan. It symbolizes the Sikh’s commitment to stand up for justice, to defend the weak, and more metaphorically to struggle for what is right and good and to resist vice. The kirpan is never to be drawn in anger, and is in fact intended to symbolize the need to resist the vice of anger. We are, after all, dangerous when we’re angry. The blade stays in the sheath just as our anger stays under control. If the kirpan is drawn at all, it is in defense of oneself or another (although I doubt the symbolic kirpan would be much help in either case).

These are the five symbols of faith that Raju showed to me. I don’t remember the exact words that he used to describe them. My own descriptions above draw not only on what Raju told me that first time, but also on my own reading about Sikhism in the decades since. As such, whatever misrepresentation of Sikhism my descriptions express are my own—an attempt by a non-Sikh to explain the significance of these holy symbols.

As Raju led me through the five kakars, what I remember more clearly than his words was the reverence in his tone. He became very solemn as he spoke of them, and the earnest expression in his eyes was a testament to how deeply meaningful they were. They were an integral part of his identity, symbolic tokens of what he aspired to be, of his connection to a broader community and to God. Wearing them was not just an act of obedience, a response to the mandate of Guru Gobind Singh who called upon all baptized Sikhs to wear each article of faith. For Raju, wearing them was a matter of honor and a gesture of daily devotion.

There is little in my life that I can compare the five kakars to. The closest I can come is the Advent wreath, with its four candles for each Sunday in Advent (Norwegian Advents wreaths have only the four; although the more common Advent wreath has five). Each candle symbolically represents an important Christian virtue (peace, hope, love, joy), and it has always meant a lot to me to take time every Sunday in Advent to light the candles, and to recite the Norwegian poem that names each of the virtues in turn (in that poem, “lengsel” or yearning takes the place of love, but I have always understood it to refer to the yearning of the soul for God, the questing love that reaches out to the God who is love).

That weekly Advent ritual may be the most deeply religious and personally affecting ritual I participate in. It moves me. The act of lighting each candle, one more every week, and speaking the words of the poem (one additional verse every week), puts me in touch with my best self, that part of me that stands in an existential relation with God.

But that ritual and its symbolism are isolated to one month every year. It isn’t a daily ritual. The symbols are not ever-present, every day of one’s life, on one’s very person. I can only imagine the kind of power such symbolism has, the power to penetrate one’s deepest sense of who one is.

I saw it, however fleetingly, in Raju’s eyes as he showed me each symbol in turn, and explained to me what it meant. And then, in typical Raju fashion, he turned to me, saw his unraveled turban—and then laughed as he began wrapping it around my head. And then we went in to show my parents, who ran off to get the camera.