Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Who Is Responsible For Words, Over Actions?

When it comes to criticizing Islamic beliefs and trying to pin down how much blame to put on the words of the Qu'ran that terrorists claim to be killing in the name of, I often find myself wavering between different viewpoints. While I very much disagree with Sam Harris and what is, in my opinion, his rather pigheaded way to approach the issue, I'm also not on the wishy-washy liberal "religion of peace" apologetics that you often hear on the other side. I definitely agree that the reasons behind terrorism are complex, multifactorial and not as simple as just pointing to a holy book and saying there! Problem solved.

The reason I bring this up is because I constantly think about this issue as it is brought up. The most recent episode of the Non-Prophets did just that when discussing the reasoning behind the Chapel Hill shooting, where an atheist shot and killed three Muslim neighbors of his, although whether "in the name of atheism" or not still remains to be determined. The hosts bring up the fact that there is no atheist dogma, and thus there is nothing inherently "in" atheism which permits, condones or encourages violent actions against others, unlike most monotheistic religious texts. This I totally agree with, but then the discussion went one step further. Russell talked about how he went to a seminar on Islam in Austin, and how while he thought their beliefs were weird, he did not feel like it was in any way reasonable to hold them responsible for the Charlie Hebdo shootings, any more than it is to hold atheists responsible for the recent shooting in North Carolina. To this Jeff hesitated, saying he didn't feel the same way, because of what was said before: Muslims have a holy book which contains violence, and atheists don't.

While he did not say it in so many words, he sort of implied a shared responsibility of Muslims towards what is written in their holy texts, if not for the individual actions of the religious followers themselves. While it is obviously not any of the Muslims alive today who are responsible for writing them, a question could be raised as to how much responsibility you have for what is written in the text that you claim to believe is the word of god.

This idea that Muslims are somewhat responsible for what their religion says is something that is also very prevalent in the right wing. This huffing and puffing about every single Muslim individual and group in American having to openly and publicly denounce every single terrorist act committed anywhere in the world before they are allowed to speak a single word in public (which many of them do, despite the fact that, in my opinion, its not their responsibility) is something seen often on Fox and the like. This got me thinking, at what point are you responsible for the words of others? They claim to believe that this text is the word of god, that is true, but there is no picking and choosing with holy books. You have to either take the whole thing or nothing. The right wing would never take responsibility for every word of the Bible (I doubt many of them believe that cotton-polyester blends are an abomination), and yet they do place a good deal of responsibility of what is written in the Qu'ran at the feet of Muslims. My question is, how fair is it to claim that someone who has not written a text has responsibility for what it says and, by extension, what others do with those words?

And, for consistency's sake, how fair is it to lay responsibility down at the feet of a person who actually did write the words in question?

Ladies and Gents, remember Bill O'Reilly?

So Bill was famously in the middle of a little controversy (and now finds himself in the middle of a larger one, but one thing at a time) involving his coverage of an abortion provider named Dr. George Tiller. O'Reilly repeatedly referred to Dr. Tiller as "Tiller the Baby Killer", along with dehumanizing him in many different ways. Once Dr. Tiller was murdered O'Reilly, never one to back down, defended his use of the term and his campaign against this man.

I despise Bill O'Reilly, so any opinion of mine on his share of the responsibility for Dr. Tiller's murder would be tainted. However, what I am asking for is consistency. 

If you think that someone who didn't write the words in their text, but simply believes in its holiness, should share some responsibility for others' actions in the name of that text, then you definitely, definitely have to think that O'Reilly, who actually composed these words, shares responsibility for what was done to Dr. Tiller. 

By the way: I in no way am comparing Jeff from the Non Prophets to Republicans, or in any way suggesting that he believes that Muslims share responsibility for the actions of terrorists. He was simply the spark that ignited this train of thought.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tough Questions: On Shaming Your Kids

A couple weeks back, a discussion came up on TYT that got me all conflicted, as it sometimes does. I've realized that when you agree with some people 95% of the time, that only makes the 5% you disagree on feel more jarring. This case had to do with parenting, and whether or not it is a viable parenting strategy to shame your kids.

Jimmy Dore and Karamo Brown - a new occasional co-host on TYT, disagree quite strongly on whether or not subjecting your child to public humiliation is a good parenting strategy. Viscerally, I disagreed with Karamo Brown, but I wasn't quite sure why. There were other instances of publicly humiliating kids that had been covered by TYT which I did agree was a good strategy, despite the fact that Ana often comes out 100% against it. In this case, however, I found myself siding with Jimmy Dore, although it took a while for me to wrap my head around why that was.

It all clicked when I was watching an old episode of the Atheist Experience. Discipline and parenting had come up, and Matt Dillahunty had a very interesting perspective on the different ways to parent. Paraphrasing, he came up with two scenarios involving kids who misbehave in a restaurant. In one scenario, you tell the child that if they misbehave they will be grounded, if they behave they get an ice cream. In the other scenario, you teach the child why it is rude to misbehave in a restaurant, you teach them to empathize with the other patrons, asking them how would you feel if someone was disrupting your favorite pastime? In the short run you probably get the same result: a child which behaves in the restaurant. However, in the long run, the child who understands the reasons behind their behavior are more likely to be empathetic, and are less likely to misbehave if, for instance, the person doling out the punishments or rewards is not present the next time they go out. It is parenting through instruction, rather than through fear, which I have always been in favor of. Now of course this is a simplistic example necessary to illustrate the point, and all parenting is a combination of instruction and punishment/reward, but I have always found myself in favor of erring on the side of instruction. I have also found myself using this example to illustrate why hitting your kids is not an effective strategy, just replace "grounded" with "smack in the face" or, as per this video, "old man haircut".

Another layer to it is that I have noticed, in my working with children (despite not having any of my own as of now), that (especially when they are quite young) the more delayed the consequence, the less likely it's going to work. When they're getting picked on in school and bullied and laughed at they're not going to remember that it was because they talked back to their mother or they misbehaved in a restaurant, they're going to know that they're feeling miserable right now and their parents put them there. That might inspire fear of crossing their parents (and hey, some parents think that's a good thing for some reason), or it might harbor resentment for them, but it is often not an effective way for them to connect their current misery as a consequence of a previous transgression.

So give all of this, why was I conflicted at all? It seems as though I pretty much come out against publicly shaming your kids. Why the need to ponder it?

Well, because there have been some cases of public shaming of children when I came out firmly on the side of the parents. However, after going through the previous scenario I understood why.

All of the times I have favored shaming kids, the kids were 1. teenagers, and 2. bullies.

I realized that the reason I felt it was good to shame these kids, was because the shaming was the lesson in empathy. They were kids who routinely laughed at their peers, put them down online or bullied others in one way or another. Knowing what it feels like to be the target of that kind of abuse is something that can teach them to empathize with others.

It wasn't a delayed punishment meant to create misery for a previous transgression, it was the learning experience.

To be fair to Karamo Brown, he did couch his example of shaming his own child in a lot of sitting down, explaining and teaching language, which I am sure contributed to my feeling conflicted, and which is why I didn't really disagree with him as strongly as I might have in a different context. It wasn't until some time later, when he came on TYT again and made some very sex-negative comments, to the effect of 'well, if you have sex in a deserted field, you deserve to be filmed by a pervy cop! WHAT IF MY KIDS HAD SEEN YOU?!' 

 that's when I realized I'm really going to be disagreeing with this guy. It's very shallow, but when I find someone as breathtakingly attractive as Karamo Brown (calm down every one, I know he's gay, doesn't make him any less of a beautiful beautiful man) the vehemently disagreeing part always comes as a bit more of a disappointment.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

When the Slippery Slope Argument Has Merit

When you find yourself debating with someone that fundamentally disagrees with your reasoning, there are often many arguments one can use that will get you a lot of pushback. When it comes to logical fallacies this pushback is very well deserved, they are in fact fallacies and thus should not be used to bolster any claim one has. Barring those, however, one argument that I noticed which gets a disproportionate amount of heat is the "slippery slope" argument, to the point in which it too is often labelled a fallacy.

The slippery slope argument is a very simple one which I am sure we have all heard at some point. If we allow for gay marriage what's next?! Marriage between a child and a man?! Marriage between a horse and a woman?! It is MADNESS! It is a slippery slope which should not be ventured down to begin with! While I have chosen a very pedantic example which might lead you to consider it a fallacy, there is more nuance to the argument than that.

In online discussions I have noticed that there are two very large groups of people: the fans of the slippery slope, who will pull it out at any time if for a note of caution than for a real prediction of the future, and those who hate the slippery slope, who think that by simply labeling something as a slippery slope automatically invalidates the other person's objection to whatever topic is in discussion. While I tend to err on the side of not using the slippery slope argument, I do not think that it is entirely without merit.

In many cases, the argument is completely bogus. How does, for example, allowing two consenting adults of unspecified gender to enter into a contractual agreement in any way open the gate to a contract between an adult and someone, or something, which is unable to consent? It is absolutely ridiculous. There are also other, more insidious uses of the argument as well. For instance, there is the very popular opposition to changing the language of what it means to consent from "not saying no" to "agreeing (verbally or non-verbally) to engage in various acts, which can be withdrawn at any time". Many people (I'm looking at you too, Cenk) love to make sure that everyone knows that they would be totally against it if it somehow devolved into having to sign a legally binding contract, signed and witnessed, every time you want to touch a boob or make out. It is ludicrous, it is hyperbolic, and mentioning that you are against such an inflated and unrealistic potential scenario down the line every time consent and rape comes up in the discussion detracts from the point that rape culture is a serious societal problem. All of these cases lead me to want to reject the slippery slope argument whole-cloth as a logical fallacy, but certain events have made me hesitant to do so.
The slippery slope argument does hold merit under some circumstances, and that is when we talk about legal precedent. When a legal ruling is made, which does in fact open the door to taking things further to an absurd end, I feel that criticizing such a ruling on the grounds that it could lead to a slippery slope is fully justified.
Take, for example, the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision in favor of allowing the Hobby Lobby corporation to not cover certain contraceptives in their health insurance plan for their employees, based on the sincerely held religious belief on the part of its owners that these contraceptives are abortifacients. 

Never mind the fact that their religious belief is in conflict with reality, as there is no scientific evidence that, for example, Plan B blocks implantation, but rather prevents ovulation, therefore the fertilization of the egg never occurs.

Never mind the fact that Hobby Lobby's retirement plan holds 73 million dollars in mutual funds with investment companies which produce actual abortifacients, a detail that did not lead the Supreme Court to find that this was not, therefore a "sincerely held" religious belief of theirs.

Nope. This ruling sets a legal precedent allowing for corporations to subvert US law, so long as such a law comes in conflict with its owner's sincerely held religious belief, regardless of whether or not the belief fits in with reality. Regardless of whether or not the sincerity of their claimed belief could be legittimately called into question given an inherent hypocrisy in the corporation's finances. All you have to do is claim it, and the language of this ruling would allow it.

To point out this is a slippery slope is not a fallacy, it's a fact.

Could a Christian Scientist who employs thousands of people deny them health coverage other than faith healing, because their sincerely held religious belief is that faith healing is the only thing that works, and that any other form of medicine is sinful?

Could an old school Chinese Buddhist only cover acupuncture and alternative herbal Chinese medicine, on the sincerely held religious belief that modern medicine is harmful and wrong?

If there is any language in this ruling that would prevent other such nonsensical religious beliefs from infringing on the rights of the employees the way that Hobby Lobby was allowed to do, please feel free to correct me.

Just because wingnut anti-choicers have been allowed to dominate the airwaves and normalize their opinions on contraception, that doesn't mean that this ruling applies only to them. The law is designed to be blind to popularity, blind to public opinion. The law allows any behaviour that fits within the letter of the law, not based on how many people subscribe to that belief. If someone, a member of an obscure religion from another country, came to the US and started a business, which became a corporation, and then it turned out that this person's sincerely held religious beliefs considered any kind of preventative health care (colonoscopies, breast cancer screenings, pap tests, mole checks, etc) was a sin against their god, this law would permit them to deny that coverage to their employees.

And this, my friends, is a true slippery slope, and it is called legal precedent.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How About A Belated New Year's Resolution?

This Xmas was a bit of a mess in my family. Various health problems in the family caused us to split up this year and fly to different parts of the globe to see family members in need. The relatively last minute and spontaneous nature of these trips, at a particularly high traffic time no less, caused us to spend quite a bit of money on airfare. My ticket, having to travel the farthest and the closest time around Xmas due to my job, came to a whopping 1,200 euro, nothing to sneeze at. However I am fortunate in that I have a good stable job now, so it was a cost that I could absorb without too much gritting of teeth. However, one of my family members surprised me and covered the cost, despite my protests. I realized: I am finally in a place in my life where I can absorb this cost without feeling it too strongly. So, how about paying it forward?

I've decided my belated new year's resolution will be this: donate 100 euro per month to various charities. They need it more than I do right now.

For January? It has got to be the Atheist Community of Austin. They have put out so much excellent content, for free, that has been keeping me company through my late nights pipetting and staring down a microscope.

And for February? I'll have to think about it and let you know ;)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Carnival Madness!

So today is officially the last day of Carnival, and I got to experience much of it here in one of the Carnival Capitals of Europe: Cologne.

When I first arrived here it became apparent that the Germans are not a particularly passionate people, especially from the Italian perspective, or a rowdy people, especially from the Irish perspective. Despite the fact that they love their beer, they are generally quite well behaved and contained in their emotions. However, I was told that there are two places at two times of year which represent the epitome of all of the repressed madness that the Germans have to offer: Munich at Oktoberfest, and Cologne at Carnival. Of course I had to jump all over that one, I wanted to see the ultimate in craziness that these Germans were capable of. I wasn't expecting to be shocked of course, after having lived in Dublin for five years, but I was still very curious.

So yesterday was the big Carnival celebration and parade in Cologne, where apparently everyone dresses up, fights over the candy thrown to the crowds and start drinking as soon as the parade begins, at 10 AM. Of course I had to laugh at this as typically German: they are obsessed with their Carnival, but celebrate it properly a day early, because God forbid they miss an extra day's work! Well anyway, these couple of videos give an idea of what it is like.


 Overall? I would rate it a 4/10 on the crazy scale. Definitely not the most mental celebration I have ever seen by a long shot, but good fun and a good day out for sure!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hang On, What Was That?

First The Atheist Experience, then The Non-Prophets, and now the unfortunately defunct Godless Bitches are keeping me company as I spend 12 hours of my day slaving away in a lab. I'm properly tearing it up with the Atheist Community of Austin these days! I'm definitely donating to them for all of the entertainment they have provided.
Well anyway, the Godless Bitches Podcast shows began with snippits of various different songs. I don't usually pay much attention to songs I don't recognize, though I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that one of the songs was a rap song. Suddenly I started picking up the words... what was that? A rapper calling himself a feminist? Rapping about women's rights? Those are few and far between!
I immediately went online to try to find the name of the song and artist. Typing in various combinations of the lyrics I finally managed to track it down. Unfortunately it has been removed from YouTube, but once I managed to figure out the names of the rappers I found the song on their website. May I present:

"Personhood" by Johnny Hoax and Uncle Bungus

The guy doing the second verse isn't quite as good as the first one, but that isn't really the point of this story. The extremely ironic thing is that the only way I managed to find this site was through a blogpost of an anti-choice writer, defining her self an "abolitionist" who decided to dedicate an entire post to quoting bits of the song and bitching about it.
I was going to return the favor and quote bits of the post so that we could all have a good laugh about it, but it was such a mess of garbled idiocy that it was just too much effort and too much pain from the constant facepalming to unpack it all. Well, maybe just one little quote, so you get the idea:
"Why not just complain that no one should tell anyone else what they can do with any part of their body?
I'll tell you why - this would mean that proscribing rape and the Holocaust and might-makes-right "morality" is impossible."
If you think you have the stomach for it, you can find the whole post here.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Is Secular Humanism Only Compatible With Socialism?

I've been on a bit of a The Atheist Experience binge lately during my hours of pipetting and sitting in front of the microscope, and so I came across one particular episode in which an interesting question came up, and one that I do not think was answered or discussed in sufficient detail. The caller (watch from 38:00 of the video below for full context) basically floated the idea that an atheistic morality is only compatible with socialism as an economic structure, because it is centered around humans having inherent value, rather than capitalism, which promotes competition and stepping over your fellow man.
While the discussion travelled towards the limits of how much you can morally expect from an individual to put the needs of others over their own, the caller was steering the conversation towards economic policy, which forced Russell (much to his chagrin) even defend right-wing capitalism a little bit.

What they all failed to acknowledge is that most successful societies are based on an amalgamation of capitalism and socialism. While I agree that a pure cut-throat capitalistic society is not the best strategy, especially from a moral standpoint (what would that even look like? Pure libertarianism? More on that later) pure, unadulterated socialism doesn't work either.

Don't get me wrong, there are good reasons for socialism. The fundamental principle is to base a society on meritocracy, where every person is born equal and is not inherently superior by sole fortune of the circumstances in which they were born. Of course this is also why so many socialist countries have needed to rely on propaganda and censorship in order to convince their people that those in power actually deserve their leadership position (for an extreme example, see all of the ridiculous stories that come out of North Korea to justify the awesomeness of their leaders), but for the sake of argument lets forget about regimes which pervert the fundamental principles of their purported economic structure. Even disregarding the tendency of purely socialist states to devolve into dictatorships, a purely socialist economic structure does not take into account the fact that human beings respond to reward for their efforts.

My father tells an amusing story about when he was in Prague at the very end of the communist era. He had to travel a lot for work, and in this case he was in Prague for the first time with some colleagues which had traveled there before. They arrived late and hungry, and so they all went out in search of a restaurant where they could have dinner. When they knocked on the door of the first one they could find, the manager answered and informed them that the restaurant was completely full. While my father accepted this and turned to leave, his more experienced colleague protested and barged into the restaurant, which turned out to be completely empty. This man then explained to my father that this lie was commonly told because, since the people who ran the restaurant earned the same (and rather meager) wage regardless of the number of clients they served, they clearly preferred showing up to work and doing as little as possible. If your wages at the end of the day were the same regardless of the success of the restaurant, why bother busting your butt to serve as many people as well as possible?

Of course I also do not think that the other extreme is fair either, like servers in the States which have to basically prostitute themselves for tips because their base wage doesn't even come close to the minimum wage, let alone a living one. A healthy balance, in which people are rewarded for their hard work but at the same time do not have to worry about making ends meet at the month, is the most successful model that we have yet come across.

In my opinion, it is possible to have a healthy balance of the capitalist reward structure and basic socialist principles and safety nets. In fact, the most successful societies available today have a mixture of these two principles. Even if we are to disregard the "what makes for a successful society" argument and focus exclusively on morality, how does providing monetary rewards for hard work infringe on the morality of caring for your neighbor? How does allowing people to earn small luxuries, like a nice vacation or a day at the spa, after they have earned it with their efforts bring people to care less about their fellow man? While I absolutely concede that the US has struck the balance too far in favor of capitalism, I do not think that a purely socialist structure is the only one that is compatible with a secular morality. I think there is room for a bit of both within our moral principles.