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When to Tolerate Intolerance

April 5th, 2014 6 comments

If someone in a position of authority makes public statements of intolerance towards a class of people, should that person be forced to step down? Most people would say yes, as they are demonstrating an outward intolerance which could easily translate into discrimination against that class of people.

But what if the same person made a contribution to a cause associated with intolerance? Is that the same thing? Arguably so; it may be a political contribution, but it is effectively an active statement of support.

However, should a person be barred from career advancement, or from holding any position of authority, because of their beliefs?

The answer to that is clearly “no.”

Somewhere in there is a line that is crossed, and it’s not all that easy to identify. If the authority holds public office, there is a somewhat higher standard, as there would be if that authority makes decisions that can easily affect people of the class they disapprove of. Public statements are willful, outward expressions, signaling an intent to more than just hold a personal belief.

However, we are also talking about taking actions which could, albeit in a limited fashion, deprive someone of a specific career. In stating any public opinion on this, I believe it is important to carefully specify how certain lines are being crossed and exactly where they are.

Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich was promoted to the position of CEO in the organization. Eich, however, had made a $1,000 donation in 2008 to support California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriages. As far as I can determine, that’s all that there is; he has made no other public statements on any such issue, nor has he apparently taken any other actions which might impact anyone.

Eich had served for two years as the chief technology officer for Mozilla, with the donation known. However, when he was made CEO, that apparently was too much for some. Half of the foundation’s board members quit and a large number of employees and local citizens expressed their outrage.

As a result, Eich stepped down as CEO, arguably forced out by those unhappy with his personal beliefs.

The question is, is that justifiable?

It could be argued that as CEO, Eich would be in a position to make specific decisions that significantly effect people in the LGBT community, at the very least those who work for his company. As an official in a private organization, however, can he be punished for something that is simply more likely? A public official must live up to a higher standard, must avoid even the appearance of discrimination. Does the same standard apply to the head of a private organization? Can someone be denied a position because of what they may do? I think not.

Eich could be in a position to steer the company towards certain policies or toward supporting certain movements. The question is, should he be judged based on what he actually does, or what he could potentially do? Again, I think a person in such a position is only accountable for what they actually do.

Also, as the CEO, he represents that organization, is the public face of it, and therefore whatever beliefs he has also reflect on the organization. This is perhaps the strongest argument for forcing Eich to step down, as such representations can seriously affect the organization, fair or not.

Personally, I am loathe to participate in anything like this, which, frankly, smacks of persecution. No one should be discriminated against because of their beliefs.

I think a key factor, however, lies in the fact that this was not simply a belief that Eich held, but rather a belief he took action on.

His donation would have publicly stripped an entire community of a valued civil right. This was not just a private belief: Eich was taking action to force this belief on others. This goes well beyond Eich simply believing something but having tolerance otherwise. It showed that he would willfully and actively affect the lives of others based on his belief.

If a person, for example, believes that Christians are somehow harmful, this person should not be discriminated against because of that belief. If that same person is in a leadership role, then perhaps they should be carefully watched to see if they take action on the belief. However, if they try to get a law passed which, say, bans Christians from holding public office, that is a completely different matter.

Of course, this gets into a sticky area: what specific political causes could trigger such a response? Clearly, just voting for a certain political party is absolutely unjustifiable as a cause for denying anyone a position. No, this is about supporting a specific cause.

But is this just about people supporting causes we don’t like? The answer is just as clearly no—if Eich had, for example, contributed to a campaign to privatize social security, that would not create anything near the same furor. One could argue that such a campaign could adversely affect large numbers of people—though pretty much any political policy could do that.

There is a significant difference between supporting policies which are based upon beliefs regarding how society and its resources should be run, and supporting policies which legislate discrimination against specific groups defined by innate characteristics.

The line being crossed is, in fact, specific: we’re talking about a policy that discriminates against a class of people. We’re talking about someone in a position of authority, someone who acts as a representative, who took willful steps in that act of discrimination. That it was a political act of discrimination rather than a private act is a distinction without a difference.

Then there is the matter of which position is being denied. It is not as if Eich is being denied any job; he was not pushed out of his relatively high-profile CTO position despite his contribution being known. In this case, he was denied a leadership position—one which reflected on the company’s image, one which essentially said that everyone in the organization had or would have confidence in his judgments—something clearly contrary to fact.

When I first saw this story, my immediate reaction was against the call to remove Eich; I saw it as many now do, as persecution based upon beliefs. However, as I consider the specifics—in particular, the fact that Eich took positive action to discriminate, and that he would be in a leadership position with implications well beyond any specific actions he takes in that position—I changed my mind.

I probably would still not personally call for his ouster. However, I would not judge any such call as unjustifiable.

Categories: Corporate World, Social Issues Tags:

It’s Not About What Others Do

March 17th, 2014 4 comments

Fred Phelps is reported to be near death in a health care facility.

When he dies, no one should picket his funeral. Wrong is wrong.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

No, Outlawing It Isn’t Worse

October 19th, 2013 Comments off

At TPM, Cathy Reisenwitz made an argument that laws against revenge porn are worse than the problem itself. She begins with a disturbing hint that the law may be like marijuana laws that put people in prison:

The state of California can now add people who post naked photos of their former partners to its criminally overcrowded prisons if they do so without permission and with the intent to cause emotional distress or humiliation.

It seems to me that this comment is wholly unnecessary. If the prisons are overcrowded, we should not put people there who have committed awful crimes? And yes, revenge porn is that sort of crime. Not nearly as bad as rape, but definitely in the same category. I am perfectly OK sending such people to jail.

She then gapes in puzzlement that the law would do more:

Proposed legislation in New York would actually widen to the ban to include photos victims take of themselves.

Yes, that’s right. Just because someone took a selfie does not make it any better when the jilted boyfriend publishes it on the Internet. Why should it?

But that’s not Reisenwitz’s main objection.

While well-intentioned, this kind of legislation is over-broad, poses serious free-speech threats and may not even be necessary going forward.

The first thing it’s important to keep in mind is that revenge porn laws criminalize speech.

Huhwhat?

As the ACLU has discussed, such laws can be used to censor photos with political importance. As Jess Rem pointed out for Reason magazine, people such as Jeff Hermes, Director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard, share this concern about the law. Hermes has stated that revenge porn laws could have kept former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D) nude selfies legally suppressed.

Uh yeah, no. Aside from the less significant but still relevant points that (1) it is arguable that politicians’ personal sexual peccadilloes are really newsworthy, and (2) relevant parts of the photos can be blacked out or pixellated in the case that context is somehow deemed necessary, there are two reasons why this is not an issue.

First, it is not necessary to show the image in order to report on the story. Even if a story about a politician sexting someone is not gratuitous in and of itself, the photos certainly are. I would not deem it a great threat to free speech if the media were limited to only telling us about Weiner’s selfies rather than showing us the images.

And second, no journalist would ever be prosecuted for revenge porn that did not specifically involve them. To make the person who released them liable is not something that affects freedom of the press, any more than outlawing the release of classified documents did in cases like Edward Snowden’s.

Not to mention that these laws often include language that specifies the offender must have “intent to cause emotional distress or humiliation.” If someone releases photos of a politician in a state of undress, it could be for the purpose of revenge—but the claim could very easily be made that it was for the purpose of informing the public, thus making even the person releasing the images safe from prosecution.

In fact, the laws may not be strong enough. People wishing to release these images will probably find loopholes, like having a third party post the images on the Internet. If sharing the photos with a private third party is not illegal, and if the third party has no cause for humiliating the victim, then probably no case could be made.

Reisenwitz suggests, however, that there is enough legal protection without the new laws:

Civil lawsuits have always been available to victims. Late last year a Texas judge ordered an ‘indefinite’ lock on revenge porn site PinkMeth.com as Shelby Conklin sought “punitive damages of more than $1 million for intrusion on seclusion, public disclosure of private facts, appropriation of her name and likeness and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The case was eventually settled, and the offenders paid restitution instead of serving time in jail. This is just one example of the many successful lawsuits by victims of revenge porn.

Before the law, there were already at least seven different kinds of laws revenge porn could have violated, depending on the circumstances. They include but are not limited to laws dealing with extortion and blackmail, child pornography, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, voyeurism, intent and violation of the Consumer Protection Act.

The first example Reisenwitz cites is clearly inapplicable. It was against the revenge porn site, not the person releasing the images. You don’t even need revenge porn sites to release such photos, and sites not intended for such photos could claim they had no idea of the photos’ origins. Also, many of the charges dealt with commercial distribution, something that would not apply to an individual posting to a porn forum. Not to mention that many such sites will not be within the courts’ jurisdictions, or that any victim making such a case will become a huge target for similar sites and their supporters.

The other laws? Extortion and blackmail laws would only apply if the jilted party made such threats, which is probably very rare. Child pornography would apply only in limited cases. I’m not a lawyer, but I would think citing invasion of privacy is pretty weak—people are not penalized for spreading personal information about exes, and the fact that the photos were consensual probably negates this as a possible legal avenue. Copyright infringement could apply to selfies, but not to images taken by the perpetrator—and it would be pretty difficult to assess financial damage if you had no intent to sell the images yourself, and the perpetrator did not profit themselves. Voyeurism is laughable in this context. As for the Consumer Protection Act, it relates to commercial profit, again not applicable to the individuals.

It’s pretty clear that these laws are insufficient. Mitchell Matorin has a much more detailed rundown.

No, the law is not worse than the crime. Not in the least. And frankly, laws against privacy infringement are far, far too weak in this country. As with all forms of intellectual property and information in general, we are in a new age, and the laws are too far behind. These new laws are not inappropriate, and in fact, we need a lot more regulating how information is collected, disseminated, and bartered.

Balking at making revenge porn illegal is, if anything, a frightening step in the wrong direction.

Categories: Social Issues, Technology Tags:

Oblivious to Your Surroundings

October 10th, 2013 Comments off

A terrible story out of San Francisco:

The man drew the gun several times on the crowded San Francisco commuter train, with surveillance video showing him pointing it across the aisle without anyone noticing and then putting it back against his side, according to authorities.

The other passengers were so absorbed in their phones and tablets they didn’t notice the gunman until he randomly shot and killed a university student, authorities said. …

“These weren’t concealed movements — the gun is very clear,” District Attorney George Gascon said. “These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They’re just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They’re completely oblivious of their surroundings.”

In a case such as this, of course it seems horrifying that a gunman who would eventually shoot someone would go unnoticed (although how the situation would have been improved if anyone had noticed is not exactly made clear). However, there is also a clear judgment being made here: that it is a bad thing, perhaps irresponsible, negligent, or asocial, to be engrossed in a technological device in a public place.

This is one of those time I have to roll my eyes and sigh out loud.

The context here is riding a train for long periods of time, something I do on a daily basis. Without some kind of diversion, you are just sitting there looking at nothing. 99.9% of the time, nothing is happening. People are just sitting and standing. This is not a social situation. No one is interacting—nor do people want it to be that way; you’re mostly surrounded by strangers, and people get annoyed when there is too much active talking. As a result, you mostly get people being there, silent, like they would be in an elevator. However, in an elevator, you’re just there for a minute, not an hour.

What are you supposed to do, remain quietly observant and vigilant in case someone brandishes a gun?

The clear implication is not only were people “oblivious” to their surroundings, they were pathetically or irresponsibly detached because they were engrossed in electronic devices.

This has become somewhat of a popular complaint for some time now. It stems from the idea that if people engage in some new portable personal entertainment, in particular of an electronic nature, while in public, it is assumed to be impolite, like you are shutting yourself off from others.

I have never respected that complaint. It’s as if the one complaining expects everyone else in public to pay attention to them. Why?

Sure, if someone keeps bumping into other people or causes some kind of damage, that would be different. But that’s regarding something that occupies your visual attention while moving or operating a vehicle. That’s a legitimate concern, and I fully agree with laws about texting while driving. Or if there is a social event where a person attending is supposed to be paying attention to others—a party, a meeting, even just a conversation—then yes, it’s asocial to instead be absorbed in something else.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Train passengers are not driving the vehicle. Someone sitting alone in public, in a park, at a coffee shop, at a bus stop—these people are not expected to be engaged with anyone else.

So, how is it asocial or in any way wrong for these people to occupy themselves?

But that’s not the only point here—it’s not just occupying yourself, it’s doing it with some new device. Remember complaints some time back when Walkmans first came out? Same thing now. It’s the same scorn for technology that even still generates fear of crime on the Internet when the same crimes could just as easily happen in any other context.

Consider how different the reaction would be if people on the train with the gunman were reading books or engaged in conversation with someone they were traveling with. Would there be the same level of disdain, the same feeling of contempt? Almost certainly not. There would be more of a sense of shared horror, a feeling of sympathy rather than condescension. Like nobody in a movie theater noticing someone in the back row brandishing an Uzi, or no one in a library noticing the someone walking by carrying a handgun. It would be considered more proper.

But entertain yourself in public? With an electronic device? Of course not. You should be happy to ride a train for long periods of time with nothing to do. Jerk.

Categories: Social Issues, Technology Tags:

My Right to Swing My AR-15

September 14th, 2013 1 comment

Every once in a while you read about a story like this one, from Appleton, Wisconsin:

Police detained two men openly carrying AR-15 rifles near Saturday’s farmers market, setting off a debate this week about response at the highly attended event.

It appears that two local citizens, Charles A. Branstrom and Ross A. Bauman, decided to exercise their constitutional rights by going to a peaceful public gathering armed with weapons designed to kill large numbers of people. Obviously, it was a stunt designed to flaunt gun-toting rights, with someone ready to video the whole thing.

Police told Branstrom and Bauman “that walking into a farmer’s market filled with a couple thousand individuals would be a recipe for disaster.”

Branstrom and Bauman maintained that they had the right to do so, the report says.

They have the right to provoke public fear and disruption. Interesting. I wonder what the revolutionary Minuteman fighters would have thought about heavily-armed people needlessly marching about the town square. Something tells me they would have had a better sense of propriety and responsibility regarding a solemn duty.

One can assume that Branstrom and Bauman point was, “We have a Second Amendment right to ‘bear’ arms, and that means we can carry our AR-15s wherever we damn please.” Gun advocacy groups call such stunts “educational,” claiming that people will get used to such things.

However, despite the viewpoints of people such as these, most Americans—including, and perhaps especially those who own guns themselves—do not like the idea of the streets being populated with people wielding military assault rifles. One can assume that the open-air violent crime rate in Appleton, Wisconsin is not in fact an actual threat, and even if it were, both police and local citizens would not feel more comfortable with random citizens eager to let go with their AR-15s in public taking it upon themselves to open fire on streets where their children walk.

Branstrom and Bauman acted ignorant of such attitudes, stating:

“I guess some people don’t like guns.”

They then claimed that the purpose for carrying the guns was “self-defense.” Really? They expected to get shot at at a suburban farmer’s market event? Or perhaps they thought it possible they might empty a few dozen rounds into a pickpocket?

Bullshit. There was no threat to them, and therefore no reasonable cause to carry the weapons. The reverse, in fact, is true: they were the threat. With no reasonable peaceful use for such weapons, their presence is a very real implicit threat to the other citizens there. It’s not that “some people don’t like guns,” it is that “some people don’t like implicit threats to slaughter their children.”

These gun-toting idiots may actually even think they were making a point about their rights and freedom, but what they were doing is the classic example of the only legitimate reason why any constitutional rights are abridged: infringing on the safety and rights of others. Some tend to forget about that rather vital and necessary counterpoint to one’s constitutional rights.

Categories: Right-Wing Extremism, Social Issues Tags:

He IS the Messiah! Or At Least One of Them

August 13th, 2013 Comments off

A few days ago, a child support judge in Newport, Tennessee decided a case from two parents disagreeing over their child’s surname.

The mother, Jaleesa Martin, wanted to name the boy Messiah DeShawn Martin, using her surname only. The boy’s father wanted the boy to have his surname, McCullough. The reports make it unclear whether the couple is married or not.

The case should have been simple, but the judge did something unexpected: not only did she decide in favor of the father, but she decided in favor of herself: in addition to giving the boy the surname “McCullough,” she also struck down the baby’s first name as well, replacing it with the mother’s surname, making his full name Martin DeShawn McCullough.

The reasoning the judge gave was even more problematic:

The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.

The judge gave other rationales as well, in particular that they lived in a heavily Christian community and that bearing a name like that would create difficulties for the child. Perhaps—but that’s not for the judge to decide.

Making such a change because you worship Jesus Christ is, without question, unconstitutional. The judge cannot force her own beliefs on the parents or the child.

Not to mention, this would not be the first time a baby has been named “Messiah” in the country:

In 2012, 762 other Messiahs were born in the U.S., making it the 387th most popular name for U.S. boys in the U.S., according to the Social Security Administration. And because only 368 Messiahs were born in the U.S. in 2011, it’s also the fourth-fastest-growing boys’ name in America.

Not to mention that an another acceptable baby name is “Salvador.” Meaning: “savior.”

And that’s what “Messiah” can mean as well—both specifically and generally. “Messiah” is defined not only as the deliverer of the Jewish nation (Jews do not see Jesus Christ as the Messiah), but also as “a leader or savior of a particular group or cause.”

In short, the baby’s name was perfectly fine, and the judge screwed up. The question is, why did she screw up?

The apparent cause was that she allowed her religious beliefs to sway her decision; this is a teachable moment, as many people are likely not aware that such religious bias is not uncommon in supposedly objective legal decisions. In child custody cases, for example, judges often side with a religious parent over one who is an atheist. And then we have Anthony Scalia attempting to force his own religious beliefs on the entire country by essentially trying to nullify the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

However, there is a difference possibility, or perhaps a contributing element: this happened in the South. The judge is white. The baby is black. There’s certainly no direct evidence, but when you have an arsonists’ convention and the building next door bursts into flames, it is perhaps unwise to ignore the arsonists as suspects. Had the baby been white, would the judge have done the same?

Categories: Religion, Social Issues Tags:

On Zimmerman

July 13th, 2013 2 comments

Josh Marshall summarizes my own view very well:

If you’re a wannabe cop loser with a gun who starts stalking a kid in the dark, you’re responsible for the outcome.

I blogged pretty much the same thing back in April 2012, and my opinion is not changed now:

In my mind, Zimmerman is guilty. Not because I know how the specifics played out, that Martin did not assault him, or anything else. Instead, it was because Zimmerman was the one holding a gun, he did not need to pursue Martin (the 911 call made that clear), and so he bore responsibility.

Too many Americans have too cavalier an attitude about what it means to carry a gun—essentially, “I’m packing so don’t frack with me.”

There’s a reason why we ask professionals to take care of law enforcement, and reasons why cops train long and hard for it. Zimmerman had not been through this. There are damned good reasons why even a late response time from cops is better than grabbing your gun and taking care of things yourself.

But this was not even that. Zimmerman was not defending his home. He was not even “standing his ground”—you cannot stalk someone and chase them and then claim you were “standing your ground.” He was, in fact, instructed to hold back, and not for no reason.

He defied the instructions from authorities, violated the principles of armed confrontation, and had he not done these things, Trayvon would have had his Skittles and iced tea and Zimmerman would have finished his trip to Target. It was Zimmerman’s gross misconduct which caused the death.

That’s my take, at least.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

The Institution of Marriage

July 6th, 2013 1 comment

There are several reasons people may oppose gay marriage. A predominant reason is that people are at least uncomfortable about homosexuality, or they feel threatened by it somehow, or they simply despise it. However, these are highly subjective; one cannot deny others rights simply because one does not like them. Not to mention that hatred does not play well publicly. Since such reasons will not withstand debate, they are very seldom proffered as the reason to oppose the rights of gay people.

Another common reason is religious opposition. The Bible offers up enough basis for those either inclined to follow prescribed moral values over apparent ones, or who are pre-inclined to dislike gay people, to ostracize homosexuals and/or to define what they do as an “abomination.” Many, if not most, religious groups choose to do so. This is more often cited in public debate, especially by those who believe that marriage is primarily a religious function, or else feel there is enough of a connection to make a difference. However, we live under a set of laws that do not allow religious beliefs to strip others of their rights. As a result, they also will not withstand much public debate.

However, let’s not fool ourselves: the above two reasons are the real grounds upon which most people oppose gay marriage. We all know that these are the primary objections, but they are not the primary argument because, from the objective standpoint of public and legal debate, they are weak and increasingly unpopular.

So instead we hear a different argument: gay marriage will weaken the institution of marriage. That’s the primary public argument forwarded by those opposing gay marriage. Thus, the “Defense of Marriage Act.”

It sounds like it could be a solid reason. Institutions are important. They are the foundations of society. We don’t want to weaken them. And, especially if you are inclined to dislike homosexuality, it sounds reasonable that allowing gay marriage would “dilute” or otherwise diminish the institution. As a result, this is a popular argument, even though it is not a reason most who oppose gay marriage ever would have considered had it not been handed to them.

The problem is, this argument is meaningless. Or, more specifically, it is semantically void in any way that could apply to public legal debate.


First of all, when the “institution of marriage” is cited, which institution of marriage is being referred to? I can think of several: historical, societal, religious, personal, legal, or semantic.

Historically, marriage is an evolving institution, so acceptance of gay marriage does not “weaken” or “dilute” it. This is like strict grammarians making similar assertions about new linguistic practices; what it comes down to is that they don’t like things changing. However, language by nature changes and evolves. So does marriage. As has been pointed out many times, the “one man, one woman marriage based on love” is hardly the classic form of wedlock.

The societal institution of marriage can be defined as what society decides it is. Again, this is liquid and changing, based on what a society wants. Well, our society wants this now. The institution cannot be weakened by allowing what society allows; it can only be weakened if society is not allowed to define the institution as it likes. Ironically, this argument was valid (and I believe was often proffered) before, but now it works the other way, supporting gay marriage instead of defying it.

One aspect of the societal institution could be the idea that marriage is intended to encourage and/or maintain population growth. However, no society I know of requires reproduction or even reproductive ability as a prerequisite for marriage. For the “dilution” argument to work, we would need to ban marriage between any couple incapable of having children. In fact, couples who clearly cannot or do not intend to have children are not even frowned upon in the slightest. Furthermore, as noted below, the arguments that gay marriage will somehow discourage childbirth is ludicrous.

The religious institution of marriage is what a lot of people point to; however, there are some problems. First of all, religious texts, even within any specific sect, do not usually have rigidly defined or consistent definitions of marriage. Second, there are lots of different religions with different ideas about marriage. So, the argument that changing this institution would damage it is already somewhat weak.

However, most religions will consolidate at least current theological standings into dogma. It could be argued that defying this dogma could weaken the institution of marriage within a church, especially with a specific type of marriage that the church has never supported.

The problem with this argument: churches are not being asked to accept or sanctify gay marriage. Therefore, gay marriage does not really affect the internal institution. Still, these people will argue that publicly allowing gay marriage infringes on that institution—but this only could be true if one accepts the idea that religious organizations “own” marriage in our society, a premise which is not valid. Just as one religion may not impose its dogma on all of society, no religion may impose their internal institutions on all others through legal means. Religious people may feel threatened by gays marrying outside of their own institutions, or they may feel that what other people do in light of societal approval affects them somehow; however, that is not a rational public argument.

The personal institution of marriage could be defined as the meaning of marriage to the people engaging in the institution. This also has many variations: it could be for love, for reproduction, for appearances, for wealth, for convenience—for a myriad of personal or legal reasons relevant to the people involved. Since the personal institution is, like the societal institution, defined by what people want it to mean, gay marriage cannot detract from or otherwise diminish this. It does, in fact, add to it.

Only if, as with religious institutions, people feel like they have joined a select membership and are offended by people they do not approve of also joining, can they see the “institution” being harmed. This, however, like the religious objections, is exclusive; they deny other people rights based solely on subjective claims to ownership of an institution which is intended for all. It is, in fact, a stronger argument that gay marriage supports the personal institution, as it makes marriage between all people possible, something previously denied.

Then we come to the legal institution of marriage. This one is simple: like societal and personal definitions, this is what we decide it to be. Gay marriage no more weakens the legal institution of marriage than equal pay for women weakens the legal institution of employment. It’s a null argument.

One odd-man-out argument could be called the “semantic” institution of marriage, that marriage simply won’t “mean” the same thing, and some go as far as saying that changing the meaning of marriage will mean that we no longer have the concept of marriage in its “traditional” sense. That even the meaning of terms like “husband” or “mother” will be diluted and will no longer have the same meaning (see page 53 of this tome).

Forgive me, but this is simply utter bullshit. At worst, it will add new definitions (what standard terms for “two mommies” or “two daddies” may have, etc.), but the long-standing definitions will still be there. If there is confusion over the meaning (“Do you mean your traditional ‘mom’ or your gay ‘mom’?”) terms will evolve to fit.

So, what are we left with? The only “institutional” arguments that have any meaning at all are religious and personal, and the damage done is highly subjective and indirect. Any “weakening” done is purely in the eye of the beholder, and, together with the fact that neither religious nor personal biases are allowed to dictate the legal rights of others, is meaningless in terms of objecting to gay marriage becoming legal.


Secondly, beyond the philosophical questions about the meaning of “the institution of marriage,” one has to ask, “What actual, real-world effect will gay marriage have on those wishing to participate in the institution of marriage?”

This is where the opposition to gay marriage falls apart even more rapidly. The answer to the above question tends to be even less well-established than what the “institution of marriage” is supposed to mean in the first place. Most people who oppose gay marriage prefer to remain vague, even when citing what they believe will be the real-world effects of the change. I have tried to find and categorize these claims as best I can.

Public endorsement of gay marriage will legitimize and therefore increase the incidence of homosexuality. There are at least a few aspects to this argument: whether it is possible, whether it would happen, and whether it would be a bad thing.

The first hinges on a controversial point: that people have a choice in their sexual orientation. To refute this, a common question asked to heterosexuals is, “When did you decide to be straight?” Since straight people make no such decision, it is hard to classify sexual orientation as a real choice. It is, in a sense, like right- or left-handedness: one is more common and the other is stigmatized; one can force oneself to act like everyone else, but it goes against one’s nature to do so.

The argument that sexual orientation is a matter of choice is vanishingly relevant. It’s pretty clear that in most cases, it is not possible for an individual to determine that for themselves. Children raised in gay environments, for example, tend not to be any more or less gay than people in straight environments. And just recently, a significant conservative organization selling a “pray the gay away” therapy not only shut down, but publicly apologized for being wrong and harming people.

That said, it is also apparent that human sexuality is not binary; the evidence seems to point to the fact that, as in most all things, we live along a spectrum, or even a landscape of sexual orientations. Few if any people are “100%” straight or gay. Where we are in that landscape is not variable—we do not slide up or down towards one area or the other. However, someone more between defined areas than most may be able to make themselves comfortable in various camps, bisexuals being one example. However, even this “preference” is not necessarily a “choice”; bisexuals usually report that the preference leads them, and not the other way around.

The only way that the legitimization of gay marriage could have an effect on the incidence of homosexuality, as I see it, is if we have a formative stage in which people who are towards the middle of the sexual spectrum form habits that dictate the sexuality they will feel comfortable with.

However, the legitimization of gay marriage would not have a chilling effect on this; rather, it would create a freer environment in which a person could develop more naturally, with fewer external pressures to conform forced upon them unnaturally.

The only way in which this could be seen as a negative would be if one judged that anything but strict heterosexuality were immoral or otherwise wrong. This, however, is a subjective decision. Homosexuality is not innately immoral. Innate immorality stems from an act being non-consensual and/or harmful to others. Since homosexuality is consensual, and only stigmatization leads to physical or mental harm, it does not fit in that category; instead, it is only subjectively immoral, like taking the name of a god in vain, or walking around naked. Only a circular argument could assert that homosexuality harms people, as the putative reason it harms people is because it is immoral.

To sum up, the development of sexual orientation is a natural process and has no innate moral impact. It is highly improbable that legitimization of gay marriage could increase the incidence of homosexuality, nor would such a thing weaken our intrinsic moral basis as a society or people.

The legitimization of gay marriage would discourage straight people from marrying. This one is simply idiotic. First, while I can think of many trends that were enhanced by gay participation, I cannot think of a single one that was made less popular by gay participation. Second, can you even imagine a straight couple saying, “We’re deeply in love and really want to get married, but since gay people can do it, it’s just meaningless to us”? I mean, seriously.

As I argued a decade ago, it is far more likely that people would be deterred by generic aspects of marriage than by any aspect of gay marriage. Indeed, when people argue against marriage, they cite broken marriages in general. That the social and personal pressures of marriage weigh them down and make them unhappy; that promises of fidelity may not be realistic; that wedlock can make people feel as though their options are limited and possible futures are closed off. They cite unhappy couples, spousal abuse, and other pitfalls of the institution. None of these are caused by, nor would be exacerbated by gay marriage. In fact, many straights will, perhaps jokingly, ask gays if they really want to deal with all the baggage that comes with marriage.

Now, if there’s a gay couple living next door, and a person is so disgusted with having to live near that, then it is only that person’s own bigoted hatred would be the problem, and not the happy couple living nearby. If this causes fewer of these people to have children to whom they would hand down this hatred and bigotry, then I see no problem in that result.

Gay marriage will have a chilling effect on population. How this will occur is usually left unsaid; I can only infer two possibilities, these being the two purported effects listed directly above. That gay marriage could increase the unnatural incidence of homosexuality is bunk, and the idea that straights will stop getting married and/or having children because gays are marrying is, not to put it too lightly, one of the most breathtakingly stupid ideas I have ever heard. To the contrary, it might bring new life to the institution.

Gay marriage is unnatural. See the discussion above. This is also often conflated with the argument of a divine mandate. Homosexual behavior occurs naturally in the animal kingdom, and the evidence that we have on human sexuality right now points strongly to it being a natural phenomenon. And since marriage is a human construct in any case, citing “nature” does not really apply anyway.

Gay marriage will lead to polygamy and bestiality. Another chestnut among conservatives, that allowing gay marriage will open the floodgates to any form of marriage, from group marriages to people deciding to marry chickens and goats. In short, the classic slippery slope and false choice fallacies. This is not a package deal, not to mention that the alternate forms cited as “next on the list” are incredibly more rare than homosexuality. While a few people do promote group marriages (ironically, mostly religious people, and mostly citing biblical example!), nobody is pushing for, shall we call it, “animal husbandry.” This is simply yet another dishonest or ignorant attempt to smear homosexuality with the stigma of very different (usually non-consensual) sexual activities; as with the attempts to equate homosexuality with pedophilia, there is simply no relation whatsoever. As much as I am sure that there are conservatives out there secretly harboring their love of barnyard animals, they will simply have to live with their own self-hate and leave the rest of us alone.

Taxpayers would be forced to subsidize gay marriages. Taxpayers are forced to subsidize all marriages, which has no meaning regarding the type of marriage or the moral status of those involved. We are already “forced” to subsidize marriages we do not approve of; we don’t get to pick and choose which ones we like.

What this argument really is, however, is a new conservative tactic borrowed from the reproductive-rights arena, the “religious-rights” appeal. Direct government subsidy of a single religious group violates the establishment clause; one lesser aspect of this is that individuals are forced to subsidize religious groups with their taxpayer dollars. It has always been a side issue next to the greater issue of government endorsement and state religion; however, conservatives glommed onto this and now claim that anything they don’t like is now barred from receiving any government funding whatsoever, even indirectly. As a result, because Planned Parenthood also performs abortions, conservatives want to ban it from getting government funding for any health services whatsoever.

The use of this in regards to gay marriage is just a rebranding of that same twice-borrowed side issue, and is just as irrelevant as the fact that people without children may resent subsidizing education, or that people who are single may resent subsidizing anyone who is married. We already subsidize sham marriages, and marriages with abuse, and marriages of convenience, and so forth and so on. Tax-funded support of married couples does not equal personal taxpayer endorsement of the morality or lack of same within that marriage.

Marriage is about having children. No it’s not. If it were about having children, we would not allow people beyond childbearing age to marry. Nor would we allow younger people who, by condition or choice can no longer conceive, to marry. There is nothing in the legal or even the religious institutions of marriage that tie those institutions solely to childbearing.

Many more stupid arguments. Just too many to list one by one. Here’s a “top ten” list, including some of the arguments above, as well as: “Schools would teach that homosexual relationships are identical to heterosexual ones,” “Freedom of conscience and religious liberty would be threatened,” “Fewer people would remain monogamous and sexually faithful,” “Fewer people would remain married for a lifetime,” “Fewer children would be raised by a married mother and father,” and “More children would grow up fatherless.” Most of these are supported by bogus “research” (note that the source scrupulously avoids citing any specific research).

Here’s a super-idiotic list, one that really pushes the envelope. He claims that gay marriage “can bring huge financial and emotional stress” (gays will be more able to sue religious bigots for discrimination, thus causing the “stress”), “The health risks are enormous to themselves and others” (essentially he cites HIV/AIDS, as though somehow gay marriage will cause increases in such diseases—presumably gays will otherwise remain celibate and healthy), “The morals of the minority forced upon the majority” (ironically, the opposite is now true), and “Gay Marriage affects people spiritually” (religious folk will be mentally harmed by being forced to see married gay couples). He also makes the falling-birth-rate claim, and as is usual, gives no evidence to support the claim, nor any framework under which such an effect could occur.

If you think that’s as stupid as stupid gets, he gets stupider: Gay marriage “forces government to get involved in changing laws which automatically affect everyone in society.”

Really. He wrote that.

What all of this ultimately comes down to is, we have a heteros-only club, and it would just be ruined if those icky gays got in. But like I said, this does not play well, so we get the “institution” argument instead.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

NOW Can We Talk about Gun Control?

May 13th, 2013 2 comments
This is getting to be morbidly absurd.

We are now seeing mass shootings as common occurrences, and it is most likely we are become inured to them. After a shooter kills a few dozen first-graders, after all, what’s all that big about 19 shot in a New Orleans Mother’s Day parade?

Certainly, we should not react in a shocked manner, and absolutely it’s not something that should, for the nth time, trigger discussion about actually doing something about reasonable gun control. After all, HITLER! And OBAMA WILL CONFISCATE YOUR GUNS! And BOOGAH BOOGAH!!

Though I am not sure what effect this will have; after Newtown, not only did Congress fail to pass gun control, they actually passed laws that weakened gun control. Will the New Orleans mass shooting trigger even more pro-gun laws? Hard to tell.

It does beg the question: what will it take?

At least 19 injured in New Orleans Mother’s Day shooting
Sunday, May 12, 2013
At least nineteen people in New Orleans, including two children, were injured on Sunday when multiple gunmen opened fire on a Mother’s Day parade, police said. A 10-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl were grazed by bullets but are in good condition, New Orleans Police spokesman Garry Flot said in a statement.

But hey, no one was killed, right? Just like no one was killed here:

North Vallejo Little League cancels Saturday games after shooting
Sunday, May 12, 2013
VALLEJO, Calif. (KGO) — Vallejo Little League players are disappointed after they learned that all of thier Saturday games were cancelled because of another shooting near one of their fields. This is the second time shots were fired near North Vallejo little league players.

I mean, just because we have multiple incidents of shots being fired near Little League games doesn’t me we should be concerned! After all, who would be upset that kids can’t play baseball in their own neighborhood for fear of being shot? Besides, we all know that Vallejo is a shooting gallery anyway.

And it’s not like any of this is unusual. In an incomplete count, Slate tallies a minimum of 3963 shooting deaths in 149 days, about 25 people killed each day. But don’t worry, only 75 were children—well, unless you count the 199 teens. But that’s only three or four children and ten teenage kids killed a week. Perfectly acceptable losses for the right to unfettered gun ownership!

Why bother with training, controls, screening, and registration when we’re only talking about 60 small children slaughtered every year? 70 tops! And only 500 or so teens, which is OK, because they don’t count as much. [Note: suicides are typically not counted in the tolls being referenced here.]

Here’s a very small sampling of gun violence in the past 24 hours, from Google News—and you can be certain that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Buncombe County Triple Shooting
Sunday, May 12 2013, 03:33 PM EDT
The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a domestic shooting that injured two people and left another dead. It happened around 1:30 this morning on Rathfarahan Circle. Investigators say Arthur McArdle and Banning McArdle were taken to Mission Hospital. The shooter, Joshua McArdle, died at the scene from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Deputies say there are no other suspects. Neighbors tell News 13 Joshua Mcardle had been fighting with his father and brother for the past few days.

Four injured during shooting at motorcycle club
May 12, 2013 at 12:16 PM
APACHE JUNCTION, Ariz. — Four people were injured early Sunday morning when a shootout took place at a motorcycle club in Apache Junction.

Police Investigating Double Shooting In Hartford
2:37 p.m. EDT, May 12, 2013
HARTFORD—
Police are investigating a double shooting that took place early Sunday morning on Lawrence Street. Police said officers responded to the area of 172 Lawrence St. at 1:54 a.m. for reports of several shots fired. When they arrived at the scene they found one victim shot in the arm. A second victim arrived later at St. Francis with a gunshot wound to the foot, police said.

Four dead in Waynesville shooting
May 12, 2013
Autopsies will be conducted Monday on the bodies of four people murdered inside a home in Waynesville in Bartholomew County.

Man, woman wanted in connection to D.C. shooting
May 12, 2013 6:01 pm
Police are on the lookout for a male and female in connection with a shooting on the District’s southeast side early Sunday morning. Around 1:43 a.m. Sunday, D.C. police responded to reports of a shooting on the 2500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. On the scene, authorities found an adult male suffering from an apparent gunshot wound. He was conscious and breathing.

Elderly man charged with murder after Mother’s Day shooting
May 12, 2013 at 6:33 PM
GASTON COUNTY, N.C. – Police arrested an elderly man after they said he shot and killed a woman Sunday afternoon. The shooting happened around 12:30 p.m. on Venn Drive. Authorities said they answered a call for a cardiac arrest, but when they arrived they found Vivian Schronce, 80, shot in the chest. Shortly after the shooting, she was pronounced dead at Caromont Regional Medical Center.

Hammond man killed at party early Sunday
May 12, 2013
HAMMOND | A 21-year-old man was killed after being gunned down early Sunday at a party on the 600 block of Sibley Street in Hammond, police said. Jeffrey Morgan, of the 6400 block of Monroe Avenue in Hammond, died from multiple gunshot wounds about 1:27 a.m., according to a release from the Lake County coroner’s office.

Police search for two suspects in Saturday shooting
MAY 12, 2013
Revere police are searching for two men who allegedly shot a man in the back on Sagamore Street Saturday night before fleeing on foot.

Man killed, woman in critical condition after Jacksonville shooting; 1 in custody
May 12, 2013 – 3:01am
A Jacksonville man who served 21 years in prison for the attempted murder of civil rights leader W.W. Schell is back behind bars after a weekend shooting killed one man and critically injured a woman.

Neighbor heard ‘angry voices’ prior to fatal shooting in Central District
May 12, 2013 at 9:10 AM PDT
SEATTLE — A man believed to be in his 20s was fatally shot in the city’s Central District neighborhood early Sunday morning, Seattle Police said.

Man, 22, Killed In Bridgeport Shooting
4:35 p.m. EDT, May 12, 2013
BRIDGEPORT—
Police are investigating a fatal shooting Sunday morning on Berkshire Avenue near the Noble Avenue intersection. Police responded to the area at 4:15 a.m. after receiving a report of gunfire and found a parked silver Ford Fusion with several bullet holes, authorities said. Inside the car was Robert Rivera, 22, of Bridgeport, who had been shot multiple times, police said.

Just another Sunday in America. But hey, freedom ain’t free, right? And if we had to get training for guns and submit to background checks, we wouldn’t be free, now would we? Mandatory firearm safety training? Might as well just lock us all in concentration camps. FEMA has some ready, I hear.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

The Weight of a Gun

April 6th, 2013 2 comments

The Trayvon Martin case has a number of elements which are, to say the least, distracting. The fact that the police accepted Zimmerman’s story and seemed to dismiss Martin as a criminal, failing even to identify him in a timely fashion. The fact that Zimmerman’s wounds were not at all apparent from then-current evidence, and that police may not have collected evidence properly. The fact that parts of the 911 call were unclear, and there was not a small amount of media sensationalism regarding an assumed racial epithet. All of this fired up discussions of racial profiling, police collusion, and the possibility of a conspiracy. While this may have helped motivate the police to act more properly on the case, it also created a flurry of red herrings.

This only got worse as time went on, with problems in the other direction as well. Which photos of Trayvon were used created complaints, and that the friend who Trayvon was on the phone with had made false statements under oath. All of these became issues that everyone focused on.

Today was no different. Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, posted (or re-posted) an image on Twitter:

Zimtweet

While this throws a certain amount of doubt as to whether there is indeed racism in the Zimmerman household, it is yet another red herring—possibly the mother of all red herrings. Robert is not George, and George should not be held responsible for crap his brother posts. Whether or not Robert intended only to demonstrate how photographs can be used to make any associations and that people should not judge Trayvon Martin based on his “harmless friendly teen” images, the post was the height of idiocy and insensitivity—and not the least bit relevant to the main questions of the case.

These distractions are not only less relevant, but they distort perceptions: for example, so much attention was placed on whether or not Zimmerman had any injuries, that when photos came out showing the injuries were real, many seemed to assume that was the end of it, case closed—as if that were the only real question in the case.


At the time when the story first broke, and still today, I held and do hold that most of that is irrelevant, and there is one central issue here: George Zimmerman was armed, and deliberately left his car to follow and confront someone who only looked suspicious to him. I hold that a key lesson of this incident is the cavalier attitude we have assumed toward the carrying and use of guns, especially in terms of vigilantism.

This is what I posted almost a year ago, comparing Zimmerman with Rodney Peairs, the man who shot and killed Yoshi Hattori:

[T]he most significant factor, at least to my reckoning, was that the men who wielded the guns failed to act responsibly. Neither did what they were supposed to do. Rodney Peairs, the man who shot Yoshi Hattori, had a right to defend his home–but he violated that precept when he unnecessarily stepped outside his home to actively confront the “intruders.” No matter how it played out in terms of specifics, George Zimmerman made the same error: instead of holding back and allowing trained professionals to do their job, he pursued Martin, and Martin is now dead as a result. In both cases, the men with guns felt the necessity to confront the people they felt threatened by, no doubt emboldened by the possession of their weapons. …

Peairs and Zimmerman both owned guns, and they both assumed a right to step beyond their own bounds and confront people they believed to be criminals. That is an explosive combination that will result in the deaths of innocent people. Peairs required no training to be armed in his home; Zimmerman only needed to take a few hours of gun safety courses before he was allowed to walk the streets armed. If either received training which firmly emphasized that they retreat from confrontation instead of seek it out, it certainly did not take.

In my mind, Zimmerman is guilty. Not because I know how the specifics played out, that Martin did not assault him, or anything else. Instead, it was because Zimmerman was the one holding a gun, he did not need to pursue Martin (the 911 call made that clear), and so he bore responsibility.

As far as I’m concerned, that by itself should be a separate element in any judgment about Zimmerman. What happened specifically after that—whether he initiated the confrontation with Martin or was attacked, whether there was justification to shoot or not—these I see as separate issues.

Zimmerman carried a gun. He willfully engaged in vigilante behavior. He left his car and followed a suspect, against the instructions of the police, apparently assuming too much about who he was following, apparently without thinking how his actions might be perceived were the person in fact innocent.

What happened after that was a result of this choice on his part.

I think this needs to be emphasized and recognized as a central issue. How photos are used in journalism, the significance of race and racial profiling, even the details of the confrontation itself—these all are relevant within their own contexts, but irrelevant to a very critical issue.

That issue is armed engagement: that, when you carry or use a gun, you must also assume a responsibility to be cautious in the extreme.

We have moved in the opposite direction, sending all manner of signals—cultural and legal—telling people to shoot first and ask questions later.

That has to stop, it has to be reversed. People need to be sent the message: if you pick up the gun, you should feel the weight of the responsibility it carries.

It also highlights a critical element of gun control: training and licensing. These are absolutely essential and should be required nationwide.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

The War on Reason Rages On

March 26th, 2013 2 comments

Remember how we believed that the horrific national tragedy of twenty little children being slaughtered with an assault rifle, especially after so many other shootings like the Aurora theater massacre, would lead to an assault weapons ban, or at least a law to limit the number of bullets in a cartridge?

Apparently not.

While the public may have been sufficiently aghast at such tragedies to pull the switch, Congress seems to feel differently. A majority appear to be saying, “No, we think more than two dozen first-graders need to be shot to bloody pieces before we act. Let’s wait and see.”

Not that an assault weapons ban would lead to an immediate halt to such slaughters, but the later you act, the longer they go on. So, good work, senators. You just proved that the NRA is not as weak and ineffective a lobby as some had started to believe.

But hey, at least we can all agree on universal background checks, right? Background checks, even in their currently weak form, have proven effective at stopping two million gun sales, over one million of those to felons, over the past few decades. Obama’s plan for shoring up their weaknesses so that criminals and the mentally ill will have a hurdle in their way before they can acquire a major arsenal is the most milquetoast, sensible, non—

Other gun control efforts like universal background checks on people buying guns are also struggling in Congress, despite public anger at the Connecticut shooting and other massacres.

<facepalm>

It is, after all, what, three months since we saw those children gunned down. So, who cares any more?

The Last Acceptable Prejudice

February 18th, 2013 1 comment

Confronting prejudice seems to be a matter of not just social norms, but of visibility, psychology, and choice.

On visibility, race and gender cannot be hidden, so they were confronted much earlier.

Homosexuality is easier to conceal, but hardly easy altogether; it came next.

Belief, however, can be the easiest thing to conceal, making it less necessary to confront.

Then there is how these prejudices tie into our psychology. Race was perhaps the easiest to confront on the grounds that it was justified partly a false scientific claim (that we are significantly different physiologically and psychologically), which was not too difficult to debunk, leading to the exposure of the fact that we are simply xenophobic. Our shared similarities across groups and differences within them helped to cancel much of this out.

Gender is more difficult to confront not just because there are physiological and psychological differences, but also because of the sharp duality most people see, not to mention historical and traditional roles and assumptions—many accepted or even embraced by many women themselves—making it harder to break through.

Homosexuality is tied to any number of sexual mores and bugaboos we still wade neck-deep in, and like gender, is tied to issues of control and self-identity, thus making it more difficult for some to break through.

Atheism, however, confronts some of our deepest fears: that of meaning, purpose—and oblivion. This connects to levels of suppressed horror and despair for some, which, even if subconscious (especially if subconscious!) are most difficult to confront.

Race, gender, and sexual orientation do have something in common, however, which sets them apart from atheism: choice. This is one thing that also delayed acceptance of homosexuality, that it was seen as a lifestyle rather than a permanent, set state of being. This still persists as a way for people to discriminate, because when it comes down to it, one of the best ways to justify a difference in human society is to demonstrate that the difference cannot be chosen or avoided, and thus demands equality on the basis of humanity.

Atheism, however, is in fact, a choice—mostly. Here, it is possible for one to truly convert as one cannot with race, gender, or orientation. I say “mostly,” however, because it is not always easy or even possible to change one’s convictions. For some, it is, but for others, it is so deeply tied to their self-identity that it is pretty much impossible.

All of these reasons explain why outright prejudice against atheists is still accepted.

Think about it: if Newt Gingrich had come out and said he would not accept non-whites in his cabinet, there would have been an outrage. Same for if he had said he would exclude women. Both may have been acceptable—or perhaps, politically survivable—statements more than half a century ago, but are utterly unacceptable today.

Had Newt Gingrich said he would not have any gays serving in government, there would also be public outcry against him. We still hear things like this, but they are now socially unacceptable; as gays come out of the closet, homophobes go in, to join racists and sexists.

But Gingrich did not say any of these things. He said, instead, that he would not accept any atheists serving in his administration.

Nobody even seemed to notice that he had said anything wrong.

And here, Gingrich even noted how it is easier to discriminate against atheists than it is to reject members of other religions:

Now, I happen to think that none of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God. And I think that all of us up here I believe would agree. But I think all of us would also agree that there’s a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life. And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments, because then I’d wonder, where’s your judgment—how can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray? Who you pray to, how you pray, how you come close to God is between you and God. But the notion that you’re endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America.

In short, I can accept you if you’re a Mormon (he was speaking to Mitt Romney’s religion, ironically defining himself as tolerant), or if you’re Jewish, and even potentially if you’re a Hindu or a Muslim (though he would very likely escort such people quietly out the back door).

But if you’re an atheist? You’re damaged goods and have no place in our society. If you think I exaggerate, go back and read what he said again.

Following is a snippet of a discussion on this topic, which prompted this post.

Categories: Religion, Social Issues Tags:

Progress?

January 31st, 2013 Comments off

The good news: despite NRA opposition, it looks like there may be consensus on closing background check “loopholes” (actually, more like “gaping open chasms”).

The bad news: conservatives insist that the right of every citizen to possess a high-powered semi-automatic military-style assault weapon with 100-round drum-type magazines. Despite no one having put forth any reasonable explanation as to what legitimate use one would have for such a weapon.

One right-wing activist tried:

“Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15 weapons are their weapon of choice,” Trotter explained. “The guns are accurate. They have good handling. They’re light. They’re easy for women to hold.”

She added: “And most importantly, their appearance. An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon, and the peace of mind that a woman has as she’s facing three, four, five violent attackers, intruders in her home, with her children screaming in the background, the peace of mind that she has knowing that she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened, violent criminals.”

“And if we ban these types of assault weapons, you are putting women at a great disadvantage, more so than men, because they do not have the same type of physical strength and opportunity to defend themselves in a hand-to-hand struggle. They’re not criminals, they’re moms, they’re young women. And they’re not used to violent confrontations.”

Riiiiight. Because what woman hasn’t had to protect her babies from a pack of violent attackers in her home? Happens all the time. What you don’t need is a handgun; after all, what if there are seven armed rapists going after you and you only have a six-shooter? What then, Mr. gun-banning smarty-pants? No, in this time when gangs of armed murdering rapists routinely break into homes and mothers have no choice but to fend them off with military-style assault weapons, banning such weapons would be insanity.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Arguing From Both Sides of Their Factoids

January 20th, 2013 9 comments

In writing the last post, I re-read the definitive posting I made on gun control back in 2006 and the comments, which ranged into late 2007. The last comment I made held a point which I had forgotten about over time, but which points out a very subtle and ironic flaw in two major arguments made by gun advocates.

Gun advocates say that gun control or even gun bans are not effective; that with such laws, criminals are still able to get all the guns they need.

Gun advocates also argue that if a dictatorship establishes itself in our country, they will institute restrictive gun control or gun bans, and these will be so effective that we will be defenseless against said dictator.

See the slight flaw in the reasoning?

It’s actually quite similar to the arguments made by conservatives about taxing the wealthy: when you try to raise their taxes, the argument is that they don’t have enough money to make a difference. But when they want to lower their taxes, the argument is that they are paying the lion’s share of the nation’s tax revenue.

These kinds of inconsistencies betray either the lack of logic or reasoning in creating the argument, and/or a fundamental dishonesty when it comes to making the point.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

No Kidding?

January 20th, 2013 1 comment

A few gun stats noted in the Washington Monthly:

— According to the CDC, having a gun in your home is associated with triple the risk of homicide and nearly fivefold the risk of suicide.

— The Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC) has found that suicide attempts using a gun are far more likely to be fatal than such attempts using any other method. HICRC also reports that the availability of more guns is associated with more accidental deaths.

As if to prove the point, yesterday was “Gun Appreciation Day,” and TPM points out a little twist of irony: five people were sent to the hospital with gunshot wounds from at least three accidental discharges at gun shows commemorating the event.

The next article at TPM has a very appropriate note in a letter from a reader, making a point about a gun control requirement I have long supported but which was left out of Obama’s package:

Over Christmas, the family was talking to my brother in law —a sheriff in rural Maine, a hunter, an NRA member —about the possibility of limiting guns, and the “defense argument” —that we all need guns to defend ourselves.

He looked at me and said he definitely did not want me to carry! Then he made the serious point, that using guns to defend oneself or others takes both skill and emotional training. This is not something that just anyone can do. He could not imagine arming school teachers. And he noted, from 20 years as a sheriff, most gun deaths are from stupidity (accidents of various kinds) or family anger (and the human stupidity that encourages).

What we need: mandatory gun training, testing, and licensing. Because even if you are a clear and clean law-abiding citizen, if you do not know how to properly store, maintain, and use your arms, then you are statistically a far greater threat to yourself and those around you than is any burglar or phantom dictator. A gun should be denied to you not just if you are a criminal or mentally incompetent; it should also be denied to you if you are incapable of using it with at least nominally safe skills.

Nobody denies that we all have the right to travel, and part of that is the right to own a car. But we also all agree that if you are a menace with that car, if you are untrained or untrainable, if you cannot operate it safely, then you have no right to get behind the wheel of one.

Guns, unlike cars, are designed to kill people. That is their primary purpose. And right now, it is 100% legal in many if not most places in this country to acquire, keep, and use a gun with no training or testing whatsoever. That is completely insane.

Which is why I advocate a national training and testing requirement just as we have for motor vehicles. It makes eminent sense.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Smoking Guns

January 18th, 2013 1 comment

In Talking Points Memo, there was an article about gun vs. non-gun culture. It touched on a story about a couple of 22-year-old men who decided to “educate” people in a neighborhood in Portland, Oregon unused to seeing guns by openly carrying assault weapons through the town. The sight of two young men carrying assault weapons down peaceful suburban streets generated a rash of 911 calls from frightened residents, and sent at least one school into lockdown—this coming less than a month after the Newtown incident. Neither man was arrested because they had “concealed handgun licenses,” though how this covered the open display of assault rifles escapes me. Their purpose was, purportedly, to demonstrate their Second Amendment rights, and seemed unconcerned that they were upsetting people.

Josh Marshall wrote a piece on the incident, naturally not painting the two young men in the best light. Someone wrote to Marshall about how his story on the incident rankled them; they felt it was a slanted piece that demonized gun owners:

My point is that regardless of how we feel about the law, that it was legal for them to do what they did but the tone I read was illustrating criminal behavior. I liken it to people obnoxiously purposely coughing and giving the stink eye to others who are smoking outside, well away from a door, in an allowed smoking area. Obviously less severe but an example of frankly, being pissy about others’ non criminal choices.

To say that Marshall’s story is like a non-smoker finding people smoking in their designated area and coughing obnoxiously as a means of objection is pretty far off the mark. In this case in particular, the two young Oregonians were not like smokers enjoying a drag outside and away from doors. That would be like gun owners shooting at a gun range, not 22-year-olds walking down residential streets with assault rifles. They were the ones going out of their way to be pissy about other’s attitudes about guns. Smokers in a designated smoking area are not “educating” others about smoking rights, or anything else.

This brought to mind a rather interesting comparison, because I do see similarities in attitudes between the two cultures, pro-gun and pro-smoking: the sense that smokers and gun owners can assert their freedoms without regard for the rights or concerns of others; the sense that people who object to this are being unreasonable; and a cultural sense of resentment at being persecuted, marked by a conflation of rash impositions and reasonable objections. A great deal of this has to do with perceptions, as well as with what one considers a normal or neutral state of affairs—what I call the “neutral space.”

The reaction of the pro-gun reader to Marshall’s objections to the Oregon story was starkly indicative of the difference in perception: what is the natural or neutral state of things? For smokers and gun owners, it seems to be, “I get to do my thing wherever I want and you just have to be cool with that.” The more militant smokers are like this; they do not see a space where no one is doing anything as a fair and neutral starting point; they see a room where they are smoking as a fair and neutral starting point, from which any objection you make is an imposition upon them which crosses the line of fairness. Secondhand smoke, to them, is little different from clear air, at least in the context of what one can fairly expect and have no objection to. To them, secondhand smoke is a non-issue; to the non-smoker, it is the entire issue.

The more militant gun owners, in this sense, are the same way: a fair and neutral starting point is that I get to have guns and carry them around, and you just have to be cool with that. Anything less free than that concerning gun “keeping and bearing” is an unfair imposition on them. For these people, your rights and concerns about safety are a non-issue; they may as well simply not exist. The non-gun person, however, has this threat to their safety, and the safety of their children and others around them, suddenly thrust upon them in the form of seeing an unknown person bearing a weapon designed to kill people entering their space. They may not react well to being told that there is nothing they can do about this.

The second similarity, stemming from this, is the perception of who is being unreasonable when there is a conflict. The concept of the neutral space is at the root of this. In smoking culture, since “doing what you want” is considered the neutral space, someone who demands to breathe clean air is being unreasonable. The smoker does not see their act as an invasive one, so when they are told to stop smoking, they see that as the invasive act. You are butting into my business.

I may be biased about this myself, but I cannot see how that attitude is reasonable. If you and I are in a confined space, the social norm is that we do not carry out any act which imposes on the other. Or perhaps stated more pertinently, we do not carry out the initial act of imposition. If we are in a doctor’s waiting room, and I start making annoying noises and you ask me to stop, who is imposing upon whom first? If we are sitting in adjacent seats on an airplane, and I keep shifting around so my arms and side keep nudging and brushing against you and you ask me to stop, who is being unreasonable? If we are in an elevator and I let rip a particularly gruesome fart and you give me a dirty look, do I have the right to be offended?

In the smoking context, smokers—at least the militant ones—do not see what they do as the initial act of imposition; they see their actions as a natural right which others are required to accept as the normal state of affairs. They ignore the initial neutral space, they disregard the fact that they are imposing an unpleasantness on others first, and are annoyed when they are asked to stop.

So it is with the militant gun owners. They ignore the clear context of militia in regards to the entire Second Amendment “keep and bear arms” right, and literally read it as a right to not just possess weapons, but to carry them wherever they damn well please. Thus we have two men in Oregon who believe that they are doing a public service when, just weeks after the entire nation is horrified by a young man bearing an assault rifle killing 20 young children, they themselves bear the same or similar weapons and walk past residential homes and schools. They felt that they were making an important statement about their freedoms; they did not see the context or viewpoints of others as being relevant.

The neutral space—one which assumes a right to keep and bear arms—is one where arms are normally kept safe and locked up at home or other establishments, and used in specific contexts in designated areas. Not to walk around scaring the living crap out of parents soon after a severe national trauma.

The third similarity is a perception of resentment and sense of persecution from within the “using” cultures, who focus, often markedly, how put-upon they are. There is the tendency to superimpose the most egregious of objections made by critics onto every instance of criticism, no matter how subdued or polite.

As an example of this in smoking culture, I recall one job I had at a language school in Japan where the common teaching area was smoke-free, but the common teachers’ preparation area was not smoke-free. Between every lesson I was constantly subjected to 10 or 20 minutes of heavy cigarette smoke. Appealing to management was unproductive: they were all smokers as well. I didn’t even want to ban smoking; all I wanted was one table within the room where smokers would not puff away so we non-smokers could at least have a mild refuge from the worst of the smoke. The boss unhelpfully told me I could get this, but only if every smoker in the office agreed. I started by asking one of the smokers this, someone I had never confronted or complained to. I sat down and explained to him that the smoke was a difficulty professionally for me, as I had to speak all day, and between lessons, the smoke was making my throat raw. I asked politely (and those who know me in an office context know that my default mode is to be deferential and polite) if he would agree, and that he would decide himself which table could be smoke-free, just one of five or six tables in the room. He smiled, exhaled a long, leisurely stream of smoke, and said, “Fuck off.” It was pretty clear that he was enjoying retribution, not against me, but against everyone who he felt had annoyed him about his habit or had kept him from enjoying it where he pleased.

Gun owners seem to have the same sense of persecution, and indulge in the same general reaction to any objections from others. I see it when I debate guns with them, in which I support the right to keep and bear arms but debate whether the right stems from the second or the ninth amendment, and they react as if I think there is no right to keep and bear arms at all; or when I suggest gun control measures, making clear that under such measures, people could still have houses filled with guns, but they instantly assume I am promoting gun bans and confiscation—no matter how clearly I state otherwise. I sense they are not confronting my arguments, that in fact, they may not even be paying much attention to what I am saying at all, but instead feel that they are debating everyone who they felt had infringed on their rights; that whomever suggests any restrictions on guns may as well be the same person who wants to ban guns. The conflation in the Talking Points Memo story of the Oregon men (armed with assault rifles walking by homes and schools in the wake of a mass school shooting) with smokers (trying to get a brief break in a remote and restricted area and yet still being accosted by asinine non-smokers) is an excellent example of this.

It might even be that the gun “enthusiasts,” who now possess incredible freedoms compared to cigarette smokers, see similarities between smoking and guns as well—in that they fear guns will be treated as smoking is treated, where the practice in question will be demonized, those indulging will be seen as pariahs, and the enjoyment of their favorite pastime will be restricted to spaces away from others.

Categories: Health Issues, Social Issues Tags:

Irrational Enthusiasm

January 17th, 2013 7 comments

Before Obama announced his plan, New York already passed a tightening of gun laws. Predictably, people with little sense acted irrationally:

“It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely — how to put it nicely — it’s Prince Andrew Cuomo’s bid for the White House,” said Jim Hanley, who was waiting to buy another handgun. “I want to do it before the right is taken away. Andrew Cuomo and Barack Hussein Obama are two best gun salesmen in the history of the world.”

So, what provisions prompted Hanley to buy another handgun?

Signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, the New York legislation tightens a ban on assault-style rifles, calls for background checks on ammunition purchases, outlaws large-capacity magazines and tries to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people deemed to be a threat.

Therefore he believes his right to own a handgun will be stripped from him. Okeydokey.

This disconnect between fact and reality is somewhat emblematic of the gun “enthusiasts.” Fight for decades to win an inch, finally gain a centimeter, and the gun crowd starts shouting about how you’ve taken a mile and are quickly approaching infinity.

I’ve gotten the same reaction countless times when I have discussed guns on the Internet. I can start my statement with a whole paragraph about how I believe there is an individual right to keep and bear arms, how I would never suggest a gun ban, and how the measures I wish to introduce would allow any law-abiding citizen to own a large number of guns. Then I lay down a set of reasonable gun control proposals with rationales for each.

Inevitably, the response from gun advocates begins, “You should never ban guns because….”

Chris Thiel of North Tonawanda has a pistol permit and belongs to a pistol league but doesn’t own a pistol. He described himself as a hobbyist and said he’s been thinking about buying an AR-15.

“Say this goes through and another tragedy happens and in New York state,” he said. “You’ve got to do more then? When does it end?”

Hopefully it ends with your having to go to a gun range to enjoy your hobby rather than 20 more children being slaughtered. Or is going to a club too high a price to pay for other people’s lives?

Here’s one way to see it: a person owns a car, but feels that it is unreasonable to force them to do any maintenance on it. They ignore many warning signs, a lot of minor problems, and let things accumulate. Finally, they are driving through a school zone and their brakes fail because they didn’t check the brake fluid and a leak drained it. The car goes out of control and runs down a crowd of schoolchildren. You may feel that just punishing the cretin is OK, but I would think that the parents of the dead children might not be so comforted by the late action.

The people, stunned by the horrible incident, approve passing a law that requires car owners to undergo regular brake maintenance to find such problems before such an incident happens again. However, car enthusiasts are livid. “It’s ridiculous,” they complain. “How long before the right to drive my car is taken away?” one driver asks.

“Say this goes through and another tragedy happens because of some other aspect of car maintenance,” another driver says. “You’ve got to do more then? When does it end?”

Seen in any other context, the arguments of the gun crowd would appear as ludicrous even to them as it does to the rest of us. Nor is it any comfort that the people furiously buying weapons are paranoid and stupid.

Just as a law requiring brake maintenance is not a harbinger of a total ban on driving cars, neither are New York’s laws—nor laws that go a great deal further—a harbinger of the loss of the right to keep and bear arms.

Face it: if you think you need a Bushmaster, and if you live in the United states and are not on duty in Afghanistan, you’re an ass. Your losing your ability to wield your toy and only be forced to register it is not a violation of your rights. It is, in fact, a violation of the rights to those around you, because your freedoms do not extend to actions that put your neighbors’ safety and even their lives at stake for an unnecessary bang-bang toy.

And that’s at the heart of this issue: virtually right we have is limited if it potentially infringes on the safety of others. You have the right to free speech, but not if it wrongly harms others, as in slander or reckless endangerment. You have the right to be protected from search and seizure, except where a court finds reason to void that right for public safety.

The gun advocates, however, seem to believe that they are exempt. We make everyone go through a long and difficult process to get a driver’s license, but a shorter and easier process to certify a person to use a gun—a tool specifically designed to kill people—somehow is an unbearable price to pay and must be stopped. How would you feel about an 18-year-old driving a car around your neighborhood without a day of training?

And the assault rifle? Well, why stop there? Why not allow hand grenades? Nerve gas? Or, if you want to weasel about how it’s only projectile weapons in question, then how about RPGs? Howitzers? The assault rifle belongs in the same category: it’s a military weapon, and has no place in our neighborhoods.

It’s time for people who own guns to stop being whiny, selfish pricks and start cooperating with completely reasonable public safety measures.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

People Kill People

January 12th, 2013 1 comment

Bernard Harcourt at the University of Chicago Law School makes an excellent point in the culture wars on the ownership of guns. He notes that the NRA, along with many pro-gun advocates, stand on the idea that guns are not the problem because “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

If this is true, then so is this statement: Gun control doesn’t kill people; people kill people.

The pro-gun argument about guns not killing people is that guns are “instrumentalities,” and as such, “are not to be blamed for what people do wrongly with them.”

The pro-gun argument is that gun control is dangerous, that it will lead to deaths and even exterminations, and as such, should be banned—but that guns themselves, although dangerous, should not be banned because people, not what the do or do not wield, are the core problem. You can see the inconsistency.

That said, the pro-gun crowd, like many of their conservative brethren, has not always been factually or logically oriented.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Guns and Hitler

January 10th, 2013 12 comments

Ever since I started debating gun control on Usenet forums in the early 90′s, one argument has been standard: Hitler took away his people’s guns, like all dictators take away their people’s guns. Gun bans open the door to dictators like Hitler taking over the country. In part of his insanely angry explosion at Piers Morgan, Alex Jones nearly screamed, “Hitler took the guns!”

Umm, no. Actually, He gave them back.

After the end of World War I, guns were heavily restricted. In 1938, Hitler changed gun laws in Germany to relax gun control laws—dropping restrictions on long guns and ammunition, expanding the number of people who needed no permits, lowering the minimum age for ownership, and extending permit periods. The same law prohibited Jews from owning firearms—the one point gun advocates focus on—but the law in general, contrary to how it is painted by people like Jones, made guns more freely available. Nor would have things been any significantly different had Jews not been excluded.

Not to mention the fact that Hitler came to power politically, and that personal firearm ownership was not even remotely an issue in his ascension. Had the Germans been fully armed during that period, Hitler would not have been stopped.

And while the gun nuts talk about Stalin taking the guns, the fact remains that when the Bolsheviks took power, they were armed. In fact, unlike many successful modern revolutions, many of the dictators came to power by way of armed force. Meaning that the presence of guns does not prevent dictators from taking power, which is the central theme in the gun advocates’ rants.

Nor does any of this necessarily translate into our current situation. The fact of the matter is, if America does fall into a dictatorship, it will likely be with the full-fledged support of people who own guns. Witness the Bush administration, in which many civil liberties were rolled back in a manner far more concomitant to dictatorships than any gun control. A national warrantless wiretapping program? Curtailment of legal safeguards whenever any claim, however bogus, of “national security” was invoked? “Rendition” of people to foreign countries to be tortured? Little of this set off alarm bells in the gun crowd; in fact, since Bush was considered no threat to gun ownership, gun advocates tended to be perfectly fine with, even enthusiastic about such measures.

The fact is, an American dictator would not fret about arms much. Tyrants worry far less about guns than they do communications and freedom of movement. Controlling communications is the number one priority—and yet you see none of these gun nuts worrying about communications much. Nor do they fret about car ownership, despite that being heavily regulated and controlled by the government.

Which brings us to what should be obvious: this is not about fear of incipient dictatorship. It’s a ruse, or at most a deluded fantasy. The one thing it is not is a relevant issue.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

The Slow Massacre

December 24th, 2012 1 comment

People across the nation reacted in horror when 20 young children died after being shot by a gunman at their elementary school.

People across the nation react not at all when four times as many children under 5, some of them toddlers, are shot by gunfire in the home.

Brennan Nowell, all of two years old, somehow was able to get and play with a handgun in his house. It seems clear that the gun was loaded and in a place where a 2-year-old could access it. Brennan died in the hospital Thursday night.

Sadly, he was not alone in that town:

This year alone, four Chattanooga-area children under the age of 14 have died because of accidental gunfire.

One boy was accidentally shot in a bathroom when a shotgun slipped, his family reported. An 11-year-old was shot in the face by her brother. A 3-year-old shot herself in the face with her grandfather’s handgun.

According to the CDC, 304 children under the age of 14 were killed by accidental gunfire in the U.S. between 2005 and 2009. That’s only accidental gunfire. Between 80 and 90 children a year under the age of 5 die from gunshot wounds, according to a different report. I could not find numbers on how many of those were accidental. Certainly a good number of them are bound to be.

Nor is Chattanooga the only place this happens:

On Saturday afternoon, a 3-year-old in Guthrie, Okla., died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with a gun he found inside his aunt and uncle’s house. His uncle is an Oklahoma state trooper.

Many states have “CAP” (Child Access Prevention) laws, but most states only treat them as misdemeanors. The Tennessee article reports that 6.6% of all gun owners in the state keep their weapons loaded and unlocked—a bad idea even without children, especially since guns stolen from homes (more than 300,000 per year) are a common source of firearms for criminals. People foolishly think that guns will make their homes safe, but criminals by nature rob homes that are empty, and will take guns when they find them.

As I have stated before, training, testing, and licensing should be mandatory for all gun possession, just as it is with automobile possession. I additionally believe that keeping guns locked away should also be mandatory, and emphasized as part of the training. Not keeping them locked should be a federal felony, whether or not they result in injury or death—though sadly, those will be the most common means by which violations will be discovered. Many people will stupidly believe that they are immune from having their unlocked guns taken by family or outsiders and will ignore the laws, but saving the life of even a few toddlers a year (more likely a few dozen, as well as probably hundreds of teens) is worth the effort, and then some.

Massacres such as the one in Newtown grab the headlines as well as national attention; however, the slow massacre of children is even more horrific, but is largely ignored.

Categories: Social Issues Tags: