Monday, January 12, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Understanding, and Forgiveness

Today we found out that the first cover of Charlie Hebdo appearing after the violent decimation of its staff features a caricature of the prophet Muhammed, a tear down his cheek, holding up a "Je Suis Charlie" sign. Above the caricature appear the words "tout est pardonné" (Everything is forgiven.) 

I feel tremendously moved by this cover choice, as I think it so poignantly addresses both of the serious issues staring us in the face in the aftermath of these killings. First, the issue of free speech (which just about everyone, even hypocrites, seem to acknowledge and claim to defend at the moment.) And second, the connection between racial and ethnic disadvantage of non-Westerners in the Western world and Islamic radicalization (a highly complicated and sensitive topic that most people seem to either horribly oversimplify or avoid entirely.)  

Guilaine Kinourani thoughtfully addresses this second issue through her personal experiences as a French woman of African descent in her article "Hatred breeds hatred": Charlie Hebdo, marginalization, and terrorism. She writes: 

"Is it not possible to hold both the position that the Charlie Hebdo killings were absolutely abhorrent and unjustifiable acts, whilst also calling for increased attention to be paid to the marginalisation of entire generations of citizens and its complex link to Islamic radicalisation and fundamentalism in France and elsewhere?"

Racism and ethnic bias are pervasive and breed resentment (or at least defensiveness) from many who suffer (and watch their loved-ones suffer) the consequences. Mass shootings are frequently perpetrated by white shooters, but those are regarded as lone nutjobs, not representatives of an entire religious or ethnic group. We don't see attacks on white men and white-owned businesses after such events, but anti-Arabism is real, and it becomes worse after events such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting, just as Muslim Americans (as well as Sikhs and anyone else who might of been perceived as Muslim) suffered increased discrimination and attacks after 9-11. Even in the small, suburban Quaker school I worked at in 2008, I heard a child in 7th grade casually declare that the United States should "Bomb Iraq and Iran until they are all dead" to solve the problem of Islamist terrorism. 

Howard Dean caught flack for insisting that we stop referring to violent Islamists as "Muslim terrorists", saying: 

"I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They're about as Muslim as I am. I mean, they have no respect for anybody else's life, that's not what the Koran says." 

I agree with the general sentiment and applaud Dean for speaking out in defense of the vast majority of Muslims who are just as peace-loving as anyone else. 

Finding the most appropriate language, that is accurate yet not racially-charged is difficult. Dean is using "radicals", which I don't like because it's so vague it sounds euphemistic, and also not all people with "radical" views are violent. I try to stick to using the term "Islamist" which has been designated to specifically refer to those who use or support the use of violence to establish their own interpretation of Islam and sharia law.  

In 2011, Charlie Hebdo's editor Stephane Charbonnier or Charb (who was killed in this month's shooting) expressed a similar sentiment to Dean. He responded to a  fire-bombing of Charlie Hebdo by Islamists in retribution over another cover depicting Muhammad, calling the perpetrators "stupid people who don't know what Islam is"  and "idiots who betray their own religion". These statements defend Islam the religion by asserting that a truer adherence to that faith would not result in a violent attack on an anti-racist, left-wing satirical newspaper. 

I see many parallels between Islamist and Christian fundamentalists (and I'm not the only one), including the targeting of liberal secularists, who might superficially look like the enemy because our worldview and values seem so counter to a socially conservative religious perspective. But liberal secularists are not the enemy, because as much as our ilk might mock and satirize conservative religiosity, all mockery and criticism is done with the assumption that pluralism and freedom will always remain part of the equation. 

Meanwhile, the real causes of suffering-that-breeds-extremism goes unacknowledged. For example, divorce rates are highest in the Bible belt. This is most likely the result of growing economic instability, especially in more rural communities, leaving so many would-be-bread-winning men under-employed and demoralized, and so many women with children dependent on welfare and charity. And yet frequently feminism and marriage equality activism is blamed for the "decline of marriage." These are serious socio-economic problems and real human suffering. Alas, the blame is misplaced. 

It is so appropriate that this week's cover of Charlie Hebdo will depict a Muhammed who weeps for and stands with the slain journalists, under a statement of forgiveness. The editors offer a hand in the spirit of brotherly and sisterly love, but in a way they know will be taken as offensive by some, because it is the only way to do so in a manner that is also true to themselves. 

There is a French proverb that I have accepted as truth since the first time I heard it, years ago. It says, Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner (If all were understood, all would be forgiven.) 

Or in the words of the Dresden Dolls:  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Talking to my Kid About Gun Violence

When the Sandy Hook shooting happened last year, adults were discussing it and the topic of gun violence and gun control a lot, and so it was inevitable that my then-four-year-old daughter would pick some of that information up.

I learned her interest when she told me that she wanted a gun for Christmas so that she could shoot and kill me. Then she laughed, as if this were a funny joke.

What followed was me explaining the concept of death to my kid for the first time. What ultimately hit home for her was the idea that once someone is dead, she would never see them again. They were gone, forever. She started crying at the very thought of it, and as much as it pained me to see her suffer like that, I was glad that she was beginning to understood that real violence can have real horrible consequences.

My thinking is that if a kid is old enough to play-act scenes of violence, to watch cartoons that act out violence (often with no consequences), he or she is old enough to at least have a cursory understanding of what that parallels in reality.

I found myself thinking about this today as we drove home from her school, and she noticed the field of t-shirts on crosses at the Lutheran Seminary, each individual shirt in memorial to a specific victim of illegal gun violence in Philadelphia. My daughter, who has just turned five, asked about the shirts.

In simple terms, I told her the truth: "Those shirts are for people who were killed by guns in our city. So we remember them, and so people stop shooting each other." My voice cracked as I said it. At a stop light, I turned to examine one shirt more closely; its victim's age, 2 years. My daughter's voice peeped up, "Don't feel sad, mama. It'll be okay."

“I think it is unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, white-clouded happy childhood for anybody. Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goes wrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as a human being. You’re going to trip over that for a good part of your life.” -Maurice Sendak 

Adults so often try to hide these hard realities from kids, but how can we hide what is right there, out in the open for all to see? How can we hide what we are discussing constantly? How can we stop our voices from cracking? Trying to hide the ugliness of the world seems much worse, as kids aren't that stupid, and they will at least know that something is up. Or worse, they'll grow up only associating guns with a bunch of romantic, fictional imagery.

I suppose the retort to that might be something such as, But what if it gives kids nightmares? What if they can't sleep at night for fear that they will be shot by some violent criminal?

So far my daughter hasn't expressed any such fears for her own safety, and she sleeps just fine. I'm the one sometimes kept up by the sound of gunshots in the distance, and haunted by a t-shirt in memorial to a toddler.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Thoughts After Reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Tomorrow I'll begin taking a free adult education class called Extinction: Life On Earth and Human Impact (offered through the Wagner Free Institute for Science.) Because I'm the sort of person who likes to spend my precious-little free time learning nerdy nature/science stuff, regardless of how depressing it might be. 

A few days ago I finished one of the recommended readings, The Sixth Extinction by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, published earlier this year. Though it covers a sobering topic, it is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to all lovers or nature and all those with even a passing curiosity about the nitty gritty details of how humans are transforming the global ecosystem. 

The best thing about this book is the way it is organized. Each chapter zooms in on either the plight of a species either already extinct, or on the brink of doom. For example, the Great Auk, hunted to extinction before the turn of the 20th century, or the Panamanian Golden Frog, one of many frog species which were plentiful only a decade ago, but are now critically endangered. 

Kolbert did her footwork. She traveled around the world to witness the places where extinctions happened and are happening, and to interview the scientists trying to piece together what occurred, and conservationists desperately trying to preserve or restore what remains. Kolbert takes us readers into a cave where the floor is piled with frozen bat carcasses. She wades us into waters populated by scores of exotic and sometimes terrifying sea creatures: jagged coral, struggling sea turtles, stinging stone fish, and an octopus who can kill with one bite. If, like me, you have not the time nor funds to go to the Amazonian rain forest or Great Coral Reef yourself, reading this book can help take you there in your imagination. 

By connecting both ancient and recent extinction with currently endangered species, Kolbert builds the case for what scientists have been calling the Holocene Extinction (a mass extinction event caused by humans). As Kolbert emphasizes, it might soon be re-named the Anthropocene Extinction, in acknowledgement the enormity of our impact on the biosphere. 

In the final chapter, Kolbert writes about the black-faced honeycreeper, which is thought to have gone extinct in the fall of 2004. As I read this, I couldn't help but think about what I was doing in 2004. As it so happens, I got married that year in the late spring. So just as I was beginning my life-partnership with my husband, the black-faced honeycreeper was ending its existence as a living species. Though I lived to witness this animal go extinct during my lifetime, our daughters were born after it was already gone. This sort of sad event is happening constantly, and the evidence that it is due to human activity has become as overwhelming as the reminder of our species' own limited lifespan. 

Kolbert's tone manages to be rather upbeat. Though deeply concerned, she never comes off as alarmist, nor does she shake her finger at only certain perpetrators. Instead, she draws the reader into specific situations, lays out all the facts, connects the up-close experience to the bigger picture, and finally wraps it up with a few poignant phrases. (I've highlighted three of my favorite lines from the book in this blog post in green.) She makes it clear that we humans are all in this together. Indeed, radically transforming our environment at a rapid pace (geologically speaking) might be written into our genetic code. 

By the end, it is clear that Kolbert's heart is most with the animals going extinct. It was here that I felt my concerns diverge a bit from the author's. As much as my heart bleeds for the rhinos and corals, throughout my reading of the book, I found myself wondering, what does this mean for us? As beautiful and evocative as I find the natural world, and as sad as is the thought of losing so many species (especially the most charismatic ones), I must admit that my main concern regarding these mass extinctions is that in causing such profound disruptions to the global ecosystem, we humans are making the planet inhospitable to us. 

Last week the UN just had its annual Summit On Climate Change. Some, such as Gustavo Fonseca are hopeful about the world's nations finally taking strong action to combat the forces changing our planet. Others, such as Nick Cunningham, were little impressed.

Right now I'm rather pessimistic that the world's leaders and citizenry have the will to take actions most necessary and based in both hard science and human compassion. It certainly didn't help that during the Summit, I drove across my home state of Pennsylvania, encountering a steady clip of pro-fracking, anti-environmentalist billboards paid for by the Coal industry. 

I would like to think that if anything could bring humanity, so deeply divided by ethnicity, race, religion, and class, together, it might be the cause of climate change. But those problems are simply too large, slow-moving (in human terms), and complex for most of us to grasp, much less feel emotionally engaged enough to act. While the UN Summit happened, ISIS had been committing horrific atrocities in an attempt to establish a new Islamic State, the US and allies geared up to bomb Syria, and Vladimir Putin was busy turning Russia into a war state. That's only naming a few, big and current clusterfucks in the affairs of humankind. It is as if most people are too busy feuding with their neighbors over inches of property line, meanwhile rising sea levels might soon claim their entire homes. 

With headlines about beheadings of journalists by Islamic radicals, and invading Russian military forces in the Ukraine thinly disguised as humanitarian aid, I can understand why many people are more concerned about other animals going extinct than the possibility of humans destroying ourselves. 

That said, the only reason we feel angst over the animals going extinct is because of our uniquely human capacity to find meaning and assign values to those lives. Bats don't write symphonies, and frogs don't even care for their young, much less experience years of wonder and hope, tinged with anxiety, as they watch their offspring develop into adults. I want to save the bat, frog, rhino, coral, and all the rest, because I want the world, this world, for my children, and for all children, and their children, and their children.... 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Oversimplification of Hawks and Doves

Today begins Peace Day Philly's week of activities and events leading up to the International Day of Peace. As can be expected, it is a full schedule of mediation workshops, volunteer opportunities, films, music concerts and other performances, and talks by peace activists, all free and open to the public. 

This holiday began with a 1981 Resolution by the United Nations General Assembly. Today it continues to be celebrated all around the world. (Check out this website to find events near you.) 

This year's Day of Peace comes in a timely manner, just days after President Obama announced plans to bomb in Syria. Obama stated: 

“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

Of course this actions has many critics. Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink held a protest outside the white house. On Democracy Now she said, 

"I think President Obama has been hounded by the media, by the war hawks in Congress, mostly from the Republican side but also from the Democrats, and is going into this insane not only bombing in Iraq, but also talking about going into Syria, at a time when just a couple of months ago the American people had made it very clear that we were very tired of war." 

But are Americans tired of war? According to polls, a solid majority of Americans do support more airstrikes in Syria. Of course as Jon Stewart pointed out on the September 12 episode of The Daily Show (4 min, 30 second in), half of Americans can't even identify Syria on a map. 

Some formerly anti-intervention Libertarians such as Rand Paul are beginning to change their stance, much to the glee of those eager to increase military involvement. In response to this article in the Washington Post, John McCain tweeted, "It's gratifying to see all these doves turn into hawks!" 

I first heard the terms "dove" and "hawk" as they are applied to those for or against military engagement in 2002, during discussions over whether the Iraq War was justified by the supposed "weapons of mass destruction" held by Saddam Hussein's regime. Over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, 4,800 allied forces casualties, and $1.1 trillion in US war spending later, we all now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and as awful a dictator at Hussein was, the destabilization of the region has only made matters even worse for the people living in Iraq. 

Now here we are, out of the frying pan and into the fire. Except to most Americans, this all might as well be a video game or fictional tv special. The violence, destruction, upheaval, and grief is happening so far away. It directly touches the lives of so few Americans. 

Looking at polls, not just the Pew poll mentioned above, but CNN's recent polling of American opinions regarding the threat of Isis and how the US should respond, I find myself pondering what the terms "hawk" and "dove" really mean. The terms never set right with me. 

To start off, the dove as a peace symbol comes from the most violent, horrific event in the entire Bible. After using a great flood to exterminate the entire human population (except Noah and his family) including babies and children, plus most life on earth, the (supposedly benevolent) God sends Noah a sign in the form of a dove holding an olive branch to signify that his global massacre is over, and now life can start again with the ark's survivors. What the hell does such a story say about achieving peace? Every time I hear a so-called "hawk" on television or radio say of the "terrorists" that we should "kill them all" or "wipe them off the face of the earth" I am reminded of the Biblical flood and the Judeo-Christian God's solution for dealing with the failings of humankind. 

In contrast, why do we call people who are quick to go to war "hawks"? Because hawks are efficient predatory birds? Indeed they are, but like all predatory animals, hawks only kill because they need to in order to survive, they only kill as much as they need, and they only go after the easiest targets in order to minimize risk to their own health and safety. They are in harmony with the ecosystem, picking off just enough of the weakest prey animals to keep those populations from getting out of control and depleting the resources of the local environment. How wonderful it would be if humans were more like hawks! 

Alas, humans are humans. And one of the many dumb things we do as a species is to simplify incredibly complex, life-and-death situations and strategies into black and white labels such as "doves and hawks." 

I do not know how much of a threat ISIS is to US national security (although I suspect not much.) I can't even begin to guess what will be the long-term impact of ISIS on international relations whether the US becomes heavily involved in the fight against the Islamic state or not. I read conflicting opinions on people who actually spend their careers studying these issues, and if they can't agree, how can I hope to know better? Had I been asked most of the questions on the Pew and CNN polls, I would like to think I would be honest with both the pollster and myself and answer "I don't know." I wish more Americans were enlightened enough to realize how often we express strong opinions on matter of which we know little, and yet which will have serious consequences on the lives of thousands, or millions of our brothers and sisters. 

What I do know is that any military intervention, even if the net result is less long-term suffering and greater security, causes death, destruction, pain, grief, and lingering animosity. Nobody should have a glint in their eye, a smile on their face, or feel "gratified" in a smug way when he or she speaks of bombing "the enemy". It should always be regarded as a gravely serious and risky undertaking that if we do, we do only because we are convinced we must. 

Look to the hawk. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Andrew W.K. Insults Us (Who Don't Pray)

Last week a person of secular worldview wrote to advice columnist for the Village Voice Andrew W.K. From here on out I'll refer to him or her by their signature NGP (Not Gonna Pray.) NGP's brother had been diagnosed with cancer, causing a great deal of anxiety and confusion among family members over how to deal with the situation. NGP's grandmother suggested: 

...we should all just "pray for my brother," like prayer would actually save his life. Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. 

NGP's vocal opposition to grandma's call for prayer caused more upset within the family, and NGP concludes the letter to Andrew W.K. with: 

I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn't help. How do I explain this to them?

Andrew W.K. started off by defining prayer as "a type of thought" that involves concentrating one's thoughts and feelings on a particular person or object. He tells NGP: 

I'll bet you're already praying all the time and just don't realize it.

Nevermind that no common definition of prayer resembles Andrew W.K.'s. It is none of the 7 found at The dictionary defines prayer as either the attempt to communicate with God, a "religious observance", or as NGP interprets grandma's suggestion as: "a petition, entreaty." Wikipedia's opening sentence on prayer would probably sound about right to most people: 

Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity, an object of worship, or a spiritual entity through deliberate communication.
Admittedly, Encyclopedia Britannica's opening definition is vague enough to include Andrew W.K.'s definition. 

Found in all religions in all times, prayer may be a corporate or personal act utilizing various forms and techniques. 

But that hardly gives credence to W.K.'s indication that his definition is the definition, or that it is the definition being used by NGP's family. 

Nevermind, also, that people are constantly crediting supernatural intervention for all manner of good fortune, from hitting a home run to preventing a suicide, and regardless of how often misfortune occurs. 

Having established that NGP apparently doesn't even know what prayer really is, W.K. goes on to call those who refuse to pray stubborn and arrogant. According to W.K., the "X factor" in prayer is "humility." 

If there are any other out-atheists reading this, you've no doubt encountered this awful stereotype of us before. And people wonder why so many of us are frequently angry and frustrated. But I digress. 

As if these personal assaults on the character of NGP (who, remember, is a person suffering not only from recent news that his or her brother has cancer, but from family tensions) weren't enough, after going on and on in flowery descriptions about the correct way to pray (which, again, fits no commonly accepted definition of prayer) Andrew W.K. finishes off by chiding NGP for his or her disrespect toward grandma. NGP is instructed to make amends: 

I want you to pray for your brother right now. As a gesture to your grandmother — who, if she didn't exist, neither would you. I want you to pray right now, just for the sake of challenging yourself. I want you to find a place alone, and kneel down — against all your stubborn tendencies telling you not to — and close your eyes and think of one concentrated thought: your brother.
Then get up and go be with him and your family. And you can tell your grandmother that you prayed for your brother.

Andrew W.K.'s solution to NGP's problem is basically for him to redefine prayer so broadly and vaguely that he can appear to share his family's worldview, thus rendering his secular worldview invisible. In other words, back into the closet with you, naughty atheist! 

There are those, such as Amanda Shea at Mad World who found Andrew W.K,'s response to NGP "EPIC." I found it to be a condescending screed that failed to understand NGP's point of view, and worse, re-enforced damning stereotypes that have plagued us secular folk for too long. 

Of course I can't know how NGP felt after reading such a personally insulting response from someone he or she trusted enough to seek advice from, but I imagine pretty damn bad. In my involvement with organized secular humanism, atheism, and skepticism, I have met so many people tormented by feelings of isolation as their families condemn them for their lack of faith under the pretense of love.   

It is hard, if not impossible, to empathize with a totally different worldview. It upsets me when my fellow atheists lack the curiosity to learn about the various theistic perspectives, and instead project false assumptions about all religious and spiritual mindsets, and then go on to belittle religious and spiritual people based on those assumptions. Likewise, it upsets me when people like Andrew W.K do the same damn thing to one of us. 

I don't know if NGP will ever read this blog post. But for NGP and anyone else out there who might be suffering from a similar problem, here's what I would have advised: 

Dear Not Gonna Pray, 

I'm sorry that your brother, you, and all your family have to deal with this situation. 

Keep in mind that at times such as these, emotions run high, and family tensions tend to flare up. You might need to step away to work through some of this matter on your own or with friends who share your perspective before engaging with your family again. 

When you say: "We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him", I take that to mean that you want to gather as much pertinent information as is available that might help your family understand your brother's illness, so that you can be most effective in your support of him and hopefully his recovery. If so, I completely agree with you. 

That said, the first thing you need to accept is the uncertainty of the situation. Even with the best doctors working on his case, any course of treatment will carry certain risks and only rate a percentage of possible success. Like predicting the weather, even though science is involved that helps us make more accurate predictions, prognosis comes down to the chances of this or that happening. That might sound a bit cold and clinical, but it is hard truth. 

That hard truth is exactly why people with religious faith turn to prayer. When your grandmother suggests that everyone "just pray", that might be her way of finding acceptance of the uncertainty of your brother's health. Granted, plenty of people (if not most) pray in the hopes that God or some other Higher Power will actually intervene and fix the problem. And maybe your grandmother or other family members mean it that way. But whatever prayer is for them, you can't change their minds about the importance of it, and you shouldn't try. It will only cause strife and family division, and that will hurt everyone, including your brother. 

Years ago my grandmother was staying at my house on Christmas Eve. My mother had gone to midnight mass, and I, as a young woman who had lost any faith in religion or gods, refused to go with her. My grandmother was too ill at the time to physically go to church, so she watched the Pope give service on television. I was a pretty out-atheist and assumed my family had accepted my atheism, so I was shocked when my grandmother tried to get me to watch mass with her and seemed to shame me for not going to church with my mom. We ended up getting into a rather nasty argument about whether God exists and actually intervenes in the lives of humans in response to prayers and faith. At some point I stormed off, angry and frustrated. Almost immediately, my grandmother called me back to sit with her on the couch. She didn't say anything that would re-ignite the argument. Instead she just took my hand and told me that she loved me. I told her I loved her, too. 

She passed away soon after that evening, and in my grief I felt so much gratitude toward her for making that peace with me. Even if we didn't share a worldview, we shared the same priorities when it came to family. 

You and your family can have your different perspectives on prayer and still love and support each other fully. Once you agree to disagree, you can move on to more practical matters, such as who is going to bring your brother meals on what days while he's recovering from his cancer treatments. 


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Beyoncé's Feminism

Let me start by saying that I neither love nor hate the music and performances of Beyoncé. I'm not even familiar with them. Couldn't give the title of a single song off the top of my head. (I don't listen to a lot of pop music except what I catch on the radio while driving whenever I'm bored with NPR.) Being neither a fan nor a hater, I'm in a good position to dispassionately evaluate the approach in which Beyoncé has promoted feminism as of late, and the media response to her approach.

If you haven't seen the performance, here it is, and I recommend watching it. I just did, and first and foremost it is 14 minutes of mesmerizing vocals and choreography. During part of the song Flawless, words defining and advocating feminism from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (an African writer also known for her TED talk) flash across a giant screen. You can read the full lyrics of the song which include Adichie's statements in verse 2 here.

Editor of the Federalist Mollie Hemingway lays down pretty typical conservative spin on this, claiming that Beyoncé's performance at the VMAs proves "feminism right now is an incoherent mess of double standards." Hemingway's reasoning is that Beyoncé's hyper-sexual performance is at odds with feminist objections to the objectification of women. The problem is, even if one finds the sexual segments of the medley too bawdy to be in good taste, the performance doesn't read as objectification. The gist is clearly that the woman is being sexual assertive and seeking her own sexual gratification as much as that of her partner. The most sexual part of the entire performance is followed up by the voice of Adichie (and her words projected on the backdrop), commenting, "We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boy are." Beyoncé is certainly an exhibitionist, but that she does it for her own gain and pleasure is made explicit. 

Megyn Kelly who interviews Hemingway snarkily comments, "But she's okay with 'Bow down bee-otch" (her mis-pronunciation proving that Kelly hasn't actually watched the performance or know those lyrics in their full context.) The line "bow down bitches" is chanted as a challenge to other women to acknowledge, value, and be inspired by Beyoncé's ambition and success that goes beyond the domestic sphere. Again, the lyrics from Adichie in the song read, "We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men." Oh, those pesky details getting in the way of Hemingway's and Kelly's conservative spin. 

Hemingway makes a judgmental comment about Beyoncé as a parent in this article, saying: 

I mean, it wasn't totally usual in that Beyoncé's toddler child was in the audience to witness all this dry-humping and simulated getting down, but other than that, your typical Beyoncé. 

I am perfectly comfortable with either of my toddler children watching this performance, because first of all, they wouldn't even understand the most sexually explicit lyrics (and by the time they do understand, they'll be mature enough to process it), and in case anyone hasn't noticed, we live in a culture that is absolutely saturated with sexually suggestive images of women. Does Hemingway never notice billboards or magazine covers featuring women in provocative outfits giving bedroom eyes to the viewer with their lips suggestively parted that are everywhere? At least in Beyoncé's performance the glittery butts are attached to professional dancers who are not just on display for us to gawk, but actually engaged in an impressive dance routine. 

The biggest problem with Mollie Hemingway's criticism of feminism is that what might appear as an incoherent mess can be pretty quickly sorted out if one bothers to take a close enough look.

I'm not going to go into details that anyone can look up on Wikipedia, but I can put this particular performance in some context. After all the major successes of what is often called first wave feminism (voting and property rights) and second wave feminism (reproductive rights, equal opportunity in jobs and education, changes in attitudes regarding gender roles) we entered into an era where feminism is suffering from its own success. Some leaders in the movement thought the next big fight should be against abuses of women in the sex industry (sometimes dubbed "anti-porn feminists"), but there was backlash against those leaders because some anti-porn feminists allied with religious conservatives, and also because it could be perceived as an attack on women who work in the sex industry, including those who enjoy and make a good living off their work. Thus we had the birth of sex-positive feminism, which emphasizes women's sexual freedom as a fundamental to the goals of the feminist movement.

While there are still anti-porn feminists, it is clear that sex-positive feminists are winning that war. Beyonce's uber-sexually titillating performance juxtaposed with the feminist label is nothing new. Candida Royalle is a former porn actress who produces and directs pornographic films for couples and which specifically aim to appeal to female sexual desire. Feminists Against Censorship is an organization in the UK whose mission is to prevent censorship, particularly of materials with sexual content. Hell, just check out sex-positive feminist Annie Sprinkle's website.

There is a middle ground between the extremes of Andrea Dworkin who wrote "No woman needs intercourse, few women escape it." and Camille Pagilia, who justified "certain forms of rape" as "what used to be called unbridled love."

I suspect that most feminists, such as myself, fall in this middle ground. I wouldn't label myself an "anti-porn feminist" because I think porn, while often a shady, manipulative and degrading (to both men and women) industry, can and often is produced under ethical conditions. Similarly, I'm also not against legal prostitution across the board, but I am deeply concerned about how any form of prostitution - legal or otherwise - is run and regulated, given the abuses common to that industry.

While I'm totally cool with Beyoncé's hyper-sexual VMA performance as the act of a particular artist in the appropriate venue for such a performance, I am disturbed by the omnipresence of images of women displayed in a cheap, narrow, and generically titillating fashion for the real purpose of making a quick buck. Context matters. 

This issues are not black and white. They are not simple. Of course there will be endless debate within the feminist movement. That doesn't change the fact that issues of inequality exist and call out for research and thoughtful discussion followed by plans of action. Feminism is the social movement that specifically addresses issues of sexual inequality. And, gee, sorry if that gets complicated because the world is complicated. When Mollie Hemingway dismisses feminism as meaningless, she undermines the work of grassroots feminists who are working to achieve and maintain sexual equality.

I do think some of the liberal, feminist response to Beyoncé's VMA performance is rather over-enthusiastic. 

Jessica Bennett wrote in Time that Beyoncé has "accomplished what feminists have long struggled to do: She’s reached the masses." She goes on:

Universally loved, virtually unquestioned, and flawless, the 33-year-old entertainer seems to debunk every feminist stereotype you’ve ever heard. Beyoncé can’t be a man-hater – she’s got a man (right?). Her relationship – whatever you believe about the divorce rumors – has been elevated as a kind of model for egalitarian bliss: dual earners, adventurous sex life, supportive husband and an adorable child held up on stage by daddy while mommy worked. Beyoncé’s got the confidence of a superstar but the feminine touch of a mother. And, as a woman of color, she’s speaking to the masses – a powerful voice amid a movement that has a complicated history when it comes to inclusion.
Oh, yes, it is totally refreshing and exciting for sex-positive, third-wave feminists to see a successful, talented, black woman taking ownership of the feminist label in the expressive languages of R&B, hip hop, and soul. But how much of what Bennett writes is hopeful hype? Clearly Beyoncé is a talented artist and super-celebrity, but when it comes to the shifting socio-political landscape with regards to women's equality, is she taking us in a new direction, or really just part of a tide that was already moving that way? 

Amanda Marcotte writing for Slate, remarks: 

Having dismantled the idea that feminists are just ugly wannabes during her performance, she might as well clean house by smashing the notion that feminists hate men or are somehow not maternal.
Oh give me a break. There are plenty of self-declared feminists out there who are, while not as stunning as Beyoncé, perfectly attractive, happily married, and mothers, so as far as I can tell, the accusations from assholes like Rush Limbaugh that feminists are "ugly" and "man-haters" should have been laughed into oblivion the moment he said them. And yet they weren't. Stereotypes of feminists as ugly, bitter man-haters took hold and continue to thrive.

Those who perpetuate or who eagerly accept those stereotypes will not be moved to change their minds by Beyoncé. Like Mollie Hemingway, conservatives are mocking the idea of Beyoncé as a feminist, using her VMA performance as proof that feminism is contradictory and meaningless, and then just for good measure, shaming Beyoncé for being, as Megyn Kelly puts it, skanky

What Amanda Marcotte suggests is that feminism needs a ridiculously gorgeous performer who wears scantily clad clothing and dances and sings in a manner that would rival the greatest stripper act in its ability to titillate the average straight man in order to refute the stereotypes of feminists as ugly man-haters. But we don't, and we never did.

Fans of Beyoncé who are totally ignorant of feminist history and current issues and grassroots action might take an interest in it because of her, but I doubt we're suddenly going to see a surge in feminist activism or a big bump in the percentage of people labeling themselves "feminist" any time soon

Indeed, what good does the trendy rebranding of the "feminist" label do to achieve actual equality of the sexes? Lauren Duca writing for Huffington Post points out that Beyoncé championed feminism in the midst of an award show rife with old-fashioned sexist behavior. She writes:
The VMAs are like a petri dish for all of the misogynistic crap in the music industry: It is the reality of refusing to accept women as legitimate artists and reducing them to sexual objects boiled down into a handy two-hour television special.
Duca concludes that Beyoncé's efforts are futile unless the label and definition of feminism she promotes are taken into action. 

Beyonce isn't just hot in the sense that she turns on most men (and no doubt a lot of women, too.) She's hot in the sense that she's known and adored by the general public. She has reached the apex of popularity. It's called pop culture for a reason. Feminism is not hot. It's not popular. So those devoted to the feminist cause and the feminist label are getting a huge charge out of it being adopted and promoted by such a hot celebrity. That's great and all, but I'm skeptical that it goes any deeper than that. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sin in the Secular Age: Smoking and Obesity

The Judeo-Christian concept of sin is an offence against capital-G God. It is going against His will or plan for us human beings. Some sins are considered minor (venial sins), others are major (mortal sins), but any type of sin carries with it not only consequences in this life, but in the life hereafter. Unless, of course, the sinner is sufficiently repentant, and in the cases of some religious sects, adhering to the correct faith.

We who hold a secular worldview today scoff at the concept of sin, and for a few good reasons.

First, while many behaviors traditionally regarded as sinful do harm (such as lying and stealing) others are not necessarily harmful and might even be beneficial to a person's well-being (such as having healthy sexual relationships outside of marriage.)

Second, inherent in the concept of sin is an additional punishment for supposed misdeeds. It is not enough that lying carries the risk of being caught and not trusted in the future, or that those who steal risk trial and punishment by law enforcement. There must also be the threat of either extra time in purgatory, or eternal torment in hell.

Third, the concept of sin tends to glaze over the reasons behind peoples' misdeeds and focus on punishment. Sin easily goes from being a verb (something a person capable of good or evil has done) to the noun sinner (a person whose fundamental nature is wicked.) When this happens, anger, righteousness and condescension trump humility and compassion. Punishment is emphasized over prevention or more constructive ways to modify harmful behaviors.

The thing is, these problems with sin are not exclusive to those of Judeo-Christian faith. Just as many people of faith emphasize compassion and forgiveness over self-righteous judgement, many secular people have adopted a sort of secular concept of sin.

One example of this is rising premiums on health insurance for smokers. The trend began a few years ago, and the Affordable Care Act does nothing to stop it.

All the problems with sin are present: These measures punish all smokers, even those who smoke in moderation and/or who suffer from no health problems directly connected to their smoking. It adds punishments in addition to the possible ill-effects of smoking (which disproportionately impacts those with lower income, who I might add are those more likely to smoke and have more difficulty quitting.) And instead of addressing the root causes of tobacco addiction and finding non-punitive ways of helping addicts who want to quit do so, it simply punishes them, hoping that these additional punishments will be the deterrent that finally works.

Let's look at a second, similar example: The rising cost of health insurance is driving many companies to pressure obese employees to meet arbitrary weight-loss goals and into participating in often humiliating weight-loss programs. Again, the Affordable Care Act does nothing to stop this discrimination against the obesity in the workplace.  

And again, all the problems with sin are present: These measures punish all (and only) obese people, regardless of any individualized assessment of their health and lifestyle, and while ignoring those who are thin but unhealthy for other reasons. It adds punishments in addition to the possible health problems that disproportionately impact many obese people (not to mention the social discrimination obese people face because they are outside mainstream measures of attractiveness.) Instead of addressing root causes of diseases correlated with obesity (such as diabetes and heart disease), it burdens and shames an entire class of people, hoping that will change their behavior and that those hypothetical changes will yield desirable outcomes.

Smokers and the obese do not need more arbitrary consequences from employers and health insurance companies. Either they are perfectly happy with their behavior choices, or they are not and already have enough motivation and challenges for modifying their behavior. In the case of the former, bug-off because we all have our personal indulgences which are nobody's damn business. In the case of the latter, people need encouragement when and from whom they request it.

While all of our day to day choices will never be 100% in line with our personal goals and values, we can always strive toward personal improvement. The benchmarks are different for different people based on circumstances. Not everyone's values are identical nor should they be. Knowing how much a person smokes or drinks or how much he or she weighs does not give a measure of how hard he or she is working toward personal improvement.

Perhaps some of you reading this post think smokers and obese people should be further punished for their behavior, either because their transgressions deserve it, or you are convinced (despite evidence to the contrary) that shaming people actually works. If that is the case, I implore you, go hang out with the Religious Right where you belong.