I’m on Twitter. I don’t post with it all that much and I honestly don’t have the knowledge or the inclination to build a larger Twitter presence. It’s a kind of social networking proficiency I’ll never grasp, and that’s okay because for me, Twitter is more about what other people are saying, not what I can say. I’m a little too wordy to ever effectively utilize the medium.
I was one of the countless people who absolutely shit on the idea when I first heard about it. A kind of Facebook Status Update minus all the other features and with a limit of 140 characters? Who would use that, and more importantly, why? It seemed designed for the kind of banal, self-centered, grammar-challenged postings that are the bread and butter of teenagers. Why would anyone want teenagers to have even more ways of expressing their pointless ‘opinions.’
Well, it turns out my kneejerk reaction was ill-informed and hasty. Twitter is full of teenage idiocy (and adult idiocy), certainly, but there is so much more to it than that. From interesting articles to hilarious one-liners and thoughtful conversations, Twitter is actually an impressive and useful amalgamation of all the best things on the internet (it’s also a collective for the worst things, because Twitter is essentially the Cliff Notes of the World Wide Web).
Today alone, my feed has been filled with a couple related but separate conversations that I found endlessly interesting. One was a debate that Michael Ian Black has spurred, anew, about ‘Rape Jokes’ and whether they are ever permissible (a topic I covered during the recent Daniel Tosh kerfuffle). This seems to be one of Twitter (and the internet’s) favorite topics of debate, and while it so often breaks down into histrionics, MIB was making some wonderfully un-hysterical points.
The other was a conflict between Patton Oswalt and Aaron Belz (a man I’ve never heard of until today) because of the latter’s apparent defense of Sammy Rhodes, who Oswalt accused of joke thievery. Rhodes has since taken the particular tweet down, so I don’t actually know which joke it was, but I spent a good amount of time going down the rabbit hole trying to find out. This basically came down to whether or not you were a fan of each respective joke teller, but Oswalt is a bigger name and a more talented debater, so the fight felt pretty one-sided (plus, joke stealing is never okay: If I see something funny, I retweet it directly).
As both topics are hugely contentious subjects among stand up comedians, I read each one of them with quite a bit of fascination (if not at least a little bit of schadenfreude). No, neither topic was going to be settled, but unlike blog posts or comment sections, a Twitter debate has immediacy to it. It’s as close as the internet gets to a coffeeshop debate. Granted, Twitter isn’t the best medium for finely nuanced discussion, but the character restriction does require that participants whittle down their arguments to their most cogent and relevant points (ideally).
I follow plenty of provocative writers and thinkers, including Ezra Klein, Cory Doctorow, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anonymous to name a few, but comedians and humorists are clearly the most adept to and well-suited for the medium. This isn’t just because Twitter is a natural place for one-liners. As Shakespeare once wrote (or didn’t because SHAKESPEARE IS A LIE), “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Intelligent, funny people tend to know how to get the most humor out of concise thoughts, because nothing kills a joke like an endless, meandering build.*
Even a year ago, I would have said I could give or take my Twitter account. I only created it because I felt like I should have one. I was basically peer pressured into it. But, recently I’ve found that Twitter can be a limitless stream of humorous, insightful and/or challenging thoughts. It’s better than Facebook or Stumbleupon for presenting me with links of interest, not because it’s more refined in its targeting (its a whole lot less refined) but because the sheer number of posts is so massive. And unlike Facebook, it doesn’t attempt to weed out posts based on what it thinks I’ll be interested in, it just gives me everything.
Now, that can be overwhelming from time to time. Sometimes looking at Twitter is like having dozens of magazines and newspapers dropped in my lap. While I’ll never have the time or focus to read every single news item that looks interesting, it’s nice knowing that that repository is there when I want it.
And of course, the power of Twitter’s omnipresence can be both marvelous (See: Political uprisings around the world) and dangerous (See: The Boston Bomber Manhunt), but that’s true of any tool. And that’s just it, Twitter is a tool, neither inherently good or bad. Twitter is a lesson for everyone who claims that technology is ruining society: It’s not about the technology, it’s about who has access to it.
Consider me converted. Humanity created something that seemed solely designed for the frivolous and managed to elevate it to the level of profound discourse. And pictures of food.
Plus, when I just need a good laugh, my Twitter cup overflowth:
Not to harp on this subject any longer, but one of the funnier comments left on the Washington Post article was one referring to me, inexplicably, as a “Pretentious Hipster Doofus.” Or something like that, I’m not really gonna research it.
This is quite funny to me and, I imagine, to most people who have known me personally because while I may have pretensions to many things, hipsterdom is hardly one of them. I’m decidedly unhip, but I suppose that’s beside the point. As far as I can tell, one of the hallmarks of being a Hipster is unabashedly hating on things, which just really isn’t my bag. I’d much rather yammer on about my favorite things, and I think most of my closest comrades can attest to the way I just… won’t… shut… up when it comes to such topics.
But let’s put that aside.
Sure, I’m a hipster. I’m a hipster if someone calls me a hipster. We are all hipsters. There is no escaping it, because Hipster™ is simultaneously indefinable while fitting any definition you wish to give. In that sense, a hipster is very much like Spinoza’s God.
The Indefinable God
Now, Spinoza was actually stripping the term ‘god’ of its mysticism and anthropomorphism when he equated it to nature. He was essentially crafting the ultimate Atheistic definition for god because he was ridding it of its deification. But, in modern discussions, theists have ironically taken up this philosophical idea as proof that atheists must be wrong. God exists because God is everything.
This is the ultimate falling back stance of a religious theist. All religions that propose a god (or gods) are providing a definition of god(s). Using Christianity as an example, we know the Christian God has specific characteristics and a personality. The individuals within the religion may quibble over the finer details (and they do, oh yes they do), but generally there is agreement on major traits: God is Love, God is Eternal, God is Omnipotent/present/scient/bus.
The problem of trying to define God is that the more specific you get, the less feasible your version of God becomes. If you say God can heal the sick, then you have a problem when you look around and see sick people dying all the time. You have a couple tacks you can take here. You can get even more specific and say things like, “Well, God only heals the sick who are faithful,” but it doesn’t take long to find counterexamples to this proposition. Specificity is God’s kryptonite, so the safer route is getting vaguer: “God works in mysterious ways.” You’ve essentially admitted that you don’t know God’s will, which undermines the whole point of religion, but at least it allows you to hold onto the idea of God.
Each attempt to define God faces the same problems. The believer can get more specific and risk being proven wrong or get less specific and lose ever more of their grasp on God’s dimensions. From a faith point of view, this would seem to be a logistical nightmare (though apparently not), but from a tactical sense, this makes arguing against the concept of God as slippery as a greased pig on a Slip-N-Slide in a rainstorm.
I’d imagine there is a positive correlation between the intelligence of a believer and their willingness to accept a vaguer definition of god. Those who have no use for logic and reason tend to possess the most specific definitions of God and HIS beliefs (which, luckily, happen to coincide with their own).
Which brings me back to Hipsters. I guess.
The Indefinable Hipster
I challenge someone to give me a consistent definition of Hipster that A) doesn’t essentially define anyone and everyone (other than you) and B) a majority of people could agree on.
Like ‘God’, I think everyone has a mental image that pops into their head when someone says ‘Hipster.’ But is it the same?
We can talk about Hipster Fashion: Skinny jeans, v-neck t-shirts, old looking tennis shoes. And, undoubtedly, that fits someone’s image of a hipster. But somebody who likes to wear skinny jeans, v-neck t-shirts and old tennis shoes is going to have their own definition of hipster, and it won’t be that. Or maybe it will be, but it’ll be a specific brand of shoe or shirt or hat or whatever.
Bsides, fashion is, by definition, always changing, so Hipster Fashion couldn’t possibly be a stagnant look.
So, maybe you can’t identify bipsters by their clothes. Maybe their haircuts? Fauxhawks, right? Or ironic mullets? Or unironic mullets?
Their music? Well, Radiohead makes pretentious arty music, so their fans have to be hipsters, right? Except, Radiohead is one of the biggest acts in the world, which is definitely un-Hipster. They’re into obscure bands that are only cool as long as their shows are in basements and their CDs are made for $100. But, all bands start out that way. Unless we’re only allowed to like N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys, we all like bands who came up from nothing. We’re all hipsters, gasp!
No, no, that can’t be right.
Hipsters only like bands up until they break through to a larger audience, and then they hate them. That’s better. But, wait, what kind of music? Green Day was popular as an underground punk act until they signed to a major label in the 90s, and then a lot of their early fans cried “Sell outs!” and stopped listening. So those fans are hipsters, right? Same with the early fans of Kiss, Death Cab for Cutie, No Doubt and Metallica, right? They’re either hipsters or true fans. I’m not sure which.
Alright, forget bands.
One of the more consistent ‘traits’ of Hipsterdom is the, “My group is better than your group” mentality. I think most people would characterize hipsters as snobs. Certainly, if there could be said to be one defining characteristic of the type, it’s their preference for exclusion.
But, isn’t the very act of calling someone a Hipster an attempt to exclude them? When we sit around labeling every fan of a band we dislike a ‘hipster,’ all we’re doing is relegating them to a specific sphere of society, a sphere that we do not include ourselves in. The Hipster is a loathsome creature in our society because of their obsession with a façade and exclusivity, yet being a hipster hound dog requires just as unhealthy an obsession with the same superficial details.
And really, who cares? If some guy likes skinny jeans and you don’t, how is that at all relevant to your life? If you don’t like a band, why expend so much energy hating on their fans? It’s all pretty meaningless.
The commentator who called me a hipster showed his cards when later in the comment he theorized that I was only doing this whole project so that women would want to sleep with me.
First off, I wish.
Secondly, that is the secret jealousy underpinning so much Hipster Hate. Guys see other guys hooking up with chicks that they wish they could have sex with, so they hate on them and label their outward appearances as hipster affectations. It might not always be sexual jealousy, but there is some sort of longing beneath that scorn. As a rule, people don’t waste time trying to tear someone else down unless there are serious self-esteem issues going on inside.
It’s Bullying 101. People might berate me for making the trite and obvious point, but while we adults think we’re so grown-up and mature, we’re pretty much all still driven by the same petty motivations that we’ve had since hair started growing in odd places.
It’s getting kind of old.
But what do I know? I’m just a hipster.
At least we can all agree on one thing: God and Hipsters friggin’ love PBR.
In a previous post, I discussed common arguments against gay marriage and laid out counterarguments against them. Considering the blog setting, the post couldn’t possibly deal with all of the nuances of each argument. I attempted to make my points as readable and succinct as possible without expending too much energy on arguments that are, frankly, rather weak. The arguments against gay marriage that I presented could certainly be polished up and presented in a more convincing way, but they would be no stronger for it.
That said, in the past week, I have been dealing with a more complex and seemingly coherent argument and I felt that it would be best to deal with it thoroughly in a separate post in order to more fully lay out both the argument and the counterargument.
A blogger by the name Right Libertarian was the man who posited a great deal of this argument. Warning: Reading his blog might make you want to punch your screen.
Homosexuality is not normal. In fact, homosexuality is not only ‘not normal’, it is a harmful deviance. Homosexuality is linked to higher mental illness (there are, in fact, studies that show this), greater risk of AIDS and STDs (again, studies support this) and a higher occurrence of promiscuity (studies again), even among married homosexuals. To allow gay marriage would be to ‘normalize’ homosexuality (and all the subsequent ills of it) in society, which would in turn undermine society. Furthermore, children shouldn’t be raised in such an environment.
I hope I’ve done the argument justice. This was never explicitly written out. It had to be extracted from pages and pages of comments and tangential asides and links to studies. Generally, though, I think this is a fair and concise summary of the argument.
And I think it’s a pretty good argument. Better than ones based on the Bible or slippery slopes. On the surface, it does make sense. Why would we wish to normalize a lifestyle that scientific studies have shown is linked to illnesses, high risk behavior and a proclivity for non-monogamous relationships?
Let’s start from the beginning with the idea of ‘normal.’ Well, normal could mean, colloquially, the norm. As in, what most people are. In this case, homosexuality is clearly not normal. Just like left-handers and redheads and albinos.
Recent estimates suggest that homosexuals represent 2 to 3% of the population (though those same estimates put the percentage of people who have engaged in homosexual sex at 8%, which rightly raises the question of whether or not self-identification of one’s sexual orientation is a reliable gauge for homosexuality’s prevalence in humans). It is, of course, only an estimate, and even the man who presents those numbers admits that it basically comes down to a very educated guess. Until we live in a society that doesn’t shun homosexuals, I don’t foresee ever reaching an accurate estimate.
Based on those estimates, though, we can firmly say homosexuality is not the norm. But we don’t legislate on percentages. Civil Rights didn’t come about because the black population hit some magical percentage. They came about because it was right, because black people are human beings (not just 3/5ths of one).
Normal means something else: Natural. Is homosexuality something that occurs in nature? Well, yes, among animals it does. But we aren’t mere animals, we’re humans (actually, we are mere animals, but that’s beside the point). “Animals eat their young,” they say, “so should we do that , too?” Only if they’re tender, I say.
But, let’s think about that. Should we do everything animals do, just because biologically we are also members of the animal kingdom? We are more ‘highly evolved,’ aren’t we? Well, technically, the idea of being highly evolved isn’t a scientific notion. We are highly complex beings, but our evolution isn’t a matter of superiority over the animals, just a matter of being better suited to our environment. Are lions ‘better’ than jellyfish? It’s an arbitrary question.
Anyway. We don’t do things that animals do, but then again, sometimes we do. After all, animals hunt food, build shelters for their offspring, and they have sex, just like us. We don’t eat our children because we don’t want to harm others. Homosexual (consensual) sex hardly harms other people, so it really can’t be equated to eating our young. It’s an asinine comparison.
Is homosexuality genetic? Well, as conservatives will point out, many studies on this question have been inconclusive. On the other hand, a rather extensive amount of research has shown a variety of likely biological factors for homosexuality. These studies all show a correlation between homosexuality and some genetically inherited feature that implies a significant, though not absolute, connection. The fact that no single factor can be attributed to homosexuality is unsurprising. From the Darwinian perspective, homosexuality is not a beneficial trait for reproduction, so we should not expect to find a so-called Gay Gene. How would that gene pass itself on? However, it would make sense if there were a confluence of genetic factors that on their own were insignificant, but when mixed together led to a higher predisposition towards homosexuality. Nature would not select against it, because any one trait on its own would be benign (probably even beneficial in some unknown way).
I think it’s safe to say, from a biological point of view, homosexuality is normal because it does, indeed, happen naturally.
Alright, so it’s normal. But it could still be a ‘harmful deviance.’ After all, just because someone is born with a predisposition towards something, that doesn’t mean it’s good. Alcoholism has been shown to have a likely genetic predisposition. And mental retardation is a trait from birth. These are both conditions that are unhealthy and lead to shorter lifespan. Though, we don’t prevent alcoholics or the retarded (I feel no qualms using that term) from marrying.
But that’s different. Well, sort of. If the anti-homosexuals are right and it’s a choice, than it’s a lot like alcoholism, a condition that requires an action on the part of the individual. On the other hand, if the liberal side is right, homosexuality is akin to a condition like mental retardation (I hear the gay-bashers laughing at that), in the fact that a person is or isn’t. There is no choice. In reality, it’s more of a middle ground. A homosexual can choose to abstain from homosexual sex for their entire life, but that doesn’t mean their natural desire will be any less real (ask George Rekers; or, you know, like a dozen other gay hatemongers whose hypocrisy has been revealed). Alcoholism is triggered by the consumption of alcohol. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is there with or without action.
Still, homosexuality is harmful, right? That’s all that matters. We don’t encourage alcoholism, and we shouldn’t encourage homosexuality. For instance, studies have shown that mental illness such as depression (and related conditions) are higher in homosexuals than in heterosexuals. The study I linked to used a large sample and found that 42% and 43% of gays and lesbians (respectively) were found to have a mental illness, in contrast to 12% and 20% for heterosexual males and females (in a separate study). Clearly a big difference. Then again, 66% of those surveyed also said they had faced discrimination due to their sexuality. (It’s probably safe to say that 0% of the heteros faced such discrimination). Discrimination against homosexuals is a pretty common occurrence and it should be no surprise that people who must constantly be aware of attacks would also have more mental stress.
My sparring partner pointed to this survey from the Netherlands, a more “tolerant” nation, that indicated higher mental illness among homosexuals there, too. One could pretty easily argue that even in the most tolerant countries, homosexuals will still face some level of discrimination. It’s not like the US suddenly became a land of lollipops and love for African Americans after interracial marriage was legalized. Bigotry has a way of lingering.
But, more importantly, I want to discuss this notion of legislating by surveys.
Correlation Vs. Causation
The numbers are interesting, but they are just numbers. Does homosexuality cause mental illness? Does mental illness cause homosexuality? More likely, neither causes the other, they just happen to be connected by an unknown chemical process in the body. There are so many societal and personal factors associated with homosexuality (even in ‘tolerant’ nations), one can’t generalize any definitive meaning just by looking at numbers. There’s a classic phrase used when talking about statistics: “Correlation does not imply Causation.”
One study found that of those homosexuals who had considered suicide, the cause was more likely to be the end of a relationship than sexual bigotry (though discrimination was the second leading cause). This would seem to be an argument for encouraging longer, more meaningful relationships between homosexuals, yet Right Libertarian used this fact to claim homosexuals shouldn’t marry. They aren’t depressed because of discrimination, his logic goes, they are depressed because they are promiscuous bedhoppers, unwilling to stay in a monogamous relationship. They’re depressed because they just can’t help but jump from relationship to relationship, all willy nilly.
I don’t know about you, but if a person considers suicide after the end of a relationship, that doesn’t indicate to me that they didn’t care about the relationship.
Promiscuity and STDs
That leads directly into the promiscuity argument. Homosexuals are just more promiscuous. Fact. And as curt as that sounds, the truth is, studies do support that. Even among homosexual married couples, there is a greater openness to multiple partners. I don’t accept the notion that having multiple partners is inherently wrong, as long as there is open communication between partners. But, for the sake of argument, I’ll work from that assumption.
If your nation tells you, “You are not a real couple, we will provide no support for you and your loved one and we will not legally recognize your relationship,” why wouldn’t you be promiscuous? Society at large says homosexuality isn’t natural, isn’t real love, and then society condemns homosexuals for behaving in a way that conforms to that stereotype? I don’t see promiscuity as an argument against gay marriage. I see it as an argument for it.
From the Netherlands study mentioned above:
“The finding that homosexual people are less often involved in steady relationships than heterosexual people is seen as resulting from the limited opportunities homosexual people have to find an intimate partner, lesser legal and social support for developing and maintaining homosexual relationships compared with that for heterosexual relationships, and differing norms and values regarding sexuality and personal relationships.”
It’s easy for heterosexuals to look at homosexuals and say, “They should be more like us.” But what do heteros really know about what it’s like to be in a homosexual relationship?
Related to that, the high incidence of AIDS and STDs among the gay community is obviously related to said promiscuity. I don’t know that anyone is seriously arguing that gay sex produces AIDS or STDs (it simply isn’t true). These diseases spread because homosexuals are more likely to have multiple partners, allowing for greater opportunities to contract an infection. If we all agree that disease is a bad thing, why not encourage something that would likely diminish promiscuity and its related ills? It’s like those anti-abortion people who rail against teaching safe sex. They want to reduce abortions but they don’t want to use a method that would help do just that, simply because it doesn’t meet their moral standard.
(I’ve already addressed the idea that homosexuals shouldn’t raise kids in the previous post, so I won’t rehash that here.I will say this on the matter: Considering how many children are left in poorly maintained foster homes, wouldn’t financially stable, committed gay couples who want to adopt be a good thing for society?)
Bringing It All Back Home
It seems to me, ‘normalizing’ gay marriage would probably rid the homosexual community of a great deal of the ills mentioned here. But of course, that isn’t the anti-homosexual’s point in mentioning them. They aren’t concerned for the welfare of the homosexual community. Their argument really comes down to, “Gays are mentally ill, sexually deviant disease carriers, and we just want them to go away.”
Or, more succinctly, “Gays are icky.”
But homosexuals aren’t going to go away. It’s not a fad, it’s notSatan’s scheme.
Let’s put these numbers in perspective. It’s easy to throw studies back and forth and say percentage this, percentage that. But, what do those numbers mean? Even with a higher occurrence of mental illness among them, it doesn’t mean all homosexuals are cursed.
From this site: “A recent study indicates that gay teens are twice as likely to contemplate or commit suicide compared with heterosexual teens; however, the same study found that 85% of same-sex–oriented youth never contemplate taking their own lives.” 15% is a lot, and if your whole goal is to make homosexuals look like deviants, it serves your point to focus in on that number, devoid of context.
On the other hand, 15% isn’t a majority, not even close. It means 85% of the gay population, if given the choice, could very likely grow up to be well-adjusted, happily married parents (as could the other 15%; mental illness is not some sort of death sentence). We shouldn’t bar the rights of an entire group for 15%. We should, instead, focus on making the society better for homosexuals struggling with mental illness. Homosexuals are going to exist, whether your preacher likes it or not.
Do we tell heterosexuals they can’t marry if they have mental illness? Or if they have a penchant for promiscuity? Or if they have a case of the herps (or even AIDS)? Of course not. Why? Because the government isn’t in the position of making value judgments about people’s lifestyles. Its concern should only be whether or not gay marriage is good or bad for society.
Aye, there’s the rub.
This particular argument reflects the point of view that society is worse now than it was in the past. This was Right Libertarian’s underlying point. He thinks the world is worse off, not just because of homosexuals, but because women are not staying at home with their kids (really) and because liberals are pushing their agenda on America. His words.
That, simply, is a matter of opinion based on (conservative) personal preference. Debating this topic for a couple days has driven home just how much this argument hinges on how you view the world, not on facts, which is why some people will never agree on this subject.
You will never get a homophobe to admit they are homophobic. They will wrap themselves in statistics and say the numbers don’t lie. Well, the numbers don’t lie. But they also don’t have a fixed perspective. One person can look at the numbers and say, “See, homosexuals are bad.” And another person can look at the numbers and say, “See, society mistreats homosexuals.” In truth, your personal bias is always going to skew your interpretation of numbers.
Like Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Most psychology studies are wisely filled with caveats and carefully worded conclusions that discourage politicizing the data and encourage further study. People usually ignore those parts.
Could I be accused of skewing the data to my own agenda? Certainly (and I will be). That’s why I’m trying to step back from the numbers and look at society as a whole. I don’t see the world getting worst. I’ve yet to see a country crumble because it legalized gay marriage. I’m actually pretty optimistic, I see us making progress. Gay marriage will be legal here in the US. I don’t know exactly when, but it will happen.
I freely admit my bias. I believe this world is better thanks to liberal things like Civil Rights, Gender Equality, Worker Rights and Gay and Lesbian Rights.
I guess I’m just a crazy Leftist radical that way.
There has been an interesting (albeit, predictable) reaction to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s recent rally: A lot of people accusing the Rally of creating a ‘false equivalency‘ between the two opposing sides of the political spectrum. Never mind that the Rally’s point was to shed light on the frequent false equivalencies spouted by ‘the news’ all the time, like comparing Health Care Reform to Hitler’s actions, or seeing Nazism in the Tea Party protests (that Hitler sure gets around these days).
The chief complaint from the Left is clearly rooted in feelings of betrayal. Jon Stewart is supposed to be the comedic voice of leftist reason, not just general reason. How dare he hold an apolitical rally that focuses on the alarmist media instead of the issues, those very alarming issues. Of course, Jon Stewart has a show 4 nights a week on which he regularly makes his political leanings clear and is never afraid to argue his point of view with guests, but that isn’t enough. He’s either with us or against us.
Pointing out false equivalency is exactly what the media should be doing. Their aim on this one is just off the mark.
Shades of Gray
In the news cycle, one of the easiest ways for a reporter or journalist to get across a point is to use shorthand. Talking about the intricate details of the Health Care Reform bill would be far too complex for a 2 column article or a 5 minute news segment (or a blog entry), so major points get boiled down to bullet points and slogans. This wouldn’t be so bad if the readers and viewers were then going on to research the topic on their own to flush out the details further. But, that’s not what happens. Newspapers and 24 hour news channels exist specifically so that the general consumer does not have to investigate on their own.
The result of these simplifications is that bullet points become the details and slogans are substituted for nuanced opinions. The shades of gray get divided into black or white. When two point of views are stripped of all of their details and nuance, it’s easy to make the debate a simple left vs right, blue vs red debate when in fact, one or both sides may be far more complex than the debate makes them appear.
Take the issue of Abortion. An incredibly complex and emotional topic has been reduced to Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice. If you’re just to look at those two terms, the debate is about whether or not something should have the right to live versus another person’s right to live autonomously. Now, that is a facet of the debate, but as the ongoing ferocity of the debate should make obvious, it’s not that simple. There are shades in this debate (it’s not just a life vs death argument, or an individual freedom vs government control debate), and the simplification of both sides of the debate has made the issue almost a parody of itself.
What inevitably happens when complex issues are watered down is that the ability of the two opposing sides to reach any middle ground is lost. Accepting that the line between yourself and your opponent isn’t so wide is tantamount to admitting defeat. A huge chasm is created, separated by ferocious acrimony. Wherever these chasms exist, there will be people willing to stand in the middle. They fashion themselves some type of Switzerland.
Being neutral in these matters is seen as some kind of sign of wisdom. Not engaging in an argument that appears to be unresolvable certainly does seem the wiser course of action, and you’ll neverlose any friends for it. I’ve had plenty of friends over the years shake their heads at my tendency to engage in intractable debates that will almost always end up with neither party having changed their mind (at least, from all appearances). I’ve done it with my siblings, with my friends, with lovers and strangers, in person and online. All these Swiss-types sit back and smile knowingly at ol’ Joseph, at it again.
Do you know what I think? I think those people are cowards.
Maybe you don’t have an opinion on abortion, or Health Care, or immigration, or Free Trade vs Fair Trade, or religious indoctrination or any of a million topics that will lead to butted heads. That is fine. I don’t expect everyone to care about every issue. There are issues that I don’t care much about that I will never debate, and I’m okay with that.
But do you know what else I’ll never do? I’ll never step in the middle of two people debating the topic and say, “You’re both wrong.” If I don’t know anything about a subject, I’m going to do the right thing and shut the hell up. (I might speak up on a topic I think I know something about and then find out abruptly that I actually don’t know shit… hopefully then I’ll have enough common sense to back out).
Facebook and internet discussion boards have bred an especially annoying type of troll: The holier-than-though, “I’m neutral on this subject, so my indifference proves I really know more than anyone” troll. In that recent online debate I was engaged in on the subject of abortion, a random person actually interrupted the back and forth to comment, “You’re both wrong.” That’s supposed to be deep?
Granted, if the two of us debaters had been screaming at each other based on nothing more than the stereotypes of a Pro-Lifer and Pro-Choicer, the interloper might have had a point. As it was, though, I was trying to break through the Black-and-White facade to get to the varied shades beneath. There is a certain class of person who feels that any heated debate must obviously mean that both sides are equally fanatical and wrong. This was what Jon Stewart was falsely accused of being.
Quite the contrary, though, two people can rabidly argue a topic without both of them being crazy. The debate over Evolution vs Creationism is a matter of facts versus unsupported beliefs. It’s easy for a disinterested party to stand back and throw stones at two people fiercely arguing this matter, but even the most rational, logical person can be driven to extreme emotion by another person’s obstinate ignorance. Granted, a person should know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, but if we all stand by and casually allow every individual person to believe whatever they want, despite reality, the world will fall apart.
Relativism is the feeblest stance any person can take, and I don’t care if that’s in the topics of politics, ethics or pizza toppings. There might genuinely be a place where two opposing views are equally valid, but there must be a logical explanation for that. Saying, “Eh, everyone is right and everyone is wrong,” is the antithesis of wisdom.
You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Blog Is About You
I know tons of people who pride themselves on being evenhanded, neutral people. I have friends who won’t engage in a debate, on anything. Boring. Get engaged with the world.
It’s not always about Politics or Ethics. There will inevitably be points in your life where you have to choose a side. Between friends or parents, between colleagues or classmates. It might seem like the most selfless act would be to not get involved, to avoid getting in the middle of it. But it’s self-interest that motivates you, a desire to avoid having to actually take a stand and use your judgment.
Take for instance that familiar quagmire: Being the mutual friend between a couple that has split up. We want to try to be as neutral as possible because as with any break up, there are two sides to the story. But, sometimes, one person in a relationship has done actual wrong while the other person simply got shat on. You’re not being a good friend if you ignore that knowledge. For one, you’re betraying the hurt party, and for another you’re not doing your first duty as a friend: Telling them they’re being a shitty person and that they need to fix it or get lost. You can’t pretend to be a decent person if you ignore indecency in others.
“We should not permit tolerance to degenerate into indifference.”
Lacking bias is absolutely admirable, but there is a difference between being fair and avoiding confrontation. We expect our legal system to be fair, but that doesn’t mean we assume it’ll never produce a verdict. Truth exists.
I can respect a differing opinion, especially if the owner reveals him or herself to be invested in the topic, willing to learn more. But, for those people who would rather be everyone’s friend than take a side, well, I have no respect for you.
Facebook is hardly the place for nuanced debate, but I try from time to time. Even in my attempt to avoid simplification, I inevitably simplify. I realize that, but the idea is to get the conversation going in a less emotional direction. In the spirit of The Rally to Restore Sanity, I guess.
Click the picture to see it all big-like:
Also, if you haven’t seen this amazing documentary, and you have strong feelings on this topic one way or the other, you should see it:
I think it will surprise you in how unbiased it is to both sides.
It is a fair question. After all, I have family members who are religious. I have friends who believe in God and are participants in practices of faith. Most of the world believes in a god (and a congressional majority of those people would call that god, ‘God’). I am certainly not doing myself any favors by being so adamantly anti-religious. Lord knows that being an out and proud atheist is not the kind of proclamation that immediately wins friends and influences people.
If my goal is to de-convert the world from their “idiotic” beliefs (to quote myself), my cause would certainly be helped by a little more tact and decorum.
Besides, I can’t prove there is no god. I cannot, by the scientific, logical method that I esteem so greatly, eliminate the possibility of there being a god. To go further, I cannot prove that the god is not God (Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, etc.). If we were to go even further, I cannot prove that there is no soul, or spirits, or ghosts, or thetans. These are concepts that rest outside the realm of science, mainly because they are matters of the ‘supernatural’ (or, beyond nature) and science is the study of nature in its varied states. As well, I cannot disprove these matters due to that troubling axiom of logic, “You cannot prove a negative.” In other words, I (nor you) cannot prove that there is not a tiny, imperceptible teapot orbiting the sun.
Ignoring how cumbersome that last sentence was, we must all acknowledge that any one of us could come up with some completely ridiculous idea (the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for instance), and it would be impossible to disprove it with any serious attempt at logical, scientific or philosophical inquiry. Religious people dismiss the FSM because it is so patently ludicrous, but they do not do so from any reason other than personal distaste. There has never been a reasoned, intellectual dispute of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s claims, though I’m certain that if there ever was, the Church would have irrefutable rebuttals.
Okay, so it’s disrespectful to compare belief in God (or gods, or spirituality in whatever form you like) to the FSM, or to Santa Claus (just as equally difficult to disprove), or to deem religious beliefs ‘fairy tales’ or ‘myths.’ The reason it is disrespectful is not because Christianity, Islam, Scientology or any other accepted religion is more plausible than any of the other ‘ridiculous’ beliefs (I challenge a Christian or a Scientologist to put their beliefs/views up against those of the FSM if they really question it). No, the reason it is disrespectful is because people actually believe in those religions, whereas, presumably, no one literally believes in a Flying Spaghetti Monster (though there are millions of people around the world who quite literally believe in Santa Claus; they just happen to be children).
So the argument for a gentler discussion of religion so far rests on this: People believe in religion. Well, I already knew that and I didn’t care before. I still don’t care.
Name me ten religions, and I’ll name you ten worldviews that absolutely conflict with each other. At the core of those religions is a claim to Truth, a Truth that no other religion has. Even Scientology, which claims to require no faith and proclaims openness to all people, would still ultimately clash with almost all religions (and those religions it did not clash with are the gnostic ones that it ‘borrows’ all its spirituality from). Even if your religion doesn’t make a claim to exclusionary Truth, practically all the other ones do, which makes it a moot point.
(For the record, those people who say, “All religions are right, they all lead to God” are wrong. Those people know nothing about religion, they just like the vagaries of being ‘spiritual’, which allows them to believe whatever they want whenever they want to. I respect a suicidal nutjob who kills for his religion 100% more than the wishy-washy airhead; at least the nutjob knows what he believes.)
The fact that all religions conflict does not mean that all religions are wrong. It just means that, at most, all religions but possibly one are correct. But which one?
It is conceivable that Christianity is right, and all the other religions truly are the product of Satan’s lies. Certainly, it is not something you can disprove. Buddhism’s got some nice stuff in it, and it’s pretty peaceful. Maybe we should root for that one. Personally, if I was going to side with any religion, it would have to be one of those that emphasizes sex as a path to enlightenment. I’ve always wanted to try that tantric stuff.
Okay, so I’ve made my point. All religion makes the claim to revealed Truth, and there’s just no good scientific/intellectual way to parse out the one that’s really got it. At the same time, acknowledging my inability to disprove any religion, let alone all of them, why can’t I just drop the whole topic? I’m clearly not getting anywhere, and I’ve obviously not convinced anyone that their faith is idiotic (although, maybe I have?).
This gets back to the early point, where I suggested the following:
If my goal is to de-convert the world from their “idiotic” beliefs (to quote myself), my cause would certainly be helped by a little more tact and decorum.
That is not my goal. I have absolutely no interest in turning the world into a planet of atheists. South Park made a pretty good episode about a future where 3 different factions of atheists are fighting a war about… oh, just watch it (for free). The point is, we humans will fight about anything, and I have no naive belief that if we all just stopped believing in God and became Secular Humanists we’d live in perfect utopia (though, I do think there would be less child molestations).
My goal is to change the way people think. That is to say, my goal (and that of probably most outspoken atheists) is to get people to acknowledge the inconsistencies in the way we think and to work towards ferreting them out, exposing them to the light and eventually eliminating them. The human brain, while capable of great feats, and clearly the finest product of Natural Selection, is still a fallible and easily corrupted tool. The scientific method is our best upgrade to the Operating System that is our mind. It eliminates or supersedes the bugs that would otherwise unhinge the reasoning process. Those bugs are legion.
We are capable of creating false memories.
We are capable of remembering incorrectly.
We are capable of deceiving ourselves, allowing ourselves to be deceived or accepting two or more completely contradictory thoughts utilzing a series of mental gymnastics to help us seemingly resolve the inconsistencies.
The scientific method is vital. While one mind can make horrendous mistakes, and even a group of minds can make the same or worse mistakes (look at the Holocaust or city riots), the scientific method eliminates personal bias, sidesteps agendas and ignores preferences. Can the scientific method be hijacked for willing deception? Well, the image of the method can be (using scientific terminology, quoting ‘statistics’), but the method itself remains steadfast.
People often object to my reverence for the scientific method, and in doing so they either point to the atrocities committed in the name of science (nuclear bombs, animal mutilations, etc.) or the limitations of the method (we can’t explain how or why the Big Bang happened). First off, science is a tool for gaining knowledge. How that knowledge is used is not of interest to science. The same people who wish to defend religion’s indiscretions often seek to condemn science for the sins done in its name. The only difference is, science makes no claim to moral authority, whereas religion does. As far as the limitations of science, I will quote Kenneth Miller for probably the 100th time:
“Taking what is unknown, unexplained, or undiscovered today and claiming that it will remain forever beyond our understanding isn’t just poor logic – it’s a lousy bet, considering the rate at which science continues to advance.”
At one point, science couldn’t explain gravity, the solar system or even what it was we breathed. 300 years ago, the mysteries science could not answer were more numerous than the stars in the sky. Now, we could write a computer program to estimate how many stars there are.
My detour through the scientific method serves a point: I cherish rationality above all else. And in most facets of your life, you do, too. Religion is the big exception, and that’s the inconsistency I mentioned above. Religion requires irrationality, except that it’s labeled ‘faith’ and it’s praised as a virtue. Why is faith ‘irrational’? Glad you asked:
Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
That is the very definition of irrational. We can quibble over whether being irrational is a bad or good thing, but there is no questioning that being certain of something we have no evidence for is irrational.
The closest thing anyone will ever have to ‘evidence’ for their faith is personal experience. The experience of God (or the spirit world) can manifest itself in many ways, but all of those experiences share one thing in common: They cannot be shared, duplicated or invoked at will. For this reason, your personal experience as a Christian/Muslim/Scientologist is just that: personal. And like all personal experiences, a reasonable, self-aware person should be willing to acknowledge that the memory of and reaction to it might be erroneous.
If you have reached the age of adulthood and not realized that memories are not always accurate, then you probably still believe in Santa Claus.
Again, none of this is specifically an argument against your personal faith, or against a general belief in god. I am not trying to dissuade you of your faith. I am only trying to get you to embrace the rational over the irrational.
In 50 years, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be a true religion. Don’t laugh, it’s not completely unreasonable. Religions have been birthed out of dumber seeds. If the inherent joke behind FSM is forgotten and it is accepted as a legitimate religion in the latter half of the 21st century, will you expect me to respect it? Well, you of today would not. But your future counterpart would. And this is why I refuse to ‘respect’ any religions, no matter how or when they began. A religion is merely a cult with tax breaks.
We know the origins of Mormonism, Scientology, the Seventh-Day Adventist. We can trace them back to a specific person! Christianity and Islam, the ‘old’ religions (though, still young if compared to many) have less easily traceable origins, but we can reasonably see how they might have formed and propagated without any divine assistance. Sure, maybe one of those beliefs is the true one, but what proof do you have for it? Only your personal experience (fallible) and your faith (irrational).
I treat all irrational beliefs the same way: I dismiss them. This is not being intolerant or judgmental. This is merely being consistent. In the same way you reject the claims of the clinically insane that claim they are Jesus or Elvis (claims you cannot disprove), I reject your ‘Revelation’ on the grounds that claims demand evidence (and extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence).
If all science, reason and human existence tells me one thing (there is no God), and your personal experience claims another, I’m sorry, but you aren’t getting the benefit of the doubt. That is not arrogance, that is basic logic. And you are no different from me in that respect. The person who believes whatever he is told by whomever he meets will be the victim of countless scams. It’s not skepticism to demand evidence, it’s common sense.
If you allow for religious belief in your life, you could possibly have found the Answer. You might be in possession of a Truth hidden from me (and millions of others). However, in the pursuit of religious belief, you must admit intellectual inconsistency. You demand rational inquiry in most aspects of your life. You quote statistics about tax rates or medical care when discussing politics. You intellectually analyze movies, books, music or poems when discussing their merits. You dismiss Op-Ed pieces because they lack data to back up their point of view (assuming they are in disagreement with your own views).
But when it comes to religion, you staunchly, proudly declare, “I will believe in what I can have no evidence for, and I will do it even if evidence to the contrary presents itself.”
I, for one, cannot see how that kind of faith can be considered virtuous. More like, dangerous.
Who knows, maybe your stab in the dark will win you the big prize. If so, we can agree, faith works for you because [fill-in-your-religion] is the true one, but all those other people are sadly just being irrational.