Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The misunderstanding of "prejudice" itself

There's a thing about "homophobia", and a general dislike for the use of the term, that's been in the back of my mind for a while. The brouhaha over race that's been simmering in the US sort of expanded that in my mind to the whole concept of prejudice generally. It comes down to two things.

First, I believe that the vast majority of people who engage in poor treatment of another on the basis of race, sexuality, gender, any difference like that at all, do it completely unconsciously. In fact, such people would get insulted at the very idea that they might want to behave in such a way, stating quite accurately that they never intended to do so. Even when they did. This applies even to people who go out of their way not to be prejudiced: there is an unconscious aspect to such poor treatment which is hard to overcome unless it can be consciously perceived.

Second, and problematically, the way we talk about prejudice utterly fails to recognise this. My perception is that using the phrase "racist" or "homophobic", or even "prejudiced", to describe a person's attitude or behaviour always implies a deliberate intent: people accused of these things supposedly want to treat a group as inferior, and think it wrong to treat them as equals. Worse, there is a significant moral sting to the words: "racism", "homophobia", "bigotry" and the like imply not just misguided ideas, not just a lack of familiarity which breeds misunderstanding, but an actual evil act.

An argument can be made that the plain definition of these words don't include these implications of a deliberate choice to commit an evil act on the part of the accused. But I'm talking about how these words are used, not some idealised definition. In actual practice, the words we use to describe prejudice, racism, homophobia and so forth all carry this moral sting: they are an accusation that a person is intentionally evil.

So how should the majority of unequal treatment that is not motivated by evil, and not deliberately chosen, be described? A phrase like "unconscious racism" is inadequate I think, as the intentional aspect of the idea of "racism" is too entrenched in the use of the word. After some thought, I think the best way to describe such attitudes and behaviour would be "thoughtless". So, to take an example from my own life, a person who might say something like "bisexuals are just homosexuals who still have one foot in the closet" isn't "biphobic", but is exhibiting a thoughtlessness about the experience and life of bisexual people.

Thoughtlessness about a group of people is not intentional, but it is difficult to overcome: the opposite of thoughtlessness if thoughtfulness, which is a conscious process. It takes effort, all the time. This fact also helps explain how a person who themselves is in a group that gets treated poorly, homosexuals for instance, can still potentially treat a different group poorly, like, say, bisexuals. In this case, a gay person is thoughtful about their own poor treatment (well they'd have to be, wouldn't they), but may remain thoughtless about the way they treat bisexuals.

None of this is to say that there are no genuinely prejudiced people out there: some people can and do deliberately and intentionally view some groups as inherently inferior to others. The task then becomes one of separating the two: of knowing who is prejudiced, and who is simply thoughtless. There is no ready-made, easy way to do that, but it needs to be done.

Otherwise, much poor treatment towards minority groups will remain impossible to solve because the description of the people engaging in it as "racist", "homophobic" or "prejudiced" will, quite legitimately, prompt an outraged defense that they see all people as equal. Many people who engage in such poor treatment genuinely do see all people as equal, and want to treat all people as equal, but won't realise that they're not treating all people equal unless it's pointed out, without rancour and without being accusative, that they are engaging in such unequal treatment unconsciously.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The priest and the propagandist

This is impressive: a Fox News reporter interviews a catholic priest about Jeremiah Wright. The reporter gets completely and totally pwned.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fun historical fact for the day

The term "Cold War" was first used by a Spanish writer in the 14th century to describe the conflict between the Christian and the Muslim worlds.

Or so my readings for uni claim. They tend to be more reliable than other sources of info.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Freedom of speech and the responsibility for reactions to it

Pondering the Day of Silence that occurs in American high schools had me looking at some of the free speech issues involved. America of course has much greater leeway than Australia when it comes to freedom of student expression (that wonderful First Amendment of theirs). The specific application of the First Amendment to the issue of student rights was dealt with in the landmark case Tinker vs Des Moines School District, in which it was held that school officials could not ban students from wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam war. The court held that student speech cannot be infringed unless it can be shown that it "would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school" to allow the speech. Importantly, a school must "be able to show that its action [in restricting speech] was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint." I'm told that the precedent set has been watered down somewhat in recent years, but it's worthwhile to note the general principle here: even unpopular speech that the majority will disagree with cannot be banned on that basis alone.

The dissenting voice of Justice Black that the armbands were disruptive is also illuminating for the reason he gave as to why he thought that way: "While the record does not show that any of these armband students shouted, used profane language, or were violent in any manner, detailed testimony by some of them shows their armbands caused comments, warnings by other students, the poking of fun at them, and a warning by an older football player that other, nonprotesting students had better let them alone. "

Interesting how Justice Black insists that the armband students should be considered responsible for the disruption and distortion that other students caused in response to the armbands. Are they responsible? I don't think they are.

When Muslims around the world protested the publication of the Danish caricatures, sometimes violently, the view that the violence of the protests was the responsibility of the cartoons' publishers was resoundingly rejected by free speech advocates. Yet here, at a much smaller level, disruption caused by students in reaction to unpopular speech was blamed not on the students being disruptive, but on the unpopular speech. I'm guessing that Justice Black was not a big fan of Vietnam war opponents' views, and that had something to do with who he blamed for the disruption that was actually the responsibility of the people who threatened people for daring to publicly express an unpopular opinion.

Conservative Christian parents are currently being encouraged to pull their kids out of school on the Day of Silence. If they do that, I hope that they are willing to see their children bear the brunt of the punishment that any delinquent child should get for non-attendance. I hope also that they do not try to blame their own sabotage of their childrens' education on other students expressing their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech. Unpopular speech that provokes an anti-social reaction is not responsible for that reaction: the person reacting anti-socially is responsible for it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

American "journalism": it's worse than you think

It's not uncommon for people of all political stripes to complain about general media bias (ie, that it's not biased far enough their way) or complain that the media doesn't cover the issues that are really important (ie, the issues that they want to see covered). But I still think something is badly wrong when an American opinion columnist named David Brooks baldly declares that:
The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities.

And here was I thinking that the journalist's job was to report the truth about issues of importance to the public. That's the role that the Fourth Estate plays in a free society, isn't it? But no, the American mediocracy have just openly stated that they see their job as nothing more than creating cheap and tawdry political theatre for the sake of...actually, the why of it isn't even explained. "Making politicians uncomfortable" has become an end in itself.

To their credit, many of the commenters on Brooks' self-serving defence of the undeserved position of privilege occupied by himself and his drinking buddies (buddies who include Presidential candidate John McCain, incidentally) have recognised the severe problem with Brooks' self-perception of what it is he is supposed to do. Most of them aren't quite as alarmed about it as I am, though.

A free media is a vital institution for a liberal democracy. The media needs to hold the government of the day accountable, by all means. Is it only just in the past few years that people are asking whose been holding the media accountable?

It seems so, and the answer seems fairly clear: nobody has. Brooks' redefinition of the journalist's job into one that has no actual point - ribbing politicians just for the sake of ribbing politicians - is proof of that. I'm sorry, but isn't that territory already covered by the Daily Show? On a comedy channel? Why do we need journalists wasting their time doing the same thing, only in a way that's not funny?

From the outside looking in, it seems to me that the American media has become a power unto itself, with no loyalty to the people whose interests they supposedly represent. That is a dangerous situation. I would even go so far as to say it is a threat to freedom. Hyperbole? Maybe. But I think it's important to see the American mediocracy subjected to the same accountability that we would expect to be applied to anyone in a free society who is granted the responsibility of power over others. And in the Information Age, the people who control what is and isn't "newsworthy" and "important to viewers" have a LOT of power over others, so their requirements for accountability should be especially high.

I just wish I knew how to go about implementing that accountability in a meaningful way.

Monday, April 14, 2008

OBAMA SAID PEOPLE ARE BITTER!: (and oh yeah, Bush created a torture regime)

Well, it turns out that President Bush knew about and approved of the torture techniques that were used at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. But there's no time for the American media to report on the deliberate rape of the American Constitution when there's an opportunity to give that nerdy Barack Obama a wedgie in public, huh?

In every American news source of note - far more than have cared to even acknowledge the torture story - the following remarks from Obama were given weighty and insanely intense consideration:
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Apparently this is what Hillary Clinton is courageously trying to save the Democrats from: a candidate who doesn't speak to the masses and comes across as secretly hating them. Others are going so far as to paint Obama as a godless Marxist for daring to suggest that people only turn to religion in order to ease their pain.

Except he never said anything of the kind of course.

And it does seem that the media elites and conservative elites have misjudged the opinions of the masses on whose behalf they are expressing such outrage. Seems that there are quite a few people who are bitter, and think that Obama has a point when he brings it up. Even USA Today reports that this supposed "gaffe" doesn't seem to be getting a lot of traction among those"rural voters" whose opinion the media elite has bothered to actually ask for.

I do find the Marxist accusation amusing, given that just one month ago this supposed evil secularist was being criticised for being part of a "wacko church". A little consistency in the anti-Obama smears, please?

Anyway, I think the bullshit about "insulting" people by calling them bitter, and how bitterness is an emotion that many rural Americans do as a matter of fact really feel in the wake of the Bush years, has been effectively dealt with by Obama and others. But the lie that Obama said people ONLY turn to guns and religion when economic times are bad is still being pushed by many of his opponents. The linked posts includes the specific lie that "Barack thinks that people would stop "seeking refuge in" and "clinging to" religion, if only they had a government they could "count on."", with bonus red-baiting: "That's what Karl Marx said, too."

Rebuttal? Simple. He never said anything of the kind. Anyone who thinks they can prove that Obama believes this is bullshitting themselves. And Reds under the Bed is sooo early 1950s. There will be people voting in the upcoming Presidential election who were toddlers when the Soviet Union collapsed. The fight is over. America won. Please accept the pain of no longer being able to gloriously give the impression of fighting that evil enemy. The post-Boomer generations thank you in advance.

For a consideration of Obama's remarks that comes from this century rather than last century, let's turn to John Robb, of Global Guerrillas fame. Rather than misleading the public with a bullshit insertion of the word "only" in Obama's comments - "they ONLY cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrationst", which Obama never said - let's admit that rural Americans have always thought that religion is extremely important and have always been avid hunters. I believe this. Obama accepts this. It's only now that things are getting REALLY bad under Bush that these things have gone from "deeply held beliefs" to "things that people cling to", because they've got nothing else. Obama was neither insulting nor dishonest: he accurately saw what has always been important to rural Americans, and accurately saw that they now cling to those things because Bush's incompetence has ensured that hunting and religion is all they have.

John Robb's 21st century explanation for this is that rural Americans are reverting to primary loyalties: when a government is so incompetent and ineffective that it cannot function as a government, people abandon that government and instead place their loyalty with people they know they can always trust: for rural Americans, that's their church congregation and their hunting buddies. Robb focuses on military examples of this phenomenon, particularly its application to places like Iraq and Lebanon, but the non-military aspects fit the current situation of the deprived of America extremely well. No Marxism here, just an honest assessment of the colossal fuckup that the Bush Administration has been for the United States of America.

I don't suppose people already convinced that Obama is Stalin reincarnated will find this convincing, but I do feel that in the wakes of such brazen lies about what Obama believes, I ought to speak up. I do still wish that the simpering adolescents in the American news industry would actually take a slight peek at that "Bush personally authorised torture" story. Please?

Oh yes: and "Bittergate?" The Watergate scandal was one of the biggest and best pieces of investigative journalism in America's history. Please stop trying to apply that magic to petty bullshit like this. You just can't.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Anonymous vs Scientology, Sydney edition

Congratulations to Anonymous for getting their Sydney anti-Scientology protest mentioned in a major Sunday newspaper. The article on page 40 of the Sun Hearld looks impressive, with a big photo of members of Anonymous wearing their Guy Fawkes masks. Some are wearing sunglasses over the masks. A bit odd looking, but also kind of cool. Their various protest signs also feature prominently.

Most of the text of the accompanying article is available here. There is further text in the print edition which follows the final quote from Vicki Dunstan, Scientology trustee, which I'll get to in a second.

But: "Vicki Dunstan, Scientology trustee"? In the Defamer she is called "the Australian head of the Church". NineMSN simply called her a "spokesperson". In the Brisbane Times last year she was called "President of Scientology Australia". Where does "trustee" suddenly come from?

Certainly the Church of Scientology operates some discretionary investment trusts in Australia, and has since 2003: The Church of Scientology ACT Academy Building Fund, The Church of Scientology Adelaide Academy Building Fund, likewise for Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. No Sydney though. So, "Scientology trustee" of which specific Scientology institution?

In any case, the actual corporate position in the CoS structure tends to be less important than the internal management position. I have absolutely no idea what that is, but there's no guarantee that Miss Dunstan holds a high level in it: it's not uncommon for the corporate position of "President of the Church of Scientology" or similar to be held by someone with the internal position of "Head of OSA PR": their basic job is to be a spokesperson. But the represented title of "trustee" does seem odd...

The text not included in the online article is as follows:
Those who attended yesterday's Sydney protest by Anonymous denied they employed violent tactics against the church. One member, who did not wish to be named, said: "We are not a hate group - we just want people to know the truth about Scientology.

"People do not know what they're getting into because they're getting into because Scientology does not tell them the truth.

"Truth is not hate. One of the things about our group is that we came together from the internet. The internet is free and is all about freedom of speech. Scientology is not."

Other supporters said Anonymous' main objection was to what they claim is a policy of destroying families by cutting off followers from anybody who is not a Scientologist.

Hm. If this is still talking about the disconnection policy, then it's inaccurate: disconnection doesn't require cutting off all non-Scientologists, only someone who is a "Suppressive Person". This usually means someone who is vocally opposing the CoS, or else someone who used to be in the Church and has since been kicked out, or "declared SP". The practice of disconnection is obvious in such SP Declares, as they include the lovely phrase "his [or her] only terminal is the International Justice Chief", which in non-Scientology jargon means that the declared SP is prohibited from communicating with any Scientologist in good standing, except the IJC. Here's a typical example. Vick Dunstan did a poor job of trying to spin this in a positive light. A blanket denial of something that is evident in every official SP Declare issued by the Church? Please.

Moving on...
A former member of the church said: "I thhink these protests are just wonderful because they're getting the message out there about what happens in Scientology. I know mothers who have been cut off from their sons and families split up because of the church. It is dreadful."

Anonymous says its membership is growing every month and that more than 8000 people worldwide protested yesterday.

I am rather impressed by Anonymous' work here, all thing considered. But I do think they need to work on the precision of their criticisms.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Pastor John Hagee's anti-gay comments, original source

I like being able to point directly to the source of things. I hadn't found the original source of Pastor John Hagee's statement about how New Orlean's gay pride march was to blame for Hurricane Katrina until now. It's audio only, unfortunately, and I do not currently have time to verify for myself if and where in the 25 minute audio sample the comments occur (will try to get to it as soon as possible). But as thing currently stand, Hagee's comments are allegedly from his interview on the NPR radio show "Hot Air", originally broadcast on the 18th of September, 2006. Audio is available from this page of the NPR website. Hagee's homosexuality comments as reported by, well, pretty much everywhere, are as follows:
HAGEE: All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are -- were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.

Tellingly, in an interview with the New York Times where Hagee tries to wind back his anti-jewish and anti-catholic comments, the best defense he can muster about his anti-gay comments is to stonewall and refuse to discuss the issue entirely: "We’re not going down there. That’s so far off-base it would take us 33 pages to go through that, and it’s not worth going through."

But of course he still inserts the self-righteous "we only hate the sin, not the sinner!" canard: "Our church is not hard against the gay people. Our church teaches what the Bible teaches, that it is not a righteous lifestyle. But of course we must love even sinners."

Even when you've told people that doing so would place them at risk of God wiping out their entire city with a natural disaster, Pastor?