July 31, 2014

It's Okay When We Do It

Photos from a protest against waterboarding, o...
Photos from a protest against waterboarding, on the occasion of Condoleezza Rice's visit to Iceland, by Campaign Against Military Bases. Condoleezza Rice was invited to the protest and to try waterboarding for herself but as she didn't show some volunteers tried it out for themselves. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As it started to come to light that the U.S. was using torture against detainees during the Bush presidency, President Bush and his aids took to the airwaves to reassure the American people. We were told repeatedly, "We do not torture." Many of us knew this was not true. We were aware that the U.S. has used torture and committed all sorts of other atrocities during our brief history. It would soon become painfully clear that the Bush administration tortured detainees after 9/11.

At the time, it seemed that the administration was just lying to us by insisting that they were not using torture when they were doing so. But simple lying and propaganda might provide an incomplete picture of what was happening. It seems possible that at least some people in our government convinced themselves that these public denials were not technically lies at all. They constructed an elaborate (and quite twisted) legal rationale and invented new terms (e.g., "enhanced interrogation") to justify their actions. If, for example, they legalized water-boarding by classifying it as something other than torture, they might be able to convince themselves that it was not torture.

Bush could appear on one channel insisting, "America doesn't torture" while Cheney could appear on another extolling the virtues of "enhanced interrogation methods" like water-boarding. They had legalized "enhanced interrogation" so that it was no longer torture.

July 30, 2014

The Greatest Cop-Out Ever

English: St Annes Nursing Home
English: St Annes Nursing Home (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Suppose I wanted to do something bad, something with which I know a great many people will disagree. This thing I want to do will lead many people to conclude that I am a truly despicable person. Some will go so far as to call me evil. And to be honest, I'd probably reach the same conclusion about someone else if they were to do what I want to do. But this isn't about someone else wanting to do it; it is about me wanting to do it, and that makes it okay.

I want to go into nursing homes and bring people to Jesus. I want to prey upon the sick, the lonely, and the desperate. I'll be sure to keep a tally of how many I manage to convert, and this will provide an incredible boost to my self-image and my status within my evangelical fundamentalist church. I've been looking for a way to wrack up several of those magic Jesus points, and this will do the trick nicely.

July 29, 2014

Civil Rights Era Lessons for Secular Activism

Crowds surrounding the Reflecting Pool, during...
Crowds surrounding the Reflecting Pool, during the 1963 March on Washington. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I don't write many posts on subjects about which I feel so confused, but this will be one of them. Some version of this has been floating around in my head for some time now, and it isn't getting any clearer. Maybe trying to write about it will help.

There is always a danger when watching old news footage assembled from a period of time before one was born. One never knows how much of it is an accurate reflection of the times or how well it fit the experience of those involved in the events being depicted. And this is particularly true when the people telling the story may have incentives for providing something other than a purely factual account.

I recently found myself watching something on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in the United States. I cannot recall the source of the content - it was something that had been on my DVR for ages, and I made the mistake of erasing it after I'd watched it without noting the source. If I had to guess, I think it might have been from CNN.

Anyway, one of the parts that stood out to me was how reluctant both presidents Kennedy and Johnson were to take action on civil rights. Understandably, both were focused elsewhere (i.e., Vietnam). Somewhat harder to understand, it sound like Kennedy in particular really hoped the issue would just go away so he wouldn't have to risk White votes. Fortunately, the civil rights activists did not let him ignore the subject. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others made it impossible for either president to ignore the issue for long.

July 28, 2014

Joint Statement from Benson and Dawkins

© Copyright Dave Spicer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
A few days ago, Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins released a joint statement suggesting that while disagreement is inevitable in the atheist/humanist/skeptic/secular communities, we need to be able to disagree without being horrible to one another in the process.
Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.
Yes, and it isn't only about wanting atheism and secularism to gain respect; it is also about how we can be more effective secular activists. We will not always agree, but we are going to be far better able to accomplish the few goals most of us share when we can overcome our differences and work together. This is what a great many of us have been advocating for some time, and I sincerely hope that it sticks this time.
It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

July 27, 2014

Gender and How We Evaluate YouTube Videos

Jaclyn Glenn
When a man makes a YouTube video, it seems like the audience tends to focus more on his content and how he expresses himself than they do on his appearance. Yes, I recognize that this is a generalization and that there are certainly exceptions. If the man were to do something as unforgivable as wearing a fedora in his video, we'd almost certainly hear about it. But barring something so horrible, it would be unlikely that we'd hear much about his appearance. We'd hear more about what he said and how he said it. The focus would be on the ideas he expressed in his video.

When a woman makes a YouTube video, it seems that we often hear as much about her appearance as we hear about her content. Yes, we may hear some opinions of what she said and how she said it as well, but it seems like there is often some commentary about her appearance. Was she attractive or not? What was she wearing, and what do we think of it? We rarely hear this about videos from men.

Feminists have long pointed out differences like this where we seem to use somewhat different criteria for evaluating men and women in many contexts. I think this is an important observation that should raise questions about why we do this and how this affects women in a broader sense. When feminists offer this as evidence that we are objectifying women and taking their intellectual contributions somewhat less seriously, I tend to agree.

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