Friday, May 25, 2012

Obscene T-shirts and free speech

The culture war over taste and public expression has flared up regarding
a T-shirt that got a wearer kicked off of an American Airlines flight.

Stories like this can seem trivial when there's a lot of real death and destruction to worry about.

But over and over, we're seeing, not considered thoughtfully-formulated policy as to what a business or institution will allow on its property, but a real sense of entitlement by The Offended to make policy on the spot.

To demand that their taste be enforced on customers :

 - without advance notice to those customers;

 - without oversight by any policymaking body for the firm;

 - without planning or consensus;

 - and without consistency in implementation or enforcement.

There is a very very gray area in which the question of what people should do, and what they have the right to do, gets tangled and difficult to sort out.   If you click the link above, you'll see that the offensive word has been partially blocked out in the news story.

Superficially, this can seem laughably stupid.  I mean, is the exact word in any doubt whatsoever?  What difference does it make to put that little black box over the middle letters?

Which leads to the question of....why use the word?  The word "screw" or the euphemism "sleep with" would convey the political message perfectly well.  Heck, context means that the word could be blacked out on the shirt itself and the wearer's opinion, and exact word used, would still be abundantly clear.

The black box does make a difference, and here's why: it doesn't seek to prevent us from reading the word or knowing what it said, but has a different purpose; to affirm the reader/listener's disapproval. Those who find the term offensive can feel that their standards of civility are considered reasonable and are still society's Default Setting.

Whether it was tasteful or necessary isn't the issue.  They were wrong to throw her off the flight.

Let's take the most stringent view of rights, just for the sake of argument, and let's say that AA had every right to make clothing rules.

What they do NOT have the right to do is:  to let a crew member make up a policy and enforce it at the gate without notice to this or to any passenger.  The airline's policy on this matter, included in this article, is not a specific interdiction of known words and phrases, but a blanket assertion of the right to NOT spell out what is and isn't acceptable.  And to make any expression of another passenger's distaste override the offending passenger's rights. 

The shirt made a political statement, and it made that statement with an anger that is neither small nor trivial.  According to the airline, the F-word -- not the political viewpoint -- was the issue.

Maybe it really was apolitical.  But loathing for the political point of view could be shrouded in the claim of obscenity.  It's happened before.

Airline crew encounter all kinds of absolutely nasty and grotesque passenger behavior that leaves this in the dust.  Now, me, I'd be fine with any passenger who showed no sign of doing other than turning off her electronic devices for take-off, fastening her seatbelt, and quietly sitting with her drink, her snack mix and her e-reader.  Nobody on the first leg of her trip seemed to consider disciplining her for the word to be their personal crusade.

The shirt may be obnoxious in some eyes, but it was emphatically not a use of the word for a trivial reason.  The escalation in women's anger comes in response to an escalating ultra-right push on every aspect of a woman's life, way beyond terminating pregnancies.  It is very well stated here.

My "own"  (please, let me out)  state of SC recently tried to forbid state employees to have, in their health coverage, a provision for abortion, even in clear and established cases of rape.

 It failed by one vote.  Not that I'm not relieved, and not that I didn't know how extreme are many peoples' stands on abortion, but the thought of how close it was - how many lawmakers support forcing a woman who has been raped to bear a child from it leaves me gobsmacked.  There are positions of integrity on both sides of the abortion issue, but this mentality can't be considered anything but an assault against women.

The strange opposition to contraception in health plans .....  to money for life-saving gynecological care at Planned Parenthood, which uses NONE of it for abortion .... the idea that if the anti-abortion movement cannot win the hearts and minds of the people of this democracy, they have the absolute right to make the process lengthy and expensive to a punitive and contorted degree...

 ..... and especially that they have the right to insult and shame women using that process, but then have the "right" not to see a bad word on a T-shirt....

Please understand the twisted thinking of this.  Go ahead.  Hate abortion.  Hate irresponsible behavior.

But also hate the mentality that calls for opposing views to be suppressed.  This is one of those cases.  The shirt did not say "[....] Personal Name"  or even   "[....] Big Corporation Everybody Hates"  much less "[....]ing is Fun".  It expressed political rage.  The shirt did not speak for the airline, the crew, or anyone but the wearer, and could never be construed as being the statement of anyone else.

Obviously, I think the rage is justified and that no toned-down term would convey the feeling of violation that many women in this society are experiencing right now.  So yeah, to tone it down would indeed be suppression of the person's free expression.  Telling her she can say it, but must do it nicer, is telling her she can't really say it at all.  There's nothing Nice about the fact that a frightening number of people would grant liberty, authority over one's own body, and self-determination to men and fetuses, but not to women.

If American Airlines or any other business that serves the public wants to make regulations that have absolutely ZERO to do with passenger safety, terrorism, etc., then they need to spell them out at corporate level so that any passenger can choose to comply, or choose to protest, or choose to fly on another line.

The airline might get more business for doing it, or they might lose business.  To avoid spelling out what is disallowed in an above-board, full-disclosure way is cowardly, unethical, and possibly illegal.

If I were an airline official, and that crew member had come to me with some personal demand that a customer's shirt message not offend him or her, I would tell said crew member that we appreciate good employees, and it's up to you, but if you expect your personal taste to determine who may fly, you might want to work somewhere else.  Unemployment is rampant out there and I would be very happy to pass your job on to someone who does not demand that this company serve only customers of whom s/he feels entitled to issue on-the-spot approvals -- or disapprovals.

And I guess you'll all have to take my word for it, that I would apply this to all points of view.  If you want this kind of policy, then do the procedure for policymaking.  Convince the company to put some thought into a policy for passenger attire and behavior that ticket-buyers will be clearly informed of in advance, and that will be applied consistently, and then enforcing it is my job.

Their claim that it's "virtually impossible to write down or precisely delineate every situation that may, or may not, create an issue" is bull.   The list of common obscenities, profanities, and depictions of crass nudity would be quite easy to put together. They have a right to ban specifics, but this vague "policy" to ban just any old thing that someone does not like goes way too far.

Try this:  The exact same shirt, with a black box masking the F-word could still offend some other passenger, who would find it a strident and obviously obscene pro-choice statement.  The American Airlines policy would allow them to kick off the wearer, even under those circumstances.

If any of my readers want a similar T-shirt, they can buy one at this site.  But be forewarned.  The F-word is not blacked out here.  Oh, and for a little moment of rude comic relief -- if you're thinking of choosing the white shirt, you might want to preview it before ordering.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Not exactly in tune*

Rainbow 2008
There are ways in which my brain doesn't quite work the way other peoples' do.

For one thing, I have no evidence that those great exercise endorphins I hear rumors about actually exist.  I am an unrepentant Aendorphist.  Or maybe an Agnostendorphist.  No matter how hard I work out, run, whatever, I never get any rush of endorphin euphoria, even a mild one that scores more as "kinda nice," so I strongly suspect that exercise endorphins are a myth, like Santa, that They use to get us to be Good. Which is probably why I'm so out of shape.  But that's another problem.

This one is the healing powers of nature.  I don't get that either.
Instamatic shot, 1971

Which might be kind of odd for a forest-primevil lover, which I am.  Cities are great for brief visits to partake of concerts and stores but I have a perpetual kind of low-grade tension in them and my readiness to get away appears in a few days.  I crave our finding a piece of property far away from all noise not produced by nature.

Our semi-annual nerve-frazzling, brain-grinding biker rally may be why I'm thinking about this.

But anyway, that's different from finding nature healing.  Or, I guess it is. When my life has been in bad shape, I have never found that the woods or the ocean or the gardens or anything makes me feel at all more empowered, hopeful, or at peace.  I read about others who go through a bad life-passage, and who take to the woods or the desert and find it healing in some way.  I like it out there with the trees and water, but feel just as lousy.

Instamatic, 1972

The closest I've ever come to having a nature experience that made me feel any better-centered, or that notched my mood up a hair, was by the ocean on a dark night.  I haven't walked by the ocean at night in many years. We don't live all that close, and you kind of need to be in walking distance since the whole driving/parking thing makes this particular experience horribly ordinary.  But when I have midnight-beach-walked in the past, usually on a vacation with a beachfront rental, the Atlantic Ocean at night was wonderfully overwhelming.
35mm basic camera, 1981

By day, I can easily perceive the build and crash of breakers, many yards away out there, as being .... well, as being many yards away out there.  But in the dark, the surge feels threatening and kind of adrenalin-rush overwhelming, and feels that way over and over, no matter how many times I experience it.

Safe on shore, I see this black featureless horizon, swelling up and roaring at me, building so tall that it doesn't seem possible that it won't engulf the sand and me with it.  The black wall rises and I have to fight the urge to hold my breath, and then it topples and crashes and is gone while I just can't quite make my mind believe such a massive rushing entity has simply dissipated.  That is the only force of nature that has ever helped me, and I'm not sure why.  It's Huge and makes my life feel comfortably trivial, but no other natural landscape, equally immense or majestic, can produce the feeling.  Maybe the sense of being in danger is the key component.  Maybe that works sort of like a drug to overwhelm any other anxiety I've got going on.
Brookgreen Gardens Live Oak, May 2012

So I do have a type of nature experience that helps me, but the difference is that it doesn't make me feel better in a way I can keep.  It's for the moment.  Not only is whatever was bothering me still bothering me, but I feel no forward movement.  Nature gives me only a brief break, but there's nothing wrong with that.

* My post title refers to this cool poem.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Defending belief. Defending believers.

The summary is:  I don't defend my beliefs, because that slips over the line into proselytizing and I don't go there. But I do defend believers, as people of thought, reason and justice.  There.  Those of my readers who are sick of my rants on this subject can click on to something more fun.

There's an old anti-war poster that says "What if they gave a war and nobody came?"  That's been my general philosophy about some issues.  Stop the escalation by not participating.

But the escalation of the belief war keeps on because there are more than two sides.  In the atheist/Believer war, you've got some Believers who think all atheists (and other faiths) must be converted, and you've got some atheists who think all Believers must be "educated" into non-belief.  They'd be into it anyway, but those who'd prefer to opt out keep getting dragged in.

There's a third group with members of all belief stripes, which holds to the "live and let live" position. I'm with them, but we still have a battle to fight because so many in both camps would impinge on and outright deny freedom of belief to others.

And one of their weapons is a mockery that bleeds outside the boundaries of attacks on belief itself, and gets into a show of -- probably sincere -- contempt for the believing person and for all the person does or thinks.
McCalls, 12/67

If it were only a form of trolling, to get us to fly off the handle, it wouldn't be worth responding to, but I meant that part about them being sincere. Too many really believe that our faith in a Higher Power IS the SAME as opposing science, dumping our critical thinking for dogma, wanting Biblical law encoded into civil law, assigning values and roles to women and minorities based on ancient teachings, blah blah blah.

I've just had a verbal sparring match with an atheist who spouted a ubiquitous atheist cute-ism: that believers think some being lives up "in a cloud" and turns traffic lights green for us, when He feels like it.  Etc., etc., etc.
I have honestly never, ever, run into anybody who thinks this.  I even know a guy who believes the whole thing about how earth was created in 4004 BCE, but have never met anybody who thinks God lives in a freaking cloud.  If any of you are out there, let me know, and I'll recant.
Wall Chart of World History, facsimile edition, Barnes & Noble 1995

The vitriol levied at us believers is nothing new but sometimes it gets to me, especially when there's been a lot of it in a short time frame.  This guy who hauled out the Cloud Entity thing got my response, pretty much because he was just the Hundredth Lucky Caller. I suggested he mock something we actually believe if he must mock at all.

What?  Can't find anything?  And if you have to make up a belief to mock, then how weak is your argument?

Here are some examples that show what I keep encountering. This, if I need to reiterate it, is about why I defend the working brains of believers, so my examples are of infringement on us.  There are plenty of examples of believers pressuring non-believers and none of this denies that.  This whole post, in fact, is based on the phenomenon of both sides doing it.

Some of these are old but are still getting cited and recommended.

Take this one.  It's extremely long; here's a passage :

By all means we should try to make up for the harm that other people's words do, but not by censoring the words as such. 
And, since I am so sure of this in general, and since I'd expect most of you to be so too, I shall probably shock you when I say it is the purpose of my lecture today to argue in one particular area just the opposite. To argue, in short, in favour of censorship, against freedom of expression, and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct.
I am talking about moral and religious education. And especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed—even expected—to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.
In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.
Yes.  Legal enforcement of a ban on teaching tenets of faith, even to your own children in your own home. That's what he said.

Here's another one .  This extremely good, fiercely intelligent, but extremely arrogant writer critiques beliefs that don't even
-- she admits this -- participate in or approve of religious abuses:

The “I’m spiritual but not religious” trope is trying to have the best of both worlds… but it’s actually getting the worst. It’s keeping the part of religion that’s the indefensible, unsupported-by-a-scrap-of- evidence belief in invisible beings; indeed, the part of religion that sees those invisible beings as more real, and more important, than the real physical world we live in. It’s keeping the part of religion that devalues reason and evidence and careful thinking, in favor of hanging onto any cockamamie idea that appeals to your wishful thinking.  It’s keeping the part of religion that equates morality and value with believing in invisible friends. 

The operative word in that is "indefensible." She sees the two sides as endlessly trying to defend their views to the other despite the fact that many of us don't come to that war.

In another entry she explains that religious belief that's strictly personal and has no pubic policy agenda still must be opposed :
I think it does harm even in the absence of overt religious intolerance. I think it encourages gullibility, vulnerability to bad ideas and charlatans; I think it discourages critical thinking and the valuing of evidence...
So while, on a practical, day-to-day political level I'm going to fight for tolerance and ecumenicalism — creationism out of the public schools, evangelizing out of the military, public health policy not being written by fundamentalists, that sort of thing — I'm also going to keep fighting against religion in general.

There's a kind of circular reasoning going on, in which religious belief gets indicted for causing repression and causing opposition to science and evidence, so you point out believers who also support science and evidence and social justice, and get back :
"Who really cares; you believe in 'invisible friends.' "

I'm pretty well convinced that free thought isn't what it was 200 years ago, and is not about freedom and respect for everyone.

I keep wondering why all that thinking doesn't lead to the logical conclusion that subordinating one's own decision-making to the authority of the group is the problem, not the group per se.  You'd think they'd be interested in what scientific research tells us about the human mind, and about how we're social beings who crave the safety and status of membership in groups.

Heck yes, we want to Belong, we want to demonstrate our loyalty and our support and we gain acceptance and status by doing so.  We'll ignore evidence that indicates our group might be wrong on an issue, because defending the group's position both strengthens the group and raises us in its ranks.  If the joy of discovery and questioning authority isn't taught us early in life, before the stage in which peer pressure gains its maximum power over us, we'll turn our critical thinking off and defer to that peer group a whole lot more.

Religion is merely one of those groups.  A powerful one, but totally, absolutely secondary to the fundamental need to belong.  Eliminate religion and you eliminate all that violence and inhumanity done in its name?  The naiveté of this is amazing.

The minute we eliminate religion, other forms of group identity will still be there, making us just as inhumane to other groups as we always were.  We will still need to say "We're better than them, we deserve their land, resources and forced labor."

What we need to reduce is our craving to be the Us instead of the Them.  Both of us, all of us, need to do it.

All unsolicited proselytizing is unethical. Debate on anything is fine as long as both parties are doing it voluntarily.  Proselytizing should be done only at the request of the seeker, and should never, ever be initiated by the believer or the atheist.  If a person has not asked me what my idea of The Big Truth is, then I should be quiet.  What that person believes is none of my business.

So I come to another author and blogger, from whom I am probably theologically about a light-year apart.  I know about her because she followed me on Twitter, though briefly (which happens a lot, since I don't tweet much. I find it kind of a chore).  Anyway, my beliefs are vastly more Nicene than hers are:
Those that have changed the names of God to ones that are less dominated by the traditional pictures the word “God” evokes are now faced with scientific and archaeological findings that challenge the idea of God as creator; philosophical ideas that undermine the ultimate reality of God as a being separate and distinct from human experience; anthropological examination that exposes the human need to create deities and supernatural forces.
but she takes a post-acrimony position that I can completely share:
  I think it is high time we stopped feeding the acrimony between atheists and people of any faith tradition and start looking at the values that lie at the heart of whatever it is we believe.  If those values are grounded in a respect for the dignity of all life and in creating and sustaining right relationship with self, others, and the planet, then who cares what religious or philosophical perspective one holds?

This, folks, is how we allow freedom of conscience and still move humanity forward.

I don't debate the existence or nature of God.  I do debate the accusations made about believers, because they are claims to know who I am and what I think and they don't get to do that.  They claim authority and I question them.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

In which we consider breakfast, with digressions

Probably the only legal thing worse than sleep deprivation, for adolescent mental and physical development, would be vitamin deficiency.   This post was sparked by my running into an old ad and realizing what a huge debt I owe to Carnation Instant Breakfast [TM].  Which I did not have for breakfast, but for after-school snacks.

Good Housekeeping, July, 1965

Inferno Junior High school was an awful place, academically OK, but socially and hierarchically brutal.  I demanded of The Universe that it give me more hours of my own outside of the school, but since the universe didn't really give a crap and only provided 24 per day, I had to simply rob time from another activity, and the only one left was sleep.  So I stayed up deep into the night.

Mornings, I was exhausted and had no appetite for breakfast.  My poor mother fixed a real breakfast for me every morning and scraped most of it into the trash when I was gone, since I picked at a bite or two, if I ate anything.

I need to add that Mom was not a morning person, and her cooking reflected this.  Her lunches and dinners were great, her desserts heavenly, but her breakfasts .... it's a tribute to her that she willingly got up and made a meal at 6 AM, and no more should be asked.

Anyway, bless my mother, I didn't like her eggs, but really, after being awake till somewhere between 2 and 4 AM and then getting up at 6, I had no appetite for anything.

At school, lunch hours were to be feared.  Faculty really couldn't discipline the roiling mob of kids who milled around the cafeteria building and the quad and grounds near it, so it was prime bullying time.  After little breakfast, I also had no real lunch and instead ate saltines in the only place I felt safe, the girls' bathroom.

But when I got home, life was good!   I could mix up a luscious glass of Instant Breakfast --usually two of them -- and forget Inferno Jr. High even existed, by immersing myself in the fantasy worlds of whatever soap operas were on that late in the afternoon.  General Hospital and Dark Shadows were favorites but TV was pretty much my feeding tube when I got out of Inferno.

Digression : I saw the very first episode of One Life to Live, where ailing but plucky Meredith Lord watched from the hospital parking lot in horror as two young doctors, who both had hopes of hooking up with Meredith, argued, up on a balcony, and one plummeted to his death, leading to serious legal troubles for the other one.

You may have guessed that my daily exit from Inferno Junior High was as great a joy for me, as entering it was a misery.

Anyway, in the process of being a chocolate reward for surviving the day, Instant Breakfast gave me a daily mega-dose of basic vitamins, and if I have any mental faculties at all, I owe a large portion of them to those shakes.

Unfortunately Instant Breakfast and I broke up when Carnation decided that the very fact of my drinking a sugar-free meal replacement product meant that I was statistically likely to be a moron who is too  irresponsible to be trusted with getting adequate fiber.

I really really think that this assumption is a stretch.

Whoever grows and markets chicory must be rolling in the dough, and must therefore be able to pressure every food company into adding this wretched stuff to every product they can think of, because you will notice "Inulin!" cheerily declared on many product labels, and that's what inulin is;  chicory root, powdered.  Only those of us who have to avoid sugar are punish-- I mean, provided with this unwanted fiber in the shake mix.  The sugared formula doesn't add it.

It's been about 5 years since since I sadly gave up Instant Breakfast after being a forty-year customer, but there are other tasty nutrition shakes these days, and I sometimes eat real food for breakfast now that I don't contend with junior high each day, and I've moved on.

But I drink chocolate meal-replacement shakes more often than I have anything else, and it's a comfort food habit that i formed in about 1967.