Same-sex marriage is back in the news in my state, thanks to an ‘activist’ judge striking down a ban on it, and of course people are arguing that it was properly voted into law by the people and shouldn’t be changed to suit a minority of the population. Which to me misses the point that it is part of the judicial system’s job to strike down unfair laws. And I’d think that would be fairly clear in a political system that with designed with a heavy hand towards checks and balances between the different branches of government. This is hardly the first law passed through proper channels to be struck down by a judge, it won’t be the last, and don’t try claiming that it’s not the judicial system’s job to do so because it absolutely is.

There’s another important issue here too, which is that of majority vs. minority rights. One role of government is to protect those with less power from those with more, which in this case would be non-straight people and their supporters who are a smaller group of voters than those against same-sex marriage, at least in this state. But their numbers do not change the effect that this ban has on the lives on same-sex couples, and those effects cannot be ignored just because more people say that they’re being sinful in their actions. Majority rule is entirely capable of trampling the rights of minority populations, and that’s another reason the system is set up the way it is, to prevent a tyranny of the majority from oppressing minority or disenfranchised populations. If one groups rights are being denied, it really doesn’t matter how many people voted to deny them those rights. Same-sex couples and their families are asking for the same benefits that opposite-sex couples already enjoy, and denying them that provides no benefit to anyone beyond a sense of righteousness at denying them those benefits. This ‘activist’ judge was doing nothing more than his job in striking down a law that he found to deny one group of the rights they deserve.

Apparently people should have identical needs

I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I usually gloss over headlines like “Home Depot Embraces Sharia Law” and for once actually decided to see what was being blown out of proportion myself. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, one Home Depot in an area with a large Muslim population decided to educate their employees so they could better serve that particular sub-group of customers. One article on it asks if a business shouldn’t be trying to better serve all of its customers. Of course it should–it’s never wise to upset your clientele when they have other options–but that doesn’t mean the best way to serve one customer is the best way to serve every customer.

This is a familiar form of privilege distress, which is often described as being preferential treatment. People often ask why we need a Department of Women’s Health, or a Black History Month, and when we can get a Department of Men’s Health and a White History month. But these things are not an attempt to give preferential treatment to those groups of people, they’re meant to counter the centuries of ignorance that has surrounded them. Women’s health has long been ignored, to the detriment of women being treated by doctors whose knowledge of medicine is based primarily on male physiology. History, it is said, is written by the victors, or perhaps more accurately the ruling class, and that has long meant white men in our part of the world. We don’t need a White History Month because essentially that’s EVERY month. This can be seen over and over again, in virtually every arena where acknowledgements of inequality exists. The privileged group wonders why they don’t get such special treatment without realizing that special treatment towards them is the default mode of operations. Everything is already geared towards what suits them best, but that state of affairs is invisible because it’s the default.

Treating people equally often requires recognizing and accounting for differences. If you randomly started handing out peanut butter sandwiches to strangers, you’d have a number of people grateful for the free sandwich, but others would wind up sick because they’re allergic to peanuts. While the action towards both groups is the same, the results are quite different and certainly cannot be considered equal. Offering those with an allergy a tuna sandwich instead is a different action, but it is more equal than only offering food they can’t eat.

The lies we tell

Recently the New York Times posted an article titled The Kids Who Beat Autism. (Predictably, ASAN is questioning both the possibility of ‘recovery’ and the desirability of it.) I’ve mentioned before how I felt lied to as a child by the idea that the best way to make friends is to “just be yourself”, and this story and the reaction to it highlights why.

See, “just be yourself” is good advice–you can’t make a true friendship if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, and self-acceptance is healthier than self-loathing. And I’m sure that all the people who give such advice truly mean it. Culturally, though, it only seems to be held as good advice for people who are sufficiently normal, which would also be the group of people least needing such reassurances. For those of us who are too different, that’s not how it seems to work. Instead those differences become something to label, treat, fix so that we can be more like other people. We get told to be ourselves just as much as anyone else–but the way we’re treated tells us that being who we are is not acceptable.

There are times when differences do need to be addressed because they are causing problems in our lives. The question, though, is what is the best way to temper or eliminate those challenges. Sometimes the work is something we have to do ourselves. Sometimes, the work is best shared or done at a structural or cultural level–it is far more reasonable to install a ramp than to ask a wheelchair user to navigate a flight of stairs, for example. And sometimes the only challenge is that those differences highlight that we are different. A lot has been said in the autism community about attempts to eliminate stimming, which frequently causes no problems other than the fact that other people notice and are uncomfortable with it. Or (lack of) eye contact, which is a very culture-specific demand to begin with. Why should anything be done about something so superficial? The problem is that often most or all of the work is demanded to be dealt with at the individual level, putting all the onus on the person who already has it hardest and sometimes bringing no benefit to that person at a personal cost.

As a culture we talk a lot about being tolerant of individual differences. In practice though, difference is often considered unacceptable. Instead of asking people who are struggling to spend precious effort on being “normal”, how much better would things be if we were actually as accepting of difference as we say we should be?

Insert Picard facepalm meme here

This is getting way too predictable. Guy shoots people, concerns about mental illness start cropping up. Repeat after me: The mentally ill are no more likely to be violent than the general population.

What really gets me about this one, though, is the utter lack of evidence that the guy is mentally ill. His family mentions him as being ‘troubled’…but what does that even mean? It’s way too vague a term to tell us anything. There’s no indication that he was being treated for anything (in all fairness, as an adult that ball was entirely in his court, so if he didn’t want help he didn’t have to get any). There’s no comment about him having been violent in any way before this. The most of substance that is said in the article is that he stopped going to church a few years ago. Which, like the ‘troubled’ comment above, tells us absolutely nothing. Lots of people stop attending services all the time, and it doesn’t really mean anything more than they decided they didn’t want to go anymore. Heck, I didn’t go in college only because I couldn’t be bothered to go off campus for it. He had the choice whether or not to attend, he chose not to, for reasons that we can only guess at. I remember learning that to be news, something had to be ‘significant, interesting, and new’. I’d say this article only passes the last of those, because it doesn’t have enough substance to it to be significant or interesting.

The other thing that drives me nuts about this is that it highlights genuine issues with the worst possible light. Yes, there’s an issue with stigma about being mentally ill. Yes, this makes it harder to convince people who need help to get it. Yes, we need to deal with that. But bringing those issues up in the context to trying to prevent an event like this one really doesn’t help. It just reinforces the idea that being mentally ill makes people dangerous, which will make people less likely to admit to themselves, much less others, that they are sick, which will make it harder to get people the help they need for their own sakes. Can we stop framing this as something that’s needed to stop violence and just deal with it as an issue that needs to be addressed for the sake of helping sick people?

Locking the fire escape

I’d like to start with some apologies for being MIA for the last few months–I’ve been rather distracted and said distraction still only naps irregularly. But it’s long past time I got back to my own irregular schedule of blog posts, and I’ve decided to do so by sharing an idea I first shared on Love Joy Feminism. That idea is one I call “locking the fire escape”.

I spend a good amount of time reading both LJF and No Longer Quivering, both of which frequently critique facets of conservative Christian culture in the USA, and regardless of the particular issue there’s a recurring pattern to the materials they talk about–one where a person will acknowledge a problem, maybe even say that something needs to be done about it, but everything else ze says renders that acknowledgement completely worthless. One great example in Michael Pearl’s Book To Train Up A Child*. Michael is very quick to say that parents should not be abusive, that they need to show love to their children, but his directions for raising them is very absolutist. Spank early, spank for any sign of ‘rebellion’ (which can be as simple as not being sufficiently happy), and don’t let up until the child has truly submitted to your authority. There’s no room for individual judgement about when to stop, and the methods he promotes are themselves abusive–even occasionally fatal–which makes his admonishments to not abuse your children ring very hollow.

Michael’s wife, Debi, has her own book about being a wife called Created To Be His Helpmeet, which can be summarized as always submit to your husband and never, ever speak even the slightest utterance against his character or authority. Since even she can’t deny that some men are abusive partners, there is of course the disclaimer that a women may leave (though not divorce) her husband if he is truly abusive. Of course, you can only really be sure that he’s abusive if you’re being a perfectly submissive wife–otherwise he may just not be treating you well because you’re not being good enough. The problems of victim-blaming aside, there will always be room to think that you could be more submissive, so you can never really get past the point of trying to be a better wife to decide that yeah, the problem actually is him.

To move away from the Pearls, Karen Campbell at That Mom is ready to admit that there are problems with abuse among homeschoolers. But like many homeschooling parents, she is even readier to dismiss the notion that this should be addressed by any sort of government oversight. Instead she advocates for the homeschool community to self-police, which is absolutely useless to children who are completely isolated from the outside world, who belong to communities that endorse the treatment they’re receiving (such as those that follow the methods outlined by Michael Pearl), or whose communities lack any way to effectively police their members–that last group would probably cover the vast majority of homeschoolers, since parents rarely have any real authority over other parents.

This is a pattern that repeats very frequently in these circles. They note genuine problems that are leveled at them, and pay lip service to fixing them, but the rest of what they have to say pretty much cuts off that attempt at dealing with the issues at hand. Which is why I refer to it as “locking the fire escape”. The door has to be there, and they will point it out to make sure you know it’s there, but they’re never really going to let you use it.

*If anyone has a copy they’d like to get rid of, my niece’s birthday is coming up and I bet she’d enjoy a pinata.

Undervaluing the feminine

The view that computers are technology but sewing isn’t is a sexist stitch-up, via The Guardian.

I think the article suffers a bit from using a more academic definition of ‘technology’ than is generally used–while I don’t think many would argue that a sewing machine is technology, sewing itself probably wouldn’t fall under most people’s definitions. Beyond that, though, it does make a good point that those skills assigned to ‘female’ activities are generally not as valued as those assigned to ‘male’ ones, even when they’re similar skills. I especially like the anecdote comparing welding to icing a cake. The author found them to be very similar skill sets…yet how many people would consider them to be of comparable difficulty?

It’s kind of weird, because feminine skills are often seen as being ‘easy’, and thus aren’t valued, but even our humour tends to tacitly acknowledge that they are indeed skills, something learned. How many commercials, cartoons, etc. have used the trope of the man who is helpless in the kitchen, or cleaning the house, or any other feminine chore? Just as women have long been dissuaded from learning ‘male’ skillsets, so have men been dissuaded from leaning ‘female’ ones–a man trying to sew a shirt for the first time would probably be just as lost as a woman trying to change the oil in her car for the first time. Yet when women lack ‘male’ skills, it is seen as a sign of inferiority. When men lack ‘female’ ones, it isn’t. Sometimes, it’s even a badge of pride to be so inept at such ‘easy’ chores. If they’re so easy, why is it funny when men struggle with them, rather than sad?

N is for Not Thinking

University is back in session for the 2013-2014 school year, and apparently some students can’t make it through frosh week without being stunningly offensive. Which is bad enough coming from random students, but worse when it comes from the student president.

It’s a pretty common line to get hurled at feminists, especially in discussions of rape culture, to say that not all men are rapists. But stuff like this is why that doesn’t matter, because men who aren’t rapists are still quite capable of legitimizing sexual assault through other means. Now, I can believe the guy when he says that he never really thought that much about the words before, but the fact that he and other students were saying them matters more than whether or not he meant to say “raping drunk teens is good”. What we say and hear has an effect on how we think, and this chant is a pretty blatant example of rape culture to boot. I can’t get past the fourth line of it–“N is for no consent”–and I’m not sure what is the more disturbing aspect of this incident–students repeating this chant for years without realizing that hey, this is endorses rape, or that someone came up with it in the first place. When we talk about rape culture, we’re not just talking about people raping, or sexual harassment. We’re talking about this kind of unthinking parroting of ‘edgy’ material that some people find funny and others find frightening. I have my own twisted sense of humour, but this goes beyond funny for me because this kind of stuff actually happens. Regularly. It is taking horrible experiences that too many people have to deal with and making light of it. As a bonding mechanism, no less.

In a startling contrast, just a few days earlier and a few miles away, rival Dalhousie University posted an anti-rape video (Two, actually).

SMU, you lost this round badly.

Missing the point

I finally got around to reading The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin last week. It’s a pretty good roadmap of how we got where we are, from the crude beginnings of deliberate infection to today’s controversies. There were a couple quotes that really stood out to me, though, and struck me as examples of taking things for granted.

From page 19–“And because I live in a country where the norm is vaccine, I can delay my vaccines.” In short, I don’t have to because everyone else does.

At an individual level, this is fairly true because of herd immunity–the more people who are vaccinated, the harder it is to spread, giving protection even to those who haven’t gotten vaccinated. A single person delaying or skipping a shot isn’t likely to seriously affect anything. The problem is when those individual choices add up. It’s kind of like voting–a single person’s choice isn’t going to really affect the outcome most of the time, but it’s the aggregate of everyone’s individual choices that determine the outcome. It would be like not voting because your riding is ‘safe’ for your preferred candidate. If enough people come to that conclusion, then ze might not get enough votes to win even though ze is who most people want to win.

The second quote comes near the end of the book, on page 273–“I believe our nation can tolerate a certain percentage of unvaccinated children without risking the overall public health in any significant way.”

Sadly, this second quote comes not from a random parent, but from one Dr. Sears, who has written several books, including The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child where he promotes an alternative schedule. In other words, this quote comes from someone people listen to. While again, his statement is true, it’s missing the point somewhat. He’s not able to determine which children will or will not get their shots on the recommended schedule on a large scale (which would at least let him control the uptake rate to keep uptake high enough to protect herd immunity), but he IS able to affect choices on the individual level, which is the more dangerous one for him to be influencing because of how the aggregate of those individual choices can drop the uptake rate until outbreaks can happen.

Both of these quotes count on a high rate of vaccination to justify delaying shots–others use the same reasoning to opt out entirely. And the more people who follow this train of thought, the less true it becomes. It’s a self-defeating prophesy.

Intimate knowledge

Ever feel like your life is being appropriated for someone else’s agenda?

I’ve been involved in a conversation elsewhere about whether or not to vaccinate your children, and–big surprise–the conversation turned towards autism and vaccines. I kind of knew that it would be a bit of a trainwreck going in, but vaccination is important to me as a community health issue, so it was hard for me to stay out of it. As things became more and more autism related, a couple things happened, both of which struck me as being on some level fundamentally wrong.

1) As things became more and more autism-centered, I felt less and less like I should be contributing to the conversation. Let’s let that sink in for a moment–I felt out of place participating in a conversation that was partly about people like me. It’s hard for me to really pin down why that happened–maybe because I’m fairly mildly affected, maybe because I didn’t feel I’d be listened to, maybe because I didn’t want to have to drop the information that I’m on the spectrum because I didn’t think it’s truly relevant to the argument–but the fact that it happened at all bugs me.

2) A person on the other side commented that ze typically would asked people if they knew a child with autism before getting into the conversation, saying that ze wasn’t interested if you didn’t have ‘intimate knowledge’ of the condition. While I will acknowledge that this person is more familiar with it than most people, it was the term ‘intimate’ that bugged me. I’m on the spectrum–I live with it in a way more intimate than this person possibly can, and it felt like ze was appropriating an experience that isn’t truly hirs. And it struck me as one of the ways that autistic people, particularly adults, are frequently de-centralised from conversations about autism. There’s a lot of stories from the perspectives of parents and caregivers talking about the struggles they’ve dealt with, how hard it is to have a family member with autism, and I don’t want to discount that it does profoundly affect their lives. But there are far fewer stories that look at what it’s like to be autistic, and when someone does try to get inside of that experience it tends to be in a fairly clinical way, not from a perspective of personal experience. It’s largely the families of autistics who drive the conversation, making autistics themselves secondary characters to the stories of their own lives.

I also noted that the person used the word ‘child’, not ‘person’. Since the conversation tends to be driven by parents, it tends to be centered on issues about how to help children, since that’s their particular concern–sadly, this isn’t confined to the autism community but extends other disability communities as well. While there’s been some advances in developing programs to help children transition into adulthood, there really isn’t much out there once you’re past school age, and those transitional programs aren’t helpful if you’re already an adult when you get diagnosed. Being diagnosed has been helpful in connecting me to a community about people like me, and I try to contribute by relating my experiences, hoping to help improve the lives of those behind me. It doesn’t feel like much, and I often wish I could do more. It’s hard to feel too guilty about doing so little, though, because the truth is that the community offers me even less in return. Autistic children tend to get de-centralised from the conversation, but autistic adults are almost entirely invisible.

If I can’t fit in in spaces that concern people like myself, where can I belong?

Selfishness, Survival and the Sith Empire

Note: While this post uses a question of personal theology as a jumping off point, at its core it is not a theological post and I hope that everyone will find it worth reading regardless of their personal belief system.

I’ve been thinking a bit about God’s plan for humanity lately. I firmly believe that our purpose here on Earth is self-improvement, both as individuals and as a species. That belief does raise something of a question, though, in that, is there another path towards perfection? Could a species develop along individualist lines, rather than communal ones, and attain the same goal? The more I think about it, the less I think that’s possible, and my primary example of why comes from Star Wars.

There’s something of a truism in fiction that good is hampered by its need to be good, while evil can exist without the restraints of needing to worry about collateral damage. This is a trope frequently found in superhero fiction, where the villain will often set up a situations where the hero must choose between saving innocents and catching the villain. Usually this ends with the hero choosing the former, leaving the villain free to raise havoc another day and provide the writers loose ends to write new narratives with. But that’s a very individual narrative–a single or small group of villains versus a single or small group of heroes. The Sith Empire of the Star Wars extended universe provides something of a different tale. The Sith creed is based on personal pursuit of power, selfishness, and the idea that the strong survive. And in terms of pure power, the Empire is probably much stronger than the Republic. If they ever brought the full force of their military might against the Republic, they’d most likely win quite easily.

The problem is that the siths’ strength as individuals is their weakness as a collective. Much of their strategy and power is turned not against their enemies but each other, as various sith jockey for power and position. A lack of ability to work together is the least of their problems–much time and care needs to be taken to both shore up one’s own position as well as to undermine the position of others, much to the chagrin of the regular military who see their strength wasted, weakened, or outright destroyed as a result of the political machinations of the sith. The weak suffer under this system, being lucky to simply survive, but the strong are hampered as well. A dishonest individual in a group of honest ones can easily work things to hir advantage, but a group of dishonest individuals act as checks on each other, holding both individuals and the group back as effort that could be used in constructive ways is redirected against other members of the group.

I’ve written about my issues with the ‘rugged individualist’ philosophy before. A large part of my problems with it comes from how it ignores those without power, hurting most those who can do the least about it. But it also holds us back collectively. While the Sith Empire is something of an extreme example, with individuals constantly undermining each other, even passively not working together is a hindrance. When security is not assured, one must spend extra effort to provide it for oneself. Instead of building structures that help everyone rise to their potential, individuals are forced to put in extra effort to build the supports that are lacking, without those supports even being available to the next person. Social supports help individuals, but it also helps society by shifting focus away from avoiding the worst to attaining the best.