Status quo bias, charity, and the trolley problem

The excuses for supporting the Salvation Army, rather than one of the many non-discriminatory charities out there, are becoming progressively more flimsy. But even after I’ve addressed a number of objections to a boycott of the Salvation Army, there are still a few arguments that are very persistent. And while some of them may not actually need to be refuted, I do hope to at least disfigure them beyond recognition.

Some people have cited the Salvation Army’s near-ubiquity in providing social services, the relative accessibility of donating to them, and really just the sheer scale of their operation. But none of these constitute a reason why the Salvation Army should be considered more preferable than other charities. Even if the Salvation Army is responsible for the largest portion of charitable activities, it doesn’t mean you get more bang for the buck, so to speak, from giving to them. Your money isn’t necessarily doing more good for the dollar when it goes to the Salvation Army instead of another charity.

Besides, it’s not like charities are competing in some kind of first-past-the-post election, where whichever one provides a plurality of all charity services should receive all of the funding that would have gone to other charities. They may be the largest, but that doesn’t mean we have to support them, and it doesn’t mean the rest should be ignored. They’re only the largest because we support them, and if we stop supporting them, eventually they may not be the largest anymore.

And even if a certain charity places people practically everywhere to collect donations, that’s still not a very good reason to give to them instead of another group. Really, would you give your money to just any people who go to the trouble of putting a collection plate in front of you? Convenience alone is hardly the most relevant factor in choosing which charity you should support. And the entire purpose of drawing attention to the Salvation Army’s anti-gay beliefs is to reach people who want to make an informed decision about where their money is going and what it’s being used for.

Others claimed that the Salvation Army wouldn’t be prepared for a significant drop in donations, and that a major reallocation of funding from the Salvation Army to other charities would incur a great deal of administrative overhead that would ultimately take away from the actual charity services that they provide. But it seems obvious that an organization the size of the Salvation Army already has to be prepared to absorb shortfalls in funding that can result from a declining economy or just periodic fluctuations. This is the kind of thing they’d have to deal with regardless of whether we boycott them. Likewise, it’s not as though other charities would be completely unprepared for more donations than usual. If anything, they would almost certainly welcome this. They’re not going to be totally clueless about what to do with it all. Do you think they’ll have no choice but to spend it on Ferraris for everyone?

Perhaps the most enduring argument against a boycott is the claim that poor and homeless people would freeze to death or suffer some similar fate, and that we’re responsible for this if we choose not to give to the Salvation Army. People really love to tell me this, over and over. It’s easier to understand this argument if we split it up into two separate parts. First, there’s the attempt to persuade us with a vivid example of people dying in the streets for lack of food and shelter if we don’t support the Salvation Army. The second part, which is usually left unsaid, is the implication that we should consider this a compelling reason to keep giving to the Salvation Army. It’s important to distinguish between these two points, because I can fully acknowledge that depriving them of our money could actually mean that more homeless people will die this winter. I just don’t see why I should care. And I’ll explain why.

While the problem of poverty and homelessness is definitely something that needs to be addressed, this just isn’t a good argument for why we should give to the Salvation Army and not other charities. It relies on the kind of dramatic emotional appeal that could be made in favor of practically any cause. If this is supposed to be a valid reason to support the Salvation Army, someone else could just as easily say, “If you don’t support this charity, children in Africa are going to starve to death, slowly.” Would we then be compelled to give to that charity instead? The argument being made here is identical. Of course, someone else could then respond with another striking example of families going hungry if we don’t give to the Salvation Army, and then we’d once again have to donate to them.

So, would this ever-escalating exchange of emotional appeals force us to keep bouncing back and forth between giving to one charity, or another, or another? That seems kind of absurd, and it’s easy to realize that this isn’t a sound basis for deciding which charities we should support. And once we understand that this isn’t so persuasive after all, it’s plain to see why this argument doesn’t work for the Salvation Army either. So when someone tells me, “Homeless people are going to freeze to death and it’s your fault!”, I can feel completely confident in saying, “So?” I have nothing against the homeless, of course – just like I don’t have anything against the myriad other causes that I haven’t donated to. But in this case, the Salvation Army simply isn’t special.

What’s interesting is that even once I’ve pointed this out, people are still reluctant to choose not to give to the Salvation Army. Even when they’ve been doing essentially the same thing all along by choosing not to give to other charities, they still insist that we should support the Salvation Army only. Somehow, supporting the Salvation Army at the expense of other charities is good, but supporting other charities at the expense of the Salvation Army is bad. But there’s really no reason why the Salvation Army should be considered exceptional here, any more so than any other charities. Many of them do just as much good, usually with equal or greater efficiency.

It seems that for some people, their perspective here isn’t derived from the actual outcome of giving to one charity and not another – which is roughly equivalent – but rather based on another factor entirely. I suspect that there may be some, to use the technical term, “weird stuff” going on in their heads. Obviously, feeding a starving child in India is in no way inferior or less valid than feeding a starving child in America. People are people, and people are equal. There’s no particular reason to prefer giving to the Salvation Army versus another charity, so there’s nothing wrong with choosing a group that doesn’t endorse openly homophobic religious views. So why do people still insist on supporting the Salvation Army, even to the point of claiming that anyone who gives to another charity is basically killing the homeless?

I’m inclined to think that they consider donating to the Salvation Army to be a sort of default state, almost like something that’s been chosen for them ahead of time, and they don’t seem to act like they have as much responsibility for that. But once we make the decision to give to another charity instead, it’s like we might as well have unleashed a pack of rabid wolves on families in poverty. What’s up with that? It seems like there’s something about actually thinking about this, and then making an intentional choice, that makes people more uncomfortable with the results of this, and causes them to feel more personally and directly responsible for the ultimate outcome. Even if that outcome is effectively identical.

This is actually a well-studied phenomenon in the field of ethics. There’s a certain thought experiment known as the trolley problem which helps illuminate the differing attitudes toward making choices like this. For example, just hypothetically, would you prefer for one person to die, or five people to die? Most people would say that one person dying is preferable.

Now suppose that a train is speeding out of control, and there are five people on the track directly ahead of it who can’t get out of the way. However, there’s another track with only one person who can’t get out of the way. You have the opportunity to pull a switch that will divert the train onto the other track, killing one person but saving the other five. Should you pull the switch? In this situation, not as many people are willing to choose for one person to die rather than five, when they’re the one who’s actually pulling the switch.

For another scenario, suppose you’re standing on a bridge above an oncoming train that’s about to run into five people. There’s also a very large man next to you, large enough that if you push him off the bridge, his body will stop the train and save the other five people. Should you push him off the bridge? In this case, even more people refuse to do it, regardless of the fact that it would have the same result: one person dies instead of five.

Overall, the trolley problem isn’t really about figuring out what the right choice is, so much as it’s meant to demonstrate the interesting variations in people’s decisions under different circumstances. It seems that people aren’t as concerned about the actual results of their actions as they are with their perceived degree of personal involvement: from making an abstract choice, to pulling an actual switch to kill a person, to actively pushing someone in front of a train. Even when the outcome of taking action would be objectively better, many people still don’t want to have anything to do with this.

And something similar seems to be going on here. For some people, continuing to give to the Salvation Army like they always have is viewed as the equivalent of just not touching the switch. They see it as something that was already going to happen, and they don’t want to make an active choice to change this. But when we do consciously decide not to donate to the Salvation Army, they see us as becoming more personally involved, like throwing someone in front of an oncoming train. And that’s when they tell us that we’re effectively leaving homeless people out in the cold because we chose another charity instead. All of a sudden, we somehow become morally culpable in a way that they seem to think they aren’t.

What they’ve failed to realize is that they’re already just as involved as we are. They flipped that switch when they decided to let children around the world die for lack of food or clean water or medical care, so they could give to the Salvation Army instead. Yet this doesn’t seem to bother them. So how can they expect us to be persuaded by the same argument that they themselves don’t find convincing? They’ve made practically the same choice already. Why is it okay for them, but not for us?

Again, the Salvation Army is not special. There’s no reason to think that they’re the best charity out there or the only good option, and as I’ve explained, there are actually plenty of reasons not to give to them. And we don’t have to feel bad about supporting other charities instead. Someone’s probably going to die no matter what. But someone is going to be cared for, too. So don’t be afraid. Pull the switch.

The Salvation Army and “the most good”

In the brief time since I proposed a boycott of the Salvation Army for their anti-gay policies, I’ve received quite a wide variety of responses. It’s clear that there are a lot of people who weren’t aware of this, and many of them have decided not to give to the Salvation Army for this reason. And that’s exactly what I was hoping for – and I hope even more people will learn about this, too. At the same time, there are a significant number of people who defended the Salvation Army, and for one reason or another, don’t see this as a sufficient cause to boycott them.

In particular, it was striking to see how many people are willing to ignore their policy of official homophobia, and don’t consider this a dealbreaker in terms of giving them money. And I have to wonder if people would be so forgiving of an openly racist or anti-semitic organization. If they knew that a certain group had an official position stating that the white race is inherently superior, or Jews are just “imperfect Christians”, would they still go right ahead and keep supporting them? Would that not make them stop and think that maybe they shouldn’t involve themselves with such a group? It’s interesting that they’re apparently much more tolerant of discrimination against gay people – like this just doesn’t matter to them. It really does seem to be one of the last acceptable prejudices.

Of course, some people have tried to turn this around and claim that we must be discriminating against the Salvation Army, and that not supporting them because of their anti-gay beliefs is somehow a kind of bigotry all its own. It’s rather amusing that anyone would even attempt such a ridiculous argument. It’s quite obvious that standing against bigotry, and taking action to discourage it, is not itself bigotry at all. Indeed, this stands in direct opposition to bigotry. It’s kind of like saying that if you oppose racism, you must be “bigoted against racists”. (Or racist against bigots.) The real bigotry at work here is the passive bigotry of those who would allow such discriminatory attitudes to proliferate unchecked, without ever lifting a finger to stop them. Arguably, choosing to let bigotry proceed without interference can mean being complicit in it yourself. But actively opposing it is most certainly not just another kind of bigotry.

Other people have attempted to minimize this issue by saying that the Salvation Army doesn’t have a problem with gay people, only with the act of gay sex. But I don’t see how that’s supposed to be any better. There’s still no legitimate reason to be against gay sex, just like there’s no reason to object to being gay in and of itself, either. Besides, who do they think is having all the gay sex, anyway? Even if this is what they believe, it doesn’t make their anti-gay policies any more acceptable. Really, is it supposed to be a good thing that they expect people to never have a loving, intimate relationship with another person, for no good reason at all? I don’t see how. A position like that is still just as deserving of a boycott.

Meanwhile, some people have accused us of depriving the poor and the homeless of food and shelter by not giving to the Salvation Army. Obviously, this is not our intention whatsoever. If people do withhold their support from the Salvation Army, I certainly hope they’ll give to another charity instead. We don’t want to undermine services for those in need. But we also don’t want to fund a group like the Salvation Army. And if not giving to the Salvation Army means we’re letting the poor go hungry, you could just as well say that supporting the Salvation Army means letting children in Haiti die of cholera.

I would have to ask why people aren’t willing to hold the Salvation Army itself accountable for attaching completely irrelevant homophobic policies to an otherwise very helpful operation. Where is their responsibility for driving people away from a worthwhile cause with needless bigotry? It’s rather unreasonable to demand that people support your openly anti-gay organization under the implied threat that you’ll have to throw poor people out on the street. That’s just repulsive, and it really amounts to a kind of blackmail. In boycotting them, we’re simply refusing to take the bait. So yes, we do want to make an impact on the Salvation Army itself. By making our support for them contingent upon whether they withdraw their anti-gay policies, they now have an incentive to do so. If we gave them our money regardless of what their policies were, they would never have any reason to change. And that’s kind of the point of a boycott.

Others have said that the Salvation Army are the only ones providing vital services in some areas, and so there is no option but to support them. But clearly, there is another option, and this is really a self-reinforcing argument whose validity relies upon its own application. Of course there won’t be any other groups providing these services, if everyone always donates to the Salvation Army. That’s never going to change if you keep giving them your money – nobody else could ever get off the ground! If this is the reason you have to keep giving to the Salvation Army, it’s only a reason because you keep giving to the Salvation Army.

Most significantly, nearly all of the objections to a boycott shared one common thread: that regardless of their anti-gay policies, the Salvation Army does a lot of good. The implication seems to be that this makes their homophobia more acceptable – as if that somehow makes up for it. It’s surprising how many people think that this is what charity is about.

Certainly we’re all familiar with the concept of penance, even in a secular context: when we’ve done something wrong, we try to make up for it. But what happens if you reverse this? Can you do something good in advance, so as to earn a certain amount of “moral currency” you can spend to permit yourself to do something bad? Not really. The entire point of making up for something bad is that you recognize that you were wrong to do it, you try to make things right, and hopefully you’ll avoid doing that again. But there is no recognition of this wrongdoing, or intention of avoiding it in the future, when you continually use your good deeds to grant yourself a perpetual license to do harm. This seems rather inconsistent with the purpose of a charity.

Even the Salvation Army’s own motto is: “Doing the most good.” And that’s a goal I would completely agree with. But many people, perhaps even the Salvation Army themselves, apparently have a concept of what “doing good” means that is completely at odds with this. Quite simply, they don’t seem to actually care about doing the most good – emphasis on the “most”. Instead, they’re only concerned with maintaining a moral surplus of sorts, and staying out of the red. As long as they do enough good to break even and stay in the black, then they can squander as much of that goodwill as they want on doing bad things.

But this is obviously self-defeating. Why go to the trouble of doing so much good if you’re just going to detract from it by doing harm? That’s not “doing the most good” – it’s only “doing mostly good”. You aren’t maximizing the good you do, you’re just staying out of debt. That’s not what a charity is for. If they truly want to do the most good, then they can do more good by doing less harm. And really, if this is supposed to be an excuse, then just how much does it excuse? How much harm would you allow them to do before you would no longer support them? And, once they’ve reached that point, how much more good would they have to do before you would support them again? This is certainly worth considering when your idea of morality is nothing but a balanced budget.

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who watched the video and decided to join the cause. I hope you’ll share it with people so more of them will know about this, and we might just make a difference here.

(crossposted from YouTube)

Suicidal? Have some Jesus!

Consider it a kind of litmus test: How do you react to a highly visible outbreak of suicide among teenagers, which is almost directly linked to anti-gay bullying? Perhaps with sympathy? Understanding? The recognition that this might just be a serious problem that needs to be addressed? The realization that something should be done about the bullying that’s driving kids to suicide, and the intolerant attitudes that enable this harassment?

Or something else?

Mike Adams of Townhall.com provides an object lesson in how to fail at constructing a coherent argument, while blithely insulting those who have taken their own lives, all in the name of a fake god. It’s hard enough to untangle whatever point he was trying to make by listing eight “suicides” of Christian homophobes who were rebuked for their Bible bigotry, which he then immediately demolishes by revealing that they’re all alive and well. And yet apparently that was his point all along:

These eight cases are all true except for one thing: The Christians who were bullied by gays and gay activists are all still alive. Not a single one has committed suicide. That is because they have centered their lives around Jesus Christ, rather than their sexual identity. And no amount of bullying can change my mind about that.

Here we have a perfect example of someone who just doesn’t get it. You might expect that Christians of all people would reject the kind of false moral equivalence that views fighting for acceptance and tolerance, versus spewing the mythologically-derived hatred that inspires people to take their own lives, as just two sides of the same coin. You’d be wrong, though. To people like Mike Adams, there is no difference between fostering a climate of hate based on ancient delusions, and being told to stop doing that. It’s somehow just another form of bullying when you have to quit bullying people – if you can’t bully others anymore, that means you’re being bullied yourself. It’s all the same thing: abuse and respect, damnation and love, prejudice and equality.

Yes, we’ve heard all this before: the deceptive argument from the intolerant that tolerance must, for the sake of consistency, permit acts of intolerance, or else become the same intolerance it so deplores. What they seem to have missed is that allowing intolerance to run wild does nothing to further tolerance at all, and actually works against it. It’s hardly an act of tolerance to let intolerance proliferate, when this only serves to diminish tolerance overall. “Tolerating” intolerance is itself encouraging of intolerance.

It must have taken some serious willful ignorance to avoid realizing that his surprise revelation undermines everything preceding it. This supposed anti-Christian “bullying” (of having one’s intolerance refuted) is equated in severity to the anti-gay bullying that drove teenagers to kill themselves – except, wait a minute, none of these Christians killed themselves after all! That makes it rather difficult to pretend the exact same thing is going on here. The reason these actual suicides are significant is because they demonstrate that anti-gay bullying can be so traumatic, people have literally chosen to die because of it. Opposition to Christian intolerance, as Mike Adams freely admits, has not driven anyone to that point. Nobody is killing themselves due to being smacked down for their bigotry. Consequently, it’s hard to see why that’s supposed to be such a big deal, or really a matter of concern at all.

Adams’ conclusion – the argumentative equivalent of a Gainax ending – is almost too confusing to be insulting. Almost. What makes him so sure that identifying as gay causes one to commit suicide? What is it about living openly and honestly that’s supposed to make you kill yourself? This is nothing more than blaming the victims for no clear reason whatsoever, rather than the harassment they experienced at the hands of homophobes who he would surely rush to defend. No, it’s certainly not a problem that they were bullied for being gay, even to the point of suicide – it’s their own fault for being so gay!

And really, is Christianity meant to serve as some kind of suicide prevention tactic? Does he actually think Christians never kill themselves, based on his own intentional selection of 8 Christians who aren’t dead? That’s hardly persuasive evidence of anything but his own biases. 76% of the country is Christian – do all the suicides happen to fall in the other 24%? Likewise, do all the gays fall in that 24%, too? “Gay” and “Christian” aren’t mutually exclusive, after all. How is Christianity, especially Adams’ hateful conception of it, supposed to help gay Christians who are still being bullied for being gay?

The entire notion of Christianity as a deterrent to suicide is disgusting. For someone who’s on the verge of killing themselves and genuinely feels there’s nothing left to live for, all Christianity can offer is the negative incentive of hellfire. It means telling someone whose life has become too painful to continue living that it’s only going to get worse: not only is their current existence unbearable, but if they choose to end it, they’re just going to be tortured forever instead. How is that supposed to help anyone who finds themselves in this situation? Not only are you threatening someone who desperately wants to end their pain with yet more unending pain, you’re just telling them a lie about an imaginary afterlife to try and convince them otherwise. It means you don’t even respect them enough to be honest with them. You’re trying to wrest control away from them, urging them to incorporate your known falsehood into their belief system so that they’ll act on it. You’re taking it out of their hands entirely, rather than at least allowing them to make that decision for themselves – literally a matter of life and death – based on actual facts. There are plenty of reasons not to kill yourself, but doesn’t someone who’s reached that point still deserve the truth?

Everything Mike Adams has said here is simply twisting the knife after these kids have already killed themselves: “Haha! Should’ve been more Christian, faggots!” It’s like he doesn’t even care enough to take this seriously instead of joking about it and using their corpses as a platform to preach even more of the bigotry that helped kill them.

Religion is insane. Insane.

From USA Today comes this remarkable question: “‘Test tube babies': God’s work or human error?” Elaborating, they ask: “Do you think a baby conceived in test tube is still a child in the eyes of God?”

As always, it’s interesting to see how neatly nontheism collapses questions like these. They are not “God’s work”, nor are they a “child in the eyes of God”. Nobody is, because there is no god.

That probably wasn’t the kind of answer they were looking for, though. But there can be no useful answer here, because the question itself is wrong. It’s based on an irrelevant attribute – the location of fertilization – which they pretend has some bearing on an entirely fabricated property: whether a person is a “child in the eyes of God”. The very idea is nonsense. How is such a property defined, and how can they tell if anyone possesses this quality in the first place? What makes you so certain that you’re a “child in the eyes of God”? Such a trait has no apparent effects or physical manifestations, yet they treat it like it’s just another potential birth defect to watch out for: “Ten fingers, ten toes, child of God…”

Clearly, whether someone is a “child in the eyes of God” can’t be reliably determined, because it’s not even meaningfully defined. So why does it merit any consideration, and why should it have anything to do with what we consider a person to be? Is there any real difference between someone who was conceived in a test tube, or a Fallopian tube? It seems the only differences are the ones we’ve invented, kind of like saying someone doesn’t have a “soul” if they were conceived in North Dakota instead of South Dakota.

It’s a shame that major publications would play along with this obvious game of make-believe like it was a serious issue. This only serves to lend credibility to religion’s fiction by treating it as if it has any actual relation to reality. If you really think a baby is somehow special or metaphysically different in some ineffable way because it became a zygote while inside a woman’s body, you’re just wiping off the El Camino.

WHAT? TWENTY THOUSAND!?

I’m subscribed to the American Family Association’s mailing list, since I like to keep track of what they’re up to – I suspect many people are subscribed for the same reason. Today, they sent yet another riveting missive: “An unusual request from American Family Association”. My immediate impression was, wait a minute, everything they do is unusual by any rational standard. Like calling Home Depot the “Homo Depot”, which I’m sure is really amusing if you’re 12. Their latest cause, however, actually is pretty unusual:

With your help, YouTube has agreed to feature an AFA-produced patriotic video on their front page!

A few months ago, AFA commissioned Christian songwriter/singer Eric Horner to write a moving patriotic song to honor our national motto, “In God We Trust.”

Without any fanfare, we posted it on YouTube. The response was so overwhelming that YouTube called us to find out what was going on!

The fact is, the video is patriotic and inspiring, and it shares the message of faith. People love it!

YouTube has told us that if we can get 20,000 people to watch the video, they will feature it on their front page. That means that the tens of millions of people who visit YouTube’s website each day will be offered the opportunity to watch the video – a video with a Christian message!

Okay then. First of all, if your video currently has fewer than 20,000 views, YouTube is not going to be calling you about it. Maybe if it was 2 or 20 or 200 million views, but it’s still rather implausible that YouTube would actually call you to “find out what’s going on”. (YouTube, being YouTube, would likely have a better idea of that anyway.) It is possible that they would email you and invite you to enroll your video in the Individual Video Partnership revenue-sharing program so that they can run ads on it. But this is fairly common and part of an automated process – it isn’t that exceptional.

Getting 20,000 views on a video may seem like a lot, but in an absolute sense, it’s still not especially significant. For instance, an above-average video of mine might get 20,000 views. This has happened many times, and it’s not such an “overwhelming response” that anyone was calling me about it. Just for a sense of scale, here are a few select YouTube videos and their respective view counts:

This is what your anvilicious Christian takeover anthem, now sitting at 51,076 views, is up against. Good luck!

Now, as for their video being featured on the front page of YouTube if it gets 20,000 views, this is almost certainly false. That’s not a guarantee that it will appear on the front page, and that specific number likely has nothing to do with it. There are videos with both higher and lower view counts that are listed in the featured section of the front page, and YouTube has stated that featured videos are now selected by an algorithm, not manually chosen. As for including them in the spotlight section of the front page, it seems unlikely that YouTube would choose to place a controversial and partisan message front-and-center on the site. That’s something they tend to shy away from. And even if they were willing to do so, a threshold of only 20,000 would mean having to feature millions of other videos which meet that same requirement.

However, it’s quite possible that their video will be featured in general, which is distinctly different from being highlighted on the front page. According to a YouTube employee I met with, videos that are enrolled in the revenue-sharing program are automatically entered into the pool of videos that can be “featured”. Videos which are marked as featured aren’t necessarily featured on the front page; they can be displayed as featured at the top of the related videos on an individual video page, or alongside search results. Many of my own videos have been featured in this way despite having fewer than 20,000 views, often being placed atop the pages of people criticizing me – which they just love.

In any case, there’s no assurance their their video actually will be shown on the front page, and 20,000 views is a pretty low target to meet. It’s hardly an “overwhelming” response – for me, that’s just a decent day on YouTube. If anything, I’d expect their video to get more views from being mirrored on one of the many channels that ridicules tacky religious nonsense. Aim high, guys!

Gay people are not unmentionable

What happens when sports writing meets LGBT issues? In this case, an oblivious eruption of heterosexual privilege. AOL’s FanHouse columnist David Whitley seems to think gay relationships aren’t fit for public viewing. The issue involves the “Kiss Cam”, which scans around the crowd during breaks in the game and focuses on (usually) a man and a woman, who are then expected to kiss. This is displayed on large screens for everyone to see. Problems arose when Pride St. Louis noticed that the Kiss Cam at Busch Stadium typically doesn’t feature gay couples – only straight couples. They requested that the Kiss Cam include gay couples as well, but David Whitley doesn’t think this is such a good idea. Why?

I’d like to take the socially enlightened high road on this one, but I can’t help sympathizing with that father who’ll be sitting next to his son or daughter at Busch Stadium.

“Daddy, why are those two men kissing?”

“Umm, err, hey isn’t that Albert Pujols coming to bat?”

If you have similar qualms, does that make us homophobic? I’d like to think not, but then I’ve never sat in a gay person’s seat during “Kiss Cam.”

Does that make you homophobic? Actually, yes. And the reason it’s homophobic is because you’re holding a distinctly negative attitude toward gay couples and judging them by a separate standard from straight couples. In this instance, it’s taken the form of a notion that while heterosexuality is a very basic concept that requires no explanation, homosexuality is somehow more difficult and challenging, to the point that younger minds must not be exposed to it. This is utterly baseless, because it’s not that complicated at all. You can explain homosexuality to your children in much the same fashion that you’d explain heterosexuality to them, if they’re mature enough to understand that. It is not different in such a way as to present additional, insurmountable hurdles. A child who can understand heterosexuality can grasp homosexuality as well, without being damaged or traumatized by the mere knowledge that some people are gay.

Since you’ve never been in a gay person’s place, I’ll try and describe what it’s like. Think about the love you feel for another person. It’s something that’s fundamental to your being, it’s something that should be the simplest thing in the entire world. There is nothing wrong about your love, and there’s nothing wrong with you. You know that. Now imagine your love for someone being vilified as inexplicable, incomprehensible, and potentially hazardous to children, as if you and your partner’s mere existence and visibility constitutes a threat to their psychological well-being. As if you’re a danger to children if they so much as see you. Imagine if your love was segregated and treated differently from everyone else’s kind of love, regarded as an inappropriate subject for discussion, something that requires greater maturity and strength of mind to understand, even though you’re really no different from everyone else. Imagine your love being denigrated in all these ways, while everyone else’s love is publicly celebrated, in front of thousands, on a giant screen. A giant screen that you can’t be on.

And then everyone else would insist that it’s not because they have any particular aversion to you or anything. It’s not like they have some kind of phobia. No, they’d like to think of themselves as tolerant, as understanding, even after they’ve put you through all of that – implied you pose a threat to their children, tried to keep you out of public view – just because you don’t love the same way that they love. But actions speak louder than words, and you’d probably think that doesn’t count for much. Does that seem like a decent way to treat a person?

Whitley continues:

“Why shouldn’t we be on camera, too?”

Because I’m not ready to discuss same-sex relationships with my 3-year-old. I don’t think she’s ready, either.

But same-sex relationships don’t require any greater mental ability in order to be understood. They aren’t taxing on a child’s brain in new and different ways. They need not spark an extended discussion either, any more than heterosexual relationships would require a lengthy explanation. A child who hasn’t yet learned and absorbed the prejudices of society may very well find this easier to understand than an adult would. Why are those men kissing? The answer isn’t difficult. They’re kissing for the same reason as heterosexual couples.

Whitley tries to exhibit some tolerance, but only some:

To them, the old Shield-the-Kids excuse simply masks an underlying bias. A same-sex smooch is no different than if Nicholson had planted a wet one on Dyan Cannon. If “Kiss Cam” showed an interracial couple, would you quickly cover Little Johnny’s eyes?

No.

The sooner my kids see examples of racial harmony, the better. But this issue has torn up entire religions. Call me homophobic, but I just don’t think a 5- or 10-year-old brain is ready to tackle those complexities.

Why would you want your kids to witness normal interaction between people of different races? Presumably, because you consider acceptance of this to be an important value to instill in them, especially to inoculate them against the pernicious prejudice of racism. But if you claim to be accepting of gay people – after all, you seem to believe you aren’t homophobic – then why not also allow your children to see normal, age-appropriate, uncontroversial expressions of same-sex love, the same kind of expressions that are completely acceptable for heterosexuals? Wouldn’t you want to raise your children to be tolerant of gay people, too? To not treat them as something inferior to heterosexuals? Or is this a kind of equality that isn’t so important to you, so it’s okay if your children grow up not even knowing that gay people exist?

Entire religions may have been divided over “this issue”, but they’ve been divided by their own hand. It’s become an apparently unbridgeable gap between those who are willing to renounce their prejudice, and those who are unwilling to let go of it. The issue isn’t one of homosexuality. It never was. The issue is homophobia, the desperate clinging to an ideology that designates some people as lesser than others, in the face of a cultural shift towards acceptance and equality in society. It isn’t a problem with gay people. It’s a problem with the religions that, sometimes literally, demonize us.

And frankly, if a child is unable to understand homosexuality by 10, in the same way that they can understand heterosexuality, I would be somewhat concerned about them. Fundamentally, it doesn’t come with any extra complexities that are unable to be deciphered by young minds, and can be explained in the same age-appropriate way that you would explain heterosexuality. You don’t need to give them a crash course in 2,000 years of Christian moral theology just to point out that sometimes, people love each other.

Whitley closes with this:

If my daughter grows up and falls happily in love with another woman, I’ll proudly walk her down the aisle. But parents should be able to discuss such issues when they choose, not when the local sports team flashes them on a scoreboard.

So I understand why gays get mad at “Kiss Cam” pranks. I get why they demand equal time and respect.

I just wish they’d accept that sometimes a kiss is not just a kiss.

Is there a reason that gay couples must bear the stigma of being labeled as an “issue” – the sort of thing that should only be discussed in private, if at all? Certainly nobody considered it an “issue” to display heterosexual couples on the Jumbotron, nor did they even have to think about the prudence of exposing children to this. It’s just automatically accepted; it’s not an issue at all. So why can’t gay couples simply be treated with that very same implicit acceptance, the kind that straight people are granted without question? This doesn’t have to be an issue, and if you don’t want it to be, you can help by not making an issue of it, and treating it with the same normality and ordinariness as anything else.

Sometimes a kiss isn’t just a kiss, but only because you’ve decided to make something more of it.

I bet I can find at least one good reason for what I do

Hi, Aaron. As you’ve probably come to expect of me, I’m just going to jump right into analyzing some of the things you said.

Your central point appears to be that my videos make no difference – that they fail to influence people’s religious views, and are thus a waste of time. You seem to place all potential viewers into two distinct categories: either they already agree with me, making my videos superfluous, or they don’t agree and are completely beyond the reach of any kind of persuasion, firmly and inextricably entrenched in their views.

This probably isn’t the case. Not all of the people who don’t share my views are forever inaccessible and totally unable to be convinced otherwise. Some are, but they certainly don’t comprise the entirety of everyone who disagrees with me. There are actually plenty of people whose belief systems, while different from my own, are capable of changing when challenged in one way or another. They are potentially “vulnerable” to that – they have not all placed themselves off-limits to argument.

One case of someone who may be open to persuasion would be a person who perceives that there may be something not quite right about their religion, and harbors some primordial doubts about it, but lives in an environment where their culture and even their own life has been thoroughly infused with religion, to the extent that actively rejecting and leaving their faith is unthinkable. These influences may deter them from further pursuing any doubts they may have, and they’ll instead simply “go with the flow” as their family, friends and culture expect of them, remaining observant of their religion. They may not even be aware that outright nonbelief is possible, let alone capable of offering a more richly developed and satisfying outlook on life than their current faith. Exposing such people to the atheistic worldview can open doors for them that they might not have even realized were there.

Another example would be the people who simply don’t think very much about the religion they follow. If it’s something they’ve always been a part of, they might not have contemplated the possibility that there are other religious views available, or that they could be wrong. Some people really have just never considered these things, instead operating on “autopilot” for a large part of their lives without critically examining their own beliefs. In this case, there could definitely be certain arguments that might make them think about their religion in ways they never have before. It’s quite possible that such people can have various different “threads” hanging from the sweater of their beliefs which, when pulled, kickstart the process of unraveling the entire thing. Some people really do have weak spots in their belief systems that can be targeted by specific arguments.

In essence, there is still a movable middle here of people who, while religious, can be persuaded to change their views. Religion is not always a fully-enclosed, impenetrable and unfailingly self-reinforcing system for everyone who believes in it. For instance, I’ve received numerous responses from Christians and other nonspecific believers who acknowledge that I have good points, even if they don’t fully share my views. There are also many atheists who were previously religious, but eventually settled on atheism because something happened that helped to change their beliefs.

You said that, if someone is capable of becoming an atheist, they can “get there on their own” without our assistance, and that they can only “see it and realize it for themselves”. But not everyone truly is capable of reaching these conclusions on their own. It isn’t an inevitability; simply being capable of arriving at a position of atheism does not mean that one necessarily will. Individuals are not fully complete, independent and self-reliant fonts of rationality unto themselves. By sharing our ideas, we fill in the gaps in each other’s abilities, the different areas that were missed and left blank by our varying faculties. Outside perspectives are valuable because they present ideas that people may not have realized or discovered by themselves – or it may have taken them a much longer and circuitous route to get there. So, while you maintain that “if someone’s smart enough to connect the dots, they’re going to do it with or without your help”, we can still accelerate this process by smoothing the path ahead of them. Even if they are smart enough to connect the dots – and I certainly hope they are – they could nevertheless benefit from having the dots clearly pointed out, in the form of pre-digested and easily accessible arguments. They aren’t equally obvious to everyone, even among potential atheists.

You are right to point out how important it is to reach people as early as possible and provide them with the intellectual tools to recognize, resist and reject religious belief systems. Prevention should certainly be a significant component of atheistic outreach. But religion, once acquired, is clearly not an incurable condition. These people are not forever lost, and it’s just as important that we try and reach them as it is for us to keep religious belief from taking hold in the first place. Not all of them can be written off, because there is a real possibility that some of them could change their views – given the proper approach. It would be foolish to ignore all of them as hopeless when many may not be.

So, am I really making no difference here? Is it true that “no number of YouTube videos will win people over”? I don’t think so. The format in particular lends itself to easy, widespread dissemination of ideas and arguments. YouTube is an immensely popular platform, and there are many people who prefer to simply watch videos as a “passive receiver”, rather than having to actively read something which requires greater effort on their part. Perhaps unfortunately, video can be more popular than the written word, and it appeals to a very different kind of audience. I consider it worthwhile to present my views to them, because I think it’s possible that they could find it helpful, and it could ultimately effect some kind of positive change in their beliefs. Posting videos also makes it simple for viewers to share them with their own networks of acquaintances, and expose more and more people to these ideas. In this way, it can take on a life of its own, and grow into something more than I could accomplish alone.

Are there “better battles to fight” than this? Quite possibly – I certainly wouldn’t doubt it. But religion is still a very important one. Working to reduce the prevalence of religious belief and observance holds the promise of, in turn, reducing the problems it causes, and that is not a minor issue. If this can realistically be achieved, it’s worth fighting for, and I hold that my efforts can be effective in influencing people’s beliefs here. While it’s obvious that the unreachable people are unreachable, not all people are. And the ones who can be reached, should be.

When neutrality isn’t right

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” -Elie Wiesel

This July, 15-year-old Justin Aaberg of Anoka, Minnesota committed suicide after he was bullied at school for being gay. Following his death, many students have spoken up about the prevalence of anti-gay harassment at Anoka High School, which the staff have failed to address in any meaningful way. This is due to the school board’s policy, which states:

“Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations.”

As a result, teachers are reluctant to do anything to stop homophobic bullying when they see it, not knowing whether this would contravene school policy. The district’s excuse for this is unbelievable.

“It’s very difficult. We have a community that has widely varying opinions, and so to respect all families, as the policy says, we ask teachers to remain neutral,” said District Spokeswoman Mary Olson.

How is it that respecting the opinions of bigots can even be given the same weight as preventing harassment in schools? Why are both homophobia and promoting basic respect and equality reduced to simple “opinions”, as if they should be treated as equal in merit? Working to make schools a safe place for every student is more important than catering to the community’s prejudiced attitudes. Their biases do not need to be respected at the very real expense of children who are being bullied. No student should be forced to bear the personal cost of someone else’s bigotry. Period.

In a situation like this, where concrete harms are being ignored just to satisfy irrelevant and outdated hate that has no place here, a position of “neutrality” is nothing more than the most repugnant neglect. It is a pitiful failure to ensure something so basic as the safety of all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. There is no conceivable moral argument whereby the safety of LGBT students can legitimately be sacrificed just to make homophobes more comfortable in their prejudice. Never.

Fortunately, the district seems to have recognized that they may have screwed up here, and they’re making some changes:

Olson said the district doesn’t tolerate bullying and expects staff to stand up to it, but does acknowledge it happens to gay and lesbian students at school. She said the schools are adding some new training to their anti-bullying policy, which is currently seven years old.

Teachers will get a new training on sexual orientation and harassment. Every student will also be shown a video to lay out what that might mean.

This is a good start, and a necessary step toward handling the serious problems at their schools. When homophobic bullying becomes prevalent, there need to be specific policies geared towards counteracting that. Other schools should learn from this and work to prevent this indefensible anti-gay harassment before it can claim more lives. Anything less is a stark abandonment of fundamental moral duty, and the stance of “neutrality” becomes the utmost irresponsibility.

georedd manipulates reddit again

It looks like an incident from about a year ago has made a surprise reappearance on reddit.com. Last year, a user named georedd was posting dozens of stories pertaining to health insurance and other assorted political issues, and insisting that his submissions were being targeted for down-voting by networks of insurance lobbyists operating on reddit. Once he started claiming this in his posts, they were frequently voted up into the high thousands by people who, understandably, wanted to counteract what they believed to be an attempt at censorship.

The problem is that there was never any evidence that this was actually happening. None of the voting patterns in any of his posts were out of the norm or unusual in a way that would suggest some kind of coordinated suppression. He specifically claimed that it was “statistically impossible” for some of his posts to have 0 points (an equal number of upvotes and downvotes). Yet this happens often with controversial or unpopular submissions – sometimes, there really are just a roughly equal number of people who like and dislike something. This occurs anywhere on reddit, not just on posts about healthcare and politics.

Similarly, the voting patterns on his posts with less than zero points (more downvotes than upvotes) didn’t appear to be abnormal, either. It is possible for posts to just be voted down a lot; this is pretty common on reddit. His posts often had irritating titles which could easily be construed as spam, and were cross-posted to multiple sections of reddit that they weren’t always relevant to. It’s not surprising that people would vote him down – none of this was excessive or odd, and it was nothing that would require the coordinated efforts of insurance lobbyists.

Once I noticed what georedd was doing on reddit, I posted a video explaining that he was most likely just claiming to be systematically censored so that more people would vote on his submissions, and suggested that reddit users vote his stories down in response to discourage this. After a few weeks, he mostly faded into the background and people stopped caring.

Until now. Yesterday, georedd made a post titled: “A year ago a reddit moderator made a video which told redditors to downvote my posts categorically because the moderator thought my claims of right wing suppression groups operating on social networks like reddit was ridiculous.”

Guess this goes in the category of “I told you so.”

I again recently ran across the youtube video made by a reddit moderator who told redditors to downvote me categorically because the moderator thought my claims of right wing suppression groups operating on social networks like reddit was ridiculous in 2009. ( did you get that? The reddit moderator told people to downvote me enmasse because my claims of groups of people voting down my comments enmasse was not real… sigh. )

here’s that video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfrfyszQdJE

(please note since then it has been widely proven via this story at alternet.org http://blogs.alternet.org/oleoleolson/2010/08/05/massive-censorship-of-digg-uncovered/

That huge right wing groups called “bury groups” indeed were operating on social networks doing exactly what I said – they were massively downvoting stories in organized efforts that didn’t agree with their conservative outlook on Digg and they do the same thing on Reddit although they haven’t been tracked as closely on reddit yet. (I documented some of them in some of my own posts years ago including some redditors who pointed people to bots to manipulate reddit.)

This was interesting. It seems he hasn’t given up trying to mislead reddit users. To call me a “reddit moderator” isn’t quite accurate, since it has no relevance here. Anyone can be a moderator on reddit, and it isn’t administratively assigned – all you have to do is start your own section, which anyone can do, or be added as a moderator for a section. I’m only a moderator of the WTF and LGBT sections; I’ve never had anything to do with georedd’s submissions. So when I posted my video, it’s not like I was acting in any official capacity as part of reddit – I’m just another user.

More importantly, georedd seems to think he’s been vindicated here when he actually hasn’t. Stating that there are “right wing suppression groups operating on social networks like reddit” suggests that such groups actually were systematically suppressing his posts as he claimed. And yet there’s still no proof of that, or even any evidence vaguely pointing to it. The story he referenced was about a large network of right-wing Digg users who would organize to bury specific submissions that they disagreed with. From this, he seems to think it can automatically be assumed that his own posts were being subjected to the same treatment, and that similar networks are operating on reddit. Such an assumption is unfounded, and even he admits this – he just says they “haven’t been tracked as closely on reddit yet.” In other words, either evidence of this is eventually found, and he was right, or we should just have faith that it will be found, meaning he’s still right. Regardless of whether there’s anything to support his claims, he ends up being right either way – the total lack of evidence means nothing here.

And, just like what happened last year, his deceptive post convinced hundreds of reddit users to vote it onto the front page. He misled them into believing he was being censored when he wasn’t, and now he’s misleading them into thinking he was right when he wasn’t. He lied last year, and he’s lying again. And reddit took the bait: the truth lost, and the lie won.

By the way, would you like to see what reddit thinks of gay people, trans people and women?

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Good fucking luck if you’re expecting an apology from this bitch.

How dumb does Gary Glenn think we are?

Ruth JohnsonAs dumb as he is, apparently. Ruth Johnson, Republican candidate for Michigan secretary of state, recently tried to match her opponent Paul Scott prejudice-for-prejudice by declaring that she also doesn’t support allowing transgender citizens to have their gender officially changed on their driver’s license. Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan, who previously suggested that states should criminalize being gay, offers his thoughts:

“In an era of identity theft and national security concerns, we’re glad that Ruth Johnson has now joined Rep. Paul Scott in expressly stating her opposition to the Secretary of State policy of allowing men to falsely identify themselves as female on their state-issued driver’s license, and vice versa,” said Campaign for Michigan Families chairman Gary Glenn.

“The people of Michigan should at minimum be able to trust their state government to tell the truth, not enable certain individuals’ psychological and emotional delusions by officially and legally identifying them as something they biologically are not. We urge all candidates for Secretary of State to let voters know where they stand on this honesty-in-government issue.”

Whatever gender you may identify as, this doesn’t mean that you’re identifying as someone else. Your identity, regardless of gender, is your own, not that of another person. So where exactly does “identity theft” enter into this? Whose identity is at risk of theft? And how is it truthful, honest or trustworthy for the government to designate a female-identified, female-presenting woman as male? That’s not even accurate, let alone honest. It’s just confusing, and it doesn’t foster any kind of trust when the law refuses to recognize citizens for who they are.

Acknowledging the reality of gender and its nuances, and by extension, the genuine identities of trans people, is a responsibility of the government. Indulging the ignorance and discomfort of people like Gary Glenn is not.