Art appreciation: Robert Ryman’s “The Elliott Room”

In the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, there is a gallery. This gallery contains The Elliott Room (Charter Series) by Robert Ryman. It is one of the most fascinating works of art I have ever seen.

The room features five pieces, which consist of unblemished expanses of white, interrupted only by sparse horizontal and vertical strips of metal, and affixed to the wall by evenly spaced, unassuming bolts. Within this highly limited set of variables, Ryman nevertheless explores a vast range of possibilities. Though the paintings may appear superficially similar, none of them are alike, and each piece projects its own unique character.

But the paintings themselves are not the only art in the room. This particular gallery is a dead end, with only one entrance, and a large window looking out on Millennium Park. And it is this arrangement that permits the emergence of a new and unintended kind of artwork. The first time my girlfriend and I viewed The Elliott Room, we stopped at the threshold and briefly looked around in confusion before leaving. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we had found the key to appreciating the series on an entirely different level.

During our next visit to the museum, we took the time to stop and properly examine the work. The seating affords an excellent view of the entire gallery – including, most crucially, the entranceway. While contemplating the series, we gradually became aware of another part of the room: the audience.

We watched quietly and observed people’s reactions upon first seeing Ryman’s art. A woman with two children stood at the entrance, and turned back almost immediately. A middle-aged man paced around the room, bitterly cursing under his breath. A young couple walked up to the window, scarcely even noticing the artwork. Most people barely set foot in the room before realizing what it was and leaving in instant disappointment. And it was the funniest thing we had ever seen.

In fairness, if you haven’t read the description, the series could perhaps be mistaken for wall mountings without any art on them. And the vast north-facing window often draws people’s attention away from Ryman’s work. But the interaction between the art and its audience is one of the most engaging features of the museum. It’s a surprisingly evocative and challenging piece, and nowhere else did we witness such forceful reactions to an installation. In a way, the very act of putting this series on display has itself become a work of art. It may seem like one of the last pieces that would have the power to take on a life of its own and transcend the intentions of its creator, yet it does so effortlessly. And it is hilarious.

You don’t need to struggle to understand anything about it. All you have to do is sit back and watch what happens. I highly recommend it.

Re: “Can’t Even Go to the Park”

Hi, Stacy. I heard about your encounters with gay couples in public places like parks and swimming pools, and I have to say, I find it hard to sympathize with almost any aspect of the life you’ve made for yourself.

Before I read your post, I thought that perhaps you had been witness to a public sex act or something similarly inappropriate. Instead, what you actually saw were two men rubbing elbows, and a lesbian couple taking their baby to the park. Apparently this was a good enough reason for you to stop taking your seven children outside, because they might see gay people and start asking questions. That was all it took for you to decide that you can hardly leave the house anymore for fear of people “imposing” their “immorality” on you.

You ask us, “is this freedom?” And I ask you: As opposed to what? Does your concept of freedom require that gay people must be excluded from all the places that you and your children might visit? Did you even consider for one moment what you are expecting of them? Just as you want to take your children to the park, so did that lesbian couple with their child. Yet you seem to think their family should be subject to the same exile that you’ve imposed upon your family. What is it that makes you special here? What gives you any greater claim to full participation in society than that family? Did it not occur to you that other people are just as fully human as you, and they want to be just as free to enjoy their lives? That is what freedom is, and that is what you do not understand.

Imagine individuals as a series of points spaced an equal distance from one another. Their freedoms are a circle of a certain radius that surrounds each of those points. Every circle is the same size. Now expand all of those circles simultaneously until their edges are touching, and no further. Those are the limits of our freedom, and yours. Nobody’s freedom is larger or smaller than anyone else’s. And nobody’s freedom can intrude upon the freedom of others. If it did, those circles would begin to overlap, and just as your freedom would encroach upon someone else’s, their freedom would intrude into yours as well. And if your supposed freedom extends so far as to banish people from the public sphere based only on your own personal morality, then everyone else is just as free to do that to you. You and your family would be equally subject to their whims, and that is not something you want. It is not something anyone should want.

Even you shy away from following your indignation all the way to its vile and unavoidable conclusion. But that is what you hint at when you say that you’re “supposed to be able to influence what goes on” in your community. There are many things that you can influence, but that is not among them. You live in a world where not everyone operates according to your interpretation of Catholic morality, and they are not required to. When you say that you’ve been forced to “tolerate immorality”, that is exactly right. It is a fact that you are always going to encounter people whose moral outlook does not align with yours. And just as you have the freedom to follow the dictates of your conscience, so do the rest of us. Nobody was rubbing elbows with you. Nobody is in a lesbian relationship with you. And you have every right to sit there at the park and meditate on how awful it is that gay people are allowed outside. But your expectation that they shouldn’t be there because of your religious views is no more valid than someone else’s expectation that you shouldn’t leave the house without a veil. That is not freedom.

You say that you’re not ready to answer any questions your children might have, and that they wouldn’t be able to understand how a child can have two mothers. But these are not the same thing. Your own discomfort with gay people is not yet shared by your children, and they are perfectly able to grasp this if you would just explain it to them. You assume that your children would be just as disturbed by gay people as you are. The difference is that you’ve already spent years immersing yourself in a faith that teaches you to see other people as sinful, sexually perverted and inherently disordered. But they have not yet suffocated their own sense of right and wrong and replaced it with a catechism. They don’t have any notion that these families are, as you put it, “living in sodomy”. And they do not see their children as having been merely “assembled”.

Your kids can and will understand that gay people exist. There is no way around that. But how they learn this is up to you. If you find yourself unprepared to tell your innocent children that these loving families should not exist and are headed for hell, good! Hold on to that bright sliver of humanity, and think about why this is such a difficult thing to tell a child who doesn’t yet know why they should see these families as any different from yours. They haven’t been taught to see sin and immorality at every turn. There is still hope for them, and you have a choice to make. You can raise them to respect other people as normal members of society, or you can teach them to be as frightened and hateful as you are.

And should you choose to smother your children in your own virulent ignorance, I sincerely hope that they will be repeatedly exposed to everyone and everything you despise, until they see the light where you could not.

I really don’t know what particular need this religion fulfills for you, whether it’s massive institutional approval and encouragement of your own prejudice, endless cliched narratives into which you can fit any conceivable life experience and act like you’re a martyr, an appealing moral simplicity that drains all the complexity of nuance out of your life, or just something to give structure and meaning to your existence because you couldn’t figure it out on your own. But understand this: We are not willing to pay the price for your own self-righteousness. If we’re making it uncomfortable for you to share your bias, I’m glad to hear it. If we’re making it harder for you to teach the next generation to hate us, we’re going to keep doing that. And we have no obligation to conceal ourselves just for the sake of accommodating your faith-based bigotry. We’re still going to be at the park. Will you?

My conversations with Bradley Manning

Due to intense public interest, New York magazine and The Guardian have elected to publish my conversations with Bradley Manning ahead of time. I’ll also be making them available for download. The only redactions that have been made are to remove the identifying information of certain individuals.

I’m releasing these logs because, thus far, all that we’ve heard from Bradley himself is in the form of incomplete conversations from Adrian Lamo. That was during an exceptional time in his life, and it doesn’t give the whole picture of who Bradley is. I knew him as an intelligent, motivated and ambitious soldier who was dedicated to doing the best for his country, and I believe his words reflect that.

Regardless of what we might think of his actions, I feel it’s important that we develop a more balanced understanding of Bradley and his personal views. It’s my hope that this will provide valuable insight into someone who has undoubtedly made history.

Download: bradass87.zip
SHA1: 94d23df4df786c123191ce8b80fb484423004c0a
PGP signature

Statement on the New York story and Bradley Manning

In February of 2009, I was contacted online by Private Bradley Manning, who has been implicated in the release of classified material to Wikileaks. He found me via my YouTube videos, and we spoke on several occasions until August of 2009. I haven’t been in touch with him since then. Bradley first reached out to me because he was interested in the topics I discussed and felt that we were of a similar mindset. He talked to me about his upbringing and various experiences growing up, and told me about his work as an intelligence analyst with the Army. He did express some frustration at having to work within various regulations while doing his job, but this didn’t seem to be a major problem for him, and I got the impression that he was relatively comfortable with his position.

Even though he spoke about living under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and being attacked by his platoon for being gay, it seemed like he was making the best of his situation. He told me the Army was a diverse place full of people of every race, religion, and sexual orientation. He took pride in his work, even bragging about it at times. As he told me, he just wanted to make sure that everyone would get home to their families safely. He did say that he had to delete his blog and his YouTube channel for security reasons, and that he was sometimes an anonymous source for some of his friends, but at no time was there any indication that he was planning on leaking classified documents. As far as I know, he didn’t begin doing so until several months later. To me, he never seemed like the kind of person who would do that. I lost touch with him after I changed my screen name, and I only recognized that he was the one who had been arrested after I saw his username in his conversations with Adrian Lamo. I have not been in contact with the authorities, or Adrian Lamo, or Wikileaks.

In March of this year, I was approached by a reporter with New York magazine who was interested in doing a story about my conversations with Bradley. That story has been published today. I provided them with our logs because I wanted them to see a different side of Bradley. I will be releasing the unredacted logs next week so that everyone can read them. After all of the stories portraying him as mentally unstable and revealing his problems at home and in the military, I felt it was important for people to know that there was a time when he seemed satisfied with his life. He had his struggles and hardships just as we all do, although I’ve come to learn that his difficulties ran deeper than I was aware of. But he also seemed like an everyday guy, someone who didn’t stand out as a threat, and someone I never expected to do this.

In particular, I find it deplorable that some have attributed his alleged actions to his sexuality or his gender identity. There are thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world who serve their country with honor. They have not done anything like this, and who they are is not even remotely a reliable indicator that they would pose some kind of security risk. It’s clear that Bradley was facing a variety of issues that were much more significant than simply being gay, and reducing all of this to his sexuality is extremely misleading. I’m also very disturbed that one of his counselors would apparently reveal private information about his gender identity. What they talked about is an intensely personal matter, and definitely not something to be broadcast to the entire world without his consent. If that is the case, this is highly unprofessional and a severe violation of trust.

Furthermore, the conditions under which Bradley was detained at Quantico are nothing short of outrageous. The extreme isolation in solitary confinement, forced nudity, and deprivation of even the most basic amenities may very well constitute a form of torture as recognized by various legal bodies. This treatment was blatantly inhumane and contrary to the recommendations of the brig psychiatrist. Bradley has not even been convicted of a crime, yet he was subject to indefensible punishment that can easily lead to permanent psychological trauma. There is no excuse for this. Likewise, it was clearly inappropriate for President Obama to declare that Bradley “broke the law” before his case has even gone to trial. That is the venue in which it will be determined whether he broke the law – not by the president’s proclamation.

At the same time, I find that I can’t entirely agree with the movement calling for Bradley to be released. While some have argued that his actions would be covered under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, I have to wonder whether this would be a viable defense. The Act is meant to protect servicemembers who report violations of the law. Although this may encompass the “Collateral Murder” video from Iraq which apparently shows the unlawful killing of civilians, as well as certain activities revealed in the war logs and diplomatic cables, it seems inevitable that not all of the leaked material is incriminating. Much of it, while certainly interesting, is merely embarrassing, or just mundane. While I don’t know what process Bradley used to select the documents he allegedly chose to release, it seems implausible that he could have identified criminal wrongdoing in all of the hundreds of thousands of cables and war logs. His actions appear to have been mostly indiscriminate rather than targeted.

There is a reason why this is against the law. We don’t know what’s in the documents that Wikileaks and the press have chosen to withhold or redact. In this case, it’s fortunate that the material was sent to them and could be examined before being released. Someone else could have just as easily posted it all on a public website or torrent, without making any effort to remove potentially dangerous information. While many feel that the release of these files has turned out to be positive for the world overall, it’s troubling to think that the mass leaking of classified material is always something for us to look the other way on.

But whatever the outcome, Bradley deserves a fair trial – he’s already been deprived of a speedy trial, and the effects of his prolonged confinement may have caused irreparable damage to his mental well-being. Regardless of what he might have done, he is a person, and he has rights. Everyone does. I still find myself wishing I had kept in touch with Bradley when he was considering whether to do this; perhaps things would have gone very differently for him. Against all odds, I hope that he’ll be treated well, and I wish him the best.

If you’d like to contact me about this, I can be reached at zjemptv@gmail.com, or @ZJemptv on Twitter.

Zinnia Jones
July 4, 2011

Questions for Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

At The Bilerico Project, Dr. Jillian T. Weiss writes about a man who has been seen at various airports while wearing women’s clothing (picture at the link). Citing his particularly revealing manner of dress, she expresses concern that such attire could be covered under protections for gender expression that she’s been working to promote, and hopes that it would not:

No amount of “gender expression rights” talk is going to pretty this one up. I do not support this man’s right to fly clad only in female underwear.

However, her specific objections to his activity bring up a number of provocative issues that merit further exploration. First of all, must this even be an issue of gender? Certainly many would see it as such, and in the comments, Weiss claims that his clothing would not be a problem if he were female:

The thing is […] that it would not be inappropriate for a young woman to wear that attire.

I find this improbable. On a woman, the same clothing would likely be considered just as inappropriate – suggestive, improper for the setting of air travel and excessively revealing. In his case, it also emphasizes the outline of his genitals. Note that this is only incidentally the result of his male anatomy, and not inherently due to cross-dressing and wearing women’s underwear; Speedos for men have a similar structure and would pose the same problem. It’s unlikely that this would be seen as any more appropriate, given the setting. So what’s the real issue here? Tastefulness aside, it’s his incomplete performance of femininity – wearing clothes associated with women while remaining visibly male. Is that, itself, reason enough to object to this? That someone is neglecting to adhere to a consistently masculine or feminine presentation? Weiss hints at this when elaborating on her standards:

I respect the right of everyone to dress how they wish, but only up to a point. Why draw a line, you ask? Am I not engaging in dressing behavior, as a transsexual, that was once not only considered improper but illegal?

Yes, I am. But that doesn’t mean there are no boundaries whatsoever. True, the boundaries are artificial, socially created constructs. But I live in a real world, not a theoretical one. I dress like a 50-year old female academic (in law, not fashion or the arts), and, frankly, I look like one.

There may indeed be boundaries, but where are they drawn? Defending your own choice of dressing counter to your assigned birth sex by citing your consistently and traditionally feminine appearance, as well as your transsexual status, suggests that while this should be considered acceptable, anything beyond that may not be. Where does this leave bigender, genderqueer and other people who may present as both masculine and feminine, and whose gender identity may not cluster near male or female or even fall on that spectrum at all? Assuming the passenger in question is a cisgender man, suppose he presented as fully female in traditional and conservative attire – would that still be a problem? Is cross-dressing out of bounds? What about drag queens and other such performances?

It seems unreasonable to say that dressing against one’s birth sex is something to be restricted to people who are actually transsexual. What cause is there for designating any variance outside of that to be an unacceptable expression of gender? If it’s a question of gender-congruent appearance, this could even encompass trans people who, for whatever reason, are often read incorrectly and not seen as their target gender. Though I doubt this is what Weiss intended, her reasons for objecting in this instance have unfortunate implications:

When older gentlemen demand the right to fly while dressed only in female undergarments, it undermines the argument that gender identity and expression are serious issues deserving of protection, because the demand stretches the concepts involved beyond all recognition. […]

It is heartbreaking to me to think of all those people who have worked so hard simply to have the plain dignity and respect that every human being should receive, to see this man playing dress up on airplanes “just for fun.” This isn’t subverting gender norms, it’s strengthening them because it makes gender variance ridiculous.

Molding oneself and one’s movement to avoid public ridicule is a dangerous game. The same pattern appears elsewhere: masculine gay men will sometimes demean femmes as an image problem and a shameful liability, and LGB people will blame trans people for holding back the progress of gay rights. Does this mean that such groups should be disowned by everyone else because they scare people away and hold back the movement? If we’re to steer clear of whatever gender variance that people may find ridiculous, this will include far more than one oddball airline passenger. Even modestly dressed and gender-conforming trans people like Dr. Weiss may not be any more palatable to the wider public, simply due to the fact that they’re transsexual. That’s hardly a reason to cast them out for being politically inconvenient – but that’s the price you pay when you restrict your movement to include only that which the majority approves of.

This accomplishes nothing. Those who are unable or unwilling to recognize that this man is distinct from trans people are ignorant enough that they likely wouldn’t see trans people as any different in nature – while you may try to placate them with your normalcy, they’ll still regard you as anything but normal. But those who support gender identity and gender expression protections will likely understand that his behavior has nothing to do with the genuine identities of transsexual, transgender and gender-variant people. Pandering to common bigotry is a hopeless endeavor that only serves to diminish your own base of support.

As if to prove her point by example, Weiss goes so far as to suggest that this is cause enough to disavow gender expression protections:

Is this what ENDA is going to mean — that he can come dressed to work like this? Is this what we’re asking employers to support? I am not fighting for that. I do not find it fabulous, and I do not find it amusing.

I’m not advocating arrests of crossdressers, and I uphold anyone’s right to dress however they want in private. But I’m not defending this one. Is this what all my work on including statutory protections for “gender expression” comes down to? This makes me rethink that. Very seriously.

I tend to be suspicious of people whose support of minority rights is conditional rather than principled. It brings to mind the person who thinks their racism is justified by bad experiences with people of color, the person who would support marriage equality if they weren’t so disgusted by pride parades – someone who sees their own personal discomfort as a reason to deny someone else their equal recognition as a person. And it raises the question of just how firm their support really was to begin with. Do they truly stand for people’s rights, when someone exercising them in a manner they disapprove of is all it takes for them to change their minds?

Objecting to gender expression protections which would protect expressions of gender that you disagree with seems to be missing the point entirely. If such an attitude were universal, the emerging consensus would ensnare far more people than Dr. Weiss would likely be comfortable with – and it certainly would not be kind to trans people in the current social climate. If these laws only protected gender expression that everyone found acceptable, why would we even need them? She may be uncomfortable with this, but I’m far more uncomfortable with the alternative.

Where to find my video transcripts

In an effort to make my videos more accessible, I’ve added captions for the deaf or hard-of-hearing, as well as transcripts for easy reading and citation. The current transcripts are listed here. These are not available for every video yet, but new ones are being added all the time. Older transcripts will be provided by request. Thanks for watching!

Announcing the Rational Day of Dialogue

The Day of Silence has been one of the most successful grassroots protests for gay equality in the past decade – so it’s no surprise that it’s also succeeded in drawing the ire of conservative Christians. Yes, apparently something so simple as students being silent to stand in solidarity with their gay classmates requires a response from the religious right. They’ve tried pulling their kids out of school on the Day of Silence, or at least claimed they were going to. They’ve tried setting up a so-called “Day of Truth” for their kids to tell people that being gay is a sin – which they decided to cancel because dozens of gay kids were killing themselves. You’d think that after this, they might give it up and stop trying to refute an anti-bullying campaign. But, like a bad case of ignorance, it just keeps coming back.

This year, Focus on the Family has rebranded it as the “Day of Dialogue”. A dialogue about what, you might ask? Well, it’s about “supporting those who want to express their faith-based viewpoints about homosexuality”. Because when people are standing up against anti-gay bullying, we can’t let that pass without an opposing viewpoint!

But if a dialogue is what they’re after, maybe that’s just what we need. When religion is being used to tell gay students that who they are is wrong, we should have a dialogue about that. If they’re going to talk about “what the Bible really says”, let’s talk about what the Bible really is. If they want to talk about how God made us, let’s talk about how we made God. If they want to have a Day of Dialogue, I say we make it a Rational Day of Dialogue. Because if they’re going to tell us that who we are is sinful, and expect us to take it on faith, that deserves a real answer.

Anti-gay proselytizing isn’t something that should go unchallenged in schools. Students should know the truth behind these religious claims: they’re not as unquestionable as they might seem. On April 18th, let’s have a real dialogue – a rational dialogue.

Find out more at Rational Day of Dialogue.

Katy Perry’s God

It’s practically unavoidable that the gods people invent will take the form of something that reflects their own desires, preferences, priorities, tastes and distastes. And at the same time, the insertion of a god into their worldview inevitably distorts their thinking, because it elevates their own personal perspectives, incomplete and inconsistent and bizarre as they may be, to the final word and binding command of a perfect and almighty deity – a facet of reality imposed from outside, not a subjective judgment generated from within.

This typically manifests as people picking out verses that disapprove of homosexuality from an entire book of incomprehensible, alien laws that they would otherwise disregard, or preferring to doom a woman and her fetus to die rather than allow an abortion that would save her life, or other instances of completely missing the point and failing to apply even the most basic standards of reason. But sometimes, someone manages to take this in a totally new direction. Sometimes, we get Katy Perry.

Perry, a former gospel singer raised by two Christian pastors who only allowed her to listen to gospel music, burst onto the scene in 2008 with a hit single about casually making out with girls at bars:

No, I don’t even know your name
It doesn’t matter
You’re my experimental game
Just human nature

[…]

I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it

Her later works include asking men to show her their cocks, general drunken rowdiness, and the “California Gurls” video. Nothing is wrong with any of this. But it is interesting to see what’s persisted through all this: an aversion to blasphemy.

Following Gaga’s new music video premiere, which was filled with religious imagery, Perry posted a message on Twitter declaring that “using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke.” Perry clarified her statement on a French radio station Monday, insisting she was not singling out the 24-year-old singer.

New York Daily News, 15 Jun 2010

“I am sensitive to Russell taking the Lord’s name in vain and to Lady Gaga putting a rosary in her mouth. I think when you put sex and spirituality in the same bottle and shake it up, bad things happen. Yes, I said I kissed a girl. But I didn’t say I kissed a girl while f-ing a crucifix.”

Rolling Stone, 19 Aug 2010

“Russell has made very blasphemous jokes in the past, but he’s making fewer all the time because he knows that I am very sensitive about this subject,” says Perry, whose parents were pastors.

“You can be frivolous and fun without needing to get involved in that. And I don’t know why that only happens to the Christian religion. I don’t see people simulating sex with statues of Buddha, for example.”

[…]

“For me, spirituality is something very important and I don’t like it when people take it lightly. At times, I don’t understand why there are artists who play that card, like when Madonna gets up on a cross to sing.”

The Telegraph, 16 Jan 2011

Yes, apparently blasphemy is “cheap”, but blasting whipped cream from your breasts is not. Spirituality is serious business, but insincere displays of same-sex affection for the attention and titillation of heterosexual men are no big deal. What kind of god would agree with this? The kind of god that’s no brighter than Katy Perry. This is not to say that she’s necessarily a hypocrite, or somehow doing religion “wrong” – this would require that someone be “right” about it. It is, however, stupid, and a probable remnant of her upbringing after any possible distaste for partying, drinking, homosexuality and sexuality in general has fallen away1.

But even if many instances of blasphemy are merely an attempt to stir up controversy, just as cheap as singing about men’s cocks, there’s no particular reason why religion ought to be a subject that’s off-limits here. It makes no sense to home in on the things that particularly offend people and intentionally push those buttons, then cry foul when someone does the exact same thing with a topic you happen to be sensitive about. An objection to Lady Gaga putting a rosary in her mouth should be no more compelling than an objection to Perry putting her tongue in another girl’s mouth.

What many people who decry blasphemy don’t understand is that this sensitivity to it is precisely why it’s used. If religious iconography had no such meanings, cultural associations and delicate feelings surrounding it, there would be no point to anyone using it in this way. The unusually high regard in which religion is held is exactly what gives it its power to convey a message here, however trite that message may be. This is hardly taking it lightly at all – this is the very reason artists choose to utilize religion in an unconventional, possibly offensive context.

Christianity is simply the most commonly referenced religion because it’s the most common religion, but it’s undeniable that almost any religion can, in fact, be funny. For example:

  • Buddhism’s idea of a good life is training yourself to not want anything and put up with everything, because they haven’t yet figured out the latter two thirds of the Serenity Prayer.
  • If you draw an innocuous cartoon and label it “Muhammad”, people will literally set buildings on fire.
  • The world’s largest religion is about a relatively unassuming man who invented moral precepts like “be merciful sometimes”, empathy, and “anyone who disagrees with me can actually go to Hell.”
  • Xenu.
  • People actually believe this.

Terrifying? Undoubtedly. Funny? Yes! With things like this occupying our reality, how can anyone really expect artists not to borrow from it and use it to make a point? Maybe these beliefs do need to be questioned. Maybe some sensibilities need to be offended. And I really wish you all could be California girls. Amen.

1. “My closest friends happen to be gay… I came from a very strict household, where any of that taboo stuff was wrong. I don’t say I hate where I came from, I love my parents and was happy to… have that opportunity to grow, but I came from a strict, suppressed household where that was wrong.” (The New Gay, 10 Jun 2008)

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)