I have a perfect face for radio!

Yesterday I was privileged to join Ethan Clow, the Vancouver chapter president of CFI Vancouver (the handsome devil you saw talking to Deepak Chopra) on his radio show “Radio Freethinker” on UBC’s campus radio. This is a weekly skeptic podcast that looks at skeptic issues in the news and discusses various salient skeptic topics. I was present as a special guest, along with Jakob Liljenwall, head of the Simon Fraser University Skeptics group.

We discussed, among other things:

  • Belgian police raiding a Catholic Church;
  • Organic pesticides being worse than synthetic for the environment;
  • The G8/G20 events; and
  • Confrontation vs. Accommodation in the skeptic movement

Of course Ethan, Jakob and I have similar views on things, but we had a fairly lively discussion nonetheless. As you listen to the podcast, you’ll immediately notice two things:

  1. Some of the things I talk about have appeared (or will appear, depending on when you’re reading this) on this blog, and
  2. There is a reason I prefer writing to speaking – I backtrack a lot while trying to explain myself.

So if you’ve ever wondered if I have a sexy voice, or you’re a friend of mine and you miss my sexy voice, give “Radio Freethinker” a listen. If the subject matter interests you, check it out Tuesdays at 3:30 on CITR 101.9 FM in Vancouver.

When religion clashes with secular values

My views on religion are not well-liked by believers. Those of you who read the comments attached to my posts may have seen a back-and-forth I had with a Baltimore-based columnist named Rene over my invocation of Russel’s teapot. I like Rene – he’s a funny guy who shares my views on people who stubbornly refuse to accept reason or evidence when it comes to vaccinating their children. However, when I applied the same reason and evidence (or lack thereof) to belief in a deity, I found myself in a fight with him.

Rene, and many of my friends who are believers, are paradoxically the best and worst kind of religious people. Best, because their religious beliefs are personal, and generally serve the purpose of helping them deal with ultimate questions of reality, or as a moral guide. Worst, because while they might deplore the things done in the name of religion, they always seem to make excuses as to why it’s okay to believe some religious things but others are clearly wrong. Worst of all, these are generally the kinds of people who don’t speak up when members of their faith do something deplorable with religious justification on their lips. “Those people aren’t real Christians/Muslims/Hindus/Sikhs/Rastafari/etc.” they say “that’s not what I believe, so there’s no need for me to say anything.” Of course this is simply trivial goal-post shifting – they believe all the same things you do, plus a bunch of stuff you don’t. If you call yourself a Christian, then it’s up to you to speak out against people who use Christianity to commit atrocities.

So today I thought I’d present a few conundrums, and ask those readers who are believers to try and explain them away.

Imagine you are an Israeli Jew, who believes that the Torah is the revealed word of God. You use scriptural guidance to make all of your decisions, particularly those that pertain to raising your children. However, a different group of Israeli Jews allow their children to watch TV and use the internet. They are full of sinful ideas, and you want to protect your children from their malevolent influence. The government says that you’re not allowed to segregate your children into their own schools. Which argument is the “correct” one – that you should be allowed to raise your children as you see fit, or that it’s in the best interest of your children not to be insulated from the outside world and remain walled off from any questioning of their parents’ religious beliefs?

Isn’t it nice to see different faiths coming together and agreeing on what’s really important in life – penises. Amazing the power that one organ can have to bring people together (but if it brings them together in the wrong way, that’s a sin). Both the Christian Bible and the Qu’ran are very clear that homosexuality is wrong (although the Bible is far more homophobic, explicitly counseling that homosexuals be killed). What are you to do as a believer when gay people are flocking to your country, fleeing persecution by your brethren? What is the reason why you can ignore some of what the Bible says (a woman should be killed if she fails to cry out while being raped), but not the other parts (homosexuals should be killed, just because)?

I seem to be picking on Kenya today… What do you do when you’re at church and your imam or priest says that a new government initiative to amend the constitution is expressly in contravention of your religious beliefs? What if the government wants to pass a law that says abortion is legal, or that doesn’t recognize the validity your religious courts, instead wanting to have one set of laws that apply to all people regardless of faith? What if they say that allying with the constitution will cause a religious war? Do you side with the creation of a secular standard of law and order, or do you follow your religious teachings?

I saved this one for you, Rene. What would you do if you were a good, God-fearing Christian who believed that God will heal the righteous, and will punish those who doubt his powers by attempting to intervene unnaturally (Matthew 9:22 – “But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.”)? Someone from the government comes and tells you that the sickness in your children, which is (like all sickness) caused by sin (John 5:14) can be prevented by the evil machinations of mankind? Do you have a responsibility to save your child’s life or their soul?

The answer from non-fundamentalist believers is that it’s okay to ignore some things in the Bible that are clearly wrong, or subject to misinterpretation. What separates misinterpretation from just regular interpretation? How do we know what’s the correct view of Biblical passages? Are we holding them to some standard of good and evil that are external to the Bible? What commandments should we follow, and which ones should we ignore? How do we know?

It’s all well and good to say “well everyone can make their own choice“, but that’s not what’s happening here. People are using their religious beliefs to justify making choices for other people. When your beliefs and my beliefs come into conflict, we have a way to resolve them that has nothing to do with faith in anything.

So I put the question to you, believers: what would you do if the government of the country you live in tried to pass a law that conflicted with your faith? What if, for whatever reason, you were forced to make a decision between your religious beliefs and a well-reasoned law that was for the good of society at large? Saying “it would never happen” is not a permissible answer to the question – it happens all the time. Laws are passed in my country and in yours that are in conflict with the Bible every day. If you were put in a corner and you had to make a decision, what would you do?

If the answer is that you would side with your faith, then you are no different (philosophically) than fundamentalists, it’s just a coincidence that your personal beliefs aren’t as strict as theirs.

If the answer is that you would side with a reasonable law, then your belief in logic and evidence is stronger than your belief in religious edicts, and I invite you to take the final step across the line and accept the fact that you don’t need religion to be a good person.

If you don’t know what you would do, or if you refuse to engage in a line of thought which causes your beliefs to come under scrutiny, then maybe you should re-examine how strong your faith is.

Roger Ebert gets it EXACTLY right

Some day, if I keep at this writing thing, and work really hard, I may become as good a writer as Roger Ebert is:

How would I feel if I were a brown student at Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona? A mural was created to depict some of the actual students in the school.

Roger is, of course, talking about a recent event in which a mural depicting a brown-skinned child in Arizona was “lightened” because his skin tone was deemed “too dark”. The justification for the decision was that the shading needed to be fixed, so it would look like the child was “coming into the light.” Of course, that brilliant explanation was somewhat at odds with the reports of people driving by the mural in their cars and screaming racial obscenities at it.

Dear people of Arizona: paint cannot hear you, but the children working on the mural can.

Of course this all happens in the wake of an unguardedly racist immigration bill, giving police the power (and, in fact, obligating them) to demand documentation from any person on the street who “seems” like an illegal immigrant. If the suspect doesn’t have proof of legal status on them, they are arrested. Besides being in direct violation of the 4th Amendment (the one banning illegal search and seizure; we have a similar statute in Canada), it is essentially de facto racial profiling – requiring people who don’t “look American” to carry documentation, while those who do “look American” are fine. I don’t imagine it’s a huge stretch to imagine who will and won’t get arrested. For more reaction to the bill, I’d suggest you check out CLS’s blog. This post is about Roger.

Mr. Ebert pivots this story into a recounting of his own experiences growing up with race and racism in the United States:

This is not a record of my reading but of my understanding. I don’t know if you can understand what it was like in those days. Racism was ingrained in daily life. It wasn’t the overt racism of the South, but more like the pervading background against which which we lived. We were here and they were there and, well, we wished them well, but that was how it was.

I’ve made my stance on this pretty clear before, but any time anyone says to me “I’m not a racist” I immediately roll my eyes and brace myself for a veritable storm of racist ignorance. The phrase “I am not a racist” means only one thing: I am completely unaware of the history and pervasive nature of racism in society, and I believe that by simple force of will, I can undo hundreds of years of racialization. Those who fail to recognize the role that racism plays in our every day lives are the ones who will be the first to say or do something completely racially insensitive (well, maybe the second ones, after the handful of overt racists out there).

Mr. Ebert does nothing of the kind; he recognizes that race existed for him, and had the insight to recognize how it changed for him over the years. He talks about his wife, expressing his experience of her race:

…when I looked at her I saw Chaz. Chaz. A fact. A person of enormous importance to me. Chaz. A history. Memories. Love. Passion. Laughter. Her Chaz-ness filled my field of vision. Yes, I see that she is black, and she sees that I am white, but how sad it would be if that were in the foreground.

This perfectly echoes the sentiment expressed by John Legend, which I talked about some weeks ago. It’s not a crime to see race; the problem lies in how large racial identity looms in your mind when forming opinions about someone else. Roger and Chaz don’t love each other despite their racial difference, it just doesn’t play an important role in their relationship.

Finally, Mr. Ebert arrives at his original subject matter:

What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life? Were you raised as a racist, or become one on your own?

It’s here where I step off Mr. Ebert’s track. Race and racism aren’t mysteries, they aren’t baffling quirks of humanity that have no explanation. Racism is ingrained in our culture, so much so that we don’t see it. We’re doubly-cursed because we are told that we’re not allowed to talk about it. As a result, we don’t know what racism actually is, except when it’s too obvious to ignore. Then we distance ourselves from “those people” and comfort ourselves by saying “well I’m not a racist, because I would never scream obscenities at children.” It’s a dangerous downward comparison that shields us from having to address the issues in our own lives, rather than admitting our own faults and areas where we can improve.

If you haven’t clicked on the link and read the whole article, I urge you to do so. It’s an amazingly poignant relation of a white person’s experience of race and racism in a modern context, and provides a rich historical context. I wish more people had the courage to do what Roger has done – talk about race in an open, honest, and vulnerable way. I can only hope that some day I will reach his level of Word-Fu.

Reaction to the G8/G20 summit

I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. It’s interesting to get a perspective (albeit a fictional one) on what happens in the halls of government, to see how the sausage gets made. One of my favourite episodes involves a meeting by the Director of Communications with a group of youth protesting the World Trade Organization. Toby wryly observes that it’s like “protest summer camp”, as the protesters are poorly-organized, lack a coherent message, and do not seem capable of dealing with someone in a position to actually do something. He mocks them both under his breath and openly to their faces. At the end of the episode, he confides to one of his fellow senior-level staffers that if he wasn’t working for the White House, he’d be out on the picket lines with them.

That’s how I feel about this weekend’s G8/G20 clusterfuck.

First off I want to say that, and I absolutely cannot stress this enough, VIOLENCE IS NOT SPEECH. The Charter protects the right of citizens to free expression. The goal of free speech is to have all ideas out in the open air, where they can be debated. The virtue of this approach is that ideas that are not necessarily popular cannot simply be shut down by the capricious whim of either the majority, or whoever happens to be in power at that moment. Of all of the rights that we have in this country, free speech/free expression is, in my mind, the most important one. It is what separates us from theocratic countries that use the power of the state to shut down political opposition and legitimate citizen movements.

Donning a black mask, running through the streets, smashing windows and setting fires, then abandoning those masks to avoid capture by police is the complete opposite of the idea of free speech. It is a violation of everything that is good about free speech protections. It is the face of a mass of cowardice and stupidity, and is an abject abuse of my rights as a citizen. If you think that smashing a window is a viable form of protest, then smash the shit out of the window – but stand by your actions. Smashing a window and then running tells the world nothing except that you are a selfish asshole who disregards the rights of others because it’s fun. Burning a cop car and then running tells the world that you are in no way willing to work with others to solve problems in society, you are just out for yourself in your infantile tantrum. Spraypainting “bomb the banks” and then running tells the world that you are a mindless anti-corporate bandwagon jumper who absolutely cannot be counted on to help make the world a better place.

I wish I was a better writer so that I could adequately express the complete and utter contempt in which I hold someone who hides behind a black mask and a gang in order to get away with trashing personal property. I am not a violent person, and I abhor the use of force to solve interpersonal problems, but if I was presented with a Black Bloc member and the opportunity to do so, I would beat the living snot out of the little over-entitled, pseudo-punk shits who ran like children when faced with the consequences of their actions. They are beneath contempt. Violent revolt is sometimes necessary in the development of a society, but it has to mean something. The violence this weekend was meaningless. It was a bunch of assholes who saw an opportunity for cheap laughs by burning property and assaulting people.

There are two great tragedies of this weekend’s events (aside from the abrogation of the rights of law-abiding citizens who were caught in police sweeps, having committed no crimes, which is an absolute tragedy in and of itself). The first is the fact that there were a number of people there who had legitimate cause to protest. They were exercising their rights as free citizens to voice opposition, and raise issues on the world stage. The acts of the black-clad assholes buried the efforts of legitimate protesters who were trying to make a positive difference in society. I may not agree with any number of the issues that the protesters wanted to bring up, but they were interested in presenting a principled stand and were willing to confront authority openly and courageously. The assholes ruined this opportunity, ensuring that nobody will ever hear the voice of the constructive. I commend Toronto mayor David Miller for accurately distinguishing between the protesters and the “thugs” (although I prefer the term assholes, he’s a politician and has to be a bit less colourful).

The second tragedy is one that is a bit more germane to the second topic of this blog: race. I took a look through photo galleries of the assholes, and played a game I like to play sometimes called “spot the black people”. The best part of the game is that among groups of people who are supposedly demonstrating on behalf of the poorest and most disenfranchised people on the planet, you’ll never spot those people among the group. You can’t talk about the victims of globalization and the global economy without talking about Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Look at the pictures – I challenge you to find a non-white face among the crowd. As difficult as it is to spot income, the group did not strike me as poorly-fed and impoverished people rising up against authority – they resembled a group of middle-class hypocrites who wear the trappings of poverty for street cred, while living off the largess of their parents. Here’s a hint: if you joined up with the Black Bloc because you got a Twitter Alert on your iPhone while you were serving cappuccinos at Starbucks, you aren’t fighting against the man. You’re just as responsible for the suffering of the poor as those who you claim to be demonstrating against – you are part of the system.

As Toronto recovers from this event, I cannot help but recall my own experience during the Vancouver Olympics this past February. I made a poor choice to walk down Georgia street on my way home, and was blocked by a massive protest march. For those of you not familiar with Vancouver, that would be like marching at Bay/Bloor. The streets were absolutely jammed with people shouting slogans and carrying signs. I immediately noticed the actions of police officers – they were there to ensure the safety of the marchers. They did not jeer, or harass/assault people who were exercising their rights to speech, even when it shut down the core of the city. Even when the protesters arrived at the blockades around the stadium, both sides kept their cool. It wasn’t until the next day when the assholes showed up and smashed the windows of the Bay at Georgia/Granville that any arrests or assaults took place. Vancouver had its own G8/G20 protest here this weekend. No arrests, no injuries, no problems. The few assholes who showed up to cause trouble were detained and identified, but no formal charges were laid (which is regrettable, but the cops don’t work for me).

I am deeply saddened and enraged by the actions of a cowardly bunch of callow fucks. There are real issues in the world to protest, real problems that need to be solved. If you want to fight against the forces of oppression, you have to be willing to stand up for your beliefs. Being a citizen comes with responsibilities, and when you smash shit with a mask on, not only do you abdicate those responsibilities, but you simultaneously abdicate any claim to the legitimacy of your position among reasonable people.

The truth is important!

In the interest of not writing an entire book about it, I decided to break up last Monday’s post into two parts. Last week, for those of you whose fingers are too atrophied to click on the link provided, I talked about why I’m not content to simply leave people alone to believe whatever they want. The basic thrust of my refutation was that it’s a total myth that people keep their beliefs to themselves. Some people most assuredly keep their personal beliefs about God, or medicine, or whatever completely to themselves and you’d never know what they think. Part of the problem is that those people don’t seem to want to want to speak out against those who might share their beliefs, but who want to force those beliefs on others through the passing of laws.

There’s another part to why I am not content to leave people alone to believe whatever unsubstantiated nonsense (and I probably believe in a lot of unsubstantiated nonsense myself) they want, and it is a bit more abstract and philosophical. As such, I am going to resort to one of my favourite tactics: allegory.

Imagine for a moment that you are the only human person in existence. You have complete and total autonomy, since your actions affect you and you alone. You are perfectly free, therefore, to believe that the birds are sent from the gods to nourish you, that the moon is made of green cheese, and that your farts smell like rainbows. It doesn’t matter. You exist in an entirely valueless world, except insofar as you need to do whatever it takes to keep yourself alive. If those beliefs help you achieve some happiness, then go for it.

Now imagine that another person (Eve) pops into existence. She has her own set of beliefs – that birds are winged tools of the devil, the moon is the eye of Horus, and that your farts are quite disgusting. You have two options at this point if you wish to keep your faith intact: you can either completely cut yourself off from Eve so as to preserve your beliefs through ignorance, or you can convert her to your way of thinking. However, it turns out that you and Eve need each other to live. She’s the only one who has the capability to get fresh drinking water, and only you can gather food (for whatever reason). As a result, you can’t simply abandon her.

Eve stubbornly refuses to adopt your beliefs simply on your say-so. “Okay,” you say “Eve and I will simply have to agree to disagree about birds, be indifferent to the moon, and I will try to disguise my farts.” In this way, you are able to co-exist with Eve because you’ve kept your beliefs to yourself. Great! Well, it’s great until Eve gets sick, and the only food you can find is the birds you are able to shoot. Eve, however, won’t bring herself to touch the flesh of the devil’s creations, and would rather die than eat. That’s all well and good for her, but if she dies so do you.

How do we resolve this conundrum? Eve is simply exercising her right to believe as she likes, but in such a way as puts your life at risk. Does her right to believe preclude your right to live? Since (for the sake of this allegory) you are the only one who can get food, doesn’t she have a duty to you in the same way that you have a duty to her for providing you with water? Even if you don’t buy the whole “duty” argument, wouldn’t the world be a better place for both of you if Eve was to abandon her belief in devil birds?

There’s a very simple answer to this problem: look at the evidence. Why does Eve think birds are from the devil? Eve says it’s because only demonic power can explain their ability to fly through the air, whilst a rock falls to the Earth (the way all of God’s creatures should). Luckily, you are able to demonstrate through your advanced knowledge of physics the exact principle by which birds achieve flight. Furthermore, you point out other animals, like bats, that can fly. You also show her examples like flying fish and flying squirrels that don’t fly as such, but might represent “transitional forms” between land animals and flying animals. While you can’t ever prove that the devil doesn’t exist, there is no evidence that he does. Furthermore, there is a lot of reasonable evidence to suggest that birds fly for reasons that have nothing to do with magic or evil.

Joy of joys! Eve agrees to eat, based on your rational explanation of a process that isn’t based on a belief in the non-demonic nature of birds, but on verifiable facts and observation. Did you prove that the devil didn’t make birds? No, and of course that’s impossible. You just provided a better explanation that is supported by facts rather than superstition.

What does this have to do with anything? Here’s the thesis of the post: when different beliefs are in conflict, we can use logic and evidence to establish the truth. Not wanting to get into a ridiculous discussion of “what is truth?”, I will simply define it as what happens in the world whether you believe in it or not. I might not believe that anything exists unless I am aware of it, but if someone sneaks up on me and hits me with a cream pie, my lack of belief in them doesn’t make me look any less foolish.

While the “why can’t you let people believe what they want” fallacy is appealing, it is based on the flawed assumption that you exist in a world completely unconnected from any other human person. If you act on a belief, and it comes into conflict with someone else’s beliefs, there must be a resolution. The only fair way to resolve such conflicts is to look at the world around you and establish some facts. If your beliefs come into conflict with the facts, and the practice of your beliefs affects someone else, the burden is on you to either show how the facts are incorrect or to change your beliefs (which is a lot easier to do when they’re just ideas). To do otherwise is to insist that the world must revolve around your beliefs, despite the fact that they are not based on anything besides your own prejudice.

I’m perfectly happy to allow people to have whatever belief makes it easier to sleep at night (or to borrow a phrase, “whatever lifts your luggage“) only up until your beliefs and mine come into conflict. At that point, we need to have some standard by which to measure which belief is substantiated by reality. The world is a complex place, and we have to live in it with each other. Don’t we deserve real answers to tough questions, rather than allowing prejudice and superstition to ruin our lives?

What you missed this week: June 21st – 25th

Lots of good stuff this week, when I:

Here’s what you can look forward to next week:

  • I’m going to finish my discussion of leaving bad ideas alone;
  • Roger Ebert stuns me with both the quality and content of his writing;
  • Exploring how believers resolve their religious and secular conflict;
  • A chilling of free speech in Canadian politics; and
  • One of the greatest standup comedians ever.

Make sure you don’t miss it!

Movie Friday: Look Around You – Germs

Whenever I hear anyone talk about their theories for why ‘alternative medicine’ works, this is what pops into my head:

This video is from the HILARIOUS series “Look Around You”. If you’re ever bored and in need of a laugh, you should watch these.

This is what I think of whenever I hear people talk about science who don’t actually know anything about the subject. You can dress up absolute nonsense in sciency-sounding clothes, but it doesn’t mask the fact that it’s a bunch of crap.

Anyway, enjoy!

A dilly of a pickle

Here’s an interesting ethical debate, for those of you who swing that way:

Ontario’s highest court is considering the thorny issue of whether a sexual assault complainant should remove her niqab to face her alleged attackers in court. The issue has drawn attention from several groups, that are not only split on whether or not a woman should be able to wear a veil in the witness box, but also on the fundamental questions the issue evokes.

Imagine you’re a woman (which will be much easier for my female readers… hello ladies) who has been beaten and sexually assaulted by her family. Imagine your family, and you, are devout Muslims, which means that you must cover your face when you leave the house. Imagine that in order to get the abuse to stop, or to see justice done, you must remove the veil in court to testify. Are you less likely to be willing to testify if it means violating your religious beliefs? What if it’s not just your beliefs, but those of your husband and children, who will be scandalized (and might leave you) if you show your face in public.

Now imagine you’re a lawyer (which will be much easier for my law-school readers… hello lawyers) who has been tasked with representing this woman. Imagine your esteemed colleague, the defense lawyer, is saying that the case should be thrown out on the grounds that cross-examination of your client is impossible, since she is covering her face. Imagine that the abusive rapists will be allowed to walk free on a technicality because your client is bowing to sexist superstition about immodesty based on an interpretation of scripture, an interpretation that even many practitioners of her own faith disagree with. Do you tell her that her claim is meaningless, and that her courage in filing the suit in the first place was a waste of time because of her closely-held beliefs?

This isn’t an abstract thought experiment, this is actually happening. Once again, the laws of the land are having to tiptoe around religious rules. The blame doesn’t lie with this woman, she’s just trying to live her life. The fault lies within a system that allows the systematic subjugation of all women to be seen as a virtuous act. For once, I don’t have a clear-cut answer of what the court should do. On the one hand, testifying would have deleterious effects on the plaintiff and possibly cause her to lose her family and social life; it would most certainly deter other abused women from coming forward after they see that the consequence of speaking up is social isolation (and possibly more abuse). On the other hand however, allowing her to wear the veil not only violates the right of the accused to confront their accuser face-to-face, but implicitly assents to the practice of veiling women.

I’d be very interested to hear what you have to say on the topic. My opinion as it stands now is that it is better to err on the side of the abused and make concessions for them, while at the same time affirming that we do not condone the practice of the veil, but that may change as I have more time to mull it over.

RCC gets even closer to a real apology

Regular readers will remember two weeks ago when I gave credit where credit is due to the Pope for finally admitting that the abuse and its systematic and deplorable covering up of that abuse are the fault of the Catholic Church itself, and not a cabal of people trying to ruin a good organization. It looks like Benedict thinks that blaming ‘Sin’ was enough, and is now asking Catholics worldwide to forgive the Church:

Pope Benedict XVI has begged forgiveness from clerical abuse victims and promised to “do everything possible” to ensure priests don’t rape and molest children ever again.

I have a question for you, dear readers. Have any of you been in, or been witness to, an abusive relationship? Have you ever been stuck in a vicious cycle with some asshole who swears “I can change, I swear I’ll do whatever it takes” as long as you take him/her back? I’ve seen it, and believe me it isn’t pretty. We’d all like to believe that people can change if they love you enough – that their feelings for you are so strong that they’ll move Heaven and Earth just to keep you.

What ends up happening in those situations? I’ll tell you: the change lasts for about as long as it takes for you to stop being angry, and then everything goes back to the way it was before. People don’t change. As much as they’d like to believe it, people don’t suddenly become better people by sheer force of will. It takes years for us to form our personalities, and it will similarly take years to change those personalities. Press the apologizers for details on how they’ll change, and you’ll find that they have no plan, no specific behaviours, no real concrete idea of what they’re going to do. But they’ll do it!

So whenever I hear someone say something vague like “do everything possible”, I roll my eyes and say “sure, tell me another one.” Organizations don’t change wholesale, especially in the absence of real ideas for reform. When a change is proposed that offers zero specifics on how to make it happen, it’s the equivalent of saying ‘I don’t think what I did was wrong, but you’re mad, so I’ll feed you a line until you stop being mad.’ I’ve done it to my parents, I’ve had friends do it to their significant others, I’ve seen friends’ significant others do it to them, and I’ve been on the receiving end more times than I care to recall. It inevitably ends the same way.

So while I’m willing to believe that the Pope (and the Church by extension) feels really really bad about what happened, I’ll withhold any talk of forgiveness until I see real change. Asking for forgiveness does not oblige me to grant it to you. Seeing as the abuse happened for decades and was rife throughout the entire organization, it’s going to take a lot before I’m willing to believe that any progress has been made.

Update: Gay couple in Malawi pardoned

A couple weeks back I talked about a couple that was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for the shocking, deplorable act of… well, being in love with each other. However, ultra-religious Malawi doesn’t like it when you’re in love with someone who has similar genitalia (although to be 100% clear, it was a law that was brought in by the British).

However, it seems that what Malawi likes even less than ‘teh butt secks’ is getting their own ass pounded by the international community:

Mr (President Bingu wa) Mutharika, speaking as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visited his country, said he had ordered their immediate release.

We don’t get a lot of flashy victories in the fight against the forces of stupid, but this one is a bit of good news. Luckily, the voices of reason were able to shout down the voices of “that’s just how they do things in their culture” and get these two guys out of jail. Listen, folks: when my country trades with your country, when the health and well-being of your citizens affects my bottom line, and when you are violating their human rights (as I define them), then I absolutely have a right to speak up. When the suffering of your people inspires outrage and sympathy in my people, and they demand that I do something, you’d better believe that I’m going to speak up. If you want to practice barbarism, then you’ve got to deal with the consequences; one of which is the fact that the richest parts of the world have moved past your small-minded interpretation of scripture. You want our money? You’ve got to play by our rules. You want to keep your practices the same? Then you’ve got to convince me (and my people) that you’re justified in doing so. “This is the way we do things here” is not justification, it’s special pleading, and I’m not swayed by it.

Of course, there’s no happy ending to this story. Homosexuality is still illegal in Malawi, and bowing to legal pressure (and probably threats of physical violence), the couple has split up, and one man is now pretending to be heterosexual. It’s tragic that they’re unable and seemingly unwilling to stand up for gay rights in their country, but I can understand why. I can only hope that other gay people in Africa are more willing to stand up to the pressure and demand their human rights, despite the horrible cost.