The normal kind of crazy

I might be the only atheist blogger in the world that hasn’t yet talked about the absurdity of the Family Radio rapture announcement last Saturday. For those of you that didn’t read my post that preceded the event, a radio host from the United States (of course) named Harold Camping performed a rigorous mathematical analysis of the Bible (read: pulled some numbers out of his ass) and announced that the world would be judged on May 21st, 2011. Jesus would return in glory and take faithful to heaven. He also ‘prophesied’ that there would be massive earthquakes and millions of deaths on that day, which would continue until the world actually ends in October of this year.

As you’ll remember, he was totally correct, and that’s exactly what happened.

Well, no. What actually happened is that the universe has existed for billions of years. For some of those billions, there has been one star among trillions that had a handful of planets. On one of those planets existed the proper chemical conditions for self-replicating molecules to form and propagate. Some of those molecules spontaneously organized to form multicellular organisms, one of which eventually became capable of organizing into units capable of exchanging ideas. Among the thousands of stupid ideas that this random process inevitably spit out, one of them was about a man who was the son of one of the gods who was killed but promised to come back and avenge his death in a most bloody fashion.

One of the multicellular organisms took the stupid idea to a wacky conclusion based on weird information, and got it dead wrong. Instead of being among the small minority of multicellulars that is willing to admit when it does something wrong, this one decided instead to engage in stereotypical hand-waving and try to change its story:

As crestfallen followers of a California preacher who foresaw the world’s end strained to find meaning in their lives, Harold Camping revised his apocalyptic prophecy, saying he was off by five months and the Earth actually will be obliterated on Oct. 21. Camping, who predicted that 200 million Christians would be taken to heaven Saturday before global cataclysm struck the planet, said Monday that he felt so terrible when his doomsday message did not come true that he left home and took refuge in a motel with his wife. His independent ministry, Family Radio International, spent millions — some of it from donations made by followers — on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 recreational vehicles plastered with the Judgment Day message.

First off, I have a bone to pick not only with this article, but with the slavering hordes of people eager to make jokes at Camping’s expense. Strictly speaking, he did not predict the world would end on May 21st; he predicted that Jesus would judge mankind on that day. All along he said that the final day of the Earth would be in October, and he hasn’t changed his mind about that.

Secondly, there’s a larger point to be made here. Harold Camping is a guy with really weird ideas. They’re bizarre and nonsensical and have only a fleeting and occasional relationship with observable reality. He has taken those beliefs out of the privacy of his head and has decided to plaster them all over the place, gathering followers and collecting vast sums of money in the process. The people who follow him appear to be earnest and kind but simple-minded fools who have fallen victim to Camping’s particular brand of lunacy.

Here’s the point: what Harold Camping believes is different from what the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or Billy Graham or (insert famous religious personality) believes only in terms of magnitude, not type. Belief in a supernatural entity in the absence of evidence is what licenses all kinds of weird beliefs, even those as extreme as Camping’s. I will avoid, for now, the obvious temptation of comparing his nuttiness to fanatics like Ayatollah Khomeni or Joseph Kony – Camping did not advocate violence or totalitarian rule. However, the fundamental basis of his position is rooted on identical grounds: the will of an undefinable and unobservable supreme being.

And so while believers and non-believers alike spent the day laughing at the stupidity of the May 21st Rapture, we were laughing at two different things. Believers (the Christian ones, anyway) were yukking it up at the audacity of trying to pick a date for the return of the human son of the supreme being on the universe:

Tim LaHaye, co-author of the bestselling Left Behind novels about the end times, recently called Camping’s prediction “not only bizarre but 100 per cent wrong!” He cited the Bible verse Matthew 24:36, “but about that day or hour no one knows” except God. “While it may be in the near future, many signs of our times certainly indicate so, but anyone who thinks they ‘know’ the day and the hour is flat out wrong,” LaHaye wrote on his website,

Everyone else was laughing at how stupid the idea is.

When black people in the United States jumped on the Proposition 8 bandwagon to pass an amendment to ban gay marriage, I couldn’t fathom how a group that has experienced (and continues to experience) the suppression of its civil rights would be so eager to take the same rights away from other people. It was the same blindness I saw at work in believers who were happy to deride Camping but couldn’t see that their own religious beliefs were simply a diluted aspect of the same irrationality at work. While I’ve discussed the recalcitrance of the religious to examine their own behaviour, I am slowly learning that this is simply a product of human brains, not something unique to religious faith alone.

So what happened on the 21st? As it had for the past billions of years, the particular planet orbited about the particular star in the particular far-flung region of the universe, completely oblivious to the stupidity happening on its surface. Who wants to take bets on what’s going to happen in 5 months?

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Coded racism

Nobody likes to be called a racist. Well, almost nobody, but nobody who wishes to be taken seriously by the general public. We have developed a knee-jerk reaction to racism that has made even the mention of race-sensitive issues abhorrent. This reaction is far from irrational – people have seen how destructive the ideologies of racism are, and how deeply-wounded marginalized communities have become as a result of societal racism. Most people have friends, romantic partners, perhaps even relatives, that are from a different racial group; everyone recognizes that discriminating based on race is a bad thing.

The problem arises when this aversion to racism causes us to become willfully blind to racist practices around us. When confronted with them, we are more likely to explain them away rather than simply admit that we might not be perfect “non-racists”. I’m a particular fan of the way that Stewart Lee characterized it: “…if political correctness has achieved one thing, it’s to make the Conservative party cloak its inherent racism behind more creative language.” Of course we can substitute “Conservative party” with “general public” in most cases. We live in a racist society, and nobody is immune from the subtle voice of cultural indoctrination whispering in our ears.

Given this lack of immunity, the only tools we have to combat the effects of racism are self-awareness and intellectual courage (and surprise…). However, it seems that we prefer instead to use a lexicon that allows us to continue our racist behaviour without seeming racist. This is referred to generally as ‘coded racism’, which I will define as statements of racist ideologies that are carefully designed not to appear racist. I will, for the sake of illustration, give a few examples.

Arizona’s anti-immigration law

Those of you who have been paying attention to the news probably know about Arizona’s new anti-immigration bill, supposedly designed to reduce the amount of illegal immigration to the state. Leaving aside the fact that illegal immigration has absolutely nothing to do with Arizona’s financial woes, the bill reeks of coded racism. The most debated aspect of the bill is the provisions that require police officers to detain anyone that “looks illegal”. No standard has been provided for determining what an illegal immigrant looks like, or how to distinguish someone that “looks illegal” from someone that looks like a legal immigrant. The process is simply left up to a sort of “c’mon… you know what we’re talking about” process.

Defenders of the bill (and there are many) repeatedly affirm that racism and racial profiling are not the purpose of the legislation, stating instead that it is about fighting illegal immigration; and if all the illegals just happen to be brown-skinned people, that’s just an accident of statistics. We are asked to simply ignore the ‘wink-nudge’ aspects of the bill, along with the extreme anti-Hispanic attitudes that accompany it, and pretend that we don’t see how clearly it targets one group of people. Illegal immigration may be a serious issue in Arizona, and if it were, a program that finds a way to minimize the damage would certainly be necessary. However, one that simply gives police discretion to start locking up people based on the way they look is quite clearly racist, even if we don’t want to use those words to describe it.

The “Ground Zero Mosque”

Many of you will likely remember a year ago when a group intended to build an Islamic community centre in Manhattan, a few blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center. People immediately began frothing at the mouth, calling it the “Ground Zero Mosque” and claiming that it was a plot by terrorists to insult America. Again, leaving aside for a moment that there was already a mosque there, that they weren’t building a mosque, that the construction would have modeled religious tolerance (something that that particular group of terrorists hates), and that Muslims died in the Sept 11th attacks too, the language used was couched in a kind of “this is about terrorists, not Muslims” language that the frothiest of opponents quickly turned to whenever the racist aspects arose.

I will happily concede the point that ‘Muslim’ isn’t a race. That still doesn’t help the argument. The faces of the fight, of the “secret terrorists” was not that of members of the Nation of Islam (with its militant history) or recently-converted white people (converts are among the most zealous); it was Arabs. When a group of protesters mistakenly confronted a construction worker and began screaming at him, it was based on the fact that he was dark-skinned (black, in fact, but he looked Muslim :P). The particularly galling aspect of this particular issue is that these same opponents would like us to give credence to the ‘wink-nudge’ of putting up an Islamic centre at Ground Zero – “c’mon, you know it’s a thinly-veiled insult to those that died”, but then completely reject the “c’mon, you know it’s racist” criticism from the other side.


Remember that time that a majority of Americans elected someone with a long history of community service and patriotic dedication, and how his racial identity was the sign of a new, more mature America? Yeah, me either. What I remember is how every excuse was leveled at a black president (“He’s a secret Muslim!”, “He’s a Black Panther!”, “He’s a Kenyan communist sympathizer”) including the accusation that he was foreign-born. This of course despite the fact that he had released his birth certificate during the campaign, that being born in another country doesn’t necessarily preclude you from holding the office of President, and that the guy on the other side of the election actually was born in another country. No, it was pretty clear that the narrative was about Barack Obama being an “other”, and therefore being a bad choice for president.

The Birthers would have us believe that their chief concern is adherence to the Constitution, and certainly not anything that is motivated by racism. I will certainly accede that a lot of their motivation has to do with hating Democrats and liberals rather than simply blind racial hatred. However, their actions and staunch refusal to accept the evidence (even when presented over and over again), coupled with their close ties to the Tea Party, who is making these accusations (how many black, hispanic, or Asian birthers do you think there are?), and the nature of the rhetoric buzzing around Obama that wasn’t there for Clinton, one can’t help but see that race enmity is very much a part of the Birther ideology.

You’ll undoubtedly have noticed that all three of the examples I’ve provided are American. This isn’t in any way to suggest that we here in Canada don’t do the exact same thing, particularly when it comes to talking about First Nations people and their ‘government handouts’. That being said, Canadians are much more stealthy in our use of coded racism, being far more shy about it than our neighbours to the south. These are three dramatic and notorious examples of this process at work.

As I said earlier in this post, it is only by having the courage and integrity to confront our own ideas and motivations that we can identify and eliminate this kind of verbal cloaking. Being able to identify racism and being unafraid to call it out is the first (and second, I guess) step to ameliorating the problem. Failure to do that will only serve to keep us looking the other way, to the detriment of racial minority groups in perpetuity.

TL/DR: As racism has become more unpopular (but no less rare), we have developed a new lexicon to express racist ideas without appearing overtly racist.

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Movie Friday: A Girl Like Me – unpacking societal racism

On Wednesday I talked a bit about the subconscious realm in which racist ideologies often lie. If we’re careful, we can measure and observe exactly how these thoughts and ideations affect our decision-making. The question then arises as to where these ideas come from in the first place. Do secret cabals of white supremacists slip into our rooms as children and whisper hate-speech in our ears as we sleep (well, maybe that’s the case for some of us, I have no idea). More likely, we notice patterns of behaviour and external stimuli, and our minds forms patterns and ideas about them long before we are able to put them into words.

We have these ideas sitting in our brains, doing work on our minds without our even noticing them. This may be particularly true for black women, as the above video may suggest, simply because we simultaneously have such a negative view of black features and place such a premium on appearance in women. This kind of implicit attitude formation happens to us as children, as we are surrounded by imagines that imply the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of colour. It is only natural that not only would white children think negatively of children of colour, but that children of colour would similarly internalize these attitudes and think poorly of themselves.

Of course these kinds of things are hard to unpack, and as we get older our conscious minds can be taught to recognize these attitudes and reverse them. However, if we are so hell-bent on denying our own racist thoughts in some fit of arch-liberal self-righteousness, we will never learn to check our own assumptions. When the chips are down and we’re under pressure, we will continue to make decisions based on these gut instincts that we learn as children.

It’s not a black/white issue either:

Society gives us narratives about the people around us, and we internalize them without thinking. Evolutionarily, this is a useful trait for ensuring group cohesion – we will tend to reach consensus and can do so instinctively. However, when it comes to trying to break out of the evolutionary mould and design a society that is equitable to all people, we run into serious problems if we rely on these instincts rather than consistent introspection and vigilance. That kind of constant self-monitoring isn’t easy (trust me, I have a propensity to say stupid misogynistic stuff in the service of getting a laugh – deprogramming yourself is hard work), but it’s the only way to overcome biases that might otherwise go completely unnoticed.

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Today’s word boner…

Is brought to you by guitar legend Carlos Santana:

“This law is not correct. It’s a cruel law, actually, This is about fear. Stop shucking and jiving. People are afraid we’re going to steal your job. No we aren’t. You’re not going to change sheets and clean toilets. I would invite all Latin people to do nothing for about two weeks so you can see who really, really is running the economy. Who cleans the sheets? Who cleans the toilets? Who babysits? I am here to give voice to the invisible.”

It’s not so much what he said, it’s more where he said it – at an Atlanta Braves baseball game commemorating the civil rights movement. In front of a crowd of thousands, Mr. Santana had the courage and poise to call out not only Major League Baseball, but the fans sitting in the bleachers, for turning a blind eye toward racism happening right now and choosing instead to pat themselves on the back for how tolerant they’ve been.

He had more:

“Most people at this point they are either afraid to really say what needs to be said, this is the United States the land of the free. If people want the immigration law to keep passing in every state then everybody should get out and just leave the American Indians here. This is about Civil Rights.”

He then proceeded to shred the guitar so hard that all the women in the audience became pregnant [citation needed].

While I don’t usually care about the political positions of celebrities, I am impressed with what it takes to stand up in front of thousands of people and point out their complicit hypocrisy. It helps that he’s right, too.

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This is why we can’t have nice things

Can we, for a moment, assume that nobody is saying (at least publicly) that women should not be allowed to be part of the workforce? At some point in the past, sure, people were saying that a woman has no place outside the home. That argument has morphed somewhat (“a woman’s rightful place ought to be in the home, but they can work if they want/need to”), but I think all sides can agree that nobody is seriously suggesting that it is a bad thing that women have the right to work. Is that fair?

Okay, can we also agree that statistically speaking, fewer women are working than should be? There is a real gender disparity at all levels, where women are underrepresented in all sectors of business. Some of the disparity can be chalked up to women choosing to stay home at a greater frequency than men, but that has no relationship whatsoever to how high they rise in the echelons. So we still have to explain the remaining disparity – why are there fewer women in positions of power? Why don’t we see a more balanced gender ratio?

Maybe… just maybe… it’s shit like this:

A Gatineau, Que., woman says she was wrongfully dismissed after complaining about continual sexual harassment at her federal government job. Zabia Chamberlain worked as a director inside Human Resources and Skills Development Canada until, she says, chronic abuse from her director general forced her to leave her job. She says the department refused to transfer her to an equivalent job, away from the aggressor.


In the fall of 2007, Chamberlain was seconded to a director position in the Skills and Employment branch at HRSDC. Chamberlain says her boss regularly intruded into her personal space, with inappropriate touching, pushing himself against her and rubbing her shoulders… Through tears, with shaking hands, Chamberlain explains the harassment didn’t end there. She says he would sometimes fly into a rage and storm into her office. “It was so volatile. He came into my office and slammed the door so loud, it’s the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. He swore. Don’t you ever F—ing do that again.”

She says she asked her boss not to raise his voice or touch her. Then Chamberlain started applying for other jobs inside the public service. She says she had a lot of responsibilities so she was working long hours. She started losing weight and having nightmares. Several of Chamberlain’s co-workers say they witnessed harassment. Some felt bullied themselves by the same manager. Several have written sworn affidavits, documenting what they saw, heard and experienced.

Anyone can have a shitty boss (except me, my boss is awesome). Anyone can face abuse and harassment at the hands of a superior – this is a sad fact of life. People, women more than men, can face sexual harassment in the workplace. People aren’t perfect, and the people in charge tend to be even less so. The world is a shitty place, and shitty things happen.

That isn’t what this story is about.

Given that human beings can to some extent recognize things as being just or unjust, we can attempt to mitigate injustices. The way that Ms. Chamberlain was treated is quite clearly unjust. Regardless of her job performance (which, as far as I can tell, was not in question) her supervisor had no business abusing her the way he did. His conduct was both unprofessional and incredibly harmful to his employees and the work environment generally. But again, some people have shitty bosses. The real problem here is that absolutely nothing was done to correct this circumstance. Complaints were filed about the abuse, and were then promptly ignored. People higher up the ladder insulated the supervisor from criticism, implicitly threatening those who came forward to complain.

If any of this sounds familiar, it absolutely should. This is the same river of bullshit that Stacey Walker in Toronto had to wade through last year. Considering the ‘chilling’ effect that these kinds of situations have – where people are afraid to come forward for fear of professional reprisal – it’s probably a river of bullshit that many women have lots of experience with. It then becomes no mystery why there aren’t more women in the workplace. While this probably doesn’t represent the sum total of obstacles to gender parity, this is certainly an example of a hurdle that women face at a much higher rate than men do. When looked at in context of other barriers (gender attitudes about ability, “masculine” traits being valued over “feminine” ones, in-group biases from male superiors), the picture becomes more and more clear. The system is structured in such a way as to make it tougher for women to compete.

Once again assuming that we actually want more women in positions of authority, what can we do to balance the scales? Is it enough to simply rap our sceptre on our soapbox and say “I declare women to be equal!” The problems are multifaceted and require a concerted level of effort and vigilance. It’s not enough, at this point, to simply say “we will enforce our harassment policies” and expect that to fix the problem. In a perfect world, maybe, that would be enough; of course in a perfect world people wouldn’t get sexually harassed. Complaints about harassment need to be handled particularly assertively (I hesitate to use the word ‘zealously’) – while carefully avoiding arriving at a conclusion in advance of evidence, a woman who has the gumption to come forward and plead her case has to be taken seriously.

Then again, maybe we really don’t want women in positions of power. If that’s the case, we should just keep on keepin’ on.

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Catholic Church: Not getting it since 500 A.D.

This is one of those stories that seems like it is good news, so long as you only read the headline:

Vatican: Bishops should report abuse to police

The Vatican told bishops around the world Monday that it was important to co-operate with police in reporting priests who rape and molest children and said they should develop guidelines for preventing sex abuse by next May.

I like to at least pretend to be even-handed. While I am in no way ashamed of explicitly stating my biases and positions, I try to give my opponents an even shake – misrepresenting the positions of others only serves to undermine one’s own credibility. It is for this reason that I have tried my best, in all of my discussions of the Roman Catholic Church’s wheelings and dealings in this ongoing abuse issue, to give credit where it’s due. However, the underlying problem with their response to the ongoing revelations has been their staunch refusal to take responsibility for their own actions – first blaming gay people, then “Sin”, then the free-love 60s, on and on ad nauseum. They’ve been happy to cast the blame pretty much everywhere rather than themselves:

There cannot be any more proof in my mind that the Catholic Church does not understand why the world is upset. It doesn’t get that its claims to supernatural authority are meaningless, and increasingly rejected by the world at large. They can’t comprehend the fact that it’s not the simple matter of abuse that is making the world so angry – it’s the repeated attempts to cover it up and defy secular authority. They don’t get it, and it looks like they never will.

But again, the above snippet does suggest that the Vatican is starting to recognize the fact that compelling priests to recognize their lay duty of care to their fellow human beings might be a good thing, and being subject to secular authority would ensure that abuse would at least be addressed more quickly, if not reduced immediately. That is, until you plumb the depths of what that word “should” means:

Critically, the letter reinforces bishops’ authority in dealing with abuse cases. It says independent lay review boards that have been created in some countries to oversee the church’s child protection policies “cannot substitute” for bishops’ judgment and power. Recently, such lay review committees in the U.S. and Ireland have reported that some bishops “failed miserably” in following their own guidelines and had thwarted the boards’ work by withholding information and by enacting legal hurdles that made ensuring compliance impossible.

In the letter, the Vatican told the bishops “it is important to cooperate” with civil law enforcement authorities and follow civil reporting requirements, though it doesn’t make such reporting mandatory. The Vatican has said such a binding rule would be problematic for priests working in countries with repressive regimes.

Once again – this is a non-move by the RCC. It still asserts the primacy of the Church in matters of management. Civil authority is to be consulted only when it is convenient to do so, and this decision is left up to the individual discretion of the bishop – a decision-making process that has been shown to be corrupt through history. I can certainly appreciate that a blanket requirement to report to the civil authority might be problematic to those priests living in places where that authority is not to be trusted, but making no changes is not the answer. If there are special circumstances, there can be allowances made for that, but the countries in which these cases are arising are not the kinds of places that one would expect to worry about that (Ireland, New Zealand, Belgium, United States, Canada…).

This is a failure to understand the fundamental problem – it’s not simply the abuse. It’s the attitude of secrecy and moral arrogance that comes with asserting that only the hierarchy is in a position to make these kinds of decisions rather than lay authority. Anything short of dramatic policy changes that signal the Vatican’s understanding of the actual issue will simply be spraying perfume on a turd.

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Cracking the code

I screwed up. A couple of weeks ago I introduced a new term into the discussion – “coded racism” – without doing my usual thought-piece beforehand:

To the list of code words that don’t sound racist but are, I would add ‘personal responsibility’. While personal responsibility is a good thing, its usage in discussions of race inevitably cast black and brown people as being personally irresponsible, as though some genetic flaw makes us incapable of achievement (which, in turn, explains why we deserve to be poor and why any attempt to balance the scales is ‘reverse racism’).

I have danced around the idea, and I have made occasional reference to the concept behind it, but I haven’t really explained what coded racism is. I will have to do that in next Monday’s post, so stay tuned for that. As a teaser explanation, I will simply point out that oftentimes phrases are used to identify groups in a sort of wink/nudge way, where everyone listening knows who the speaker is really talking about. It’s phrases like “Welfare queen” and “illegal immigrant” that do not explicitly name the group being criticized, but still carry with them the image of a particular race. It is not, as is the common objection, simply a phrase describing any criticism of racial minority groups.

Before we can really delve too deeply into coded racism, there is a truth that we must acknowledge and grok – that racism (like all cognitive biases) can happen at levels not available to our conscious mind. The second part of the grokking is that even though we are not aware of it, racism can influence the decisions we make. As much as we like to believe that we are free-willed agents of our own decision-making, closer to the truth is that a wide variety of things operate in our subconscious before we are even aware that a decision is being made. This is why an artist, an engineer and a physicist could all look at the same blank piece of canvas and see completely different things (a surface upon which to draw, a flat planar surface with coefficient of friction µ, a collection of molecules). We then build conscious thoughts on top of the framework of our subconscious impressions and arrive at a decision.

So when we tell ourselves “I don’t have a racist bone in my body“, what we are really referring to are those conscious thoughts. Most people refuse to entertain overtly racist attitudes, because those attitudes have become wildly unpopular and people recognize that racism is destructive. However, our decisions are only partially decided by our overt ideas, and we can end up engaging in patterns of behaviour that may surprise even us:

You are more likely to land a job interview if your name is John Martin or Emily Brown rather than Lei Li or Tara Singh – even if you have the same Canadian education and work experience. These are the findings of a new study analyzing how employers in the Greater Toronto Area responded to 6,000 mock résumés for jobs ranging from administrative assistant to accountant.

Across the board, those with English names such as Greg Johnson and Michael Smith were 40 per cent more likely to receive callbacks than people with the same education and job experience with Indian, Chinese or Pakistani names such as Maya Kumar, Dong Liu and Fatima Sheikh. The findings not only challenge Canada’s reputation as a country that celebrates diversity, but also underscore the difficulties that even highly skilled immigrants have in the labour market.

This phenomenon is well-known to people who study race disparity, but it is rare to see it make the pages of a paper like The Globe and Mail – hardly a leftist rag. People of colour (PoCs), or in this case people who seem non-Anglo, are at a disadvantage not because of how they look, or how they act, but simply because they have funny-sounding names. Now one would have to be particularly cynical to think that a human resources professional is sitting there saying “Fatima Sheikh? I don’t want no towel-head working for ME!” and throwing résumés in the trash. As I said, that kind of overt racism is rare, even in the privacy of one’s own head. What is far more likely is that, given a situation in which a choice had to be made between a number of potential candidates, the HR person made a ‘gut instinct’ decision to call back the person that they felt most comfortable with.

The problem is that when we feel different levels of comfort with people of different ethnic backgrounds, our aggregate decisions tend to benefit white people and disadvantage PoCs. This isn’t because we’re all card-carrying KKK members, but because we are products of a racist society. This kind of thinking isn’t relegated to how we hire, either:

An experiment was conducted to demonstrate the perceptual confirmation of racial stereotypes about Black and White athletes… Whereas the Black targets were rated as exhibiting significantly more athletic ability and having played a better game, White targets were rated as exhibiting significantly more basketball intelligence and hustle. The results suggest that participants relied on a stereotype of Black and White athletes to guide their evaluations of the target’s abilities and performance.

In a situation where an athlete is identified to study participants as either black or white, but performance is kept exactly the same (they listen to a radio broadcast), what is considered ‘athletic ability’ in a black player is ‘basketball intelligence’ and ‘hustle’ in a white player. The identical stimulus is perceived in different ways, based on racial ideas that are not readily available to the subjects (and, by extension, the rest of us). This finding on its own may be benign enough, but extrapolate the fact that innate ‘athletic talent’ in one race is seen as ‘intelligence and hustle’ in another – the black players are just naturally good; the white ones had to work for it. Poor white folks are ‘down on their luck’, poor black folks are ‘waiting for a handout’. Jobless white folks are ‘hit hard by the economy’; jobless brown folks are ‘lazy’.

And so, when we discuss the idea of words that are simply coded racial evaluations, we have to keep in mind that it is this subconscious type of racism that these phrases appeal to. Far from simply being a macro description of a real problem, the way they are used bypasses our conscious filters and taps right into the part of our mind we don’t know is there, and like to deny.

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A personal appeal

Hey readers,

First off I want to thank those of you that make this blog part of your day. I know (anecdotally) that people read my not-quite-random thoughts as part of their routine, and that some of these posts strike a chord. I’ve even had some of you e-mail me and solicit my opinion on topics related to the blog. All of this makes me feel really good, and I would like to express my appreciation for all of that.

If, hypothetically speaking, you particularly enjoy a post of mine, or something changes your mind about a topic, or I hit a turn of phrase that you like, won’t you consider sharing it with your friends? There are ‘share’ buttons along the bottom of each post – getting a little love from these sites can go a long way toward building traffic. Those of you on my Facebook – there’s a ‘Share’ button right next to the ‘like’ button I see some of you use. It’s just a little click away, and you could be spreading some of these ideas to other people. Just as you may not have been aware of these topics – race skepticism, atheism, free speech issues – those people close to you may be similarly uninitiated.

I realize it’s a bit uncouth to ask you to work for me, but I’m hoping that my efforts in providing (what I hope is) high-quality material 5 days a week will be some reimbursement.

Thanks again!



Tough on crime

One does not have to plumb the depths of political rhetoric very far to expose the unbelievable hypocrisy and outright falsehood lying just beneath the varnished surface of its truisms. The right to publicly-administered health care is not slavery. Republicans are not better on the economy. The Harper Government™ is not tough on crime:

The Supreme Court of the Canada will hear arguments this week that will likely determine the future of Vancouver’s supervised injection site, known as Insite. The court will have to decide whether Insite is a health-care facility under the jurisdiction of the B.C. government, and whether closing it violates the rights of impoverished drug addicts.

Supporters, including the province, say a body of peer-reviewed studies has proven Insite prevents overdose deaths, reduces the spread of HIV and hepatitis, and curbs crime and open drug use. But the federal government rejects that evidence, arguing the facility fosters addiction and runs counter to its tough-on-crime agenda.

Those of you not familiar with Vancouver’s safe injection site should read Ethan Clow’s excellent analysis of the issue. I will do my best to summarize. As we learned from the United States in the 1920s (and from our own failed national experiment), prohibition is a really stupid way of trying to stop people from doing something. There are generally two ways of preventing an unwanted behaviour – enforcement and outreach. Prohibition puts the emphasis firmly into the first camp by creating stiff penalties for engaging in the unwanted behaviour. With respect to drugs, this means punishing those that use and sell drugs.

One of the biggest looming issues facing Canadians with the Republican North majority is the introduction of the omnibus crime bill. Basically, this bill calls for money to be funneled into the prison system, including the construction of new incarceration facilities. Of course, this comes at a time when crime rates are in fact dropping, but the RNP has a solution for that too – make more things crimes! Mandatory minimum sentencing is one tool in the arsenal of a prohibitive government – take legal leeway out of the hands of judges and force standard jail terms regardless of the severity of the crime.

The problem, as anyone with even the slightest insight into human behaviour and psychology will be able to tell you, is that people are generally going to do whatever they want if they don’t think they’ll get caught. When it comes to drugs (especially drugs like marijuana with negligible personal risk due to use), people will always want to get high, and unless you have cops on every street corner and outside every window, people will find a way to do just that. While drug use may be a bad thing (I think the issue is more nuanced than that, but let’s just grant the assertion for a moment), if your goal is to reduce drug use, your policies should be targeted at doing just that.

If you don’t think that drug use per se is bad, but rather the consequences of drug use (addiction, self-harm, overdose, loss of control) are bad, then you would likely favour an approach known as “harm reduction”. Basically, the idea is to find a way to allow people to do what they want but to minimize the negative repercussions. For example, alcohol is regulated in such a way as to minimize the damage – only licensed facilities may dispense it and staff must be trained to recognize intoxication; only people of a certain age may purchase it; purity of ingredients is inspected by the government – people still drink, but in a way that is much safer than it used to be before those regulations were in place.

In the case of Insite, the negative health consequences of intravenous drug use are mitigated by providing clean needles (that are not infected with HIV) and a safe place to get high. Needles are disposed of safely (rather than in the streets, where any number of things can and do happen to them), and overdoses are managed by professionals. It is certainly not ideal – ideal would be to have zero drug users – but it does save lives, reduce infection rates, and actually saves the city a lot of money. It is the kind of local control for a local problem that small-government conservatives and libertarians should applaud.

Not so the Republicans though. They claim to be “tough on crime”, but what they actually are is litigious on crime. They endorse laws that expand the role of the federal government to interfere in municipal matters and take discretion out of the hands of judges and place it in the (completely incapable) hands of elected officials. This is the kind of behaviour, of course, that Conservatives (note the capitalization) constantly accuse Liberals of; however, it’s only wrong when it’s something Conservatives don’t like. When it’s for their own cause, there is always some bullshit rationalization.

I have a friend who is a prison guard (actually I have a few, but I am talking about this one in particular) who was overjoyed over the RPN majority election. His rationale was that there would finally be attention paid to the state of the prison system, and no more coddling of criminals. Far be it from me to question his expertise in terms of what the inside of a prison looks like – he’s in one every day and I haven’t even visited. However, I think his assessment is short-sighted. The omnibus crime bill creates more criminals, it does not reduce crime. If anything, it statistically increases crime (convenient, when you have all these new prisons to fill) by creating new criminals. It does not reduce the harms caused by criminal behaviour, nor does it do anything to reduce the true underlying causes of criminal behaviour (income disparity, lack of opportunity/education, living conditions).

Both the political left and right undoubtedly want to reduce the incidence of crime. It is in nobody’s best interest for there to be more crime. However, one side of the political debate has chosen a method that is proven not to work, and does so in the name of being “tough on crime”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we are all about to learn this first-hand.

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Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao… all irrelevant

Anyone who has ever watched a debate between a theist and an atheist has seen this familiar scene: 1) the atheist points out that religion, despite its claims to inform human morality, has been (and continues to be) responsible for many atrocities and moral outrages; 2) the theist counters that the greatest mass murderers in the history of mankind (usually some combination of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao) were atheists; 3) the theist wins the argument (note: step 3 may or may not be completely made up). Like the sun rising in the morning, the leaves changing colour in autumn, or the Rapture happening two days ago (remember how awesome that was?), this line of argument is so predictable as to be almost laughable.

There are so many flaws with this argument that it makes the head spin, so I am going to try and walk you, the reader, through them sequentially.

Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao were atheists

This is debatable. Leaving aside Hitler for a moment (who was baptized Catholic and used Christian religious imagery extensively as the justification for his racist political ideology), there certainly have been leaders that have killed many of their own people, many of whom were openly atheist. However, none of the people that are commonly listed (and some that are less commonly mentioned like Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, and Kim Il-Sung) left religion out of the picture. Instead of worship of a supernatural deity that speaks directly into the ear of the leader, these men simply bypassed the middle man and pronounced themselves akin to the deity.

Without exception, if you look at how these men ruled their countries, they made themselves a figurehead and object of worship. Even today, there are pictures of Castro and Guevera plastered all over Cuba. Idi Amin was Uganda and erected a quasi-religious framework around him; ditto for Stalin (but even more so). Pol Pot and Mao, arguably the closest to being truly atheistic dictators, still installed themselves as nearly-supernatural beings whose word was divine law; in the case of Kim Il-Sung this is quite literally true. Strictly speaking, this doesn’t qualify as atheism. There is a world of difference between saying “there are no gods” and “I am a god”. It exploits the seemingly-innate propensity of human beings to subjugate themselves to something – far closer to the religious position (“I speak for the gods”) than the atheist position.

But, even if that were true…

Let’s pretend for a moment that we can accurately label the above listed dictators as being atheists (in the interest, perhaps, of avoiding being inaccurately accused of using the “No True Scotsman” fallacy). The argument is still invalid because the crimes these men committed were not done in the name of atheism. Whereas theistic murderers often use religious scripture and theological ‘reasoning’ to justify why suchandsuch group of people are deserving of the end of a sword, I know of no examples where someone has said the following:

Because there are no gods, we have the right to murder/oppress this group.

Such a statement would be on par with the justifications that come from religiously-justified crimes against humanity (“God hates fags”, “Unbelievers deserve hell”, “Jews killed Jesus”). And while there have been many atrocities that have happened for non-religious reasons, it is not reasonable or consistent to classify anything that is not pro-theistic as being atheist. The statement “there are no gods” could be twisted to support the murder of people if one was particularly psychopathic, but I don’t think it ever has.

But, even if that were true…

But let’s for a moment imagine that someone unearthed such an example, where the lack of god belief was used as a justification to commit a crime against humanity. Even then, this argument would have no value, since atheism is not a morality claim. The whole purpose of raising the atrocities committed with religious justification is to poke holes in the argument that religious faith is the source of morality, or that adherence to religious codes makes humanity more moral. If this were the case, it would be a rare exception that religious fervor could be twisted to serve a genocidal purpose – people’s faith would steer them away from the clear evil of mass murder.

The fact that even ‘atheistic’ mass murderers used the trappings of religious adherence and unwavering faith to rally people to their clearly immoral cause suggests that, if anything, religion makes people less moral. At least it seems to be useful in getting people to short-circuit their critical thinking faculties and engage in behaviour that, if they were to sit and think rationally about it (or, in hindsight) they would rightly recoil from. Even so, the cup of religion overfloweth with claims of superior morality – claims not supported by the available evidence. Atheism has no such morality claims; it is simply the lack of god-belief. It is entirely incidental (or, more likely, due to a third variable like propensity for independent introspection) that atheists are less likely to murder, rape, etc.

But even if that were true

Even if we, for the sake of argument, granted all of the above (untrue) assumptions – that atheistic dictators committed their crimes from a position of atheistic moral authority – this argument would still be completely worthless. The issue of whether or not atheism is nice has absolutely no relationship to whether or not atheism is true. Even if we were to grant that atheists are just as shitty are theists, that doesn’t say anything about which of the two positions of correct – all it says is that people suck. Making the assertions that morality comes from the divine assumes the existence of the divine. Failure to demonstrate the existence of the divine (we’re still waiting, by the way) completely invalidates the theistic moral position. Saying that theists are super-nice doesn’t mean that the gods exist any more than saying atheists are shitty people does. Both positions are entirely orthogonal to the central claim of whether or not gods are real.

In summary

I’m honestly not sure why this argument is perceived to carry any weight in a serious debate. Surely respected theists are aware of Godwin’s Law, and while I hold out no expectations for people debating issues on Reddit or on someone’s Facebook wall, I would imagine that enough people have at least thought through their position long enough to realize that such an assertion has no bearing whatsoever on their position. And yet, keep your eyes and ears open for the next big debate between an atheist and a believer – I’ll be willing to bet cookies that the rotting, shuffling corpse of this thoroughly-useless argument will rise again and attempt to devour the brains of the audience.

Remember, aim for the head.

TL/DR: People are often pointing out that some of the greatest mass murderers in history are atheist. Even if they were, they didn’t kill in the name of atheism. Even if they did, atheists don’t make claims of superior morality because of atheism (whereas religion does). Even if they did, that is irrelevant to whether or not atheism is true.