Saturday, November 3, 2012

Among other things: why I am firmly pro-choice, and why evangelizing by intimidation infuriates me

Okay, so a little background: a friend on Facebook from SPU shared this image on her feed:

And I pointed out the ways in which this picture was misleading, mainly that I consider embryos and fetuses life, just not necessarily people, and that we certainly don't have issues killing bacteria here on earth.

That led to some discussion that, for being on Facebook, was surprisingly civil, that resulted in her advocating for adoption as an option, and then recommending I watch this video (Direct YouTube, in case the site changes). Now, I don't recommend you watch this video. It was infuriating, and is half an hour of a guy (ironically named Ron Comfort) bullying people into agreeing with him. He uses the oft-used "ask leading, scary, intimidating questions that frame the discussion such that when I go in for the kill you have forgotten why you believe what you believe and look like a terrible person if you disagree with me even though you're not" technique, and it's frustrating and repugnant to watch person after person be subjected to it. But the basics: the first 13 minutes remind us of how horrible the holocaust and Hitler were, and includes a disturbing but carefully-selected set of clips of people having no clue who Hitler was. Halfway through we finally get to abortion, and he does the usual of comparing abortion to the holocaust, and corners people into agreeing that abortion is unequivocally murder. In particular, he uses this pre-example of if you were in a bulldozer, and Nazis were telling you to bury some Jews, most of whom but not all of whom were dead. If you don't, you get shot, Nazi gets in and does it anyway. He then takes it one step further, asking that if the Nazi instead gave you the gun and told you to shoot the survivors (actually a more merciful option than live burial), would you do that? The answers varied, but were pretty mixed on the first question, and heavily weighed towards non-cooperation on the second.

After sitting through that for a half-hour, there were a lot of things in my head, but what I ended up writing down was a pretty lucid, I think well-thought-out explanation of why I so vehemently abhorred the video, and more generally, why I am pro-choice. So I decided that all that thinking and writing should find its way out of that particular Facebook thread, and onto this blog. So, with minor editing for context and cleanup, here was my response.

I have so many issues with what this ironically-named Ray Comfort is doing, and think what he is doing is morally heinous. But what he did do is highlight for me what the root problem that I have with legally prohibiting abortion is.

The example Ray was giving at the beginning - with the tank and the gun - is a morally unsolvable question. There is no moral right answer to that question. If the Jews are going to die anyway, and you have a choice between burying them yourself, or dying and letting the Nazis bury them? There is simply no right answer to that question. Either option is terrible, and morally repugnant, and a horribly traumatic experience. But if someone chose to exit with their life and carry that choice with them for the rest of their lives - would you sentence them to death? Would you stand behind them and mandate that they submit to death, because you think they shouldn't bury the Jews?

I certainly hope not. Because as I stated: there simply is no morally correct thing to do in that situation. Those kinds of situations exist. As much as we don't want them to, they exist. It would be so nice if every situation to had a nice, clean, right-or-wrong, black-or-white answer so that we can tell other people when they're doing the right thing or not, and we could know whether we are doing the right thing or not.

But the world isn't always like that. And presenting people with a situation like that - where there is no moral right answer, where every option is horrifying and morally repugnant - and then pressing them to answer, pressing them to make a decision, and making it clear that if they make a decision that you think is the less evil of the two, then they are wrong and morally lacking and bad people - that is evil. It is wrong, it is cruel, and it is evil.

To bring this back around to the topic of abortion: I believe that abortion is another of these situations. An unwanted pregnancy is a morally heavy situation. There is no one right answer to what to do when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, especially when there are severe consequences to carrying the pregnancy through. There is no clear, shining, white, correct answer. There is no choice you can make that is not messy and difficult and distressing.

For me to go in, with legislation, and decide (especially as a male who will never be pregnant!) that for everyone, my choice is the correct choice - in this situation where there are no clear right answers - is morally repugnant, and I simply cannot do that. If you find yourself in that situation, by all means carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption. But don't force everyone else to do so, just because that is what you have wrestled out of this insanely difficult, no-right-answer situation.

In summary: Like the tank example, an unwanted pregnancy is a complex, morally heavy, very difficult situation, with no one right answer. There is no one morally right answer to it, and forcing one answer on everyone is morally repugnant.

Now, I also had significant and independent issues with the video itself and how it was filmed, its arguments, and particularly with how Ron Comfort treats people. The comparison of abortion to the holocaust is a common one, because the holocaust is the example of ultimate evil in the world, so most things people see as evil eventually get compared to Hilter and the holocaust. But there is a world of difference between killing people, with lives and children and mental activity and birth certificates and consciousness, and killing an embryo that has no appreciable mental activity, no consciousness, no sense of self. Taking an ultimate evil and aligning people's actions with it is deceptive and does not result in useful change.

As an example, consider this: octopuses are very complex creatures with consciousness, some basic sense of self, they have families and brains and beating hearts, they care for their eggs, and show signs of incredible intelligence and problem-solving skills. But our society has accepted that it's okay to kill them because they taste good. Would you kill a person if they tasted good? Why is it okay to kill octopuses? Is it because they can't talk to us, can't communicate? Because they are different from us? Does that mean it's okay to kill mute people, or people with severe mental disabilities, because they can't communicate as well? Does it mean it's okay to kill people of other races because they're different than us? No. No rational person would answer those questions affirmatively. You could probably find some off-the-wall neo-nazi who will give you repulsive quotes about how he would kill those people, for effect, if you wanted. But the majority will say no. Am I okay to conclude, then, that those who kill and eat octopuses are evil, that calamari is the new holocaust, that we should immediately outlaw the killing of octopuses? If you're willing to do that, what about pigs? They are also surprisingly intelligent creatures. Cows?

In the case that you are a vegetarian, and you do think that killing animals is morally repugnant - do you think we should make it illegal to kill animals in all situations? Outlaw meat entirely? If not, why not? You just agreed that it's morally wrong, why should we not outlaw it?

You may think that what I am doing is unfair, or full of logical fallacies, or beside the point, or painting you into a corner, or just a bunch of distracting, question-firing, I'm-smarter-than-you bluster.

That's because that's exactly what it is. If you step back from my rapid-fire questions, my cornering you with carefully selected questions, you realize that there are reasons that as a society we think it's okay to eat animals. Most people - at the least - aren't advocating for outlawing pork, and that is a good thing. Because there is a difference between killing octopuses and killing people, even if my questions made it seem like there wasn't.

And that's exactly what Ron Comfort is doing. It's ruthlessly effective, but it's bullying, it's unfair, and in my opinion, is an evil, very morally problematic thing to do. And it does nothing, in the end, to further your point, except to bully and intimidate people to agree with you, at least while you have a microphone shoved in your face, but it does nothing to foster discussion or change hearts and minds.

Another minor counterpoint: Ron is arguing that fetuses are people, which is not a universally acknowledged or agreed-upon point. But for the sake of this argument, I will pretend that's a given. He then gets people to say that they value life, that they wouldn't shoot the Jews, and then asks them why they would kill babies, isn't that the exact same thing? And because he's bullied them with his questions and framed the conversation very specifically, they can't find a way out.

Killing is bad, but killing isn't killing isn't killing - even if it is undeniably human. There's a reason we have trials and varying punishments, and don't just hand out the death penalty every time someone causes the death of another person. There's a reason we have manslaughter, and first-degree murder, and second-degree murder. It's because even murder - that universally bad thing - is not black and white. It's not simply all right or all wrong. If I fail to secure something in my truck and it ends in the death of someone, I undeniably caused their death. Should I get the electric chair? No. There should be some punishment, but few people will argue that I deserve to die. Did Ted Bundy deserve to die (or spend life in prison)? Most people will agree with an emphatic yes. If I kill someone because I thought they were going to kill me, but I ended up being wrong, should I die or have life in prison? Probably not. Should I spend more time in jail than if something fell out of my truck? Probably.

And most saliently, in my opinion: why is it morally acceptable to wage war and kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians? Why is that killing okay? You probably have all kinds of reasons, and a lot of them are probably good ones. You have justifications, and that's a good thing. I may not agree with them all - I personally have never seen a wholly satisfying justification for war - but you probably have reasonable justifications.

What does this all have to do with abortion? Because even if abortion is killing a human life - which I don't believe that it is - you can't just say that it is wrong at its face because of that. As a society, we have several justifiable reasons to kill someone. It is striking when put that way, but it's very true. So you have to offer some additional argument - besides "it is killing someone" - to justify outlawing it. And again, this is even if an embryo is a full-fledged person with rights. When you start offering those reasons, there we can hash back and forth why we believe the different things that we do, but simply saying "it's killing, you said killing was wrong, therefore you contradict yourself" is facile, frankly lacking in thought, and not at all useful. Taking that reasoning to make laws and intimidate people into agreeing with you is wrong, and watching that kind of bullying happen for half an hour straight was incredibly frustrating and discouraging.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chick-Fil-A: It's about Jesus

This morning, I came across an article posted on Facebook by one of my relatives entitled "Why the Chick-Fil-A Boycott is Really about Jesus". Said relative (like half my family) lives in Kentucky, and is therefore in the midst of this whole Chick-Fil-A kerfuffle. As a resident of Portland, Oregon, I on the other hand am 300 miles from the nearest Chick-Fil-A, so I've been largely staying out of this whole mess. But when I saw the above article title, I had hoped that perhaps it was some progressive Christian that had written a good article about how Jesus didn't care about the gender of your life partner, and was more concerned about excluding people and making outcasts of people, and therefore would be appalled by Chick-Fil-A's loud stance in His name and their support of so many organizations that actively oppress others.

But, alas, that was not the case.  Instead, the article asserted that this wasn't about Chick-Fil-A's consistent opposition to homosexuality.  No, this boycott was actually about the fact that Chick-Fil-A is Christian, and believes in Jesus:

As weary as we may be of the culture wars, the Chick-fil-A controversy is a harbinger of further ostracism to come. In the United States, the words of Jesus are coming to pass for those who hold tightly to His vision of sexuality: You will be hated because of Me.

This is dangerously close to the mistake many Christians make: extrapolating Jesus' words into if you are hated it is because you are doing my will.  Which is, when actually stated, preposterous, of course.  But when you hold up Jesus' phrase as evidence that you are doing His will, you're pretty dangerously close to stating exactly that.

And here's the thing: I've read every recorded word that Jesus ever spoke on this earth, many times.  And I can tell you this, and any honest pastor, scholar, or Christian should be able to tell you this: Jesus said nothing about homosexuality.  And he said very little about sexuality.  In fact, in a summary that jibes with my recollection, exactly four things.  And all of those things center around one thing: be faithful to your wife.  Don't get divorced, except maybe in the case of adultery.  And even if you are an adulterer: humans don't really have the right to condemn you, and neither does Jesus, but please - go and sin no more.

That's it.  That's all Jesus said about sexuality.  As far as we have recorded, there is absolutely nothing that Jesus said that could be remotely construed as having anything to say about homosexuality.  Opponents of homosexuality never pull out anything Jesus said, because there's nothing there that is helpful.  It's all Paul and Leviticus, because that's about all there is.

And there's another thing.  Chick-Fil-A has hardly been quiet about its Christian principles and founding.  They've been adamantly closed on Sundays for as long as they've existed.  It's a point of pride for them, it's their trademark, their thing.  And have liberals risen up in distress and anger, calling foul, organizing boycotts, because they're not open on Sunday?  If we have, I didn't get the memo.  And the thing is: there has been no such uprise, because the issue we have with Chick-Fil-A isn't that they're Christians.  I have no problem with Chick-Fil-A not being open on Sundays, even though that is a pointedly and necessarily Christian thing to do.  If this was a case of "Christophobia", shouldn't there be an uproar about this brazen and in-your-face proclamation of Christ's resurrection?  Shouldn't governors be up in arms because this establishment dares to stand up for its beliefs and not operate on a perfectly good operating day?

But there hasn't been.  Because I - and most liberals, I think - have no problem with Christians in and of themselves.  There are many Christians I respect deeply and agree with wholeheartedly.  The reason I oppose Chick-Fil-A is not because they're Christian.  It's because they are vocally and proudly in opposition to homosexuality.  And that is exactly why this boycott is happening, and why there is an uproar.  To assert otherwise is deceptive and ignoring the facts.  The article in question has this to say about the subject:

When the mayors of prominent U.S. cities in the north and west told Chick-fil-A they would not be welcome there, they were making a statement that goes beyond one’s position on gay rights. These remarks were an example of social ostracism – not just toward those who hold to traditional views on marriage but especially Christians who hold these views and seek to practice their religion accordingly.
Now, let's look at the statement that started all this, that from the mayor of Boston:

You called supporters of gay marriage "prideful.'' Here in Boston, to borrow your own words, we are "guilty as charged.'' We are indeed full of pride for our support of same sex marriage and our work to expand freedom to all people. We are proud that our state and our city have led the way for the country on equal marriage rights.

I was angry to learn on the heels of your prejudiced statements about your search for a site to locate in Boston. There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it. When Massachusetts became the first state in the country to recognize equal marriage rights, I personally stood on City Hall Plaza to greet same sex couples coming here to be married. It would be an insult to them and to our city's long history of expanding freedom to have a Chick-fil-A across the street from that spot.

That short statement packs in the phrases "same sex marriage", "equal marriage rights" (twice), "discrimination", and "same sex couples", but not once does it mention Chick-Fil-A's Christian affiliation.  Go ahead and read the whole letter.  You'll find more references to same sex marriage, and once again, absolutely no reference whatsoever to Chick-Fil-A's religious afilliation.  Some may say that Thomas M. Menino is being sneaky and trying to attack Christianity without mentioning it, but I find it a whole lot easier to believe that what he has an issue with is exactly what he says he has an issue with: vocal opposition to something that his city and state have been on the forefront of promoting: marriage equality*.

The article also tries to brush aside Dan Cathy's opposition to homosexuality, saying "In context, it appears he was speaking primarily about divorce."  They also complain that his statements got him "suddenly labeled 'homophobic' and 'anti-gay'." Firstly, the thing that most people are boycotting is Chick-Fil-A's history of generous corporate donations to groups fighting against homosexuality.  Chick-Fil-A has been labeled as anti-gay for a long, long time.   Dan Cathy's recent statements are just a flashpoint that brought the company's views more into the public eye.  Secondly, the divorce claim is a rather weak attempt at distracting from the actual issue.  The assertion that Dan Cathy would make such a statement solely to speak out about divorce is a bit of a stretch.  Public Christian figures don't speak out against the evils of legalized divorce, and they don't campaign to outlaw divorce.  The "traditional family" is used relentlessly to mean heterosexual families, and is never used in the non-existent divorce debate.  That's not to say that Christians aren't opposed to divorce - most are, at least in principle.  But divorce is never cited as an agenda that is trying to take down Christianity.  If Dan Cathy was actually speaking out about divorce, he would have made it very clear, if only because it's not a topic of public discussion.  Homosexuality, on the other hand, is, and the assumption is that he is addressing issues of public discussion.

The article also at this point claims that he is supporting a family model "that has been the norm for thousands of years."  I'm not going to spend much breath countering this statement that any historian - or again, any honest Christian - can tell you is patently false.  But unless you want your model of marriage to include wives as property, extramarital affairs as standard practice, marriages as a method of social climbing, polygamy, and recreational gay sex as an accepted norm - and that's just in the Western world - then I'd be a little more cautious about claiming the last few thousand years to your tradition.

The article also claims as evidence of its Christophobia a hypothetical Muslim business that declaimed homosexuality.  Would they receive the same backlash?  I like to think they would, the article doesn't think so.  The problem is, we have no way of knowing, because there are very few businesses that are publicly Muslim.  This is probably because Muslims are often feared and characterized as a bunch of terrorists and extremists, so I doubt that a publicly and vocally Muslim business would do very well.  There's also the factor that, despite claims of persecution and Christophobia, 78.4% of Americans are Christians.  The fact that 0.6% of Americans are Muslim also goes a long way to explain why there isn't a nationwide chain that proclaims its Muslim values.  But let's pretend that this hypothetical Muslim business did exist and thrive, happily and without controversy closing five times a day for prayer, for years.  I would be glad for them.  And then say they made an open statement against homosexuality.  I would like to think that there would be a similar uproar.  If there weren't, however, I don't think it would be because we harbor this Christophobia but not an Islamophobia.  I think it would be, in fact, precisely because we are trying to avoid being cast as anti-Muslim and Islamophobes, even though our actual issue is their stance on homosexuality.  I can see that happening.  But in the end, it's a hypothetical anyway.  It is useless to wax about what reactions would and wouldn't be to prove a point, because no one knows what the reactions actually would be.  You could argue that we should have a similar aversion to seeming anti-Christian and Christophobe, but I would simply point back up at the percentages - 0.6% versus 78.4%.  Christians are far from a minority that can be categorized and excluded from society, and that makes all the difference.

In fact, here's another wrench in the argument this article makes: you know us liberals and boycotters that are protesting Chick-Fil-A, supposedly because they are Christophobes?  There are Christians among us.  A lot of them.  In fact, less than half of Christians even identify as conservative.  Of the hundreds of millions of people in this country that love and worship Jesus Christ, less than half of them think homosexuality should even be discouraged.  And there is a huge portion of those protesting Chick-Fil-A that are part of your ranks as Christians.  The problem those protesting have with Christians is when they use their money, their status, and their platform to oppress other people.  People that we care about.  It's when the owner of Chick-Fil-A stands up and says that he supports the "traditional family" and "Christian principles", by which he mans that he doesn't think two men should be able to get married.  In fact, progressive Christians - and there are a lot of them - are often even more incensed by his statements, because he is claiming to speak for their God, for their Christ.  I don't claim to be a Christian, but I know many of the more progressive variety.  And Dan Cathy is using the Jesus Christ that they know and love to advocate for oppression and exclusion - and that doesn't honor the Christ they know.  It's antithetical to the Christ they know.  And that is why, for them, this debate really is all about Jesus: because the Jesus they know would be saddened and dismayed at Dan Cathy's statements.

*That said, a disclaimer: I believe that Boston's mayor is overreaching is bounds here.  It's one thing to fight for marriage equality via legislation, and quite another to discriminate against companies based on the views of its founder.  And in a statement that for some reason I hadn't heard about yet, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg - hardly a paragon of conservatism - agrees with me, saying it was inappropriate "to look at somebody's political views and decide whether or not they can live in the city, or operate a business in the city, or work for somebody in the city."  He expanded on that, saying "trampling on the freedom to marry whoever you want is exactly the same as trampling on your freedom to open a store."  Well put, mayor.  Citizens like you and I are perfectly entitled to boycott, protest, and support whoever we want, but when it comes to government entities trying to use their legal powers, that crosses a line.  One other note: as a private entity, however, Jim Henson's company is perfectly within its rights to sever business ties with other private entities that go against what they stand for as a company, and I applaud them for doing so.

As another small point of agreement: the article declaims the widespread use of "homophobia" for anything opposing gay marriage.  I, too, tend to think that the word is overused and used as a broad brush.  These are complicated issues, and most of the opposition is not borne out of conscious hatred, but out of an allegiance to values of their faith.  I firmly believe that this allegiance is misplaced and unnecessary - even antithetical - but it's the allegiance nonetheless.

All statistics quoted are from the Pew Forum on Religion.  Some of the numbers required a little calculation to get the totals I quoted, and those calculations are in a Google Spreadsheet.

Monday, June 11, 2012

An open letter to the non-allies in my life

Again, my posts are few and far between. But this one opens with an image!

Today I wanted to re-post this Colbert quote on Facebook (with some commentary):

But I didn't, for the same reason I don't post much potentially controversial stuff to Facebook. I feared that regardless of what commentary I added, it would be taken as simply an attack or a dismissal, and ignored. What I actually want is to gently prod and perhaps give an opening for discussion to those for whom it is most relevant. And yes, that's mainly you, Mom and Dad, but to varying degrees my brothers, college friends, and people from my hometown. So I remembered that I had this blog, and decided that it would be an excellent medium for further commentary, since it's longer-form, and is more of a read-at-will thing and less in-your-face than just a Facebook post.

So for starters, the quote in text form, since image macros are kind of obnoxious. Steven Colbert to Neil Patrick Harris, openly gay actor/singer/dancer with a husband and two adorable kids:

You are also the biggest threat of all: you're a gay person I like. Your threat is that you make being gay not seem threatening. It's almost as if your happiness does not take my happiness away.
The reason this quote was so striking to me is that it very closely resembles remarks that I have personally heard on multiple occasions. There are two specifically that come to mind. One is the general unhappiness about Glee featuring gay characters, which I wrote about (in a less discussable and more exasperated form) two years ago.

But more pointedly, it reminds me of what my parents told me when I was planning on living in an apartment with Aaron, a gay floormate, my junior year of college. I distinctly remember being told (hedged and perhaps hesitantly, but clearly) that living with a gay person would cloud my judgement, that it would make it harder to separate the sinner from the sin, that it would make me more accepting of that lifestyle. Which is pretty much exactly what Colbert is poking at here. At the time, I was already pretty skeptical of Christianity's opposition to homosexuality, and I may have even rebutted with something like, "You mean it makes gay people seem like people?". But here we are, four years later, and I still told my parents they didn't have to come to my most recent PGMC concert because it was explicitly about being gay, and they were uncomfortable with parts of the Christmas concert.

And guess I wish I had more to say here. I can't really say much, because I can't argue with religion-based convictions that leave no room for compromise. As long as it comes down to "scripture says" and differing interpretations are precluded from the start, I can't really add anything to the discussion.

But if you're someone who knows and cares about me, even if that's despite my liberal views, I suppose I would just say this: this "issue" of homosexuality isn't just a theological precept for me. It's an operative, life-based conviction. In the past few years, the number of people I know and love that are gay and other shades of queer has only grown, and yes, your fears (and Colbert's mock fears) have come to glorious reality. It has become nothing less than absurd to me to think that Jwo and Ryan's tenth anniversary should be less worthy of celebrating just because they're both men. And it is disturbing and hurtful to me that people close to me oppose such unions. Especially when their reasons, one way or another, come down to a particular interpretation of words that were written over two thousand years ago.

I know I can't really say anything, especially in a blog post, to budge most people's convictions. But at least know that my status as an ally of and advocate for those who are gay is not because I just swallow up whatever the liberals tell me, or because I feel the need to rebel against my upbringing, or because I no longer value my faith. My advocacy is a direct result of getting to know a wide variety of gay people - as well as many loving, frighteningly intelligent people who are also allies - and finding that gay people are people who want to be able to have their love and relationships recognized and accepted and celebrated, just like the rest of us.

And I know there may be all kinds of defensive reasons you have that they're different, but I'm pretty sure I've heard them all at this point, and I'd love to discuss any one of them with you. Because I've unvaryingly found that when you realize that gay people are sincere, loving, unassuming people like you and I, those reasons end up falling far short of justifying any non-trivial distinction between gay relationships from straight ones. And when those reasons are used to exclude, dismiss, fire, shame, suppress, or simply ignore people that I love, it hurts. Especially when those doing the excluding are also people I love. So I'd be glad to talk more about all of this with any of you, because I truly believe that, even within your faith and your politics, there is no reason you should have to continue standing against the people that I know and love.

Additional note: The thing I desperately do not want is for comments here to be used to try to argue or convince. I will perhaps try to clarify and offer my perspective (as per the last paragraph), but I firmly believe that disproving or changing minds solely via comments is futile.