Vigilantism Is A Symptom, Not a Cure

A few years ago, it was all the rage to blame spree killings and mass murder on “the mentally ill”, as if the fact that someone shot up a church or a Denny’s qualified as a diagnosis. In the last few months, that line has seen less use, as the facts come out that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. We know that the people who most often do these things are white men from what now count as middle class homes, many of whom are simply angry at the loss of privilege and status that their fathers had. They want to strike out at someone in protest, and those targets are often politically chosen, not for the number of dead or the assumed presence or absence of firearms in the possession of others, but because the shooter is striking at some group he blames for the fact that his life is harder than he thinks it should be.

The new argument that has started to take over is, not unfairly, that we have a cultural problem, and that banning guns isn’t going to change anything. People are mad, and they believe violence is a viable way to express their anger. Drivers shoot each other on the highway, but children fight viciously on school grounds, too. The problem is one that is part of how people think, and some people own guns because they want to feel powerful; others own guns because they are afraid.

The thing that is missing from this argument requires one to think a little harder. It requires one to plan ahead 20 years, rather than thinking only about the next few. The idea that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” isn’t a solution to our cultural disease. That is a symptom and even a cause. The idea that a person has the right to inflict his will on others in public, that violence and death are valid solutions to interpersonal disputes is the thing that people are claiming to be the illness, even as they claim that the cure is more of the same. This is the short term thinking of an addict, who knows that the habit is killing them but can’t face withdrawal. “We can’t change society,” they say, “so we have to protect ourselves from it.” If you can’t beat them, join them. Only, “them” in this case is a class of person no one wants to admit they are siding with.

The thing this whole line of thinking ignores, though, is that policy change can herald cultural change. We can make something not only illegal, but unpopular and even repulsive. We can turn the wheel of justice, and it turns the wheel of education and public opinion. Where racism was once enshrined in the governments of certain states, politicians will angrily defend themselves against any public accusation of it now. We can do the same for violence, if we are willing to put away the weapons.

I bring up racism not just because it is an example of measurable, if incomplete, success in doing just this sort of thing. I bring it up because this same argument, that we have a cultural problem that laws cannot fix, was lobbed at the civil rights leaders of half a century ago. So, I will close this with a quote from the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr in a speech given at Cornell College and many other institutions of higher learning in 1962 and ’63.  If you swap the word “lynching” for the word “shooting” in this excerpt, you can apply it directly to the debate we are having today:

There is another myth that has circulated a great deal.  I call it, for lack of a better phrase, the myth of educational determinism.  I am sure you have heard this: “Legislation can’t solve this problem, only education can solve it.”  Judicial decrees can’t solve it, executive orders from the President can’t solve it.  Only with education and changing attitudes through education will we be able to come to a solution to this problem.  Now there is a partial truth here, for education does have a great role to play in this period of transition.  But it is not either education or legislation; it is both education and legislation.  It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.  It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.  It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless…

make a man love me MLK quote

Privilege: Oppression by Omission

“This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Gloria Steinem

That is the goal, isn’t it? People, all people, having choice and self determination? What can you do to help us get there? Well, if you are anything like me, then it starts with an admission that we have to participate in the process by getting out of the way. If you are a man by biology and personality, are of northern-European decent, or are attracted primarily to those of the opposite gender, then you have a cultural privilege. It isn’t your fault that other people have prejudice, but it is your responsibility to stand up to it and refuse to allow it to be part of your culture any longer. If you won’t do it, then the discrimination goes on until the discriminated are powerful enough to overthrow the system or are exterminated.  We’ve seen extermination in Europe, and we’ve seen both outcomes in various parts of Africa. We can do better, and we have to. We need equality, and it can only come peacefully if straight, white men (and everyone who fits into one or more of those categories) demand it of each other. We are the dominant groups in our culture, and like it or not, we are the problem.

People will tell you that their family isn’t racist, “It’s just my Grandfather and a couple of uncles, so we just don’t provoke them.” People will tell you that a political movement isn’t racist, sexist, or homophobic, or biased against minority religions if only some of the people it represents hold any or all of those views. People will tell you that they aren’t biased, but their company, their industry, their department, their culture has a problem, and they don’t want to rock the boat.

That is the defining point of “institutional” discrimination; a segment of the population, no matter how large or small, sees the problem, but doesn’t think that they can effect change because the problem is small, or wide spread, or any other of a number of excuses for letting it happen to other people. That kind of discrimination, whether it is sexism, racism, or discrimination against those with handicaps, requires a group with power which uses their power to oppress others. A person can be prejudiced, but only a culture can have institutional discrimination; it requires a group of like people who are empowered to protect their status, and who are allowed to do so.

That is the definition of cultural privilege. I can speak of privilege; I have plenty of it, and the places where I am an outsider are so far outside the norm that we aren’t even really talking about them. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m male. I am the default hero in a romantic comedy (most kinds of comedy, really), and I look a lot like the action hero, too. Since we don’t see religion as a major theme in a lot of movies, television shows, or books, my most prominent sticking point isn’t really talked about much. We talk about Islamophobia and antisemitism, but we don’t really have discussions about the privilege of being Christian in the US, and that is clearly one of the biggest problems I may ever face with discrimination in this country.

So, I am speaking from a place of privilege, to people with varying degrees of privilege. We cannot ignore our position in the dominant culture, because of gender, race, primary language. We have to be aware of the advantages that come to those in the US with fair skin or the appearance of male-ness, or simply a functional English vocabulary, or an understanding of Christian culture and symbolism. More over, we need to understand that any one of those things is still privilege, even if you only have one working in your favor. A Black man who is a baptist still has advantages over his sister or a black man of similar build who was raised Islamic, or to whom English is a second language, even where his skin tone causes him trouble. A white woman will still face less scrutiny than a black woman, or,in many cases, a black man. While it might not come up as often, I can tell you that a white man who has turned away from Christianity, even though he was raised to it and knows it better than most believers, will face discrimination over the choice. It has never cost me a job, that I know of, but I am certain that it would have if it had ever been known to at least one employer.

I don’t say this to compare my struggles with those of anyone else; I refuse to believe that we can compete for equality and I know I have it easier than most. I say that I have faced some discrimination in my own life to illustrate that I don’t take my privilege lightly. I try not to use it as a crutch, and I never hold it over anyone else. We cannot have an unequal fight for equality.

What I am saying is that Privilege is real. To deny that it exists is to literally deny the institutional nature of the discrimination faced by women, by persons of color, by those with disabilities, or by those from minority cultures or religions. It is fine to say that it can be hard to be a man, living up to expectations, but to do so must come with the understanding that those expectations are unfair to all genders and that it is still men who hold most of the power. Your ex-wife wins custody “because she’s the woman”? That’s not fair to her, either, because it presumes that she’s more willing to suffer in her professional life. It is the system punishing you for not properly owning your family, in a manly way, and letting your marriage “fall apart”. That isn’t women oppressing men, it is a male dominated culture claiming that women are better suited to raising kids. Feminists don’t want that, either.

You didn’t get the job you wanted because, all things being equal, a minority was hired instead? Or even someone who wasn’t quite as qualified, but had darker skin? Well, then let’s remember that the qualifications they have were harder to earn. Let’s remember that black and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to repeat a grade, and that more than 70 percent of K-12 students who were arrested or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black. The people who make it through all of that deserve a little more consideration for the effort.

Ultimately, the thing about privilege is that we have the choice to ignore it. Being white factors into almost none of my decision making in a given week. Being a man, I can go to the store or for a walk and have very little concern about what I am wearing because anything it does say about me isn’t really going to bring me any real trouble. if I look good, then I just look good with very little chance of sexual assault. If I look like a slob, there is little chance anyone will feel compelled to comment. It is up to me to notice that my relatively positive treatment is a privilege, and to use it to stand up for those who aren’t being treated fairly. It is up to me to use my visibility, my better chance at an education, a job, or a television appearance, to speak up and demand equality for those who don’t have the odds in their favor the same way.

It is the responsibility of those who have privilege to reach out to those in need of recognition, because we need their ideas and we need their participation in our society. They have things to share and to teach us. They can help us be a better culture. It is up to those of us with more options to work to share those options with everyone, because equality isn’t equality if it only applies to some groups. It is, by definition, still privilege. You cannot refuse to believe in privilege without also disbelieving the underlying discrimination that comes with it. You can’t ignore racism, sexism, ablism, or many other forms of institutional discrimination without ignoring not just statistics, but millions of individual identities across the nation. When you say “That’s just Grandad” or “Boys will be boys”, what you are really saying is “I’m Ok with a little discrimination”. Only, discrimination is insidious, and there is no such thing as “a little bit”; it is always either being consciously fought with education and active changes to policy and practice, or it is hurting more and more people, denying them their rights and depriving us all of their full potential.

FYI: A reply to Mrs. Hall

As a father with 2 boys and 3 girls in my care, I feel I have to respond to FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). If you haven’t read it, and don’t care to click through, let me give you a quick breakdown.

This is a mother who loves her kids. She clearly understands that she needs to be involved in their social lives, and monitors their social media, looking with them at posts made by their friends. The thing is that she is putting on notice the young girls who are friends with her sons: if mom thinks a post is too provocative, the friend is blocked. No warning and no second chance. She doesn’t initiate a conversation. She doesn’t tell her sons that she has high expectations of them. She puts it on the girls not to temp her boys. And she does it in a post that features pictures of her sons, topless, in their bathing suits.

I applaud the effort. I thank her for being a concerned and involved parent. I question her assertion that a teenaged girl bares the responsibility for her sons’ impure thoughts. I disagree, strongly, with her assertion that one picture that she finds mildly offensive is grounds for ending a friendship, or even just an on-line connection. I dispute her claim that “once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it”.

Girls do not owe it to the world to hide their bodies. You are allowed to find it offensive or appealing, but they do not owe you their modesty any more than they owe the world their nudity. Each of us has a body, and it can be argued that it is the only thing that we truly own. I’m sure that you are teaching your boys to respect women, but they need to know that every woman, and every man, deserves respect. Even the scantily clad woman on the street corner could be an  addict in need of health care she can’t afford, a single mother trying to keep food on the table, or even an undercover police officer. Who are you to judge any of them? It isn’t the job of a woman to guard herself against the impulses of men. That is the job of society as sure as the need to guard one person against the murderous rage or the felonious greed of others. We teach that it is wrong, we instill responsibility and respect in our kids, and we prosecute those who act on their impulses.

As I have said before, though never written into a full post, this is the kind of misogyny that is as damaging to men as to women; it claims that men can’t help themselves, and that they shouldn’t be blamed when they act on impulses that they were never told to control. I can see a woman in a towel, in a hospital gown, or a burqa, and still get to know her as a person of inherent worth and dignity who deserves the chance to earn my respect. And a second chance. And if the second goes badly, there are always opportunities to earn another by embracing your inherent worth and being good for the world. But, unlike Mother Hall, I not only believe people can change for the better, and that teenagers can do so in a very short time, but that you can change the world for the better while wearing a bikini. That’s what I teach my kids, too.

If you just can’t get through those two points, though, please remember that people do change. People learn from their mistakes, and they do it faster and more effectively when the people around them help them, lovingly, to see the errors that they have made and support the effort to fix the problem. Everyone can be better today than yesterday, but they have to believe that there is a reason to try. We all have inherent value, as humans, to one another. Each of us has experiences that we can share with the rest of the world. When we recognize that and nurture it in those around us, we gain so much more than we ever could through shame or derision. These young women might be the ones most in need of good boys in their lives, who will value them for more than their appearance. They may be looking for validation, and by refusing to let your sons communicate with them, they might continue down a road of self doubt and manipulation when all they really needed was a good friend. Then again, they might just be that self-aware, which could make them excellent influences on your own kids.

In short, congratulations; you are a good mother who clearly wants the best for her kids and who hopes to instill in them a sense of self confidence and self respect. Your heart is in the right place, and I am sure that you are doing many things well. This policy, though, is not one of those things. I doubt you will read my reply, with over 600 comments on your blog already. I couldn’t ignore the core of your message, though, because I think the consequences of your actions will be at odds with the intent, and I hope that writing this will help someone, if not you, see that there is a better way to teach your boys to respect women than by telling them that these young girls are unworthy of their friendship.

Roadrage and the Domestic Terrorist: PG13 Language and Fear.

My fiance and I were sitting at a stop light this evening. Traffic was backed up several cars deep.

“What? Are you a fucking idiot?”

I looked out the window at the man in the SUV next to me, confused. I first assumed he was on his cellphone, but he was looking at me through my barely-open window. Being the passenger, I was able to just stare at him as he explained his outrage: “Fuckin’ Obama sticker?”

The light changed, and the SUV stayed right beside us as traffic moved on to the next light.

Not exactly stunned (I had wondered earlier this very week how my finance and I had escaped this kind of attack  since we put the sticker on the station wagon last summer), I replied, “He did win, you know.”

I will not relay the rest of the conversation, but the same racial slur was hurled at both the President and, against my understanding of the term, myself. My sexuality was misidentified. Reflexively, I replied to this last quip with the same logic I always do: “Are you looking for a date?”

It was not the smartest thing I could have said, but it did shut down the verbal abuse. He pulled up, and turned at the intersection.

The exchange left my partner very upset. She felt assaulted and violated by his words. Rightly so, of course.

(The incident upset her so badly that I had to post this without input from my editor)

In trying to ease her nerves, I vocalized what felt like an important truth: This man was a terrorist. he wasn’t trying to engage in debate. he wasn’t looking for conversation. He wasn’t trying to to educate me or correct some flaw in my logic. He was offended by the America that he now lives in, and he was trying to frighten and intimidate us, as representative citizens of that seemingly new culture. He felt as though his ethics were under siege, and he wanted to make sure that the crazy “liberals” knew that he wasn’t going to just sit there and let the culture he identifies with be shifted into something more progressive and accepting than he was comfortable with. He wanted us to be afraid to keep working for change. He was eager to use fear to make his point.

Now, I am not saying that what he did was evil, or that it compares in scope to the attacks on the world trade center, but it is rooted in the same emotional turmoil, feeling that your way of life is being attacked and not being able to change with the rest of the world. Lashing out may seem like the only thing you have left. People have literally killed for those reasons, so I guess it could have been much worse. What I am saying, though, is that this was no less an attack designed to spread fear, by someone who was himself, a fundamentalist of sorts.

This is what we fight against, every day, all over the world, when we seek to change laws and culture so that everyone is treated with dignity, is encouraged to be their best, and is valued for their efforts. it is what we face in trying to tell cultures that gender, and even biological sex, are more complicated than they are comfortable with, and that none of that matters to a person’s ability to be a productive, even vital, member of society. It is what we face when we try to shape laws so that everyone has the support they need to fulfill their potential and be their best, because we need everyone at their best in this world. We face people who worry that they will loose the privilege that they often don’t even recognize in their lives. They just see change on the horizon, and that it means they are going to have to compete fairly with people who are currently being oppressed.

I wish there were a way to make this man examine his anger. I wish he would recognize the fear that is at its root, as fear is almost always at the root of anger. We fear change when it might take something from us, and like so many other animals, when forced to confront an agent of change, we put on an instinctive display, trying to frighten it into fleeing. This is exactly why we cannot back down. We cannot resolve the fear in others, but we can attempt to prove to them that change can be good. Maybe we can even convince them that what they loose in privilege is minor compared to what they gain in humanity.

I am a Humanist, which, I Guess Make Me an Ally.

I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and I am very proud of the work we do and the community we’ve built. While I believe in a higher power that we can address and which is concerned with creation, I am a humanist who doesn’t see the hand of God anywhere that I don’t see the dirty hands of women and men doing good work. So, let me say that my faith has a lot to do with my stance on Marriage Equality.

I’ve seen a lot of talk this week about how important it is for straight people to voice their support for Marriage Equality right now. That is something I have done for years, mind you, but some seem to think that the Supreme Court of the United States is looking at Facebook to decide how the Constitution feels about homosexuals being treated as equally as possible. That’s all good and well, because I don’t mind being a vocal ally of equality. I just want to make clear that I am not a supporter of “Gay Rights”, because if the rights are “Gay”, then they are not rights at all. I support equality, and all I want to see in our laws is gender neutrality that reflects the complicated state of gender that science has come to understand cannot be broken down into “male” and “female” or “straight” and “gay”.

I am a humanist, who believes in love and family and the right of all people to create their own family from whomever they can. I am in favor of love, because when love is shared, nothing is lost, and there is simply more love in the world. I want people to be free to love and to settle down, and to be able to say “This is my person who speaks for me when I am incapable and who deserves my support and my trust” because those are the things that are being denied to homosexuals that are truly human rights. We can talk tax breaks or the right to go on Divorce Court when things go bad, but ultimately, what society is withholding from these people is the right to designate their next of kin, and that has got to be the most fundamental need a person has after health and education.

So, I am an ally, not because I want to give anything to the homosexual, bisexual, or gender queer among us. I am an ally because I am ashamed at what has been kept from them, and I cannot just let the injustice continue unopposed.

Ego, Orthodoxy, and Stray Cats

One of the most powerful forces in the human brain is the sense of self. Often called the Ego, this definition of “me” often goes un-scrutinized as we allow it to shape our actions. We attach labels to ourselves and we let those labels define us so much that it can be jarring, unsettling, to try and detach them from our sense of self.

Ego, then, always has the potential to be a force for complacency. It leads us to value habits without regard to their value to us. We allow “good enough” to become normal because “better” takes uncomfortable change. It can lead to a quiet oppression that, when challenged, can become a very real oppression, as we strive to maintain a status quo that makes us comfortable. Ego can be divisive, as we let our sense of self over-ride our love for one another.

It can also, paradoxically, be one of the strongest forces for loyalty, respect, and cooperation. Robert Heinlein, in the voice of one of his most famous characters, put it this way:

“…once you pick up a stray cat and feed it, you cannot abandon it. Self-love forbids it. The cat’s welfare becomes essential to your own peace of mind-even when it’s a bloody nuisance not to break faith with the cat.”

Lazarus Long; Senior of the Howard Families.
Time Enough for Love

That was intended as a metaphor for the parental relationship that Lazarus had developed with a set of twins, sheltered and confused in the wider galaxy. It is also a metaphor for our families, our congregations, and any other community to which we allow ourselves to become attached. Once we make that entity a part of our sense of self, we loath to see it disrespected or put at risk. Sadly, this can lead to the same sorts of stagnation and obstinate suppression of growth that an unexamined ego can cause in an individual. You see, all change, and thus all growth, requires risk.

It can be wonderful to feel like you are part of something. It is, generally, wonderful to have a healthy community that respects you while helping you grow and achieve. We should all strive to build a family for ourselves on relationships of mutual trust. What we must be careful of is that we do not become so bound up in labels and titles that we eschew  growth and the inclusion of new ideas, new individuals, and the ability to let go of things that are not making the community better.

Ego is a hard thing to manage. Most people don’t really bother. But the essence of being self aware is knowing which labels are helping you be the kind of person you want to be, and which labels are now holding you back. It helps to have others you can trust to help you make those valuations. It is essential that those people not just mirror your own prejudices, lest they convince you that there is no more room for improvement.

Weapons are for killing. Are we against killing, or not?

I had planned on doing a post, today, on gun laws. I thought I had waited almost long enough after the Jordan Davis shooting when the Jovan Belcher/Kasandra Perkins shooting happened. Today, that clock reset, and I finally got tired of the argument that it is ever too soon to talk about this. The simple fact is that it is too late. Too late for Trevon; for Jordan; for so many young children. So, I am proceeding with this post, edited to reflect more of my feelings this morning.

American foreign policy is to limit the proliferation of weapons. UN policy is to limit the proliferation of weapons. We understand, as humans, that other people having more efficient ways of killing humans is bad.

We don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. We don’t want North Korea to have a delivery missile for the weapons we know they have. We don’t want anyone to use chemical or biological weapons. Weapons are bad.

So why are Americans so opposed to talking about gun control? Weapons control is a huge part of American policy, both foreign and domestic, already. Why are there stricter limits on my carrying blades than on my carrying firearms? What are we really afraid of? Why can’t we be reasonable about this?

We need firearms. We need hunting rifles and some people honestly need a rifle of shotgun for home defense. I accept that. I applaud people who teach their children to respect the power of a firearm and to use them safely. I am not anti-gun. I love shooting, personally.

That said, I don’t see a need for private citizens to own automatic weapons, or even semi-automatic weapons. Maybe we can create special licenses for well regulated ranges to offer the chance, but no private citizen has need of an AK47. Making them available to anyone makes it easier for criminals to get them, though theft or through under-the-table deals. Anyone who wants to own a handgun ought to have to go through the Police Academy or bootcamp. I am serious. The geek in me leans on the adage that “with great power comes great responsibility”, and a hand gun is a lot of power.

Americans always end up having this discussion as though someone involved is a constitutional scholar. “The 2nd amendment says that I can own any gun I want!” “The Constitution says that you can’t take away my guns.” Let’s look, very briefly, at what it actually says, though. The first words of the 2nd amendment are “A well regulated militia”. I think the fact that the law opens with the words “well regulated” shows that there was never intended to be a hands-off policy. The founders knew that guns were dangerous and only getting more so as time went on. They knew that they couldn’t foresee the actual course of weapons technology. More over, US law does limit the kinds of weapons available to the public, and has been stricter about it in the past.

What we seem to be ignoring another very important fact that the founders were wrong. They were wrong a lot. Remember the three fifths compromise? Are we forgetting the disenfranchisement of women? Or the appointment, rather than election, of senators? We have corrected their mistakes and oversights over the last 200 years. That is a part of the Constitution, even before the Bill of Rights.

We have a gun problem. We have cultural problems of violence and apathy that need to be addressed, and it isn’t wrong to count them as the real root of the gun problem. Being angry and violent isn’t caused by the gun. We cannot ignore that access to the gun makes that person much, much more dangerous.

We need to have a serious discussion about guns. We cannot wait until the tears are all dry, because it is clear that, as long as we avoid the discussion, that day will never come. It is not too soon. It is never too soon to honor the victims by changing the situation so that it doesn’t keep happening. This is what we do after most tragedies: we address the problems head-on and try to insure that they don’t happen the same way, again. Why, then, is 2 weeks too soon to talk about this issue, when we know that our reluctance will allow it to happen again in a few weeks time?