Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Judgment or Prejudice?

After hearing/seeing two different but somewhat related stories recently, I found myself as troubled by what was not said as by the troubling issues raised. One was an NPR story about the writer and human rights activist Ms. Eltahawy in Egypt. The other was a TED talk given by Mrs. Melinda Gates (yes, that Mrs. Gates). Links provided below.

My first thought was, both were brave and thoughtful women. However, I would add that the two women shared another thing in common. They both tried, in my view, to argue both sides of an issue. Mrs. Gates was simultaneously arguing for condoms and other aids prevention in Africa while admitting that she considered herself a practicing Catholic. What is the largest most powerful organization suppressing condoms and other thoughtful aids prevention in Africa? If your answer was the Catholic Church, give yourself one point. Thus the poor woman (yes, I considered the irony of that word) was reduced to arguing for something good and noble in this world (the reduction of pain and suffering) and at the same time being an apologist for the organization working hardest to counter those efforts.

Ms. Eltahawy, was laboring under the same difficulty in my opinion. She argues that there is a culture that treats women in these horrible ways and at the same time can't bring herself to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Muslim culture as it is practiced currently in the Middle East. Her dodge is the use of the terms misogynists and patriarchs. It's true that the people who employ these suppressive behaviors are displaying the attributes of misogynists and patriarchs (the latter in its worst form). But to say these are the root causes is to appear disingenuous.

These stories make my point for me. We have been frightened into submission. We no longer feel confident to make the distinction between prejudice and judgement. Prejudice is to judge first in the absence of facts. Of the two, this is the bad one. Judgement is another animal altogether. It presumes that we have amassed evidence and thought through to a conclusion. This is not only the 'good one', it is the one upon which we depend to sift though the information and make sense of the world.

Finally, let me say that I have no wish to be sharply critical and, in fact, have great empathy for these women as they attempt to find justice for women in this world. The difficulties are enormous and I'm certain they (and many others whose names we do not know) are trying their best to 'say what must be said' while giving consideration to 'what safely may be said'.

Here is the often cited criticism: This is a different culture and a different religion and you are just trying to impose your outside or western values on this region. I think any of us would have difficulty answering this more in a more eloquent or concise manner than Ms. Eltahawy, "I don't think that rights or living a dignified human life are Western. We are no different from anyone else. We want to be free and we want to live dignified lives."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The tool is democracy

in response to this article: 

1- As we advance in our ability to ask better questions and expect, through technology, to receive reliable answers in the neurosciences our assumptions about ourselves are going to evermore butt up against new found realities. Much of what we find will be anti-intuitive and/or unflattering. I don't find this surprising. It would seem to me that a hopeful rosy assessment of ones self (despite obvious or subtle evidence to the contrary) is likely built-in to our psyche. This would make sense from an evolutionary standpoint as self confidence would be a component of generalized success.

2- The answers that we are beginning to find will cause us re-evaluate our historical choices and responses to various situations including those in the political arena. Barring an apocalyptic collapse, we will face an increasingly complex and globally interrelated society in which we can expect heightened pressure to make advantageous, rational, evidence based decisions. This will be difficult enough under the best conditions and we can presume that we will not be operating under the best conditions. One of those conditions is that even the most intelligent and rational humans (upon whom we depend for answers) themselves depend upon a brain design evolved over millions of years to live in a simpler and more brutal environment.

3- It is clear to those who work in the neurosciences or read about this work, that humans are not what we imagined ourselves to be. This is problematic in that we have, in large measure, arranged our societies and institutions based on our "hopeful rosy assessments" of ourselves.

4- I would suggest that even the best and brightest among us do not possess enough evidence to fully advise us. However, I can say with some confidence that direct Democracy was not favored by the framers of the Constitution. Illustrative of the foresight displayed in that document is the fact that centuries later our current scientific evidence is largely coinciding with their thoughtful intuitions.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Open letter to David Gregory (of NBC's Meet the Press)

Mr. Gregory,

Regarding your recent Meet the Press entitled Faith in America.

To broadcast a program with a journalistic ethos that was so blatantly lacked an opposing or balancing voice was disappointing. Running so closely on the heals of the recent Congressional debacle in Washington in which important and deeply personal issues for women were discussed without a single woman on the panel was especially egregious. As an American citizen, U.S. military veteran, and proud Atheist/Rationalist/Humanist I am personally offended.

How is it that you can feel justified to speak about us with none of us in the room to speak for ourselves?

John Forest
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

To which, I add the following.

I understand that Meet the press is touted as a broadcast journalistic benchmark. I suggest that, if the recent edition on Faith in America is any indicator, they've fallen short of the mark and, perhaps, missed the bench. There is a place in the world for a set of backslapping religious apologists making unsubstantiated assertions. I submit that this place is not in the newsroom.

Allow me to be clear, if these same folks were saying the same things on, let's say, the Christian Broadcast Network, I would be among the first to stand for their right to engage in such activity. But, I draw the line at selectively infecting the slender thread of our national conversation still available to us through journalism.

Is it not sufficient that religious people are the vast majority? Is it not sufficient that believers own most everything, control most everything? Is it not sufficient that, despite these obvious facts, they subject us all to unending paranoid whining. None of us is allowed to pass a day without hearing how the clear and obvious majority of the population are treated as though they were a powerless minority. If we are to assume their view, they and/or their "values" are always under nefarious attack or in retreat. Apparently it is not sufficient that believers daily lay claim to a moral high ground where they "own" basic human values of decency and compassion.

I could scarcely do better than offer the words of the Pastor and Congressman from Missouri Emmanuel Cleaver, who stated on the show:

"Religion at it's very essence requires theological arrogance. Because we have to declare 'This is what I believe in. I believe this is the way'."

Pastor Cleaver went on to opine that religious arrogance could and should meet with diversity and tolerance. To which I respond, if this worked as well in real world practice as it does in high-minded oratory, the Pastor and I would be seeing much more eye-to-eye.