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Time for the Movement to Spread Its Protests Around 13 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Religion.
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Just a quick thought: Although I’m supportive of the many protests of the Mormon church over the past week, and I think they are totally justified given the church’s prominent role in the Yes on 8 campaign, I think it’s time to expand our scope. We need to continue the peaceful, but pointed protesting, at other churches who were deeply involved in this issue, and we need to include churches across race lines as well. If the exit polling was correct, the religious vote generally, which in this case included Catholic and evangelical churches, voted roughly 80% in favor. Spread the love, my people!  I also thought of suggesting the protests move to retirement communities, but for some reason that thought just made me giggle.

Free Speech 101: Mormon Edition 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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Please read Chanson’s great post at Mainstreet Plaza explaining to Mormons why protesting at their temples does not violate their rights. My favorite paragraph:

But seriously folks, free expression 101: your right of free speech doesn’t guarantee you protection from having other people tell you that what you freely said was wrong. You know it, and I know you know it, so please cut the B.S.

Here’s my post from a couple years ago on American Christianity’s basic misunderstanding of free speech, “Free Speech, and Insulting Religion.”

Clarification on Mormons and Prop 8 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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Just to clarify: I’m completely supportive and in favor of the ongoing protests and civil disobedience to bring to light the wrong-headed, unscientific beliefs in fairy tales, and the undemocratic efforts of the Mormon church and its adherents to enshrine their *religious* beliefs regarding homosexuality and marriage into the *secular* Constitution of California. In fact, I’m especially thrilled by the prospect of protestors disrupting Mormons’ efforts to marry in their temples. The irony is rich, no?

And especially in reference to my post about the Mormon church’s tax-exempt status, I’m in favor of all churches losing their tax exempt status. There is no reason at all that churches should be able to keep their finances secret and that they should be able to control billions of dollars in assets without contributing back to the society. And they certainly should be paying taxes if they are going to step into the public sphere to make their particular biases and bigotries enforced by law.

Unlike Seth, the Mormon commenter to the previous post, I see no difference between the protests in Salt Lake City and in Los Angeles. Both were direct responses to the Church’s efforts to impose its religion on the people of California; both were lawful; and both were filled with the frustration of a people denied. The protestors in Salt Lake City gathered at one of the gates to Temple Square and chanted “You’re Sexist! You’re Racist! And you’re Homophobic!” The protestors in Los Angeles bore signs that read, “You have two wives. I want one husband!” I marched in the protest in San Francisco on Friday night and felt the power of a people galvanized against those who would make them second class citizens. Separate is never equal, and this is but one stop along the route to full equality under the law for the gay and lesbian citizens of Californa. Next stop: The United States.

Going After the Mormon Church’s Tax Exempt Status Is the Wrong Strategy 8 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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I’ve been getting a lot of people directing me to the Mormons Stole Our Rights web site, starting a campaign to take away the LDS Church’s tax-exempt status for the participation in the Proposition 8 battle. This is the wrong approach. Let me explain:

I’m especially pissed at the Mormons for two reasons: 1) it was the religion of my childhood and I feel betrayed and shunned all over again; 2) because they financed at least 1/2 of the campaign and provided the lion’s share of the ground forces for prop 8. So I get the rage and the need to strike back.

However, I’m a stickler for free speech and free expression: As the law now stands, the Mormon church did NOT break the law; neither did the catholic church; nor the evangelical churches who campaigned (and who held that horrifying rally in San Diego a few days before the election).

There is a legal problem here that we realistically need to account for if we are to hold the LDS Church accountable (as well as the Catholics and all those Evangelical churches): The Mormon church did not break any law. It’s within their rights according to the IRS code to advocate publicly and spend money to advocate for political issues. Like all churches/non-profits, they are only barred from campaigning for candidates.  The website “Mormons Stole Our Rights” is wrong on the legal facts (it ignores subsection (h) of the tax code they site) and this will lose in any court in America. Ask any tax attorney and they’ll spell it out for you.  Even more problematically, the Mormon church itself donated exactly ZERO funds to this campaign anyway and asked its members to donate money; this is also completely within its rights as the law now stands.

The more legally sound approach is to begin a campaign consisting of one of the two of the following:

a) demand that churches not be considered special kinds of non-profits and that their finances must be made public, just like non-religious non-profits must.

b) remove nonprofit status from all religious organizations. Make them all pay taxes on the money they use to advocate for issues, just like all private citizens must (we have to pay taxes on the money we donate to political causes).  Religions have only had nonprofit status since the 1950s. This isn’t enshrined anywhere in stone.

There is also a third issue to consider:

c) another way to go might be to see if it could be made illegal for California propositions to be funded by out of state interests (see prop 10 as another example); I suspect that may come into conflict with the interstate commerce clause, however, and would require federal legislation.

In some ways, this nascent campaign seems to seek to punish the Mormons for expressing their beliefs and campaigning for them. That is, on its face, anti-democratic and the precise wrong way to go about addressing our the role of the LDS Church in this past election. I’m all in favor of the protests at the Mormon temples, the intense criticism in the public sphere that Mormonism has been getting over this issue, etc. That is what free speech is for: Engaging against wrong-headed and harmful speech and countering it. But rather than seeking to punish an individual or organization for doing what is most fundamental to a democracy, we should be seeking to change people’s minds and convincing the majority of Californians that they are wrong ethically and democratically to enshrine a second class citenzhip for homosexuals in their constitution.

Let’s face it: The No on 8 campaign was completely unprepared for this battle, and the homos of California were complacent and assumed that there was no way this could pass. By the time No on 8 made the staffing change in the campaign, it was too little too late.  There is much work to be done to overcome the homophobia and no institutionalized inequality in our Constitution. I fear that this specific line of attack is the wrong one, unless done very carefully and with full understanding and respect for the law and for the right to free speech and expression.

Morality and the Brain 4 August 2008

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Ethics.
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Some new research into our innate moral capacity (the ability to think morally is innate, not the rules; although there are some foundational presumptions human brains tend to make, relating to reciprocal altruism, but that’s not what I’m posting about here). In western philosophy, there are basically two kinds of moral arguments, deontological and utilitarian. This is an oversimplification that people who are studying the cognition of morality make to be able to categorize what they are observing. In most simple terms, deontological arguments function on principles or categorical imperatives, and in day-to-day life are made emotionally, without conscious rational thinking. Utilitarian arguments focus on maximizing good outcomes, and in day-to-day life people are able to give their rational arguments for their position, that is, they do invoke their conscious problem-solving brain. Cognitive scientists have thought for about 10 years now that humans use both systems to make their moral judgments, but had until now thought that the two systems worked in tandem or in competition with each other. Some new experiments seem to indicate that the two work independently of each other and do not overlap in brain processes. Very cool. Here’s the article from Scientific American, “Thinking about Morality”.

The Happiness Hypothesis 22 July 2008

Posted by Todd in Buddhism, Microsociology/Social Psychology.
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As I’ve mentioned several times recently, I’m slowly working my way through Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding MOdern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Haidt is a “positive psychologist”, a new subfield of psychology that arose in the late 1990s following a couple decades of sort of groundbreaking research in psychology. The subtitle is a little misleading, however. What he’s actually doing in the book is evaluating human ideas about happiness based on the last 30 years of research; the book is a description of what we know right now about baseline happiness, written for a lay audience. This is my pleasure reading, so it’s going slow; but it’s really worth it.

To understand the book, you have to know that psychologists differentiate between baseline happiness (life satisfaction) and moments or events of extreme emotional pleasure. So happiness is a state of being distinguishible from moments of excitement or joy or pleasure that are fleeting. (The way they started measuring this is fascinating and I’m really glad I wasn’t in the experiment because I would have found it intolerably irritating.)

 

In Ch. 5, “The Pursuit of Happiness”, Haidt talks about Buddhist ideas of non-attachment. I won’t rehearse the whole thing here, but here’s the formula that positive psych has put on baseline happiness:

H=S+C+V

Happiness is an interaction between genetic Set point, life Conditions, and Voluntary activities. S=Briefly, about 20 years ago, the research started showing a strong genetic component to baseline happiness, which has since been refined; that is, happiness turns out to be extremely heritable. Recent research has shown that this is a range for each individual, rather than a set level of satisfaction. Where you are in that range is highly influenced by other factors.

C=Life conditions are mostly things you can’t change (sex, age, race, etc.) and some things that change very slowly under normal circumstances (wealth, occupation, education, residence, marital status). It turns out that people in general adapt to their conditions and return to a baseline happiness rather quickly (surveys of quadripelegics and lottery winners show both returning to their pre-accident, pre-windfall levels within a year). There are, however, six life conditions that people seem not to adapt to: noisy environments, commuting, lack of control, shame, conflict in relationships.

V=There are then things that we do that change our affect with more or less permanence. Haidt divides these into two categories: pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures are usually physical, namely sex and food; they give real emotional impact, but they can be overdone and become banal. They are real forms of happiness in human life but cannot be depended on for lasting change in our baseline happiness.

Gratifications are activities that we engage in that last for hours or days or weeks afterwards. They come from engaging in activities where we feel confident in our abilities but where we are slightly challenged, so we are fully engaged in what we are doing. Researchers call the affective state “flow” and people remember the state long after and get real emotional pleasure long after the activity is completed. 

The chapter contains lots of different examples and research about what kinds of voluntary activities fit the bill, but there is one thing that stands out for everyone regardless of their strengths: pursuing objects that enhance your status, while humanly normal, do not bring happiness because socially, status is a zero sum game. Pursuing activities that you find personally, emotionally satisfying, especially when you share it with other people, bring the longest, most enduring affective response. In short, psychologically speaking, it is better to spend 100 dollars on a really good dinner with a loved one than to spend it on a luxury item or an object. Doing seems to always be better than an object.

Haidt suggests trying to incorporate at least one activity per day that is in your strengths, where you can experience “flow” to gradually (it takes time) increase your baseline happiness. The psychologist who coined the phrase “positive psychology” at Penn has a web site with a (rather long) test to determine your current strengths (these change over time as your life and you grow and evolve). [url]http://www.authentichappiness.org/[/url]

75th Anniversary of “A Humanist Manifesto” 21 June 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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I picked up a copy of the May/June 2008 issue of The Humanist magazine this week to read a special about the 75th Anniversary of “A Humanist Manifesto,” which I have known about vaguely because of my studies of John Dewey. Reading the 1933 document in its entirety, I can somewhat see why it has been called naïve by some, but I read it as a statement of values, not a prediction of the future. The horrors of the 20th century more than anything seem to support the manifesto’s fundamental principle, that old ways of thinking no longer work given what we know, and that something new is in order. Science, technology, and global economics have transformed us far beyond a world where traditional cultural and religious systems can be adequate to explain and guide a meaningful life.

The manifesto sees itself in its 1933 context as creating a new kind of religion, so it calls itself “religious humanism,” but if you read it carefully, you find an amazing set of approaches to religion, that human life in all its diversity and range of good and evil is coextensive with ‘nature’ and that there can no longer be any meaningful division of the sacred from the profane. Human life is all we have and our purpose as humans should be both to seek to fully realize our humanness as our individual consciousnesses lead us and to create and maintain a society that supports all of our realization-processes.

The 15th article of the manifesto resonnates with my most dearly held values:

We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely the few. … Man [sic] is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement. He must set his intelligence and will to the task.

“Gay Marriage” in California 22 May 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights.
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I’ve been meaning to post about last week’s decision for, well, about a week now, but haven’t really had the time to breathe with all these blue books needing graded. I’ll try to come back to this early next week when grades are submitted. For the time being, run, don’t walk, to read Glenn Greenwald’s two analyses of the legal issues. I especially appreciated his day-of explanation of what makes an “activist court” and why this is not judicial activism. I wish some of the law professors I’ve been hearing on the radio over the past week would do some reading in democratic theory and even the Federalist Papers, for god’s sake. 

Glenn Greenwald, “California’s Marriage Ruling—What It Means and What It Doesn’t Mean” from 15 May 2008
Glenn Greenwald, “The California Marriage Decision and Basic Civics” from 22 May 2008.

A Whole New Blog 18 April 2008

Posted by Todd in Blog.
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I’ve decided to separate my blogging life into two parts, one of them more formal and intellectual, focusing on my academic and intellectual work, and the other more broad ranging and personal. Todd’s Hammer is going to become what I’d always conceived of it to be, which is a space for me to work on my ideas and perhaps create dialogue with friends and colleagues about them, whenever possible. So I’m removing all of the personal, jokey, real-life kinds of posts to another blog, and I’m narrowing the focus of the Hammer.

For friends and family, I will cross-post everything from the Hammer to the personal blog so you’ll only have to keep track of one blog. I’m keeping the new blog somewhat private, so please email me directly, if you haven’t already gotten the new blog URL.

Dialogue to Solve Cross Cultural Problems 4 March 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, International Politics, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Social Sciences.
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This issue has come up twice for me over the past couple weeks. First, I was re-reading my doctoral exam on democratic theory in order to prepare for a discussion about social theory with some colleagues, and stumbled upon my critique of Richard Rorty’s idea of the “international bazaar”; and second, I introduced my students yesterday to the pragmatic critique of naive relativism and weak forms of multiculturalism.

Rorty’s proposal was derived from John Dewey’s theory of democratic deliberation and basically proposes a multicultural world of smorgasbord options and possibilities for dialogue. What I find most problematic in Rorty (and full disclosure here, I haven’t read him since graduate school and I only read a handful of articles on this topic) is that he doesn’t acknowledge the dramatic problems that can arise in cross-cultural dialogue. Dewey’s theory assumes that you begin with fundamental, shared values, namely tolerance and the dignity of the Other. In Dewey’s formulation, you cannot enter into a dialogue without that minimum, and rebellion is justified to get that level of recognition. Rorty fails to account for or theorize how to deal with dialogues with groups who don’t see you as fully human, or who don’t recognize your “rights” in any sense.

In my Nature and World Cultures course, we examine environmental problems (e.g., resource depletion, global warming, water polution, desertification, etc.) that arise from cultural misunderstanding of the ecosystem/physical environment, there is a point at which we have to be able to say that a given culture did something wrong in their environment. In weak multiculturalism or naive relativism, because all our values are “socially constructed”, or emerge out of a particular social environment through a transation between organism(s) and their complex environment (i.e., human environments are always both material and social), we draw the problematic conclusion that you can’t “judge” another culture by your own values (which is basic ethnocentrism).

I try to teach this by framing it as two separate but overlapping intellectual problems. On one hand is the social scientific problem (and in some ways, ethical problem in a pluralistic society), which is to understand or explain a cultural milieu or perspective different from your own. This requires a firm systematic relativism, a conscious effort to set aside one’s own values and perceptions in order to evaluate a culture on its own terms, to see it as it sees itself, to truly grasp what and how the culture works. It is in my estimation an impossible project, so it requires the peer-review process (or dialogue with others) to make sure that we aren’t being ethnocentric.

The second intellectual problem, however, is that we live in the real world where people of different cultures act in the world and have consequences in the world that extend beyond their own cultural boundaries. In other words, we have problems that are shared across cultural boundaries; and we have problems in culture A that are caused by actions of culture B. [I actually don’t think cultures exist in such stark, discreet units (problematically, people often experience them as if they do, but that’s another issue altogether); this is only a heuristic.] This discussion by its very nature necessitates the application of values: how do you know something is a problem in the first place if not because it violates your values? And if it violates your values, how do you talk to someone of a different culture about your values in order to solve that problem? This requires an intense and careful interaction that is often bypassed in favor of coercion.

As a side note, here, I find myself constantly wondering to what degree social scientists should be involved in this second intellectual problem. In fact, I find that much sociology is based in unspoken value propositions about equality, for example, already; and let’s be honest, there is often an value-driven litmus test for the worth and quality of research. I think that social scientists as a group should be more clear about these overlapping, but different intellectual projects. Explaining how a group came to be poor is not the same project as arguing for a solution to that poverty (which already assumes a value that says poverty is a problem that needs to be solved); and yet I find that often these two projects are blended together in problematic ways. But I digress…

My students in class are often confused by this discussion because they feel that a) it is bad to judge other cultures; and b) that when they do judge other cultures for practical reasons, they dont’ recognize it as such. Yesterday’s discussion went rather smoothly, compared to how it’s gone in the past; but one of my more engaged students wanted to push the issue of how to actually go about solving problems in the real world. That is really the issue that Rorty was addressing in his theory of the bazaar, and it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I delve into background research in global migration. This student emailed me earlier this morning, saying that he can’t see how to solve cross-culture, international conflict without resorting to coercion and that he can’t think of any examples in history when violent conflict has ultimately been avoided. In his view of history, solving big international problems has always come to blows. I think that his concern is a valid one and goes to the heart of the weakness of Rorty’s position; but it also ignores the multitude of examples of successful dialogue and negotionation and belies the value-propositions inherent in the argument in favor of cross-cultural dialogue rather than cross-cultural violence. Here’s my response to the student’s email query:

I think [the problem] comes from how one looks for evidence of successful dialogue. It is definitely true that dialogue often breaks down into violence, and historically, violence is the mode of choice for resolving conflicts. The whole idea of people who are different should talk to each other about value propositions and solution to each other is only about 300 years old, at most (although clearly, human groups have negotiated with each other for as long as we have recorded history). In order for this to work, all sides involved have to actually believe in having the dialogue. There are clearly many times when one or more parties is so convinced that they are “right” that it leads them to justify violence in their own moral-world (it’s a cliche, but the Nazis are a good example of this).

However, think of it this way: How many times a week are ambassadors working out international agreements without violence? It’s easy to look at just the conflicts that erupted in violence because they are what we study in school. But even just think of something like the Bay of Pigs, where we almost had a nuclear war (!) but the two parties negotiated their way out of it (most likely because no one really wanted a nuclear war). Or think of the negotiation for NAFTA, where international problems were brought to the table and hammered out (although I think their solutions have had horrifying results). Or think now of the ongoing (for over 10 years now) economic talks for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Or think in reverse, where violence has broken out and someone like Koffe Annan goes to Kenya and convinces them to stop killing each other and start talking. Are you following what I’m saying?

The real problem for me is a practical one: in the world as it exists, nations have dramatically unequal relationships. The united states has the biggest guns and largest consumer market; china controls the world economy by virtue of producing most of the cosumable goods; europe is quickly taking control of the financial markets… So that leaves us in a situation of asking really hard questions about whether or not a dialogue about values and solutions to real problems can take place between parties who are vastly unequal.

It further has the problem (this may seem silly, but I think it’s the biggest problem) that people you disagree with get to *talk back!* The nature of dialogue and debate is that people you don’t like, people you find immoral and reprehensible, people who espouse ideas that you find dangerous and offensive GET TO TALK and make arguments for their positions too!

This is at base the social complexity of democracy, right? You have to live with people you don’t like and still grant them rights (i.e., tolerance); and sometimes you lose. One of the problems with terrorist organizations is an odd duality: on one hand, they are angry and fanatically precisely because they haven’t been heard and taken seriously (in many but not all cases); but on the other hand, their fanaticism precludes their sitting down with people they don’t like and actually being willing to *lose* the debate. In other words, if everyone doesn’t already believe in universal dignity and tolerance, you can dialouge all you want, and someone will get violent or at least refuse to engage or use other forms of coercion.