Thursday, June 30, 2016

Rationality and Fear

There was a sit-in at the US House of Representatives last week. Some Democratic lawmakers occupied the floor of the House for 25 hours in an attempt to force a vote on gun control measures (that would almost certainly fail anyway). This is not a post about guns (although Fresh Air did a fascinating piece on gun culture a couple weeks back), though - its more about tactics. I'm well beyond really engaging much on guns, especially in a public venue - but the reason for that couldn't have been more aptly illustrated than with a meme that I saw floating around the day after the sit-in.

It said, essentially (and you'll find stories about it all over the internet) that 26 of the Democrats involved are also gun owners. That's it. Almost no other context. I think the implication is that this is hypocritical position. I think. It's still not clear to me. Although, I suppose, it's very clear to the people who are the real recipients of the message.

A lot of people in the US believe "gun control" means "taking my guns away," despite the incredible irrationality of the message. It's not that these people are themselves irrational or stupid - often quite the opposite - it's just that our fear-based political system encourages this kind of black/white thinking devoid of rationality.

Again, I don't want to delve into guns specifically, but to illustrate the logical point. The US Supreme Court has pretty much upheld two basic constitutional facts about guns, 1) people have a right to own guns for self-defense, and 2) the government has the right to regulate and control the use and possession of guns. The entirety of rational gun conversation (what little there is) falls in between these two poles. However, the vast majority of actual gun conversations in the US are people who think either option 1 or option 2 are invalid - that the Court got them wrong.**

This is why the notion of gun owners also supporting gun control seems hypocritical to those on both extremes - gun control advocates should not own guns and gun owners should not advocate for gun control. These are both legally, logically, and constitutionally irrational statements, but they're certainly real.

We can have the same fun with abortion if we want to: cut and paste the following on Facebook and see what happens "I believe abortion is killing and I believe women should have the right to do it." This is a real position that a lot of people hold,^ but you'll absolutely confound extreme activists with it - in fact, you may do the impossible and bring them together in their mutual hatred of you.

David Brooks wrote a piece
a week or so ago that talks a little bit about this. I'm not sure it's super well-written, but the idea is phenomenal (and he borrowed it from Richard Rohr, so you know it's got to be pretty great). He talks about those people who are inside specific groups, but not so far inside as to be subsumed by group identity (and thus group think). These are people who have opinions, but deal with some measure of distance from those ideas - another term might be "principled pragmatism" or maybe just plain "rational."

It's not something we have much of in our current public discourse. Maybe not in our private discourse either. I remember last month, as the United Methodists were trying to figure out how to talk about homosexuality and the Church, someone came up with the idea of having small groups share opinions to make sure it wasn't just the loudest, most passionate people (on both sides) who were heard. There was a lot of talk about the "silent middle," and perhaps some good reason to believe they really do exist.

I hesitate to appropriate "silent majority" in any event these days, because I'm no longer certain the middle is the majority. We're just so shaped and formed by this kind of all-or-nothing, burn the ships behind us, siege mentality for everything social, political, or electoral that we've almost forgotten just how important it is to live together.

In the end, this is one of the core reasons I'm doing the work to get on the Presidential ballot in Colorado (which should almost be official by now). Yes, it's fun and funny and strange - and precisely the kind of thing I like to do just to say I did it. But there's also something more. A few people have made comments about how it seems to be mocking the electoral process or demeaning the importance of our governmental system - and they're right. I'm happy to demean the importance of our system, because most people put far, far, far, far, far, far, far too much importance on this system - as if their entire existence depends on our government (and all its citizens) agreeing that they're right about everything. It's just not that important - I'm not sure anything is that important.

But we've been told its so vitally important for so long, we believe it. When we believe these things have existential import for our very survival, it's really easy to be influenced by fear - which is 100% entirely irrational. Well, fear itself is a very rational response to certain stimuli, but what we do with fear is downright nuts - I think I'd rather be trapped in a small room with a deranged meth-head than someone who's scared for their life. Fear don't mess around.

You know how to combat fear? Knowledge. Specifically knowledge about that which you fear. When that which we fear is our neighbor who thinks differently from us, it's not that difficult to walk next door and have a conversation.

Although maybe you should call first... in case they've got a gun.

*But seriously, folks, one of the votes these Dems wanted was a repeal of the federal ban on funding gun violence RESEARCH! If we aren't allowed to even find out about gun violence, there's no way anyone will come up with a legitimate plan to address it.

I, personally, do not believe in self defense (although I wouldn't want my view legislated, necessarily) - but if we're talking constitutionality, I'm fine with both positions. I do, however, think you can't honestly call yourself a "strict constructionalist" and also think option 1 is constitutional - there's some logical confusion there; however, I suspect the answer is really for people to stop calling themselves "strict constructionalists," and not to change the rulings.

^Me included.

^^And, no, I have no idea what potatoes have to do with anything, but that picture came up on a google image search for "rationality and fear," and I thought it was funny.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Over-Reaction and the Legal System

So, I've been gone almost three weeks. We had some vacation in there and then some recovery from vacation. It came at a good time for this blog - I had run out of ideas. I'm not sure the tank is all the way full, yet, but I did get a topic request, so I've got something to talk about.

Originally, a friend sent me this article from Christianity Today, asking for my opinion on the matter. It talks about a specific bill that's passed the California Senate and sitting in the state House regarding post-secondary education. It comes with a disclaimer that the authors recognize American evangelicalism is prone to over-reaction, but they still think this is an important alarm to sound. Also, to be fair, much of the article is quotes from California Christian Colleges that have some political skin in the game and are anything but unbiased.

It paints a grim picture - one even I'd be troubled by.

Of course, the first thing I do when something seems to ridiculous to be true, is check out the sourcing. California has a really nice legislation tracking website (much better than Delaware's, for sure) and you can find all sorts of information about SB1146 there. It turns out, there was some really inflammatory language introduced to the bill after it passed the Senate. It did indeed propose to restrict the religious exemptions to discrimination to strictly religion and theology (although they kindly left in a school's right to require chapel attendance to the delight of no one).

However, the bill was then submitted to the Committee on the Judiciary and then re-amended to pretty much remove everything Christianity Today was upset about (although this amendment happened the day BEFORE the article was posted - head scratching to say the least). It's still sitting in committee as of this writing (June 29, 2016). Presumably, the Committee on Judiciary saw what the magazine saw, what I saw, what most Americans would see: clearly unconstitutional language. They got rid of it.

Yes, I supposed the new language could lead to some argument that a school must limit its religious discrimination to those same specifically religious disciplines, but it would be far more persuasive that the school could argue it's whole reason for existence is to form religious people in whatever discipline they pursue. Continued harping on this is really way out of left field.

At the same time (and you knew there'd be more), I like the juxtaposition of me reading this on the same day the Supreme Court struck down the new abortion regulations from Texas (requiring doctors to have admitting privileges and clinics to basically be hospitals). Both of these issues illustrate the liberal and conservative tendency to over-react.

When people have a crusade, they tend to be committed - that's sort of implied in the term crusade. They go all out. People who really hate religious positions opposing homosexuality want to wipe them off the map and people who really hate abortion want it eliminated. They're happy (and free) to use any legal means available. Sometimes these get passed into law - other times the Committee on Judiciary steps in with a dose of sanity. In either event, those opposed to these bills go nuts - they scream and rant and post articles about the end of civilization and what have you.

In the end, these doomsday prophesies rarely come true. As much as I argue the government of the United States perches not on any moral bedrock, but nebulously on the whims of nine particular people, it's still a pretty functional system - at least at the constitutional level. Oh, of course people will argue over the "real meaning" of the constitution, much as we Christians argue over the "real meaning" of the bible - but in the end, things usually work out pretty well. It's really rare that the Supreme Court has to go back and correct itself - and when it does, it's usually because popular opinion has changed.

As flimsy and unfulfilling as that sounds, history is a good indication that the extremes rarely win. Yes, discrimination is a bad thing, but most people, even if they disagree, believe that people should be free to practice their religion as unsullied as possible. Yes, I'm no fan of abortion, but most people, even if they disagree with it, still believe women should have proper medical care and attention when they end a pregnancy. Passing laws to prevent those things aren't going to go over well, and the Supreme Court generally gets this.

That's not to say the Court only rules on public whims (Citizens United is a clear example), just that the Constitution tends to be pretty moderate most of the time. It's why I just generally don't get worked up over very much, especially these specific causes that fearmonger people into needless anxiety.

Beyond the actual topic of the article, though, are a half dozen manipulative elements that could be criticized (as is the case for liberal clickbait sites as well). That's the real rub. I get that people are upset about things that upset them. I know passionate people will have passionate responses, but we can take important issues seriously without elevating them to DEFCON levels - or at least we should be able to do it.

Although we should also be responsible enough to source these things out for ourselves. I'm no genius, people - I just took the time to click ONE link and read for a few minutes. Beyond that, it's a basic understanding of civics and, at worst, a couple trips to the dictionary. We keep saying we're (the collective 'we') smarter than the politicians and media mavens give us credit for.

How about we start acting like it?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Veil of Politics

I've had a number of conversations recently about issues, both local and national. I've noticed - I guess I've always noticed, but it particularly struck my fancy this week - how often people take positions on issues simply based on partisan politics. I recognize it's a particularly contentious election year (with is a redundant description of the year) and that this really isn't a new phenomenon in the US, but it does seem to be presenting itself in new and unique ways. You've always seen this kind of thing with politicians and people actively involved in the machinations of party politics; it's become an increasing part of news coverage as well, with the proliferation of networks and diversity of opinion. At the same time, it does seem relatively new on a broad scale.

It's not that Mr. Middle Management in 1950 didn't say or do things, "because I'm a Republican," but that he wasn't necessarily the norm AND he wasn't generally saying, "I'm against ____________ because the other guys are for it." Our two main political parties have done a great job of getting people to identify with one or the other - even as the number of registered independents goes up. This has happened because we've become a nation of objectionists. People won't call themselves a Democrat or Republican so much anymore, but they certainly have Democrats and/or Republicans they want to stop. We've become a nation of people who identify our politics by what we oppose more strongly than what we support.

That's not really what I want to talk about though - I'm more interested in how this particular connection to our electoral and governance process limits and distorts how we see the world. This is the difference between politics and politics. If you've read much of this blog at all, you know I take a broader view of politics - it is the way in which people live together - and there are many ways of doing politics, only one of which involves elections and legislatures and laws.

There is a broader scope to politics, one that, until recently, seemed to be clear for most people most of the time. It wasn't about winning, but about making space where you and your neighbor could get along and thrive together. It was more about building community than installing some ideology or winning a legislative battle.

Even in that statement, I'm guessing a bunch of you had interjecting thoughts about how "the other guy" does those slimy things and how "my side," is working for right and good. Don't blame yourself; this is the way we've been shaped.

We're taught to accept a set of facts, often carefully crafted by professional fact-crafters in one party or another - and then to question anything that comes along which challenges us to think about those things. We can easily throw away Report X because some liberal wrote it or reject Study Z because the foundation behind it is conservative. Sometimes those things are true - I mean, fact-crafters do have to craft their facts somehow and using media outlets, research studies, and investigative reports are easy means to convince people of truth (whether its true or not).

At some point, though, we have to avoid the easy route of rejection.

We can't just look at the byline on something and say, "This is trash." There has to be some engagement. I mean, there doesn't have to be - just look at the US Congress: no matter who's in power, they refuse to listen to the other side, whilst the side being ignored can win political points claiming to want compromise when they know their bluff will never be called. It's the same no matter who's on each side.

We've been fooled by this over and over, assuming things will be different if we change the letter next to the name of the guy (or gal) with the gavel. But that's the con - we've been so shaped by objectionism that we're content just to win the battle on the ballot and not worry too much about why it's having a negative effect on the world around us - no matter who wins.

This is why we see so many people searching outside the "mainstream" for candidates this time around. People want something different, but they're looking for it within the same partisan, objectionist, winner take all system that's never proven to do anything good for anyone (except maybe the people at the root of it, regardless of party). Putting "outsiders" into a corrupt system will only make the outsider insiders and corrupt the values that made them attractive in the first place.

In the end, I think the answer is simple: don't believe anyone.

That sounds super cynical (although I'm not sure there are many adjectives I've been called more), but it's true. Maybe we could say, be attentive to everyone. That sounds nicer. If we treated every piece of information with the same skepticism we treat those things we deem "opposition," we'd be far better off. It might lead us to actually research the "facts" we're fed no matter who's manufacturing them. In this age of the internet it doesn't take much time or effort to be really informed. Even Wikipedia has links to things that purport to back up what they say.

We just need to take responsibility for our own opinions and not outsource them to parties and pundits we've found common ground with for some reason. We see layers of argumentative exposes all the time: "Look at How Bad the GOP is," followed by, "Things the Dems Didn't Tell You in that Last Piece," followed by, "Ways the GOP Spun that Last Rebuttal," and on an on. What looks like a genuine search for truth is just a stalling tactic to keep you from looking for yourself.

If your response in an argument is "that source is biased," you need to know why, in this particular instance, about these particular fact, that the conclusion isn't sound. You're probably right about the bias - no one is without one - but it's even more biased to simply accept or reject another person's interpretation of facts simply because you're more comfortable with them.

I've long been an opponent of political parties for exactly this reason. It leads people to generalize and it allows politicians to avoid taking a real stand on anything. Party (or ideological) loyalty trumps having an actual, reasoned opinion on anything.

How many people would even bother to vote if there weren't party affiliations next to names on the ballot? How informed would people actually be if they had to find out what specific candidates think about a variety of issues and make decisions that way? How much easier would it be for neighbors to sit down together, talk through issues, and make decisions to better everyone's life?

It's not Republicans or Democrats or Socialists or Libertarians who are the problem, it's us, who let them dictate agendas and divide us into groups of adversaries, pitted against each other in some zero-sum game where only one team can win. Life isn't like that. We can and must live together - we are ultimately all human beings - let's remember that and treat each other that way.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Subversive Jesus by Craig Greenfield

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

If you work with young Christians or work to understand them, Subversive Jesus is a great book to read. It chronicles the life of Craig Greenfield and his family, from high school in New Zealand, to a home in the slums of Cambodia, to a fledgling Christian community in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Greenfield traces his attempts to follow the radical theology of Jesus to life with and for the poor of the world.

The first two chapters are breathtakingly simple and straightforward, highlighting how one couple has attempted to be faithful to God's call, while also supplying a really intense, concise explanation of the Kingdom of God and how it intersects with our world today. The rest of the book fleshes out these concepts and lessons learned through some really unique experiences.

If there's any downside, it's simply that Greenfield doesn't answer a lot of the logistical questions one has while reading, but I imagine that's intentional, as he challenges readers to explore the radical, subversive message of Jesus on their own, rather than following any model (other than Christ's).

It's a quick read, with short sections, and lots of excitement. It also approaches radical Christianity from an obviously conservative perspective. It's not that the book is conservative or liberal, but you can tell how the author understands theology and scripture and it's quite different from the perspective you most often see in these radical Jesus books. I think that helps set up an important exegetical and practical position as outside the mainstream arguments of religion and interpretation.

This is a book for everyone, although this kind of radical challenge can be scary and easy to write off, Greenfield presents it in a way that should enable any reader to take simple steps towards a Kingdom life without having to make the kind of leap that often scares people away. It's fun and quick, and the kind of book that will benefit any person, especially those looking for a faith worthy of committing one's life to live.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”