Thursday, December 6, 2007

Romney, faith and "moral conviction"

I was completely unaware of Mitt Romney's impending speech this morning when I had the idea to write this post. (Most of my awareness that morning was focused on the fact that the bus driver who didn't stop for me though I chased after the bus for 3 stops, shouting and waving my arms, was an asshole.) The idea came from my earlier post about the Sacks and co. was (and still is) intended to lead into a discussion about how "because it's the right thing to do" is never enough justification.

Then I saw Melissa McEwen's take on Romney's speech, specifically this paragraph:

It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter – on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

As Melissa points out, it's totally false.

This post was originally going to be about how we don't have a vibrant national dialogue about morality in America, the way we have dialogues about public policy. But Mr. Romney provided such a fine opening, I can't not take it.

We *don't* share a "common creed of moral convictions" precisely because the majority religion in America, Christianity, co-opts and preempts moral convictions. We never get to talk about morality; instead we just talk about what the Bible or a particular authority figure says and pretend that's the same thing - but it's much, much closer to the opposite. Or if we don't want to involve religion, we eschew questions of morality as well in order to dwell on legalism and consequentialism.

Here's how an exploration of moral conviction can work. Method #1 (let's call it the Axiomatic Method) is to start with an ethical axiom, and explore all the ramifications of that axiom, rejecting it or conditionally accepting it based on the conclusions drawn. This method seems to me to be the more common form of non-religious moral reasoning, but it's one that's relatively inaccessible. Though you find this a lot among philosophers, divinity students and libertarians, I suspect the average person doesn't really employ this form of moral reasoning in his or her life.

Method #2 is what I'll call the Mindy Method. Start with a moral observation - "X is good." Then ask "Why?" Now you've got a new moral principle. Again, ask "why?" and now you've got another. The goal of this version is *not* necessarily to arrive at a moral axiom and then to build back up from there. Rather, it's to reach an understanding with other moral agents, and to see where we differ. This serves two purposes: (i) we can find common understanding with people who might disagree on particulars; and (ii) we won't get duped into alliances with those whose goals are superficially similar but fundamentally opposed.

It's precisely because Christianity has so completely co-opted morality that "no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people." Christianity, at least as it's practiced throughout this country, explicity rejects the Mindy Method - you generally can't ask "Why?" more than once or twice before bottoming out at "God said so," at which point most inquiry ceases. "Why should we do something just because God said to?" is a question that's reserved for theologians whose general faith is deemed beyond question; the folks in the pews don't typically get that luxury. Even when the question is asked, the answer tends to be consequentialist - either referring to personal consequences for the moral agent in this world, or the next.

Because Christianity avoids the question of "Is this the right thing?", substituting the question of "Is this what God wants?", the domination by Christianity of the moral sphere results in no real discourse about morality. And because the question of why the Christian God's purported wants should be obeyed is answered with an appeal to personal consequences, our discussions of policy tend to follow suit.

Of course, Romney's speech isn't really about moral convictions; it's an appeal to power. It's about defusing concerns among the Religious Right that electing a Mormon president would reduce their influence.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Size on the subway

Over at Miss Conduct, the following question is asked:

Frequently I’ve seen overweight and obese people insist on squeezing themselves into subway and bus seats that are too small for them. This results in their arms and legs landing on top of the people sitting on either side of them. This is very uncomfortable for the riders being squished, who often just get up out of their seat because it's too awkward to say anything to the person with the weight issue. Nobody seems to know how to handle this. What do you suggest?

I ride the bus out here in Buffalo regularly, though the ones around here aren't usually crowded the way a Boston subway car can be. I've also been a regular user of public transit when I lived in New York City and Honolulu, so I think I've got some idea what I'm talking about.

  • It's not just fat people. I'm not particularly fat; I fit just fine in a bus seat. However, I'm a lot wider at the chest and shoulders, which means that on the typical two-seater I have to (a) pull my shoulders in and hunch over; (b) sit sideways; or (c) get more intimate with my seatmate than I typically care to.
  • Unless Boston is significantly different from other cities (including NYC), this example of the fat person shoving the already seated person out of his or her seat isn't something that happens regularly enough to warrant much consideration. More often, what happens is that someone sits down, and if the bus is crowded they'll be touching. If that someone is fat, people react differently - they're more grossed out by the contact, or they think that "if this person weren't fat, then I'd have more space." To which the only valid response is: get over it. You're not going to catch the fat off of them, and you'll be off the bus in a while anyway. The idea that "nobody seems to know how to handle this" is bunk - what the questioner assumes is that everyone else is as uncomfortable as he/she is, and just won't say anything. The question isn't how to handle it - plenty of people handle it fine - it's how do we change social expectations so that my discomfort is more important than their right to a seat?
  • One of the main reasons this happens on non-packed buses is a phenomenon I call "checkerboarding." People sit with one seat's worth of space between them and the next person over, in an attempt to maximize the cushion of space around them. (It's also annoying when you want to sit with a friend.) In situations like this, I again can't be too sympathetic with the person who complains that their space is being invaded, when they've relied on others' reluctance to do so to deprive them of room.
  • One of the other major evictors of people on a bus are wheelchair users. The way buses are set up, a bench that normally seats 2-3 must be folded away to accommodate 1 wheelchair. But we feel (rightly) that this is okay, because the alternative is to say that wheelchair users can't ride the bus if it's crowded, and that's not an acceptable alternative. (No, it doesn't matter if someone's fat because of genetics or through some fault of their own, just as it doesn't matter why someone's in a wheelchair.)

Basically, it comes down to whether it's okay to make fat people second-class citizens, and once it's put that way I sure as hell hope the answer's obvious (but fear that, for many people, it's not).

Kate Harding over at Shapely Prose also has a post up about this.

Who likes songs that are repetitious?

Carol of the Bells.

The theme from Halloween.

How alike.

And yet, how not.

What's not to love?

One of the interesting facets of subscribing to "blog searches" on subjects like feminism is that they don't discern viewpoint; anti-feminists show up as well. One such search led me to Glenn Sacks' post about the California National Organization for Women launching an I Love Consensual Sex campaign. This strikes me a great idea, as it takes ammunition away from anti-feminists who want to claim that anti-rape activism is anti-sex.

It's also a great idea because it's a hell of a lot more accessible than your typical anti-rape message. I mean, who doesn't love consensual sex? And if you don't, then you don't have to have it - that's what that "consensual" word means!

Nevertheless, Sacks and his commenters are loath to give any unqualified support. Sacks is quick to get in a jab at how "some feminists have had a hard time acknowledging [that] women enjoy having sex with men." (Except for lesbians, presumably, but we'll come back to that.)

The larger issue that Sacks has is, of course, with the definition of consent. There's no specific definition given, as far as I can tell, but Sacks is sure that whatever it is he'll take issue with it. And I suspect he will, as any definition of consent beyond "she didn't scream no or fight back" - i.e., the "whatever I can get away with" definition - tends to be resisted as placing an unreasonable burden on men, as well as granting power to those women whom the MRAs just know are lined up at police stations around the country waiting to file false accusations.

Sacks also brings up the idea, common among contemporary social conservatives, that feminism was a noble goal at some point in the past, but has gone too far. However, instead of the usual "first wavers were in the right, but the second wavers have gone too far," Sacks cites the feminism of the 1970s as "more positive, male-friendly." (Does this mean that the MRAs will update their quote lists? One can only hope.)

There's also the problem Sacks so often faces when trying to sound like a voice of reason - his commenters. It's like the old analogy of crabs in a cookpot - rather than let him rise above the fray, his commenters act to drag the discourse back to the usual misogynist level. The reactions to this piece include:

  • More accusations that women claim rape in response to consensual sex they regret.
  • The accusation that "sex positive" is doublespeak, and that of course feminists hate "the male libido" (wait, I thought women had the hivemind?).
  • Continuing to associate feminists with conservative Christians as one big fun-spoiling mob. Heck, even the most vehement anti-porn feminists no longer ally themselves with the theocrats.
  • Complaining about a requirement of "enthusiastic verbal agreement" that's never actually stated as a requirement - and only by nitpicking that not all enthusiastic agreement is verbal.
  • An attempt to turn it into that primary issue of all MRAs, child support.
  • Fear that "I love consensual sex" will include sex among gays and lesbians. (Wait, we're the ones allied with Christian conservatives here?)
  • Blaming standards of consent for the difficulty in obtaining rape convictions - by saying that the standard for consent is too limited. (I'm not sure how this works. I guess the idea is that if only cases of violent stranger rape went to trial, conviction rates would be up, though convinctions would be down.)
  • Citing Dworkin's observations on the nature of consent in a patriarchy as evidence that feminists would not accept even enthusiastic consent as consent. This one would actually be a point worth discussing, if you could get rid of the people who insist that feminists believe "all sex is rape." The distinction is between ideals and reality. Ideally, sex would be something that could be more freely chosen than it often is today; however, in the world we live in enthusiastic consent is a "good enough" standard.
  • Complaining that it's too strict to suggest that both partners should be enthusiastic about sex.
  • Arguing that men don't get to consent, as if feminists have somehow claimed this was okay, or that men are okay with not consenting, so women should be too. (Pick one and stick with it, guys.)

The impression I get is that the Sacks/MRA conception of feminism is now stuck sometime in the mid-80s (which, to be fair, mine was until well into the 90s, when my only knowledge of feminism came from First Amendment discussions wherein feminism and the Religious Right were lumped together as the forces of oppression), and basically sees modern feminism as a cynical grab for bargaining chips in an adversarial division of sexes rather than a movement for social justice.

What it comes down to, I think, is that MRAs have demonized feminism to such an extent that any idea a feminist proposes must be rejected on principle. Besides, under a "bargaining chip" paradigm, any concession, even one you're predisposed to, is a loss of power.