Category: Social justice
Until I read this BBC article, I had no idea the extent to which South Africa has a problem with rape. One out of every four girls in South Africa will be raped before she gets to be 16 years of age:
It is a fact that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped, than learning how to read . . . The majority of the victims are 12 years old or younger. Many of the perpetrators are themselves children . . . Sexual violence pervades society, with one of the highest reported rates of rape in the world, and an alarmingly high incidence of domestic violence and child abuse.
The article indicates that many of the rape victims are babies. It is an utterly horrible situation.
Al Franken’s amendment to the new DoD appropriations bill has passed. Obama has signed it into law.
This is the now infamous anti-rape amendment, which opens up and begins to hold accountable contractor abuse in cases involving sexual assault. The vote was 68-30, which is not exactly close. The thirty votes against?
Most of these people have not explained themselves, but have carped loudly afterward at their “characterization” as somehow pro-rape. An accusation Franken did not make. (Part of the heat around this has been generated by Franken’s acrimonious row with Senator’s Corker and Alexander, who co-wrote an op-ed piece condemning the amendment.) Senator Cornyn has been quoted in the after math thus:
Trying to tap into the natural sympathy that we have for this victim of this rape —and use that as a justification to frankly misrepresent and embarrass his colleagues, I don’t think it’s a very constructive thing.
Any embarrassment seems, however, to have been self-acquired in this case. Senator Sessions complaint about the amendment curiously misses the point of it while sounding a standard Republican note:
First Premier Bank has just introduced its new 79% interest rate sub-prime credit card. No, that’s not a typo, and some experts expect to see more credit cards with sky-high interest.
Which makes me again bring up the topic of a national usury cap. Thomas Geoghegan recommended such a cap last year, in his article in The American Prospect. He suggested a credit card interest cap of 12% and a law completely barring payday loans.
I have filed several class action suits against large payday lenders (here’s a post on one of those suits). These lenders often argue that people need these 400% interest loans for short term emergencies. At what cost, though? In my experience, these lenders are commonly stretching out these “short term” loans for many months. People who borrow $500 will pay $2000 in interest over the year and they will STILL OWE THE $500.
Many states allow payday lenders to charge in excess of 1000% interest. These loans suck the very life out of working class folks. They amount to financial crack cocaine, because people often end up taking out a second, and a third payday loan in order to pay off the first one. It’s a terrible mess and it’s ruining lives. That’s why 13 states have passed laws making sure that payday lenders cannot operate in those jurisdictions. It’s time for the other states, and Congress, to get with the program.
To put this all in perspective, remember the stories about “loan sharks?” Those were the good old days. “Simple nominal annual interest rates on extortionate mafia loan shark debts averaged 250%.” Syndicate Loan-Shark Activities and New York’s Usury Statute, 66 Colum. L. Rev. 167, 167 (1966).
And here’s another irony. The Bible clearly holds that usury is a sin comparable to murder. Usury is prohibited by Exodus 22:25: “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” Usury is also prohibited by Leviticus 25:35-37. In spite of these Bible quotes, if you want to find lots of payday stores and payday lenders, look for geographical areas where you’ll also find conservative Christians. That is the finding of Steven M. Graves and Christopher Peterson, in a law review article entitled “Usury Law and the Christian Right: Faith-Based Political Power and the Geography of American Payday Loan Regulation,” 57 Cath. U. L. Rev. 637, 640 (2008):
We conclude, with a high degree of statistical certainty, that states with powerful conservative Christian populations tend to host relatively greater numbers of payday loan locations per capita as well as a greater commercial density of payday lenders. These findings propound a tragic and sad irony. Those states that have most ardently held to their pious Christian traditions have tended to become more infested with the progeny of money changers once expelled by Christ from the Hebrew temple. Legislators in those states, who have effectively used biblical principles to shape their legislative agenda on social and cultural issues, have failed to consistently apply biblical principles to economic legislation.
All it would take for Congress to outlaw payday loans is to write up a bill, have a majority of members of Congress approve of it, and then refer it to the President to sign it. But that can’t happen these days because the financial services industry pays our politicians huge amounts of money so that they WON’T sign these sorts of bills. And, of course, with regard to Congress, the banks “frankly own the place.”
You may have heard about this by now. Biologist and science fiction writer Peter Watts was stopped on his way back into Canada by border guards. He’d been helping a friend in the United States move and he was returning. He was flagged to the side and the guards fell on his vehicle. He stepped out to ask what was going on, was told to get back in his vehicle, and when he asked again for the reason for the search, he was pepper sprayed, beaten, thrown in a lock-up overnight, and the next day sent into a winter storm on foot in shirtsleeves, all his personal property confiscated pending arraignment on charges of assaulting a federal officer.
In his own words:
Along some other timeline, I did not get out of the car to ask what was going on. I did not repeat that question when refused an answer and told to get back into the vehicle. In that other timeline I was not punched in the face, pepper-sprayed, shit-kicked, handcuffed, thrown wet and half-naked into a holding cell for three fucking hours, thrown into an even colder jail cell overnight, arraigned, and charged with assaulting a federal officer, all without access to legal representation (although they did try to get me to waive my Miranda rights. Twice.). Nor was I finally dumped across the border in shirtsleeves: computer seized, flash drive confiscated, even my fucking paper notepad withheld until they could find someone among their number literate enough to distinguish between handwritten notes on story ideas and, I suppose, nefarious terrorist plots. I was not left without my jacket in the face of Ontario’s first winter storm, after all buses and intercity shuttles had shut down for the night.
In some other universe I am warm and content and not looking at spending two years in jail for the crime of having been punched in the face.
Here is a post on his behalf.
A legal defense fund is being built by the writing community as you read this.
The first thing, I admit, that occurred to me when I heard about it was a kind of reflexive “well, he must’ve said something,” the kind of self apology for representatives of my government that springs automatically to mind. Because none of us want to believe that thugs and bullies work for us.
I dismissed that idea. Watts is the least likely individual to provoke such a response.
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Many articles purporting to examine morality bore me. They tend to be laundry lists of personal preferences–the writer’s catalog of things that personally annoy and delight him or her–completely un-anchored by the scientific method or, for that matter, by any sort of disciplined thinking. Such articles have been around for a long time. Many of them were written prior to 1785, when Immanuel Kant wrote his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, where he urged that we get serious about morality’s underpinnings. Though Kant’s categorical imperative leaves much to be desired as a full description of phenomenon of morality, it should be noted that Kant did not have access to the modern findings of cognitive science.
At edge.com, Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard Professor of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Biological Anthropology, has published an article entitled “It Seems Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality.” Hauser’s article, based on many of his prior writings, is a rigorous, insightful and succinct account of the roots of human morality.
Hauser starts his article with an attack on the commonly heard claim that religion is a major source of our moral insights. There is not a drop of evidence suggesting this, as should be obvious. After all, morally deficient believers and morally enlightened nonbelievers are ubiquitous (and vice versa). Hauser does acknowledge that religions do endow their members with a sense of meaning and community. His sharp attack, however, is on the narrow claim that religions provide “the only– or perhaps even the ultimate– source of moral reasoning.” This raises an obvious question: If our sense of morality is not based on religion, on what is it based?
Hauser argues thatscience has demonstrated that each of us is endowed with a gift from nature: “a biological code for living a moral life.” Our biologically endowed “cold calculus” takes the form of rules such as these: Actions are seen as worse than omissions; and forcing someone to do something for the greater good is worse if you make a person worse off in the process. Hauser describes this set of rules as a “moral grammar . . . and impartial, rational and unemotional capacity . . . an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden.”
This impartial grammar has been revealed through experiments in which people were presented with unfamiliar moral dilemmas (he avoided such well-worn topics as abortion and euthanasia). For instance, is it permissible for a hospital to involuntarily take various internal organs from a healthy person walking by the hospital in order to save the lives of five patients needing transplants? When these sorts of dilemmas are presented to people of wildly divergent cultural backgrounds, the surprising finding is that their particular backgrounds are virtually irrelevant to determining how they will resolve such dilemmas.
The work of Frans de Waal dovetails nicely with Hauser’s writings. In particular, De Waal has argued that humans have evolved to be predominantly groupish and peace-loving beings who are well-tuned to look out for each other. Therefore, the question arises: what has gone wrong where we see moral atrocities? Hauser’s answer is that these atrocities arise due to culturally constructed emotions that fuel “in-group favoritism, outgroup hatred and ultimately dehumanization.” Essentially, we become just like psychopaths with regard to those we perceive to be in out-groups. Psychopaths are generally this way toward all others–they know the “rules” but they don’t care. The rest of us are psychopaths toward every who we characterize to be our outgroup. We see these people in outgroups as “disposable.” We allow children overseas to die, even when we have the money to prevent these deaths, and even when we would not allow the child of a sibling or a neighbor’s child (who we perceive to be in our ingroup) to suffer.
Here lies the answer to understanding the dangers of nurture, of education and partiality. When we fuel in-group biases by elevating and praising members of the group, we often unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, denigrate the “other” by feeding the most nefarious of all emotions, the dragon of disgust. We label “the other” (the members of the outgroup) with a description that makes them as subhuman even an adamant, often parasitic and file, and thus disgusting. When disgust is recruited, those in the ingroup have only one way out: purge the other.
Hauser’s work also dovetails well with the research of Jonathan Haidt, who has argued that disgust is one of the five pillars of morality. Haidt considers in-group/outgroup tension to be another one of those five pillars of morality (a separate pillar), whereas Hauser appears to be consolidating these two factors (people in outgroups disgust us). This consolidation seems to be the case, at least on an intuitive and anecdotal basis. Xenophobia and disgust do seem to go hand in hand. Mistreatment of members of outgroups not only allowed, but sometimes encouraged by those who preach universal love. Consider, for instance, the way that the members of many religions characterize gays–they are usually relegated to the outgroup. Hauser’s argument also comports with the basic findings of those who have studied human reactions to ingroups and outgroups.
If left unexamined and unchecked, our evolved system of simplistically categorizing people into ingroups and outgroups leads to moral catastrophe. This simplistic and intuitive system evolved while we lived in small groups of highly familiar people (many of them family members), and during times when there were no formal laws that coordinated large numbers of widely diverse individuals.
According to Hauser, this genesis of the problem also presents a potential solution. Although all animals have evolved the capacity to distinguish between members of the in group and out groups, these features are not calibrated in the genome. They are “abstract and content free,” much as our biologically endowed rules of moral grammar. We learn how to define our ingroup (and consequently, outgroups). Even seemingly compelling distinctions among humans, such as “racial” differences can be diminished or even eliminated by spending time with different-seeming others.
Moral education requires introducing all children, early in life, to a wide varieties of religions, political systems, languages, social organizations and races. Research shows that those who dated or married people of other “races” don’t so readily characterize those of other “races” to their outgroup. Exposure to diversity is perhaps our best option for reducing, if not eradicating, strong outgroup biases.
Hauser urges that we take our intuitive moral intuitions to task. We need to consciously push ourselves beyond our local family and community and train ourselves to “listen to the universal voice of [our] species.” We need to become “champions of plurality.”
At bottom, we need to recognize that diversity is not simply a buzzword. It is a critical part of the moral curriculum. We need to make ourselves spend time with different others, so that we are more likely to see one race, not many. We need to learn to see only fellow humans, rather than “our people” versus sub humans. Only when we have trained ourselves this way can our universal instinct toward empathy and our biologically endowed abstract moral grammar work together t pragmatically resolve differences peacefully. This would be a much better alternative to cracking heads and going to war based upon our ancient impulses toward unexamined, unenlightened and unjustified disgust.
Karen Armstrong’s “Charter for Compassion” is a new and eloquent re-affirmation of the golden rule. Her Charter is not based upon any particular religious tradition. Rather, it is based on the recognition that compassion (the golden rule) is the centerpiece for all worthy moral systems. Armstrong, formerly a nun was recently interviewed by Bill Moyers, and had this to say:
[T]his is the beginning of something. We’re writing a charter which we hope will be sort of like the charter of human rights, two pages only. Saying that compassion is far more important than belief. That it is the essence of religion. All the traditions teach that it is the practice of compassion and honoring the sacred in the other that brings us into the presence of what we call God, Nirvana, Raman, or Tao. And people are remarkably uneducated about compassion these days. So we want to bring it back to the center of attention. But then, it’s got to be incarnated into practical action.
. . . Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn’t mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what’s motivating the other, learning about their grievances. So the Charter of Compassion was to recall compassion from the sidelines, to which it’s often put in religious discourse and put it back there.
I do believe that this type of approach is sorely needed in the modern world. We need an approach that can be embraced by every good-hearted person, religious or not. This Charter is something simple enough and powerful enough to combat the egoism, arrogant intellectualism, arrogant religions, consumerism and xenophobia that are screwing up so many of us.
When people ask why laws must be changed to protect behavior that seems “outside” social norms, it can sometimes be difficult to make the point that rights must accrue to individuals and their choices or they mean nothing. So when a woman is stoned in some backwater country for adultery (whether she is in fact married or not) or a young girl has her clitoris snipped off without having any say in the matter or when a child is allowed to die from a treatable illness because his or her parents believe that only prayer can save them or when people are denied basic civil rights because they don’t play the social game the same way as everyone else or—
If this were an issue of a racially mixed marriage, everyone would be aware and outraged. In this case it is not, it is a lesbian couple with children, who suffered a dual outrage—the first being denial of partner’s rights at the hospital where one perished and the second being the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the survivor against those who callously disregarded their basic humanity. The assumption by strangers that because they didn’t fit some cookie-cutter definition of Normal that their fundamental humanity could be abridged in a life and death situation is not something that is redressable other than by law, because without a law people will make up any old justification to be assholes. And without a law, the rest of us will let them get away with it.
Read the story. Be outraged. But do not be silent.
Many conservatives have a “hate-love relation with biology.” Primatologist Frans De Waal terms this “the first great paradox of the American political landscape” in his new book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. In this new book, De Waal has produced another tome of lively writing and thoughtful analysis, reminding us of our exquisite human animal roots. He is out to set the record straight on a gnawing social issue: too many people invoke “evolution” to justify treating each other in contemptuous ways. This has got to stop, because this modern version of “Social Darwinism” paints a highly selective and distorted view of the kind of animals we humans are based on a wildly inaccurate distortion of how natural selection works.
Although I am not even halfway into De Waal’s book, I can see that De Waal has launched a sustained broadside against the commonly expressed perspective that evolutionary theory equates to “social Darwinism,” an approach embraced by many conservatives. The idea of social Darwinism is that “those who make it [successfully in life] shouldn’t let themselves be dragged down by those who don’t.” The idea was championed by British political philosopher Herbert Spencer in the 19th century. Spencer “decried attempts to equalize society’s playing field,” and said of the poor that “the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better.” De Waal comments that the business world fully embraces this idea and characterizes competition as a “law of biology” that will improve the human race. We thus have “the second great paradox of the American political landscape”:
Whereas the book found in most American homes and every hotel room urges us on almost every page to show compassion, social Darwinists scoff at such feelings, which only keeps nature from running its course. Poverty is dismissed as proof of laziness, and social justice as a weakness. Why not simply let the poor perish?
Many of these conservatives embrace the metaphor of the invisible hand, arguing that this invisible hand “will take care of society’s woes.” De Waal notes, however, “the invisible hand . . . did nothing to prevent the appalling survival-of-the-greatest scenes in New Orleans” following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Why are the assumptions about biology always on the negative side? [p. 4] . . . What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. [p. 7] . . . Our bodies and minds are made for social life, and we become hopelessly depressed in its absence [p. 10] . . . [It is a great myth] that human society is a voluntary creation of autonomous men. [p.20] . . . When our ancestors left the forest and entered an open, dangerous environment, they became prey and evolved a herd instinct that beats that of many animals. We excel at bodily synchrony and actually derive pleasure from it. [p. 20]. . . . All primates have this tendency [to develop trusting alliances], and some even invest in the community as a whole. Instead of just focusing on their own position, they demonstrate group-oriented behavior. [p. 34]
De Waal’s main message is that we are NOT condemned by nature to treat each other badly. Though competition is part of the picture, we have evolved to be predominantly groupish and peace-loving beings who are well-tuned to look out for each other. Not that we always look out for each other admirably, but there is plenty of reason to conclude that human animals are highly social in an empathetic way. Keep this book handy for the next time someone claims that they don’t need to care about people who are struggling to make it because nature is “dog eat dog.” That approach to life is a cop-out; it is certainly not justified by Darwin’s work.
A couple days ago, I saw this video of Sen. Lindsey Graham, a conservative senator from South Carolina, being pummeled by members of the “tea party.” The problem is that he is apparently not conservative enough.
You can hear the first questioner recommending that we basically dismantle the entire federal government to allow the “free market” to solve all our problems. It’s amazing to hear how prevalent this viewpoint is. I often hear it from conservative acquaintances, that government is in the way that the free market will take care of us much like God will take care of us, if only we would stop trying to help ourselves and just let good things happen. There is much evidence that this “free market fundamentalism” is pie in the sky, and it is also a dangerous way to think. And see this analysis and here.
The idea of free market fundamentalists, that good things will simply happen in a systematic way is based upon a huge mistaken assumption that all people are selfish and rational and that this selfish rationality will drive the system in a coherent way. This guiding principle of widespread rational selfishness is often referred to as homo economicus. Also consider that regulation, formal or otherwise, is prevalent throughout nature.
This week, I had two experiences which served as powerful evidence to me that people are not necessarily rational or selfish. Both of these situations involve houses, which are typically the single largest investment made by most people.
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