Tuesday, July 3, 2018

My America

Patriotism has never sat well with me. I dislike the sentiment that America is the greatest country in the world because while patting ourselves on the back it insults everyone else, because it's a statement based in irrational emotion and not on measurable fact, and because there is and always has been so much about America that is not great--racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, economic inequality, political and religious tribalism, and on and on. I dislike the association patriotism has with the values of Republican, Christian, gun-toting, MAGA-hat wearing, straight, white, cisgendered people because I don't identify with those values.

While at a Janelle Monáe concert this past weekend, though, I realized that maybe there is a version of patriotism that I can get behind. In her song "Crazy Classic Life," Monáe describes herself as "young, black, wild, and free," then proclaims, "I am not America's nightmare / I am the American dream." I love how she, as a queer black woman, reclaims the traditional narrative of the American dream, the belief that all men and women are created equal, and insists that dream is not the property of straight white men. This vision of America is one that I find worth celebrating.

I celebrate the Enlightenment ideals of reason and equality that America was founded on. I celebrate the good that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the other founding fathers gave us. I can do so while at the same time condemning the way they enslaved Africans, slaughtered Native Americans and stole their land, and treated women as property. The founding fathers may have been too ignorant to recognize the irony and the limitations of their version of "all men are created equal," but the system they built on principles of democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion made way for future generations to take what they left us and make it better. That is my America.

I celebrate Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and their fellow Sufragettes who led the movement to give women a voice in America's government. I celebrate Gloria Steinem, Betty Frieden, and other leaders of the women's liberation movement. I celebrate Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other women who have fought for women's rights within our legal system. I celebrate writers and artists like Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Nina Simone, and Beyoncé who speak to the experiences of black American women. I celebrate Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Michelle Obama. I celebrate Roe v. Wade. I celebrate the #MeToo movement and the Women's March. This is my America.

I celebrate Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and others who led us to the abolition of slavery in the United States. I celebrate Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. I celebrate Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and others who have fought for the rights and lives of indigenous people. I celebrate Joan Baez, Cesar Chavez, Nydia Velazquez, and others who have spoken out and fought for Latinos. I celebrate Margaret Cho, Maxine Hong Kingston, and George Takei. I celebrate Queen Liliʻuokalani, Duke Kahanamoku, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, Kealiʻi Reichel, and others who have worked to preserve native Hawaiian culture and values. I celebrate Loving v. Virginia. I celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement. I celebrate the Families Belong Together marches that took place across the country this past weekend. This is my America.

I celebrate Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and others who led the Stonewall Riots that ignited the flames of the LGBTIQ rights movement. I celebrate Harvey Milk, José Sarria, and Chad Griffin. I celebrate Sylvia Mock, Dan Savage, Ellen Degeneres, and Anderson Cooper. I celebrate United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges. I celebrate the Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and other organizations that continue to fight for the lives and rights of queer people. I celebrate the Provo Pride festival, the Encircle LGBTQ+ Family & Youth Resource Center, and the LoveLoud Festival, which have created safe places to celebrate sexual and gender diversity in my conservative community. This is my America.

I celebrate similar progress that has been made in other countries all over the world. I celebrate those of my fellow Americans who see beyond our national pride and our tribalism to recognize ways that others may be doing better than us in areas such as education, healthcare, and human rights, and seek to apply those lessons learned toward making America greater than it currently is or ever has been. I celebrate immigrants and the strengths they bring to America.

Janelle Monáe ended her concert the other night with the song "Americans," which includes this powerful speech (emphasis mine):
Let me help you in here
Until women can get equal pay for equal work
This is not my America
Until same gender loving people can be who they are
This is not my America
Until black people can come home from a police stop
Without being shot in the head
This is not my America
Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful
This is not my America
I can't hear nobody talkin' to me 
Until Latinos and Latinas don't have to run from walls
This is not my America
But I tell you today that the devil is a liar
Because it's gon' be my America before it's all over
I celebrate an America that not only allows for voices of dissent, but listens to those voices of dissent. I celebrate an America where diversity makes us stronger. I celebrate what we are and I celebrate what we can become. This is my America.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Janelle Monáe Loves Me

My husband and I were so excited to see Janelle Monáe in concert last night that we dyed our hair pink in honor of her song "Pynk." On the way to the show, I joked that if she didn't specifically pick me out from the crowd and tell me she likes my hair, I'd be offended. Spoiler alert: She didn't call out me or my hair or, as far as I was aware, even notice me, but she created a concert experience so perfectly tailored to my tastes that it felt as if I'd been singled out.

Obviously the reason I went to the concert is that I like her music, and her performance in that regard did not disappoint. She performed every single song from her newest album, Dirty Computer, and several of her older hits like "Tightrope" and "Q.U.E.E.N.," and delivered beautiful vocals filled with sincere passion on each song. Whether singing the warm, fuzzy melodies of "Pynk" or rapping the hard truths of "Django Jane," her delivery was virtually flawless. Her band, likewise, is made up of talented live performers in their own right. I've heard from friends who were frustrated by the poor acoustics of the venue, with the extreme volumes interacting badly with the small space, but thankfully I'm an old man who can't tolerate concert volumes in even the best of acoustic situations, so I go prepared with earplugs and they served me well last night.

Another of the things I love about Janelle Monáe is that she is an extraordinarily talented dancer, which makes her music videos delightful to watch. Last night I was so caught up in the music that I kept on forgetting about this other talent of hers. Then she and her backup dancers would do something amazing, and each time it was like discovering this thing I love about her all over again. Nowhere was this more pronounced for me than in her performance of "Make Me Feel," which included an extended instrumental intro accompanied by a mesmerizing solo dance routine. My friend David captured part of that enthralling routine on video:


Speaking of things that make Janelle Monáe's music videos awesome, I would be remiss if I didn't mention her sense of style. She is always dressed in costumes that are uniquely her and surrounded by sets that complement her look perfectly, all comprised of bold color palettes that I could stare at for hours. Her live performance lived up to this high standard, with each costume and set chosen carefully to match the song. When her attendants dressed her in robes of royalty as they brought out her throne for "Django Jane," it felt like watching a queen being crowned.

The way Monáe presents herself as royalty--equal parts self-love, confidence, and "fuck you" to anyone who would think less of her because she is a queer black woman--is inspiring. 

Another thing I love about Janelle Monáe is that she is an album artist. Many albums are simply a collection of songs, and there's nothing wrong with that--I love a great song--but I especially love when musical artists release albums that tell a story when experienced as a collective, larger piece of art. Monáe's ArchAndroid did that for me, and she did it again with Dirty Computer; both are albums where I enjoy having the individual songs come up in my random mix of music I like, but I will also play the album from start to finish in order to enjoy that experience. When the concert started last night with the album intro, "Dirty Computer," playing as she came on stage, and then she proceeded to perform the next four songs off the album in order, I thought, "Wow, that's a fun way to do a concert, but will she play any of her old stuff?" Then she took a break from the album to play some older songs, then came back to the current album, and back and forth for the rest of the concert. She effectively performed the entire album with commercial breaks for previous hits, and in album order with the exception of the hit single "Make Me Feel" and "I Got the Juice," which appear together toward the middle of the album but she pushed closer to the end for the concert. I have never admired the order of a concert set list as much as I did last night.

It's common at concerts to see audience members singing along, and that was especially pronounced last night--it seemed like everybody there knew every word to every song. This fact made me self-conscious of how bad I am at remembering the lyrics even to songs I listen to over and over. As I awkardly sang along with half of every line last night, though, I realized this is just how I enjoy music. I'm not great at memorizing words, but I love lyrics for their meaning; I appreciate well-executed form, but I thrive on meaningful, thought-provoking content. This is, of course, one of the things I love about Janelle Monáe--the ideas so powerfully expressed in her lyrics--and the concert did not disappoint in this regard. From the line "I am not the American nightmare / I am the American dream" in the first song she performed, "Crazy Classic Life," to "This is a cold war / You better know what you're fighting for" in "Cold War" to "Hold on, don't fight your war alone" in the final song of the evening, "Americans," Monáe had me thinking about what it means to be an American and what it means to be part of a society of deeply flawed people trying to make the world better despite our frequent screw-ups.

Finally, what I love most about Janelle Monáe is that the core of her message is about love--love for self and love for others. She demonstrated that love throughout the concert, but never more so than during "I Like That," an anthem to self-love and individuality, when she paused to scan across the audience and call out things she liked about specific people. "Ooh, I like your bow tie." "I like your outfit." "I like your hair." Sadly, she did not look at me and tell me she liked my pynk hair, but the message of love and acceptance was received all the same. Thank you, Janelle Monáe.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The "C" Word

When I was a kid, my mom and my adult sisters fought a lot--and very loudly. Their frequent shouting matches were an ongoing source of stress for me. I hated it so much that by the time I was nine or ten, I started mediating their fights, doing my best to calmly explain each of their perspectives to the other in an attempt to find a place of mutual understanding and, most importantly to me, peace and quiet. I became known as the peacemaker in my family. At the time I took pride in this role and the compliments I received for my mediation skills. Looking back now, I find it a little troubling that my mother allowed this weight to be put on such a young child's shoulders, but it is what it is and I am who I am in part because of those experiences.

Lately, being on social media feels like living in that home, where people are constantly yelling at each other and I just really want everyone to get along and be nice. And by "lately," I mean for as long as the internet has existed. I don't claim innocence here; 2008, when I'd just moved to California and Prop 8 was on the ballot, was a particularly low point for me as far as online civility goes. Even before that, I had my fair share of virtual battles with both friends and strangers I disagreed with. Perhaps because of the conflict-related trauma I'd felt as a child, each new online confrontation produced an intense physical reaction in me, where my body would tremble as if I were dying of hypothermia, regardless of the temperature. I would dread checking my email to find a notification of another comment in an ongoing argument, but keep checking anyway, out of some masochistic compulsion.

In the past ten years I've developed coping strategies to deal with conflict both online and in real life while keeping my emotional health intact, because the reality is that conflict is part of living with other people, and avoiding it often leads to more problems. In the case of online conflict, I continue to find value in engaging with people I disagree with, despite the widely-held belief that there's no point in discussing controversial issues online because no one ever changes their mind anyway. I used to share this belief, but I realized a few years ago that on several occasions I've argued with someone online and absolutely refused to give them any ground, only to find myself weeks, months, or years later recalling their words and, removed from the heat of the moment, recognizing that they maybe kind of had a point. And if I do that, surely I'm not the only one? Besides, as I said in my little allegory the other day, the alternative is not talking to each other, and I don't think that's going to solve any problems.

If anything, the solution to our problems is talking to each other more. Social media makes it all too easy for us to unfollow or unfriend those we disagree with, those whose opinions we find repulsive, and as a result those people become more and more "other" to us, to the point where they're barely human. Our congress (speaking for the United States here because I'm not as familiar with politics elsewhere) doesn't get anything done because the two sides just yell at each other and no one is willing to listen. Sadly, this is a case where our representatives are actually doing a good job of representing us; if we can't talk to each other civilly, how do we expect them to?

Oh, crap. I said the "C" word. Civility is not a popular concept among my fellow liberals lately. And I get it, I promise I really do. In a world where the U.S. president regularly slings horribly offensive insults at his opponents and openly incites his followers to violence, why should we treat his supporters with civility? When children are being put in cages, why the hell does it matter how civil we are in our attempts to get them out? Those arguments are absolutely valid. But if you've made it this far in the post, will you bear with me a little longer?

(Apologies to those who find this word offensive.)

First, let me say this: If being "uncivil" is the best tool you have to get those children out of those cages, then by all means be uncivil. At the same time, while we're doing whatever is necessary to resolve the crisis at hand (and I do not pretend this particular crisis is resolved), I find it valuable to self-reflect on the way we solve problems, and consider whether there are better ways for us to achieve our goals. Sometimes the answer will be "no," but it's still a question worth asking. That's how we progress and make the human race better.

I'm not going to argue that you should treat your enemies civilly because they deserve it; I know that isn't a convincing argument when you're justifiably horrified that someone is doing or saying something that hurts you or people you care about. Rather, I would argue for civility for more practical reasons:
  1. Civility is often the most efficient solution to a social problem. Not always the quickest solution, mind you, but efficient in the sense of achieving results without creating new problems. If I really want you to do something, I can persuade you with reason or I can hit you over the head and force you to do what I want. Both can be effective, and violence might even achieve results sooner, but the second I turn my back, you're likely to retaliate. 
  2. If we are only civil with people who are civil with us, this cycle of incivility is just going to continue indefinitely. Currently, the right is accusing the left of being uncivil. The left responds by saying we've put up with Trump's incivility for two years--it's about time you guys get a taste of your own medicine! The right responds by saying Trump's incivility is just a reaction to years and years of the left's intellectual elite mocking and bullying middle America. The left responds that our mocking and bullying is just a response to centuries of racism, sexism, and homophobia. And on and on and on. We can argue about who started this, like two bickering children, but I'm more interested in who's going to end it. 
  3. If my worldview/philosophy/religion/political party is really the best one, I'll make a more convincing argument by showing you than by telling you. The way I show you is by being a decent human being, by living according to the values of compassion and empathy that I preach. Does this mean I lie down and let you stomp on my rights or the rights of others? No. I can firmly assert our rights and demand change without resorting to the hatred and vitriol I find so repulsive in my opponents. 
  4. Aggression is a product of toxic masculinity. For virtually all of recorded history, the world has been ruled by men with frail egos and big swords who enforce their will through violence. Admittedly, I'll take verbal violence over physical violence any day, but isn't it about time we tried something else entirely? Can we give soft power a chance? 
I look forward to a future where all of humanity's problems can and will be solved through civil discourse, but I recognize we aren't there yet. If a man is pointing a gun at my children, I'll do what I can to gently talk him out of shooting and I sure as hell won't say anything to provoke him, but you know I'll be watching for the soonest opportunity to get that gun out of his hands by whatever means necessary. If I also have a gun and I can shoot him without putting my children in greater risk than they already are, I will shoot. Given violent problems, sometimes violence is the only solution. 

With that in mind, I'll make one request: When you need to punch, punch up; don't punch down. I only became familiar with this rule of comedy recently, when reading some of the responses to Michelle Wolf's White House Correspondents' speech. The idea is that productive satire punches up by making fun of those in power, thus shining light on their abuses of power. Comedy that punches down, making fun of the powerless, just reinforces the systems that oppress them. Given this framework, if you need to be uncivil, be uncivil toward those in power--politicians--not toward the people who voted for them. If what we liberals believe about Trump is true, then his supporters, complicit as they may be in his electoral victory and in verbally defending his latest atrocity du jour, are just as much his victims as the rest of us are. Yes, minorities and immigrants are his explicit targets, but in the long run no one benefits from a Trump presidency but the very rich (and primarily Trump himself). (And if what you conservatives believe is true, we liberals need to be brought to the light, not hit over the head with it.)

As for the incident that sparked this latest debate about civility? When I heard about Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave the Red Hen, my first response was sadistic glee at someone I think is pretty horrible getting her just desserts (while being denied dessert, ha ha). My second response was that I really don't want to live in a world where I have to fear that I might be turned away from a business because of who I am, and while I see a big difference between working for Donald Trump (a choice) and being gay (not a choice), I know a lot of conservatives don't see that difference, and in a world where the right to discriminate has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, I fear retaliation. When I got married three years ago, every time I had to explain to a vendor that my fiance was a man, I tensed in anticipation of their reaction. Thankfully no one refused us service, but the looming threat added stress to an already stressful situation. But, despite that fear, after reading others' opinions of the Red Hen situation over the past few days, I've come to the conclusion that the owner did not behave uncivilly. She exercised her right to protest, and she directed her protest at a government representative, not a civilian. She punched up, not down.

As for me, I will continue my attempts to engage civilly with people I disagree with, even those whose opinions I find repulsive and contrary to my most deeply held beliefs. I hope that, with time, our collective efforts to do so will pay off in a more harmonious civilization where we work together to find solutions to our problems through consensus and compromise. What say you, friends? Is this a hopeless effort? What value do you see in civility? When do you think it's appropriate to forget about civility and embrace a more aggressive approach? Tell me what you think. (But please don't yell. The nine-year-old child in me just wants the yelling to stop.)

Monday, June 25, 2018

Nothing but a Flashlight and a Map

Hey! Hello there! I'm Ben. I just got here. Well, relatively speaking. I mean, I've been here about thirty-eight years, as far as I remember. I don't remember anything before here, just that I was suddenly here and it was dark and cold and scary and I really didn't know what this "here" place was or why I was here or what I was supposed to be doing here. I still don't, to be honest, but I had a flashlight and some nice people gave me a map, so I've been exploring. The map looked really old and it looked like a lot of people had been adding to it over the years--some features had been added in different colored inks, some features had been scratched out or erased, and there were several notes written all over the map in different handwriting. I've been using the map to help me explore this place and don't get me wrong, it's better than not having a map, but this thing is not accurate. Like, one time I was following a trail to where the map said there was a big treasure chest full of gold and silver and diamonds, but all I found when I got there was a big pile of manure. I added a note to the map so I'd remember not to go that way again. The map did help me avoid that big pit over there, so like I said it's not worthless, but I get the impression that the people who made the map were just like me, wandering around in this massive, dark place with nothing but a flashlight, and maybe an old map someone gave them. I don't think they were giving me bad information on purpose--at least not most of them--but you try mapping a place this big when all you have is a flashlight.


Oh, you are trying? Hey, I have an idea: What if we work together? You keep wandering, shining your flashlight wherever you go, and making notes on your map. I'll do the same, and next time we run into each other we can compare notes. I can see you're hesitant. I get it. I'm sure there were things on the map they gave you that led you astray, and you don't want to make that mistake again--putting too much trust in another wanderer who, after all, is just another guy with a flashlight. Maybe I see something that looks like a monster, but actually it's just a shadow. Maybe I find the perfect chair to sit down and take a break, but the chair is too hard or too soft for you. Believe me, I understand. So how about this? Let's agree up front that each of us gets to decide what we add to our own map. Like maybe when you share your notes with me, I'll pencil them in on my map, but only if they make sense based on what I've seen for myself. I'll let you know if I find something that contradicts one of your notes, and I hope you'll do the same for me, but let's agree right now that this isn't about proving one of us is right and the other is wrong; it's about working together, sharing our resources to figure this place out.

Hey, isn't that much better? This information-sharing thing you and I have going is really working out, and I feel like my understanding of this place is exponentially better thanks to the combined benefit of two flashlights, two maps, and two explorers. Which has me thinking… As I've been wandering around, I saw a lot of other flashlights out there. Like, way more than just you and me. Enough that it's hard to go anywhere without bumping into someone. What say we invite others to join our little exploration party? Same agreement--each of us does our own thing, finds what we can find with our own flashlights and our own maps, and reports back. That’s got to improve each of our chances of creating a map that approximates the real thing, right? Okay, let's give this a shot.

Oh. Oh, hey. Whoa. Sorry, didn't see you there. Ow! That was my toe. Hey, ow, um, uh, ah--dang, it's crowded in here, isn't it? And so loud! Why is everyone yelling? I don't… Oh, crap, is he hitting her with his map? But that wasn't--Hey! What are you guys doing to each other? What's--

HEY! STOP IT!

Hey guys. Sorry to yell at you. I don't mean to be a jerk. That's really not how I wanted this to go. I'm sorry, guys. This wasn't the deal. Remember we were all in this together? We were just trying to figure this place out? I feel like we've gotten off track. And, I've got to be honest, I'm just as guilty as any of us are. I got caught up in what I had on my map and I so strongly disagreed with what you folks over there were putting on your maps and when I realized things weren't going as I intended and people were getting hurt I kind of panicked and then everyone was yelling and I felt like no one was listening to me so I yelled louder and--

Well, here we are. I'm sorry if I was a jerk to you. I will try to do better. Please let me know if I screw up again.

So where do we go from here? The way I see it, we have three options:

  • We keep doing what we're doing. I mean, I guess that's an option, but you know what they say about doing the same thing and expecting different results..
  • We call the whole thing off. We tried. It didn't work. Oh well. I'll go back to wandering around with my flashlight and map and you go back to wandering around with yours, and we'll just keep our findings to ourselves. Except. Except there are still a ton of us in here, and we're just going to keep bumping into each other as we wander around in the dark, trying to figure out what this place is. I'm not sure how not talking to each other will help anything.
  • OR, we keep trying, but with renewed emphasis on our shared mission to make sense of this place, and maybe a few general rules of conduct we can agree on. I propose the following:
    • Remember, it's not about being right. We're all in this together. If you show me that something on my map doesn't match up with what you've seen with your flashlight, it's in my best interest to check it out and, if I agree with your conclusion, to change my map. Me insisting my map is right just because it's my map really does me no good.
    • We all need to agree to listen at least as much as we talk. Like, 50/50 split as a bare minimum. But really, I've just got one flashlight and there are seven billion other flashlights out there, so I'd probably be better off listening way more than I talk.
    • Okay, so we're all talking and we're all listening. What else? Is it too much to ask that we be kind to each other? I mean, I get that we can't be kind all the time. Like, when my flashlight caught that man hitting that woman, my immediate priority wasn't being kind to the man. But let's at least agree to be kind whenever we can?
    • If kindness feels like too much, then let's at least agree not to hurt others on purpose, and to listen when people tell us we're hurting them unintentionally. 

What do you say? Am I being unreasonable? How about this? I'm not going to put a gun to your head and make you agree to these rules. That would kind of go against the spirit of the whole thing, don't you think? Instead, I'll just do my part: I'll keep searching through this place, sharing my observations with anyone who's interested, and I'll listen to anyone who wants to share their observations with me. I'll do my best to be kind, and not to hurt anyone. I think this is the best way to figure this place out, but the whole point is that we all have different opinions, so I'll do me and you do you. And if you want to join my little party, you are more than welcome, so long as you play nice with the rest of us. Happy exploring!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Unruly

Last month when my fourteen-year-old daughter got dress-coded at school for having colored hair and then her petition to change the dress code went mini-viral among some of our local friends, I learned something about myself: I don't see any value in following rules just because they are rules. This has not always been true; I have spent most of my life as a rule-follower by nature. So much, in fact, that even now I only break rules when I make a conscious, deliberate decision to do so. My default is still to follow rules just because my brain is used to believing that's what you're supposed to do. But I no longer assign any moral value to following rules, per se.

I found this image randomly on the internet. I love that they chose a robot as their mascot for rule-following. I was a good little robot for much of my life, doing exactly what I was programmed to do.

This realization dawned on me as I read comments on my friends' posts about the dress code situation, and I saw how many of my friends' friends interpreted it as a moral issue: It was unambiguously clear to them that the right thing to do, even if you disagree with a school's dress code, is to follow it because it's the rule. In their eyes, I was a horrible father for allowing my daughter to dye her hair when that was against the rules, and the "right" way to do it would have been to first try to change the rule, then dye her hair. I see two problems with that logic:
  1. I was aware of the rule, but I wasn't sure it would be enforced. It's very common for old, outdated rules to still be on the books even though no one enforces them anymore because we recognize the rules no longer serve a purpose (or never did). If the rule wasn't going to be enforced, as I believed would be the case if the principal were a reasonable person conscious of the fact that we're living in the 21st century, then I wasn't going to bother making a fuss. 
  2. As far as I was concerned, the rule was not valid. The school has no right to tell my daughter what color her hair needs to be, because they do not own her body. She does. As such, I felt no need to ask for permission before I allowed her to exercise her right to do whatever she wants with her own body. 
See, here's the thing. Rules are not inviolable laws of the universe. They're agreements to behave in certain ways because we want to achieve certain effects. As humanity learns and progresses, we realize that some rules serve the purpose we created them for, and others don't. The ones that don't, we change. There are many ways to change rules, depending on the rule, the system that enforces the rule, and your position within that system. One tried and true way of changing rules is to break them. If enough people break the rule and we collectively see that the system doesn't fall apart, then the system is forced to reconsider the rule's purpose and value. The risk of taking this approach is that you may have to suffer system-imposed consequences of breaking the rule until it's changed. I made sure my daughter understood this before dyeing her hair and, as it turned out, she was faced with consequences: The principal told her she had to choose between covering up the dyed hair with natural-color dye or not participating in the end-of-year awards ceremony and other activities. I made it clear to my daughter that this was not a moral decision with a right and wrong answer; it was a matter of what compromises she was willing to make in order to be allowed continued participation in the system. She chose to cover up the bright colors in order to attend the awards ceremony, and did so for two days until we successfully changed the dress code. As far as I'm concerned, my daughter behaved ethically and responsibly throughout the ordeal, and her approach proved effective as she achieved her goal: Future students at the school will no longer be subjected to this silly, outdated rule. 

Human laws, of course, are just rules that a large group of people have agreed on. Just like any other rule, laws are only valuable so long as we agree they are valuable. For example, we tend to think of the choice to smoke marijuana or not as a moral issue because we're so used to it being illegal, but the fact that it is no longer illegal in several states and countries around the world shows just how arbitrary the law is. Those who do not believe it immoral to smoke pot and want to do so but live in places where it's illegal, then, have not a moral choice but a choice between potential consequences: 
  1. Choose not to smoke because they don't want to suffer the consequences of breaking the law.
  2. Choose to smoke knowing that they risk suffering the consequences of breaking the law. 
Either choice is a valid choice, and of course there are a lot of factors to consider that will be different for each individual. For example, if you are a black man in America then statistically speaking the risk you take when breaking the law is greater than the risk a white person faces when breaking the same law because black men are much more likely to receive tougher sentencing. If you're a minor, the choice to smoke pot or not carries with it not only legal risks but also health risks, as studies suggest marijuana use during teenage years can negatively impact brain development

Image result for no marijuana
Don't do drugs, kids. Adults, I sincerely do not care whether you do drugs, so long as you aren't hurting anybody. 

We've seen this divide between the rules-for-rules'-sake mindset and the rules-so-long-as-they-serve-a-purpose mindset in the response to the recent immigration crisis. To those who see following rules as a moral issue, the immigrants who broke the law by entering the United States illegally were simply suffering the consequences of breaking the law, and that happened to include their children being locked up in cages. These "illegals" had behaved immorally and it was not our place to remove the consequence of that choice any more than it would be our place to stop God from punishing a sinner (although now that I think about it, I recall there being a guy in Christian theology who did exactly that--a guy Christians are supposedly trying to be like...). For those of us who believe rules and laws are arbitrary and malleable, we're more likely to question whether the law these immigrants are being punished for violating is valid in the first place, and to conclude, if nothing else, that in this case the punishment far outweighed the severity of the crime. 

So that's my take on rules, laws, dress codes, pot, and immigration. What do you think? Does this kind of thinking inevitably lead to chaos and the downfall of civilization? Alternatively, am I giving rules too much credit and really we'd be better off without them entirely? What rules or laws do you break regularly? Do you break speed limit laws when driving? I want to hear your thoughts, and I promise to be nice even if we disagree--that's a rule I try hard not to break. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Great Social Catalyst


I was on my way to write a blog post about the good and bad of social media, but of course I had to check in on Facebook first, and when I did I came across the above video. If you don't feel like taking three and a half minutes to watch it, the concept is that there's this bar where people behave like we do on social media--randomly declaring political beliefs, talking at each other without listening in return, fighting over every little thing, and generally being mean. Basically, social media brings out the worst in humanity. 

I can't disagree with any of the criticisms this video makes--and it's far from the first to make them. I mean, you don't have to look any further than the current American president's Twitter account to see how social media can bring out the worst in humanity. But clearly there is still value in social media. If at least some part of you didn't think so, you wouldn't still be here. 

Here's what I believe: Future generations will look back at the advent of social media as a turning point in humanity's history that ultimately led to a far greater sense of connectedness across formerly insurmountable boundaries of distance, culture, language, religion, and politics. Social media will be the catalyst that pushes the human race beyond tribalism and toward truly thinking of ourselves as a single global community. Optimistic, you say? Yes, yes it is. (That's kind of my schtick.)

But social media certainly has the potential to be this catalyst. Among my Facebook friends I have coworkers thousands of miles from me in the Philippines, Australia, the UK, and all around the US; PTA and neighborhood friends here in Utah, most of whom are very religious and relatively conservative; mostly liberal friends from my college years spent with fellow humanities and then library science students; and friends who are gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, and two spirit. (This is not an exhaustive list; sorry if I left you out.) Just like every other human, I'm likely to interact more with those I have more in common with--whether geography, culture, politics, religion, or a similar sense of humor--but I still see those posts from the friends who are less like me. Sometimes those posts connect with me, regardless of our differences; sometimes I'm just not interested in a post so I keep scrolling; and of course sometimes someone says something political or religious that presses my button in just the wrong way, and sometimes I do better than others at either engaging civilly or shutting up and walking away. But whatever my reaction, I see those posts, and every time I do, my worldview expands just a little bit. I get a glimpse into the daily lives of people who are different from me, and more importantly I get a glimpse into their minds. I will never see President Trump the way his supporters do, but thanks to a few of my Facebook friends I have a pretty good idea of how they perceive him. That, as far as I'm concerned, is a major value that social media adds to my life. 

Social media is still relatively new, in terms of the history of human evolution, and we're still figuring out how to navigate this new landscape. We're not used to being so exposed to each other's raw emotions and often-unfiltered thoughts. If the human race had suddenly discovered telepathy, we'd be having the same problem. But telepathy would not only expose us to each other's darkest, meanest, ugliest inner selves; it would also expose us to each other's most loving, most vulnerable, most beautiful inner selves. We would come to see not only our neighbor's anger, but also the reasons for their anger. And we would see their love. Social media can do that too. Social media can help us understand our fellow humans who are different from us in ways that we've never had such easy access to before. 

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At least with social media we don't run the risk of possession by an evil alien psychic force.
Or whatever the whole Dark Phoenix thing was. Sue me, I'm a DC guy. 

We just need to learn to treat a name and a profile picture the same as we treat a human being--because, guess what, they are a human being! It wouldn't surprise me if this comes much easier to future generations who grow up in this brave new world than it does to us. But in the meantime, maybe we can all just try extra hard to be a little nicer, and to listen at least as much as we talk? With that in mind, it's now my turn to listen: What do you say, friend? What can we all do to make social media a positive force in humanity's evolution? Or do you believe social media is inherently detrimental? (And if so, why are you here?) Please comment below or on Facebook--I want to hear your thoughts via this fancy telepathic technology Mark Zuckerberg and Al Gore gave us. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Bigotry By Omission

The other day I was at a junior high school PTSA meeting where we were about to vote in next year's president. The sole nominee (there's typically only one person willing to do the job, so it's not a traditional election in the sense of voting for one candidate over another) was a man, which is unusual for any PTA or PTSA, at least here in Utah. Having served previously on another PTA as treasurer and then president, and planning to serve alongside this particular presidential nominee as his treasurer, I'm a big fan of men being more involved in PTA. Studies show that children benefit from having male role models involved in their school life, but for some reason a lot of fathers seem to group school involvement into the long list of parenting responsibilities they're happy to let mothers take care of.

At any rate, at this particular PTSA meeting we were enjoying a delicious lunch that the current president had prepared. This president had taken it on herself to serve lunch at every meeting, as a way to incentivize attendance and to share her love of food. So we're eating this tasty pasta salad and we're about to vote on next year's president and I raise my hand to ask, jokingly, whether the nominee can make food this good, because I want to make an informed vote. Everyone laughs and he says that actually, he does enjoy baking with his wife. Later in that same meeting, a visitor spoke to us about her current campaign to be on the school board. I revived my previous joke by asking about her cooking skills. Everyone laughed again and the candidate just rolled her eyes and went on. 

It didn't take me long to start feeling skeezy about my joke--especially the second instance, where it was delivered to a woman. In my mind, I was showing my appreciation for the current president's work to prepare food for us while demonstrating my belief that expectations should be the same for any PTSA president, regardless of gender. What I didn't consider until after the fact is that I was making the joke within the context of a culture where women are often valued only for traditionally feminine skills such as cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. Coming from one of two men in a room full of women, my joke could have easily been understood to imply that when it comes to a position of power in a female-dominated organization like PTA, all that matters is how well you can cook. Hopefully anyone who knows me well would recognize that wasn't my intent--I have first-hand knowledge of the hard work and organizational skills required of a PTA president, and I've seen the experience and knowledge needed to serve successfully on a school board--but few people in that room knew me very well and it's never safe to assume everyone will give you the benefit of the doubt when you've said something potentially offensive. Ultimately, it's my responsibility to consider my audience, consider the context, and communicate effectively. If someone in that room was offended by my joke, it's my fault; I should know better. 

In the church I was raised in, we were taught that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. The former are things you do--murder, rape, drinking coffee--and the latter are things you don't do--not helping someone in need of help, not being kind, not giving a tenth of your income to the church. I have a pretty different idea now of what is and isn't sinful, but I still find the idea of commission versus omission valuable. It's very, very common for people to say sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted things, then get upset when others call them out on it, insisting, "But that's not how I meant it!" And then they go on to list all the horrible things they don't do to whatever underprivileged group they've unintentionally offended: "It's not like I go around beating up gay people or calling you fags. Save your anger for the real bad guys!" To that defense, I say: Thank you for meeting the bare minimum requirement of human decency. You are not a bigot by commission. But if you--if we--want to be better, then we need to be more careful not to commit bigotry by omission: not considering that something we say or do might be offensive. When interacting with or talking about an underprivileged group that we are not part of, we owe it to them to do our best to understand their context enough to actively avoid making their lives worse. Sure, I might mean no offense, but if 99 people before me said the exact same thing and did mean to offend (or simply didn't care who might get hurt so long as it wasn't them), then I don't get a pass for having good intentions. 

Image Source
Image source: A pretty great comic that makes my point probably better than I do. 

I understand that a lot of people are tired of feeling like everything they say is subject to inspection by the political correctness police. This is why Donald Trump is president. But you know what? If you show that you're making a genuine effort to be a kind, understanding human being then others won't feel the need to "police" you, even when you screw up. People say unintentionally heterosexist things to me all the time, and in the majority of cases I can see that they mean well because they've done or said other things to show kindness toward me, so I don't let it bother me. I don't want to spend all my time being upset any more than you want to spend all your time worrying about who might be upset at you, so show me you're trying and I'll meet you in the middle. So I guess I am willing to give you a pass for good intentions, so long as I can see them through your other words and actions, and so long as you're willing to listen, apologize, and change when I point out that you're doing something hurtful enough to warrant my speaking up about it. 

And I'll do the same. I'm going to send an apology to that school board candidate. I honestly don't know whether she gave my stupid joke a second thought, but when it comes to showing that I'm an ally to people from underprivileged groups, I'd rather err on the side of being overly cautious than on that of being obliviously hurtful.