Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando: What I Want to Say

The problem is that I don't know what to say. Or maybe it's that I don't know how to say it.

I'm in the midst of writing a book on same-sex marriage and Christian love. I was just starting a chapter on the use and misuse of the "love the sinner/hate the sin" slogan when Orlando happened. I went to bed thinking about philosophical arguments and woke up to reports of horror.

The basic facts are now familiar to everyone. An American-born Muslim man--possibly wrestling with same-sex attraction, undoubtedly immersed in the idea that homosexuality is evil--went on a shooting rampage at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. If we don't include the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, it was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. And the perpetrator was armed with a handgun and an assault weapon--that is, a semi-automatic rifle modeled after military assault rifles but lacking the capacity to fire automatically.

For days I have been a bit numb. I have watched the unfolding national conversation on social media--although at times it has more the look of a national shouting match. The themes of that debate are ones I've written about extensively on this blog: homosexuality and homophobia, Islam and Islamophobia, guns and gun control.

The charge of hypocrisy has been flying from both directions, and everyone has been busy producing unfair and oversimplified memes to justify their own position. In the midst of all the noise, of course, there have been thoughtful expressions of opposing views. And there has been grief. And there have been unprecedented displays of support for the LGBT community. Oklahoma City, a city in the heart of the Bible Belt, illumined a bridge in rainbow lights to show solidarity for the Pulse victims.

And there have been expressions of hate. If you want to find the hate, just click on any online article and then read the comments section.

I've felt the need to add my voice, but it all seems too much. There are too many things to say and too many ways to say it wrong. I want to say something that encourages thoughtful discourse, not self-righteous denunciation of opposing views. I want to say something that encourages love, not hate.

I want to lift up my gay and lesbian friends and relatives, to say something that nurtures them at a moment when they stand witness to the reality of homophobic hate and the violence it can engender, when they feel afresh the vulnerability to harm that is always part of being an LGBT person. I want to say something that shows my solidarity and invites others to express it, too. I want to find a way to show the connection between explosions of homophobic violence and the more mundane and widespread forms of disgust and social marginalization out of which such violence can grow--find a way to say this without being promptly caricatured as saying that Christians who refuse to bake cakes for gay couples are as bad as mass murderers.

I want to acknowledge that most of the Christians who call homosexuality a sin do not mean harm to their gay and lesbian neighbors. But I want to say this in a way that makes it clear that we can do harm without meaning to. I want to speak in a way that doesn't enable more mundane homophobes to use the acts of extremists as a form of cover. I want to make it clear that when the Family Research Council publishes pamphlets implying that gays and lesbians are a threat to children, the fact that they would never think of shooting up a gay nightclub doesn't make their slander okay. The fact that the deadliest single attack on the gay community was carried out by a Muslim does not vindicate the many ways that Christians have magnified the suffering of sexual minorities.

At the same time, I want to find a way to say these things that doesn't fuel the rhetoric of militant atheists, those who want to blame religion as such for the kind of hate that tore through human lives in Orlando. I want to find a way to target the beast of homophobia without doing collateral damage. I want to acknowledge that prayers and moments of silence are not the only thing that religion can offer, while also acknowledging the power that prayers and moments of silence can have in symbolizing and strengthening human solidarity--at least when these things are offered as a framework out of which to act rather than an alternative to action. I want to find a way to remind us all that the civil rights movement was rooted in the black churches of America, that not all faith is toxic faith.

I want to lift up my peace-loving Muslim neighbors and say something that nurtures them at a time when, once again, some very loud voices are holding up a violent extremist as representative of what Islam is about at its core. I want to find some new and better way to say what I've been trying to say for a very long time: the problem of religious extremism is a species of the problem of violent ideology that divides the world into "us" and "them" and treats "them" as a fundamental threat to "us," a threat that must by stopped by any means necessary. When Christians and others in the west fail to distinguish between the Muslim extremists and the vast majority of Muslims who denounce the extremism, they play into the us/them ideology that is the source of the worst kind of violence. They make part of themselves a mirror of the extremism they're reacting to. Like the person bitten by the zombie, they start to become the thing that has attacked them. Our own horror stories, the mythologies of our time, tell us where this kind of spreading infection leads.

I want to find some way to talk productively about the relationship between the accessibility of guns and the violence that is perpetrated using guns. I want to avoid ignorance and mischaracterization, acknowledge the complexity the issues, and steer a course between the extremes of draconian bans on gun ownership and the kind of free-for-all that makes it so easy for someone with violent intentions to arm themselves to the teeth with high-capacity semi-automatic rifles and ammunition. I want to acknowledge that the AR-15 is functionally no different from most guns on the market but still have a conversation about the social implications of selling guns that are deliberately designed to look, not like the weapons traditionally used to shoot deer, but like the ones traditionally used to shoot people as efficiently as possible in a theater of war. I want to have a serious conversation about the role that symbols of human-against-human violence can play in tipping some vulnerable psychologies over that line--without ignoring the many ways that this happens (including in movies and video games), without forgetting that most gun owners don't go on killing sprees, but also without ignoring the way that guns figure into the story of violence in America.

I want to talk about comprehensive policies for reducing violence without either fixating on or hiding from one piece of the puzzle. And when the conversation turns to that piece, I don't want to be mischaracterized as saying that this one thing will solve the problem.

I want to find ways to articulate the nuances and qualification that are impossible in memes and slogans, and I want to find a way to do that without my comments being caricatured or distorted or turned into an oversimplified slogan for the sake of launching an unfair attack on a straw man.

It would be easy, in the face of the challenges of pursuing thoughtful and loving conversations in a polarized world, to remain silent. This post, for what it's worth, is one alternative to the extremes of easy slogans and easy silence. I encourage all of you to offer your own, while I return to working on a book that I hope will offer a richer reflection on at least one of the issues raised by the horror in Orlando.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Our Choice: A Parable for Our Times

Here's the situation.

Your current maid is retiring. He kept the house basically presentable but never did the windows. The windows are, predictably, filthy.

You advertise for a new maid and two candidates apply. The first shows up at the interview nicely dressed but seems to you to have a grating personality. She is businesslike but humorless. One of her former employers suspects that she was in the habit of sneaking swigs of booze from their liquor cabinet, but others point out that she brought her own high-powered vacuum and knew how to make a kitchen floor shine. She doesn't do windows.

The other candidate, with no background in cleaning houses, shows up to the interview wearing an orange clown wig, with a sledge hammer in one hand and a jug of gasoline in the other. He cackles throughout the interview, making remarks about the size of his penis and how hot he thinks his own daughter is. He keeps telling you how dangerous your neighbors are. When you ask if he does windows, he hefts the sledge hammer and says that if you hire him you'll never need to clean your windows again.

Assuming you have to hire one of them, who do you hire?

Oh, and the person you hire will have access to the contents of your gun safe.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Transgender Bathroom Post: What Should Those Motivated by Christian Love Think of the North Carolina Law?

As everyone reading this is surely aware, a recent North Carolina law requires everyone to use male- and female-designated bathrooms according to the sex they were assigned at birth, rather than according to their gender identity. In other words, the law requires that transgender women use the men’s restroom and transgender men use the women’s restroom.

What should Christians think about such a law? I have specifically in mind Christians who take seriously the command to love their neighbors as themselves. This love command, of course, would extend to our trans neighbors.

It seems to me that the law doesn’t just affect transgendered persons, but also intersexed persons (those who have the physiological genitalia of both sexes). Exactly what those implications are isn’t clear to me. Any non-arbitrary sex-assignment at birth would either be “neither” (in which case the intersexed would be prohibited from using both restrooms) or “both” (in which case they could choose). I suppose some hospital might decide to impose a sex-assignment arbitrarily. If so, would this law require the intersexed person to use bathrooms according to that arbitrary decision in all its arbitrariness, even if their gender identity doesn’t conform?

Whatever we think of these difficulties, it’s clear that the Christian love ethic calls us to love our intersexed neighbors as ourselves. But let’s focus on the group that the NC law most clearly targets: our transgender neighbors. Is this law something that those of us who are called to love our neighbors as ourselves—including our transgender neighbors—should support?

In addressing this question, I’d like to make three points.

1. The Main Impact of the Law is on our Trans-Neighbors

Some supporters of the bill invoke concern for the welfare of children as a motivating factor behind the law. And, of course, the call to love our neighbors as ourselves encompasses children everywhere. Is this law needed in order to keep children safe—children we are called to love?

The reality is this: There are no reports of children being molested by transgender persons in bathrooms, and the idea that child molesters will fake a trans identity in order to gain access to victims—while suggested a few times—doesn’t seem to reflect the tragic realities of child molestation.

The sad truth is that children are targeted by molesters in all kinds of venues—churches and summer camps, for example. And molesters typically groom their victims before offending. That is, they work their way into the child’s circle of trust. Public restrooms are not the ideal venue for such “grooming,” and so it seems unlikely that we will do much to limit the abuse of children by focusing our energies there.

Some might argue that permitting trans women to use women's restrooms is likely to make some women uncomfortable. It might. But discomfort as such is a fairly trivial issue, and my love for you is a call to promote your good, not your comfort level. And the deeper issue is that the current NC law is hardly a recipe for eliminating discomfort, as the following popular meme demonstrates quite vividly:

Some say that creepers--men who want to spy on women using the bathroom--will use the excuse that they are trans to get into women's bathrooms so they can peek under stalls. I doubt this is a widespread problem (although maybe the current broohaha has given some creepers the idea). But here't the thing. We already have laws that criminalize such things as men peeking under bathroom stalls to look at women while they pee. If something like this is going on, the solution is to call the cops on people doing these things, not to prohibit every transgender person from peeing in the restroom where they're less likely to get abused.

In short, the arguments that appeal to public safety are trading in hypothetical scenarios that don't seem to be a real problem. Meanwhile, trans people actually face non-hypothetical bullying and bashing.

This means that the people who are affected by the law are overwhelmingly our transgender neighbors. The question is how they are affected.

2. We Must Listen

First, if we want to know how our trans neighbors are affected by such laws, we need to listen. Listening is the starting point of love. If we are to love our transgender neighbors as ourselves, we need to pay attention to them, to understand their perspective and experience as we understand our own. And this can only be done through compassionate listening.

Have you heard how fraught with peril and distress using a public restroom is for your trans neighbors? Do you know that transgender persons suffer from higher rates of urinary tract problems than the general population because they are more likely to “hold it in” when they’re in public, even to the point of harming their own health? Did you know that when our transgender neighbors stand in front of the two restroom options, they are often trying to decide whether they should risk getting arrested if they go to the one door and getting beaten up or harassed if they go to the other?

If you are thinking about supporting such laws and haven’t sought out your trans neighbors and asked them to share their stories with you—if you haven’t made a concerted effort to hear their stories with empathy and attention—then you aren’t really in a position to base your thinking on neighbor-love.

3. We Must Be Realistic

The NC bathroom law isn’t going to make transgender persons suddenly stop being transgendered. It will simply make their lives harder.

Someone is transgendered if their experience of themselves in terms of gender is in conflict with their biological sex. That is, they feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body, or a man trapped in a woman’s body. In a world that expects "men to be men and women to be women" (according to traditional ideas of gender), this can be an anguished situation, especially as they move into adolescence and become painfully aware of how different they are from those around them.

In a society that simply assumes that gender identity and biological sex do and should go together, many transgender people deal with their experience by pretending. They try to act and feel in accord with the gender associated with their biological sex, even though they know it’s an act. For many, this continues for decades.

Now, there is considerable evidence that with psychological propensities that are genuinely malleable, one way to change them is through a process of habituation. This is an idea that stretches back to Aristotle. You fake it ’til you make it. Want to become courageous? Act courageously until it takes. The fact that transgender women have often behaved in hyper-masculine ways for decades in an attempt to make their minds fit with their bodies testifies to the fact that this is not something that is malleable. If you discover in childhood that you experience yourself as a girl even though you have boy parts, it’s because something in your brain is so hard-wired to experience yourself as a girl that pretending to be a boy for the next fifty years won’t change that. You’ll just end up a fifty-year old who feels like you’ve been a woman trapped in a man’d body for the last fifty years, playing a role that isn’t you.

(If you doubt me, I invite you to reread #2 above and follow the advice there; I am simply reporting what numerous transgender people have said to me in person and what I have read again and again in personal narratives.)

Many who have spent decades pretending to be the gender associated with their body-parts finally reach the point where they can’t stand living a lie any longer. And so, at last, they come out and begin to “transition.” That is, they start to dress and behave in ways that fit better with the gender they identify with. Others, especially in recent years, begin the process sooner. Either way, the process of transitioning is dangerous, given social stigma and the often violent enforcement of gender norms. That they transition anyway is a testament to just how intolerable the continued pretense is. They’d rather risk getting beaten to a pulp than keep on living a lie.

Given these psychological realities, we can’t expect that doubling-down on the demand that people adopt gender identities that “fit” with their biological sex will somehow achieve what years of faking it can’t. We can’t expect that transgender women will stop feeling like women trapped in male bodies just because they are now required to go to the men’s bathroom. We can’t expect that transgender men will suddenly embrace their inner womanhood because they face punishment for going to the men’s room. These things won’t happen. What will happen is that our trans neighbors will feel more rejected, more alienated from society, more marginalized for their inability to conform with our society’s gender norms.

In other words, if we are realistic, we can reasonably reach only one conclusion about the effect that these laws will have: They will magnify the sense of rejection and isolation that our trans neighbors experience. The question, then, is whether that effect is one that Christians, trying to live by an ethic of love, should try to achieve.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Is Social Democracy About the Poor Being Greedy?

This morning, the following meme passed through my Facebook newsfeed:

It takes some unpacking to figure out exactly what Thomas Sowell is talking about here. Who in the world says that taking other people's money isn't greedy but keeping your own money, the money you've earned through your own efforts, is?

No one. No one says this.

This is the first thing to be absolutely clear about. What Sowell is offering here is  a version of what philosophers calls the straw man fallacy. The strategy is this. Some people are saying "Y." You disagree with Y. But instead of actually criticizing Y itself, what you do is this. You mischaracterize Y as X, where X is totally nutters. And then you say, "This view, X, is a crazy view. I don't understand why anyone could possibly believe it"--while looking pointedly at the people who say "Y." And since X is a crazy view, you are able to walk away having conveyed the impression that Y is nuts and the people who believe it are crazy--even though you've not done a single thing to show that.

So what is the view that Sowell is here mischaracterizing? Sowell is a conservative economist who self-identifies as libertarian. He appears to be an advocate of free market capitalism in the spirit of Milton Friedman--that is, someone who strongly believes in the idea of the laissez faire ecomony: if we just privatize the whole economy and let businesses pursue profit-maximization, not only will we do the most to respect individual liberty rights, but market forces will channel self-interested agents in ways that promote the general welfare.

Opposed to this philosophy is the view that government ought to be more involved in the economy than someone like Milton Friedman favors.While socialism represents one version of this view, one could favor more government involvement in the economy without being a socialist in a robust sense.

The key difference between socialism and capitalism has to do with who owns the means of production--private entities, or the state? And on this question, we're all at least partially socialist. After all, our military is not privately owned. Strictly speaking, the military is a service-provider--offering national security services--that is wholly owned and run by the government and paid for through tax dollars (or through federal deficit spending). And I have yet to hear a thoughtful and serious objection to this "socialized" military. Furthermore, most people think that some form of public education should continue, even if the form is a matter of dispute. Likewise with police and fire departments. And then, of course, there are the public libraries and public parks and public roads. These are not privately owned but publicly owned providers of human goods and services.

I believe in free markets. But I also think that some goods and services are provided more effectively and/or efficiently through collective or public cooperation. The idea with all of these public goods and services is that we all as a society contribute our share of the burden of paying for them, collectively oversee the operations via elected representatives who are beholden to us (and can be "fired" by us--that is, not re-elected--if we don't like how they manage the public goods), and all share in the benefits.

Beyond this, I take very seriously an idea expressed by one of the philosophical fathers of economies  like ours, that prioritize private ownership. John Locke believed that we acquire a right to private property through our personal labor: The resources of nature belong to all of us in common, but if I mix the resources of nature with my labor, I've added something that is mine alone. Hence, it becomes mine.

But Locke offered the following caveat: we should leave "as much and as good" for others. In other words, even if I work hard throughout the night to chop down every single tree in the woods and drag it to my plot of land, when the rest of the villagers wake up in the morning to find the entire forest gone and every log piled on my front lawn, they have a right to complain.

And if they call me greedy, that is legitimate even though I worked hard to take more than my fair share. "Lazy" might not be warranted, but "greedy" certainly is. And they are not being greedy when they take back a portion of the lumber. They are asserting their rights. I took more than I had a legitimate claim on.

Now, the society we live in is one in which pretty much all the resources of nature have been divided up. Private owners have claimed much of it. What remains falls largely under the control of the government, which at least in theory operates as the representative of the public in managing what is collectively owned.

But here's the thing. We live in a world where some people are filthy rich while many others do not have "as much and as good." Many people are so cut off from resources that they have nothing to mix their labor with--unless the sell their labor to the rich private owners. But in that case, the products of their labor belong to the owners and all the workers get in return is a paycheck. And many worry that the private owners are exploiting the workers: giving them far less than their labor is worth and pocketing the difference, getting richer and richer by riding on the backs of the less fortunate.

If this is right, then we might consider fixing the problem in something like the following way: take some of those exploited riches back from the exploiters and put those riches into public resources that the industrious poor can use to make something of themselves if they're willing to work hard--something like, say, free college education. Or maybe a federal jobs program offering competitive wages to anyone willing to work on building public infrastructure.

Aside from the issue of exploitation and correcting for it, some services and goods just make sense to provide by pooling our collective resources--through, say, taxation--and then making the goods and services available to all (the security that comes from the military, the roads that come from public infrastructure development, etc.).

When we pursue this collective strategy for meeting our needs, there is the question of what is fair in terms of paying for it. Should everyone contribute equally?

Suppose we wake up one morning and find that the woods are gone and those who are willing to work hard have no resources to work with, while some villagers are sitting pretty with huge piles of logs on their lawns, mostly inherited from their parents who were the ones who did the work of clear-cutting the forest. There is not "as much and as good" for everyone, but there ought to be. And suppose there are ways to use lumber to make public resources that benefit everyone, including industrious people without private resources. The majority thinks developing these resources is a great plan. Given the duty to leave as much and as good, don't the beneficiaries of those who paid no attention to this duty have more of an obligation to give back than those who aren't such beneficiaries?

So, consider the following activities:

A. Taking back what exploiters have unjustly snagged and putting it back into the public domain, so that the exploited can succeed through their hard work rather than have their labor greedily exploited.

B. Making sure that everyone contributes their fair share when we collectively pool our resources to produce public goods available to all.

In either of these cases, if some people resist paying up, we are justified in calling them greedy. But we aren't calling them greedy for keeping the money they've earned. We're calling them greedy for either taking more than they've earned or for being, essentially, freeloaders.

The disagreement between people on the right like Sowell and people on the left (like, say, Bernie Sanders) isn't about whether it is greedy for people to keep what is rightfully theirs. The disagreement lies elsewhere. It's about where and whether exploitation is going on, where and whether some people have come to enjoy an unfair share of the common resources of the planet, and where and whether people are benefiting from public goods without doing their fair share to maintain them.

So let's honestly debate those issues, rather than hide behind straw men. We all agree that it's not greedy to keep what you've earned. But when have people rightly earned the money in their bank accounts? And when they haven't done so, what is the best public policy response?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Myths About the Confederacy?

I recently read a Washington Post piece from last July in which the author, James Loewen, argues that school textbooks and historic monuments have been perpetuating myths about the Civil War. The main conclusion is that the South in fact seceded to protect the institution of slavery and white supremacy, but that post-war efforts by Southerners to whitewash this fact were largely successful, resulting in the myth that the war was about state's rights.

In the Washington Post piece, the case for this conclusion is patchy. For example, only one state's secession document is cited explicitly (the Texas document). It's quite possible that the case is much stronger and more comprehensive in Loewen's book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader. After all, one can only include so much in a short essay.

Despite the patchiness of the essay, at its heart is an interesting line of argument, one that's nicely summarized in the following excerpt:
In its “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede From the Federal Union,” for example, the secession convention of Texas listed the states that had offended the delegates: “Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.” Governments there had exercised states’ rights by passing laws that interfered with the federal government’s attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Some no longer let slave owners “transit” across their territory with slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was seceding against.
The point here is that, by opposing the right of these states to pass laws impeding enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, Texas was thereby standing against the right of states to make their own laws on these matters. Texas was upset because these states weren't capitulating to the Federal Government, but were instead standing up for what they believed in the face of contrary Federal mandates. In short, Texas seceded in part because they were upset about Northern states that expressed too much autonomy in the face of a Federal mandate that served the institution of slavery.

This point does not, of course, entail that Southern States didn't invoke state's rights. What it entails is that to the extent that they did invoke state's rights, it was a selective invocation. If they invoked state's rights to defend their right to keep slaves, but opposed state's rights whenever a state made laws and policies unfriendly to slavery, what we have is evidence that the real issue was not a principled defense of state's rights but a consistent defense of slavery.

None of this means that slavery was the only issue motivating Southern secession. What it does mean is that slavery was a deeper and more central issue than state's rights. Were state's rights more important to Southern states than preserving the institution of slavery, wouldn't they have affirmed the right of states to refuse to facilitate the return of runaway slaves? That, on the contrary, they were denounced states for doing this suggests they cared more about preserving slavery against any forces that threatened it--including both federal and state-initiated threats--than they cared about state's rights.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

April Fools Day Cancelled

As most of you have no doubt heard by now, President Obama has officially declared a national moratorium on April Fools Day pranks. Citing safety concerns caused by "far too many pranks gone terribly, terribly wrong," Obama announced from the White House lawn that it was "past time" to put April Fools Day in the past. "Look," he declared. "It's not just a safety issue but sound fiscal policy. April Fools pranks cost the American people money, not only in terms of health care costs but in terms of lost productivity at work."

One of the things that's surprised me has been the widespread bipartisan support for Obama's moratorium (already being called the "mor-Obam-ium"). On the one hand we have conservative political commentator David Brooks, who opined this morning, "It has become increasingly difficult for the American people to distinguish truth from lies, and April Fools Day only exacerbates the problem. With faux-news articles from the Onion and the New Yorker being spread on social media as if they were true, the last thing this country needs is a proliferation of false news stories. It's one thing when satirical sites post falsehood, but when multinational corporations and mainstream news sites like Fox News, sources usually known for their impeccable honesty, start to report outrageous things, that can only breed confusion."

Economist and progressive commentator Paul Krugman agrees: "Let's face it. When an orange-faced trust-fund billionaire with multiple bankruptcies to his name--a man who would have been richer had he simply put all his inheritance into a money market account--is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, reality has started to prank us far better than any satirist could hope to do. April Fools Day has become redundant."

Rachel Maddow was a rare voice of dissent. "In this election cycle, we are witnessing reality and fantasy turned on their heads. According to fact checkers, Donald Trump is the most dishonest of all the current candidates, with a through-the-roof 'pants-on-fire' rating that shows an utter indifference to anything even remotely resembling truth. He's the biggest liar ever to step onto the political stage, a man who almost never says a single sentence that is not outrageously false or mostly false. And yet he is winning because voters perceive him as 'telling it like it is.' On the other side of the spectrum we have Hillary Clinton, whom political fact-checkers consistently rank the most honest of the bunch. And her biggest impediment to winning the nomination is that people don't trust her. The lesson should be clear: The only way that truth is going to win out in this political climate is if it lies big-time."

So what do my readers think? Was Obama right to cancel April Fools Day?

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Straightforward Solution to the Drug Patent Dilemma?

I'm sitting here grading essays on pharmaceutical drug patents for my business ethics class. These patents generate a serious problem (which 'll describe in a second), and students were asked to think about how that problem might be addressed. What many of them proposed in their essays is so sensible--indeed, so obvious--that it's a wonder that some version of the strategy hasn't become part of our public policies.

Or maybe it isn't such a wonder after all. Maybe it's what we should expect in a world where business exert enormous influence on government policy.

Big Pharma has lots of money to lobby congress. They have lots of money to finance politicians' election campaigns. And the solution that some of my students propose (the same solutions that some of my brighter students proposed last year, and the year before that, and the year before that) might be great for everyone on planet earth except Big Pharma. But it's not as good for Big Pharma as the status quo.

Here is the problem, in a nutshell: When a drug company invests in the research and development of a new drug, they need the assurance that others who haven't spent the money on R&D won't just step in and effectively steal their intellectual property. Once a new drug has been developed and has passed clinical trials, the actual manufacture may be cheap. So in the absence of intellectual property protections, a predatory company could just wait for others to do all the risky and expensive R&D, and then swoop in and start making the drug for next to nothing. The incentive to actually invest in developing new drugs would disappear, and we'd all be sicker for it.

Furthermore, the payoff needs to be pretty big. Investing in drug R&D is risky, because it may not yield a usable product. A drug needs to meet some pretty exacting specifications in order to be approved for patient use. If it fails the clinical trials--if the side-effects are too severe or the benefits too limited--the R&D investment will have no payoff at all. So, the payoff for a successful product needs to be high enough to motivate taking those risks.

Enter the 20-year drug patent. A patent protects intellectual property, and a 20-year patent offers a big payoff for risky investments. It does all this by giving the company a 20-year monopoly on what they have invented.

Such a monopoly might not stifle all competition. After all, a drug company might develop an effective treatment for MS and a rival company, pursuing its own R&D, might develop an equally effective treatment. Each company holds a patent on its drug, but they compete with each other.

But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes one company has a drug that is substantially better than existing rivals, or has the only treatment for a life-threatening condition that actually works. When that happens, it's great for the company--but the rest of us have a problem.

In a free market, there are two natural constraints on product pricing. First, there is competition among businesses selling comparable products. Second, there is the fact that when prices get too high, potential consumers may decide to walk away and do without rather than buy the product. Raise your price too high, and whatever benefits come from the higher price are offset by lost sales.

But when you have a monopoly on a product essential for life, neither of these natural market constraints applies. And so when a pharmaceutical company has a patent on that kind of drug, they can pretty much ask whatever they want. And they do. According to the textbook my students were using to write their essays, relative to the cost of ingredients, some prescription drugs have mark-ups of 500,000 percent (although 5,000 percent may be more typical).

So--you need patents both to protect intellectual property rights and to incentivize risky R&D. But in the drug industry, eliminating competition for 20 years can mean a total lack of natural market constraints on prices, leading to skyrocketing healthcare costs, people coming out of serious illnesses saddled with crushing debt, rising insurance get the idea.

So what's the solution? There's one approach, repeatedly proposed by my students, that's actually pretty simple. Confer patents with conditions. Two of my students this semester independently came up with the idea of imposing these conditions in the following way: Bestow short-term renewable drug patents (say, 5 years), and impose conditions on renewal (for up to 20 years) based on living up to reasonable pricing standards.

Such legal constraints on pricing wouldn't be illicit government interference in the market, since the government is already regulating the marketplace by bestowing the patent. They'd just be bestowing the patent with conditions, instead of in the essentially unconditional way they do now. They'd be interfering with the market in a way that did something to replace the market constraint on overpricing that their interference (through conferring the patent) has eliminated.

The conditions would have to be reasonable enough that the payoff for developing a new drug would still motivate risky R&D. In fact, the imposition of such conditions could be paired with other reforms that are favorable to drug companies. For example, as things are now, drug companies apply for their patent before the drug has been approved by the FDA, and in some cases the approval process may take years--meaning that the clock on their patent has run down by many years before they can actually start making money. What if an initial 5-year patent, renewable for up to 20 years, didn't kick in until the drug was approved for sale--but was conferred with a range of conditions that curb exploitation of the unique position drug companies sometimes find themselves in? If a company fails to meet the conditions, the drug patent is not renewed after its initial 5-year term. If it meets the conditions, it can continue to enjoy the patent for another 5 years, renewable for up to 20.

These time-frames are mere placeholders for whichever actual time-frames make the most sense in terms of incentivizing R&D while protecting the public welfare. And the conditions on retaining the patent can be reasonable enough to allow drug companies to make healthy profits without risking losing their patents. The precise conditions would be established by independent research informed by prevailing public values, rather than corporate-sponsored research informed by the profit interests of drug companies.

The aim here is to allow drug companies to do well, to make their R&D risks worth it and to protect their intellectual property rights, but to put fair limits (limits that reflect public interests and values) on how much a drug company can take advantage of the desperation of sick and dying people when there aren't competitors vying for the dollars of those same sick and dying people. Because the life-saving treatments are the result of their labors, we let the drug companies enjoy a payoff for their work. But we don't give them unfettered freedom to extract whatever they can get from the desperate people who would die or wither without their help.

The basic strategy strikes me as so reasonable and straightforward that I would almost expect to see some version of it already in place. But while I am no expert on patent law, I can't find anything like it at work curbing drug company exploitation of patent-conferred monopolies. Am I missing something obvious? If not, why is nothing like this in place?

The simplest answer I can find is this: It's not as good for drug companies as the current system, and the interests of drug companies are doing more to influence public policy than the interests of the American people.

Does any other explanation make sense? Are there problems with the solution my students keep coming up with, year after year, that we haven't seen? If so, what are they?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mount St. Mary's President Likens At-Risk Students to Bunnies Who Should Be Drowned--then Fires His Critics

Yes, that's right. Simon Newman--the president of Mount St. Mary's hired last year from the business world and obviously ignorant of the values that define a Roman Catholic institution of higher education--has turned a policy stumble into a PR disaster by, first, defending his policies in the most offensive way imaginable and then firing his critics (or, as his most vocal defender on the board of trustees would have it, firing the key members of the secret conspiracy determined to bring him down). The details of the case are well-described here, here, here, here, and here.

I don't know Simon Newman. He might be a thoughtful, decent guy most of the time. But he has displayed a pattern of behavior in recent months that has risen from the controversial into the stratosphere of egregiously unjust.

Let's walk through the escalating stages of outrageousness together.

Stage One: A Dubious Policy

It started with a controversial policy proposal pertaining to student retention. Usually, when you think about student retention policies, you think about strategies for helping to keep students from failing out or dropping out. You don't usually imagine issuing a questionnaire to incoming freshmen whose aim is to identify new students at-risk for dropping out so that the university can encourage them to withdraw from the university before their departure would count as dropping out from the standpoint of retention statistics.

There are reasons why you don't usually think about the latter. If there's something you can do to determine whether a brand-new freshman is unlikely to succeed at your college--something you can learn before their first semester is even underway--then presumably you could have figured that out before you admitted them in the first place. And surely it's better not to admit them than to admit them, let them get registered for courses and moved into their dorm and excited about the new stage in their life...and then encourage them to quit and go home before they've even unpacked all their bags.

Of course, a policy aimed at identifying at-risk students for the sake of providing them with what they need in order to succeed would be a different matter. And if, as a side-effect of such a policy, one (rarely) encountered a student who should never have been admitted but somehow slipped through the cracks in the admissions process, there might be some reason to think it compassionate to encourage such a student to withdraw with a full tuition refund before "wasting" their time and money only to drop out later. Of course, even then you might argue that once you've admitted them, they should be afforded every chance to succeed.

Now it sounds as if the policy that Newman proposed might have been a little bit of both. Part of the purpose of identifying at-risk students might have been to provide resources for their success, but part would be to identify those whom the university would encouraged to quit before they've even had a chance to try--so that their failure wouldn't negatively impact the university's retention statistics. Newman even conceded that some students who might have been successful could get dismissed--which he called "collateral damage," apparently justified because getting "20-25 people to leave by the 25th" of September would "boost our retention 4-5%." (Quotes are from e-mails and witness accounts acquired by Mount St. Mary's student newspaper, The Mountain View, and reported there).

If the retention policy was both about providing support and drumming out students for the sake of massaging retention statistics, the criticisms from within Mount St. Mary's were focused on the latter.

And there is plenty of good reason for faculty and administrators (and students and alumni and other interested parties) to be critical of the latter. Or maybe I should say there are plenty of staggeringly powerful reasons to be appalled by the latter--especially when the method of identifying at-risk students is a student questionnaire misleadingly presented to incoming freshmen as an opportunity for deeper self-awareness for which there are no wrong answers.

We might put it this way: A Roman Catholic institution of higher learning is defined by both the values of the academy (such as academic freedom and integrity and a priority on expanding wisdom and knowledge) and by Catholic values (such as social justice, charity, and the promotion of human flourishing). For several years while I was finishing my PhD, I taught multiple courses each semester at a Roman Catholic college. While an adjunct faculty member there, I participated in a program designed to promote the success of students admitted probationally. I was the advisor for several of these students and taught a course for them aimed at promoting success. And I was active with various other aspects of the life of the college that gave me a sense of what values drove that institution.

Massaging numbers to make retention rates look better is not a value of a Roman Catholic institution. It is fundamentally a business value--where numbers and appearances often take precedence over substantive contributions to wisdom and the human good.

So what are some values that help define a Roman Catholic institution of higher learning? Here's one: Ensuring that a student is not admitted in the first place unless the university will in good faith offer them every opportunity to succeed. That's a matter of justice, and such matters of justice resonate deeply with Roman Catholic values. And what about students who have been judged capable of success in the admission process but whom the university soon identifies as confronted with personal challenges that might interfere with actualizing that potential (such things as depression, which the proposed freshman questionnaire would have tested for)? Roman Catholic values would speak in favor of support and hope and nurture, of responsibility for caring about the welfare and success of those with whom one has established a relationship and made an initial commitment. It would certainly not speak in favor of preemptively cutting depressed students loose in order to massage retention statistics and make the university look better on paper.

Given Newman's background, I suppose it is no surprise that he might be motivated by considerations that don't reflect the value priorities of an institution such as Mount St. Mary's. The test of someone's character and fit with an institution comes not with such early missteps, but with what happens afterwards. Does the leader listen to concerns, take seriously criticism that springs from sincere devotion to institutional values, and either change course or make their case in terms of a better understanding of and respect for those values?

It's possible that not every aspect of President Newman's retention policy clashed with the values that define an institution like Mount St. Mary's. But it is obvious that part of the aim was to drum out new freshman right away, prior to giving them a meaningful opportunity to succeed or fail on their own. And it's obvious that this part of the plan was important to Newman. Thus, there is no doubt at all that critics of the policy were targeting something that really was a part of President Newman's aims, and that really was problematic from the traditional institutional values at issue. Newman's critics weren't attacking a straw man.

Why do I say that this is so obvious? There are actually a number of reasons, but one of the most significant is how President Newman defended his policy proposal. And that leads me to stage two of the escalating egregiousness.

Stage Two: Drown the Bunnies

In response to faculty criticism of his policy proposal, Simon Newman displayed a tin ear to the values that define an institution like Mount St. Mary's. As reported by the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, Newman invoked violent metaphors: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

This language is not only rhetorically out of tune with Roman Catholic values, but betrays a way of understanding the policy proposals at issue that is not primarily about identifying at-risk students for the sake of nurture and support but, rather, of identifying them for the sake of drowning them. The rhetoric betrays a motivation for the policy proposals that exposes a fault-line between the president's business-minded approach and the value system that makes Catholic universities distinctive and important in the academic landscape and in society.

Let me be clear here: President Newman described his remarks as unfortunate rhetoric, and apologized for the choice of words. But this is not simply a word-choice issue. The choice to invoke violent metaphors to defend his policy proposal says something about how President Newman understands that policy and its aims. The metaphors that spring immediately to your lips when describing a policy you support spring to your lips for a reason. They express your attitude and understanding. The violent rhetoric is not only problematic because it is violent, because it invokes the unsavory images of putting guns to the heads of college students and drowning them like unwanted bunny rabbits. The violent rhetoric tells us that President Newman sees his policy as aiming at eliminating unwanted students the way a ruthless person might drown unwanted bunnies.

This is simply not the sort of imagery that springs into the mind of someone who is deeply invested in the values of Roman Catholic higher education. People who really care about those values don't think of at-risk students as bunnies to be drowned. They're more likely to think of them, well, as bunnies to be nurtured. President Newman was telling the faculty to stop embracing those values. He was telling them that they "can't" approach students in that nurturing way, that a kind of heartlessness is required.

Required for what? For making Mount St. Mary's operate in accord with Newman's heartless business model? Obviously, faculty at Mount St. Mary's can view their students in the nurturing way that Newman derides. And if those faculty believe in what Roman Catholic higher education is about, they not only can but should.

Those who advise against compassion and nurture often hide behind the language of necessity--we must do this, we can't do that--as a way to deflect moral objections to their hard-hearted proposals. But there is no necessity here. It is absolutely possible for a Roman Catholic university to be guided by Roman Catholic values.

In defending his policy proposal as he did, Newman not only made clear the true spirit of the policy, but he also made clear just how alienated he is from the defining spirit of Mount St. Mary's identity as a Roman Catholic University. When there was a clash between his policy proposals and the values of Mount St. Mary's, instead of listening to concerns openly and responsively, he sought to impose his will with the language of necessity and the rhetoric of violence. He responded to a gap between his value system and the values of the institution he'd been entrusted to lead by expressing disdain for the latter.

In short, he made it clear that he was not a good fit for the leadership position that he held, not merely because of a disconnect between his values and those of the university, but more profoundly because of his unwillingness to be moved and shaped by the university's historic values.

This unwillingness then escalated, in stage three, into behavior characteristic of a tyrant. Or maybe Donald Trump.

Stage Three: "You're Fired!"

When the student newspaper acquired the drowning bunnies quote and published it, the shocking character of the president's words carried the controversy beyond the boundaries of the school. The newspaper's faculty adviser was Edward Egan, who ran the pre-law program and was also deeply and historically invested in the school. He was an alumnus, the child of an alumnus, and a former trustee. Mount St. Mary's was, by all indications, an institution Egan loved.

Newman fired him. Summarily. He was escorted off campus by security.

Another faculty member was similarly fired: tenured philosophy professor Thane M. Naberhaus, Newman fired him for "disloyalty," and he fired him without the due process that is normally afforded tenured faculty.

And the provost who was critical of Newman's retention policy? Yeah. He's no longer provost.

Let me say something, first, about the firing of the philosophy professor. Philosophy as a discipline includes within its scope ethical reflection on such things as the policies and practices of societies and its institutions. A philosophy professor thus has things to say--as part of their academic life and career--about the ethics of policies and practices, including those at their own institution. To be denied the freedom to do so--to face summary termination for thinking philosophically about matters close to home--is thus a fundamental truncation of academic freedom. Furthermore, it is precisely the protection of academic freedom in this kind of situation that the institution of tenure exists to protect.

Similar concerns can be raised about the firing of the student newspaper's faculty advisor. The faculty advisor to a newspaper has a duty to teach and encourage serious journalism. And journalism has an important role in a free society, to serve as a kind of social watchdog, to hold those in power accountable for their behavior in part by making public what those in power might rather were kept secret.

The news piece about Newman's proposals and his comments exemplify such journalism. For a school newspaper to expose the words and plans of the university's leadership is not disloyalty but journalism. The newspaper is doing what good journalism has always done. For a faculty advisor to discourage that--or fail to encourage it, for that matter--would be for that faculty advisor to fail to live up to the role that an educator working with student journalists is supposed to fulfill: namely, help them learn to be good journalists.

In other words, by supporting the student paper and its choices, Edward Egan was supporting the students of journalism in doing what the best journalism is supposed to do: hold those in power accountable for the trust that has been placed in them. He was, in short, doing his job well. Newman, by contrast, wasn't. Ed was fired because he helped to expose the latter fact.

By firing those who opposed him, Newman has compounded his earlier failings by demonstrating that he cares more about keeping power in the face of challenges than he cares about serving the institution fairly and honestly. He has also spit in the face of core values that unite all academic institutions, Roman Catholic and otherwise--most notably the importance of academic freedom.

In other words, Newman has demonstrated that his loyalty is not to Mount St. Mary's, but to himself and his own self-interest. He has used his power in the service of injustice, in the manner of tyrants who aim to shut down their vocal opponents and thereby cow into silence everyone else. He has exposed himself as so fundamentally at odds with the values of the academy in general and Roman Catholic higher education in particular that it is hard to imagine a worse candidate for leadership of a Catholic university.

He has gone from being a university president who, because he is out of tune with institutional values, proposes suspect policies, to being a university president egregiously misusing his power to silence opposition at the cost of the welfare of the institution he is supposed to lead and without any regard for that institution's defining values. In other words, based on reasons of ego, he has betrayed the institution he was hired to serve.

Let me be clear. I do not think that anything that has happened so far has given Mount St. Mary's University a bad name. I think the shame falls squarely on the shoulders of the current president and--to the extent that they support him--the board of trustees. The university is a victim in all of this, as are the individuals who lost their jobs. They are the victims of escalating injustice, where unwise decisions were compounded by unresponsiveness to critical feedback and then capped off with the unjust misuse of power.

There is a solution to all of this. It is a simple and elegant solution. It involves removing those who really are disloyal to Mount St. Mary's and its values, and restoring to their jobs those who, out of loyalty to what Mount St. Mary's stands for, criticized and opposed someone with power who threatened what they held dear.

If the university doesn't do this, I wonder what enrollment will look like in the fall. I know I would never send my children there, and I can imagine that many, many parents would feel the same way--including many parents whose students currently attend a school whose president thinks of their children as potential bunnies to be drowned.

I suspect that absent meaningful action to remedy recent injustices, what started as an attempt to massage retention rates may conclude with the worst retention (and new enrollment) statistics in Mount St. Mary's history.

And that, I think, would be a shame.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Trump Phenomenon, Political Correctness, and Professional Wrestling: A Theory

Trump: Refreshing?

A few months ago, someone I respect said, "Whatever else can be said about the Trump candidacy, he sure is a breath of fresh air!"

I was perplexed. I find Trump grating and offensive. To find him refreshing is so at odds with my experience that I didn't know what to do with the idea.

But as I probed a little deeper, I began to realize that the experience of Trump as "refreshing" was rooted in the very same features of Trump's persona that generated my far more negative response: Trump's tendency to throw conventional social restraints to the wind.

Whether you find that refreshing or offensive depends on how you experience those restraints.

Sometimes, social restraints can feel burdensome. Those who complain about "political correctness" (a term mostly used by those who complain about it) describe it as a kind of hyper-vigilance against any word or gesture that might hurt someone's feelings. specifically the feelings of historically oppressed groups such as women and minorities.

According to these critics of political correctness, standards for protecting the feelings of these groups have become so exacting that well-meaning people have to be constantly on guard against accidentally saying the wrong things or saying them in the wrong way. They feel as if they can never let down their hair and just relax for fear of offending someone. They're constantly walking on egg-shells, exhausted by the effort--all because some people, as they are inclined to put it, are oversensitive and should just grow a thicker skin.

If this is how you feel in relation to a set of social norms, then someone who bull-dogs ahead without the slightest regard for those norms will be experienced as refreshing. It can feel vicariously liberating.

But if you experience those same social norms as essential constraints for a just society, as standards of decency established for the sake of creating a space where human beings can interact from a footing of mutual respect, then the person who bull-dogs through them will be experienced as grating and offensive.

Political Correctness

I don't want to turn this post into an extended exploration of "political correctness"--but it does seem that Trump supporters are heavily represented by people who complain the most strongly about it. So a few words are in order.

Here's what I want to say. "Political correctness" is a term bound up with efforts to point out the ways in which systemic oppression is perpetuated by ordinary people doing and saying things that were entirely acceptable in their communities of origin. When it comes to addressing how such words and behavior contribute to injustice, I believe we should engage with each other in a spirit of grace. That is, I think we should recognize that we're all flawed, that we all come from backgrounds and upbringings that have habituated in us things that maybe shouldn't be there; and we ought to address these realities with patience and forgiveness.

But I also think that we need to hold each other accountable for the ways in which our words and behaviors contribute, however unconsciously, to systems of oppression. Those who most need to be held accountable are probably the very ones who are most likely to find it burdensome. If you were raised in a context where racist and sexist ideas were commonplace, then resisting racism and sexism is going to be hard work. This doesn't mean you shouldn't do that work. It doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't expect you to do it. But if you're trying to do that work, a spirit of grace should define how others respond to your inevitable failures.

And in case there was any doubt: a spirit of grace should define how we respond to those who have a hard time maintaining a spirit of grace in the face of others' failures.

Maintaining that balance is hard. And even if the balance is struck, people can easily become defensive if they feel that their way of life, their families and communities, are being judged as part of the problem of oppression.

And so we have, on the one hand, morally compelling expectations about how to stand for justice, resist ideas and behaviors that perpetuate oppression, and show respect for historically oppressed groups. On the other hand, we have demands delivered without a spirit of grace that feel both overwhelming and excessive, making no room for ordinary human limitations and loyalties.

Where I experience primarily the former, others experience the latter. I don't want to dwell here on whose experience is right. The truth is that our current social norms almost certainly contain elements of each--and given our backgrounds, we will tend to focus more on some elements than others.

But if our norms contain elements of each, then Donald Trump has been plowing through it all indiscriminately: shaking off the overwhelming and excessive demands along with every real standard of human decency and respect. As his supporters cheer, I am reminded of a low point in my life when I became, however briefly, obsessed with professional wrestling.

Trump as Professional Wrestler

Back in the late '90's, there was a brief period when I was sucked into professional wresting. I watched it daily, at first bemused, then fascinated, then hooked. It was a spectacle in which none of the ordinary rules of propriety and decency obtained. It was all about testosterone-fueled indignation. But because it was all pretend, watching it was strangely liberating. I could vicariously step into a world where all those norms were suspended, where I had no need to watch myself or censor myself.

The pretense of reality made that release possible: The wrestlers pretended it was all real, and so I could imagine that it was real. But at least in my case, it was also crucial that I knew it was pretense. Since it was fake, there were no costs. No harm done (at least if I ignored the news stories about the personal meltdowns of the actors). At a time when I felt overwhelmed by moral demands and judgments delivered without that crucial spirit of grace, professional wrestling offered me an escape into a world where those kinds of expectations were like tissue paper to be torn off and cast aside.

In a recent ThinkProgress piece, Judd Legum makes the case that professional wrestling offers us a lens for understanding Trump's success. Legum invokes the ideas of the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who tried to understand the appeal of professional wrestling. Unlike boxing, which is about excellence achieved within the confines of a sport defined by rules, "wrestling is a sum of spectacles." It is spectacle defined by passion, by indignation, by a rough sense of justice meted out with body-slams and folding chairs turned into weapons.

The ring is a pretense, and the spectacle spills outside it regularly to remind us that there are no rules. As Barthes puts it:
Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.
Judd Legum thinks Barthes analysis of professional wrestling would work as well as an analysis of Trump's campaign. Trump is campaigning as if the electorate were professional wresting fans. What he offers is the kind of spectacle that is most absorbing, most satisfying, when all the rules are swept away by a triumphant disorder.

And so Trump can lie, and be caught in his lie by a disabled journalist, and then mock the disabled journalist with physical gestures obviously mimicking the journalist's disability--and then, instead of apologizing for such blatant offensiveness, go on the attack, accusing the the journalist of "grandstanding about his disability."

This is the pro wrestler with the microphone, insulting all his opponents with self-righteous indignation, all to the wild enthusiasm of the crowd.

Is it refreshing?

When excessive rules and overwhelming expectations are publicly brushed aside, that can be refreshing. But when all rules, all norms of common decency and restraint, are ignored in favor of the pro-wrestler's self-righteous brand of bullying, the resultant spectacle can be refreshing only to the extent that we recognize it as pretense--a fiction to be indulged for a  moment, an escape from reality.

But the illusion of a world where ignoring all standards of decorum has no consequences is just that: an illusion. It can be momentarily liberating to step into the fiction. But if the fiction spills out of the arena and into the real world, if the triumphant disorder is not contained to the realm of pretense, then what we have isn't a refreshing spectacle. What we have is a disaster.

So for me, the key question is this: Will Trump's supporters, caught up in the spectacle of their favorite wrestler beating down all opponents without any regard for conventional standards and restraints, realize that Trump's candidacy is taking place in the real world--a world where ignoring rules of human decency actually does real harm? As primary season kicks off, will his fans start stepping back from the spectacle and say, "Oh, but this is the actual leadership of a real country we're talking about, not just a show"?

Today's Iowa Caucuses will offer some clues, if not a definitive answer.

Friday, January 15, 2016

On Refusing to Play the "Who's Persecuted Worse?" Game: Muslim and Christian Edition

I am one of a number of progressive Christian writers who has devoted considerable attention in recent months to Western persecution of Muslims. I've certainly written more on this issue than I have about Muslim persecution of Christians.

Every once in a while, I find myself taken to task for this--often in connection with horror stories about brutal treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. A friend will point out that these minority Christians are in far greater danger of being harmed for their faith than any Muslim in the West.

The message, put simply, is this: "They persecute us when they're in power worse than we persecute them when we're in power."

I don't want to play that game. I don't want to focus on which group persecutes the other more egregiously. Persecution, wherever it occurs, is awful. Wherever it occurs, it needs to stop (and probably won't).

But I can already hear the response: If persecution is the problem, then isn't it relevant to consider where the persecution is worst, and then direct my efforts mainly there? Maybe Christians minorities suffer more in Muslim majority countries than Muslim minorities suffer in the West. If so, shouldn't I care about that? Should I then focus my energies on denouncing Muslims for targeting Christians instead of the other way around?

Let me explain why I don't.

It isn't because the persecution of Christians in some parts of the world isn't a problem. It isn't because my heart doesn't bleed when I hear about a Christian boy in Pakistan who was beaten and then set on fire after admitting he was a Christian to the two men accosting him.

The reason is because this attack on a Christian boy in a Muslim-majority country springs from the same deep ideological well as this brutal attack on a Muslim woman in Toronto, or this attack on a Muslim woman in southern France, or this shooting of a Muslim taxi driver in Pittsburgh, or any number of other recent incidents in which Muslims in the West have been targeted for verbal abuse, vandalism, and violence.

The reason is because all of these attacks are about dehumanizing and assaulting the "other," the one who is different, who isn't one of "us." I look at my world and I see an all-too-human impulse to create in-groups and out-groups, and then target members of the out-group not for anything they have done, but simply for belonging to the wrong group. When the out-group is a minority and the in-group a majority, this ideological targeting can often rise to the level of systematic persecution and oppression.

But if the problem is this sort of us/them ideology and the violence and injustice it inspires, the question for me is how I can best use my voice to address that problem. And here it matters that I am a Christian living in a Christian-majority country where Muslims are far more likely to be the targets of Islamophobic persecution and attacks than the other way around.

My audience is primarily Western, primarily Christian. I could, of course, talk to that mostly-Western audience mostly about other people's propensity to fall into us/them thinking, other groups' conscious and unconscious biases. I could focus my attention on how even moderate Muslims, when they fail to stand against extremist ideology in their own ranks, become part of the problem.

But what effect would that have? It won't cause those other people to pause, to introspect, to think about the ways in which they are promulgating divisiveness. etc.--because they aren't my audience. Will it cause Christians in the West to pause, to introspect, to think about the ways in which they are promulgating divisiveness?

Or will that kind of emphasis only serve to promulgate divisiveness? If I, as a Christian, start focusing on all the times when Muslims have acted badly against Christians, all the ways in which Muslim extremists have assaulted Christians, will that break down the us/them ideologies that I think are the real problem, the deep human propensity that does so much harm?

There is no great mystery here, but it needs saying: When members of one group start denouncing the horrors and crimes committed by another group, that does not tend to reduce in-group/out-group ideology. The way to reduce such ideology is for members of a group to be on guard against the rumblings of such ideological hatred within their own ranks, and to speak out against it when and where they see it happening. I feel called to do exactly that.

I'm an American Christian. As a Christian, I believe in taking the plank out of my own eye before taking the speck out of my neighbor's eyes. I believe that if I want to work against the human tendency to divide the world into us and them, I need to start with myself and my community.

We live in a world where there are different religions, different nations, different cultural traditions. Humanity is divided into groups, and that's not going to change. What might change is the tendency of these groups to vilify each other. What might arise is a world where people who are different can co-exist in greater harmony, a world where we dehumanize each other less. How should I work for that?

I can, of course, try to talk to other groups about their tendency to wrongly vilify and dehumanize my group. There are times when all of us may be called to do just that--especially when we or those close to us have been the targets of ideological hate, and our impassioned words can give a human face to what has been dehumanized.

But in general I have far more influence within my own communities, the ones I understand, the ones whose languages I speak. If in-group/out-group ideology is a problem, then the first step is to turn to my group and say, "Let's not do this ourselves. Let's not get sucked in. Instead of chastising moderate Muslims when they fail to sufficiently repudiate the extremism among them, let's model what that's like. Let's be what we want to see in the world. Then we will be far better positioned to work for change."

"Who is more egregiously persecuted?" is a blame-game. I want to play the change-game. And change, meaningful change, begins with ourselves and moves out from there.