Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Some Thoughts on Freedom of Speech in Our Polarized Society

If we care about the founding principles of this country and the values that many have fought and died for, we will stand up (or take a knee?) for the legal right of all citizens to make nonviolent political statements through words and gesture, especially if those statements criticize the government (since the freedom of speech means nothing if not the freedom to criticize the government), and even if we personally think the criticism is misguided. If the statement offends us, we have the freedom to explain why; gratitude for that freedom should inspire us to affirm the right of others to say what offended us without fear of legal punishment.

None of this means any of us has a duty to provide a platform for speech that we think is misguided or wrong. None of it means we are obligated to cut short our time at the microphone to make room for ideas we think are harmful. Part of freedom of speech lies precisely in this right to decide whose voices we use our power to amplify. Another part of freedom of speech lies in the right to vocally denounce and protest the speech of others. This can mean refusing to clear the stage for someone else--refusing, in other words, to cede to them a space to speak without competing voices to distract attention.

We have the right to be a competing or distracting voice.

But the question of rights is distinct from the question of what is the morally best and wisest way to exercise those rights. There are things I have a right to do that I shouldn't do. While my freedom of speech gives me the right to denounce what someone else says based entirely on an unfair misconstrual of their views, that doesn't mean I should.

I should probably try to understand what another person means to say before I denounce it. If another person isn't preaching hate, I might want to hear them out. If good will and human understanding and the cause of justice can be advanced by giving an opposing viewpoint a seat at my table or an hour on my platform, then perhaps I should do that even if I have a right not to.

I should probably make decisions about who to allow onto my platform in ways that enable me to listen to people outside my echo chamber, even though I have a right to shut them out. I should probably also protect myself and others from speech that is just about attacking or degrading me or others--protect myself by refusing to give it a platform. And I should probably make a sincere effort to tell the difference between speech that challenges my beliefs and speech that is just verbal abuse.

The flip side of the freedom of speech is the freedom to listen. The most basic and fundamental way I can amplify another's voice is to turn my attention to it. The freedom of speech is thus inextricably bound up with the freedom to decide who we listen to and why.

And just as with the freedom of speech, we should use this freedom to listen wisely. Cultivating that wisdom is a personal responsibility. One of my most basic convictions about wise listening is this: if people are honestly sharing something of themselves--their values, their experiences, their feelings, their stories, their perspectives and ideas--that calls for more attentive listening than when people are simply repeating party-line talking points as a display of group allegiance or are simply making judgments about others.

When people are simply repeating others' talking points or putting others down, asking honest questions can sometimes inspired them to share of themselves. And this can move us beyond speech that functions as little more than displaying allegiance to "us" while denouncing "them," and towards speech that advances human understanding and community.

What would it look like if we all made the commitment both to protect the freedom of speech and to use that freedom--and the paired freedom to listen--as wisely as we know how? (Such a commitment, by the way, is not a commitment to judging other people for being bad at exercising these freedoms well; it is, rather, a commitment to endeavoring in our own lives to use these freedoms wisely.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Human Solidarity and LGBT Issues

I've been following some (not all) of the discussion inspired by my response to the Nashville Statement that appeared on Religion Dispatches a couple of days ago. A couple of the comments motivated me to reply--including one that I've decided to post here, along with my response, since I think the issue raised--solidarity in the face of sin--is important to think about in connection with LGBT issues. (Also, Disqus marked my reply as spam for some reason, and while I hope that is corrected I want to make sure the remark is preserved here if nowhere else.)

Here is the comment:

OK, I'm struggling with this whole issue. I would probably, at least nominally, place myself in the same camp as the Nashville Statement signers. I have not signed it though. I have read it, and had issues with articles 10 & 13.

So while I share the beliefs of the statement's signers (insofar as I agree with their interpretation of scripture regarding this issue), I'm not settled on whether something like the statement is the proper approach.

I agree with this article's author that Christians ought to listen more, and do a better job of imitating the kind of love represented by the good Samaritan (and I would add the kind of love Jesus showed to the adulteress and the woman at the well). However, like many other things with God, truth and love exist on a sliding scale. We give people false comfort when we offer love without truth; and we tempt people to despair when we present the truth without love. The right place is in the balanced middle.

That said, I don't know where that middle is with this issue. This subject has grown to touch on all the social taboos (e.g. sex, politics, and religion). So, figuring out how to talk about it is difficult. When asked, I feel like I have to first give a history lesson to explain how the Church as a whole erred in the latter half of the 20th century; the Church expressed a preference for legislating people instead of loving them. In doing so, they screwed up and became the bad guy in the eyes of the world.

So, today Christians probably owe the LGBT community an apology while agreeing to disagree on whether or not homosexual sex is OK in God's eyes -- with a huge caveat that many other "respectable sins" (pre-marital sex and divorce being high on the list) are equally not OK in God's eyes. This was a huge missed opportunity to say that we are all in this together, and that the Church is where anyone can come to find help and relief from the painful consequences of our collective struggle with sin.

I think that is my version of the balanced middle. So, it is really hard for me to agree with opinions that are too heavily on the far-end of either side of the scale. I can agree with the truth in the Nashville Statement while rejecting the statement as a silly way to express that truth.

And here is my response:

You are clearly sincere in your commitment to loving your LGBT neighbors, and as such you and I are on the same side with respect to the question that matters the most. But on the question of whether same-sex sex is or is not "OK in God's eyes" (specifically when it occurs in a monogamous and loving context similar to the one that we think renders heterosexual sex "OK"), I want to challenge you just a little in connection with a remark you make.

The challenge has to do with the following remark: "This was a huge missed opportunity to say that we are all in this together, and that the Church is where anyone can come to find help and relief from the painful consequences of our collective struggle with sin." This notion of solidarity before God is important, but I believe that careful attention to the lives of our LGBT neighbors shows that the capacity for cis heterosexuals to extend such solidarity to their LGBT neighbors is compromised by traditional teachings, by imposing on the latter burdensome and often life-strangling constraints that those fortunate enough to be cis heterosexuals have no need to bear.

This is a point I spend considerable time defending in my book, especially in terms of reporting on LGBT experiences (well, not so much trans experience, since the book was focused on same-sex relationships and marriage and in that context I could not do justice to the distinct set of issues that my trans neighbors wrestle with). I can't reproduce all of that here, obviously, but there is one short passage from the book that I want to quote, since I think it sums up the difficulty of promoting solidarity in the face of sin when same-sex intimacy is condemned as sinful.:

"When it comes to the condemnation of adultery, all of us can stand in solidarity with one another, supporting each other in living up to a shared constraint--because all of us have the potential to be attracted to someone who isn't our spouse. But a social norm condemning homosexual sex does not generate solidarity. It creates us/them divisions. When a community condemns homosexuality, the heterosexual majority is imposing a constraint on a minority group, demanding sacrifices that the majority doesn't need to make." (The Triumph of Love, pp. 85-86)

There are, of course, things that can be said in response here. Someone could point out that not everyone experiences the same desires and temptations, and the same problem with solidarity noted above might arise in cases where all of us would agree that a desire some people have is for something wrong, and we wouldn't want to address the problem of solidarity by pretending that the wrong thing isn't wrong.

But we also don't want to magnify problems of human solidarity by imposing moral condemnations where they aren't called for. And in the case of homosexuality, the kind of sacrifice that the privileged majority imposes on the sexual minority cuts to things generally viewed as valuable for psychological health if not central to it: an integrated identity, a loving and stable life partnership with a suitable mate, etc. For a majority to require of a minority that they give up the hope of these things in their lives imposes unique burdens to human solidarity. Given your sincere desire to promote a Christianity in which we all can stand in solidarity in our human struggle against sin, I invite you to wrestle a bit more with this difficulty--first and foremost by seeking out and listening to the stories of Christian and formerly-Christian LGBT neighbors who have become deeply alienated from communities of faith that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality.

Monday, September 11, 2017

My Response to the Nashville Statement on RD

Religion Dispatches has just published my response to the Nashville Statement, "A 14-Point Rebuttal to The Nashville Statement from a Straight Cis Christian Man."

The accompanying image of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle church was not my idea, but it did make me smile.

Those who have read my book will be familiar with some of the main themes in the article--although, of course, I could only gesture to them. And many issues I cover in the book I couldn't even gesture towards. So if anything bears some shadow of resemblance to Luther's 95 Theses, it would be the book, not this article.

But, you know, it's hard to nail books to a door.

Selling People Their Own Need: Hurricane Irma, Price Gouging, and Martin Luther

There were numerous complaints of  "price gouging" in connection with Hurricane Irma putting Florida in its sights. Although some of these complaints were unfair, the basic pattern of dramatically raising prices for essential goods in a crisis situation is basic economics in a free market system, absent government regulations to prevent it: As demand increases for a fairly fixed supply of some staple, people with the means to do so are willing to pay more for it if it means access. It becomes a kind of bidding situation. The seller of the staple can therefore ask more for it--and, barring other considerations (such as concern about maintaining long-term goodwill among consumers), they will ask more.

If we're talking about a long-term increase in demand and a situation where it is possible to increase supply by re-directing production resources, this feature of the free market works magic: others see how much the seller of the product is making and wants a share in the profits, so they begin making it, too. Supply rises to meet demand, and prices begin to go down again until they hit their "natural price"--the price that represents their real value to society.

But in a case like Irma, there is no such magic. Skyrocketing demand for airline tickets, for example, was a short-term reality, existing in that short time between the emergence of Irma as a significant threat and its landfall. It does not appear that airlines were engaged in predatory price-gouging, by the way. Rather, airlines build supply-and-demand considerations into their price-scheme from the start: they have a set of cheap seats and more expensive seats, and as the cheap seats sell out only the expensive seats are left, meaning only those with more urgent need, or for whom the higher price isn't a big deal, will buy them. As demand for flights out of Florida rose in the face of Irma's impending landfall, all the cheaper fares were quickly sold and only the high-price seats remained.

But even if this isn't opportunistic price-gouging, it has something in common with such price-gouging. The reformer, Martin Luther, captured this common theme in a distinctively powerful turn of phrase, when he bemoaned the tendency of markets to "sell people their own need." (Thanks to John Kronen for pointing out to me this remarkable rhetorical flourish from Luther.)

Here's the idea. When an emergency situation arises and the need for some product increases, the price shoots up. But in many such cases (if not all) the cost of production hasn't gone up. The labor costs haven't gone up. The distribution costs haven't gone up. The quality of the product hasn't gone up. Nothing has changed from the standpoint of the seller, who was happily selling the product at a lower cost yesterday. So why are people suddenly required to pay more? Because their need has gone up.

And so, as Luther puts it, they are paying for their own need. And this makes sense when you think about it: If price goes up when the only changing variable is the consumer's increasing need, that increase in price is paid simply because of greater need--as if the business owner were selling them their own need. The practice, a staple of modern capitalism, horrified Luther. And when it shows up in moments of predatory price gouging, it horrifies most people today.

But the relationship between free market capitalism and human need is more complex than just the risk of price gouging, even if we simply focus on crisis situations. Because let's be clear about something. The very wealthy have more resources for weathering a natural disaster than do the poor. If they're stuck in the path of a hurricane and are injured, they're more likely to be able to afford medical care. They're more likely to own a home that is sturdy and able to weather the storm. If they live right where the worst effects are likely to strike, they are more likely to be able to afford a hotel room in a secure building where they can ride out the storm in comfort.

And when it comes to evacuation by plane, for the wealthy this might be just a luxury, since they have a reliable, fuel-efficient car that's got a full tank of gas, while the poor might have no car or an unreliable clunker that is always riding on nothing but fumes, since they never have enough to fill the tank.

The rich can't buy resurrection if killed, of course; and they might have bought a home right on the beach that the poor couldn't afford, but you get my point: the poor may need a seat on a plane more urgently than the rich; but it's the rich who can afford the seat, and so they're the ones who get it. Especially when prices go up, the market tends to distribute essential goods to those who need it less, rather than to those who need it more.

Put another way, as general need increases, the rich are willing to spend more because of their increased need, and sellers are happy to "sell them their own need." But the poor are left with more need and less ability than ever to satisfy it. The tendency for businesses to sell people their own need means that those with limited ability to buy will be priced out of the market altogether as soon as the rich start needing the same things with enough urgency.

What this shows is one final truth about free markets that we all must wrestle with seriously. Markets are not actually responsive to need as such. What they are responsive to is marketplace demand. And while need affects marketplace demand, it only affects it if those in need can afford to buy what they need in the market. The poor can't, and so their needs get ignored. At the same time, the mere whims of the rich get satisfied, because they have the resources to satisfy those whims in the marketplace.

This is why we live in a world where limited natural resources are directed towards making luxuries while masses of human beings don't have enough to eat. And if you think this is a tragic misallocation of resources (as I do), then we can't look to free market capitalism to correct for it. It is a great tool for correcting misallocations of resources when farms are growing more potatoes than people want and fewer lima beans.

But when it comes to responding to the reality of human need, free markets are often predatory (when those in need can scrape together the money to pay for their need) or indifferent (when those in need cannot). Of course, we can and should all work as we are able to meet out needs--our dignity calls for no less. But sometimes we our needs are so great they disable us. And even when that doesn't happen, desperate need is something the market exploits in another way: if there are enough needy people, the supply of people willing to work will exceed the demand, enabling businesses to exploit laborers for a pittance of what their labor is worth on the market. And so we have poor people working multiple jobs who are barely able to pay the bills--in part because their wages are depressed by the scope of human need, and in part because they are forced not only to pay for the goods of life but for their own need.

In a pure free market society, having needs is a liability--and the needier your are, the more you are prone to exploitation and marginalization. And Luther didn't just come up with a pithy phrase for capturing what is going on. He found it morally egregious.

The only viable fix for this problem that I can see is government intervention in the market in two ways: regulations that impose constraints and requirements on businesses to limit exploitation, and government programs that spend tax dollars on behalf of those in greatest need, thereby making the market responsive to those needs in a way that it wouldn't otherwise be.

This is why I think a mixed economy, that combines free markets with the right sorts of government regulations and programs, is the best solution for our human situation--and why I think that the more extreme libertarian deferrals to the free market to solve all problems is naive at best. The debate, for me, is about what sorts of government regulations and programs are the right ones. That is no easy question, but it seems to me the question we need to focus on.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Explaining "White Privilege"

Last night I posted a lengthy comment on a Facebook discussion thread sparked by the following meme:

Image may contain: 2 people, meme and text

Since my comment was appreciated and shared by a number of people (and was posted on Robin Parry's blog--thanks, Robin!), I figured it should go here as well. So here it is:

Here's how I explain the concept of white privilege in my classes: "Privilege" names an advantage that is possessed by virtue of systemic or structural features of a society, usually an advantage experienced because one happens to belong to a specific group. In this respect, it is the flip-side of oppression, which names a systemic group harm.

Those who experience privilege did not choose to be born into the class that society advantages through systemic forces, and they did not create those forces that advantage them. Furthermore, they have limited power as individuals to change society, and so are unlikely on their own to be able to divest themselves of their privilege. This means that having privilege is not something anyone should feel guilty about. You can't help it. While there are some advantages you can cast off, you can't remove the social forces that give people in your class a systemic advantage. So acknowledging privilege is not about feeling guilty or about casting blame. It is first and foremost about recognizing an inequity in the social structure, and then about making a commitment to working for change as one's life situation allows, and recognizing that having a particular kind of privilege may allow one to work for greater equity—work for a society in which one no longer experiences this privilege—in ways that those who lack this privilege can't.

Now we can talk about "all-things-considered privilege" and "specific privilege" Someone might have privilege in one respect but be oppressed in others, and end up being oppressed all-things-considered. It might sound strange to say that a black slave in the ante-bellum South experienced male privilege, but in saying this one is not saying that he was privileged. One is saying that although he was oppressed, horribly oppressed, the system did not make him a target for systemic sexual abuse by virtue of his gender in the way that it made female slaves a target. While he might still be raped by his owner, the cultural forces in play don't make him uniquely vulnerable to being raped in the way that female slaves were systemically vulnerable.

Likewise, to say that a person has white privilege is not to say that the person is privileged all-things-considered. The person may not enjoy much privilege at all, having been dealt a lousy hand with respect to an array of other social factors. In other words, it is perfectly possible for a person to truthfully say, "I'm not privileged!"—for that claim to be true about their overall condition in social life—and for it still to be true that the person is the beneficiary of white privilege.

The thesis that there exists white privilege is the thesis that there are various social forces in play (such as culturally ingrained unconscious biases and preferences, demographic facts about who is in the majority and who holds the majority of leadership positions, historical facts about who has held positions of power, implicit cultural conceptions of what is "normal," facts about which stories and films and works of art happen to be most prevalent and beloved, not to mention facts about past or present legal and economic structures that impact opportunities) that give persons who are socially recognized as "white" an advantage in one respect over those who are not (although, again, a white person may experience economic disadvantages and class disadvantages and disadvantages relating to sex and gender, etc., etc., and so not be privileged all-things-considered).

All of this is definitional. The question now is whether white privilege, so defined, exists. Well, here's one tiny thing that I noticed the other day. My kids dug out an old "How to Draw Faces" book that we'd gotten from relatives at some point. It was a few decades old. I leafed through it. Every face in the book was white. EVERY SINGLE ONE. The book was not called, "How to Draw White Faces." It was called, "How to Draw Faces." But there were nothing but faces that we'd classify as white. Of course, this book was a few decades old. Books you buy today will almost certainly exhibit more diversity. But these artifacts of history still litter our landscape—artifacts in which "face" is treated as equivalent to "white face." And the existence of these artifacts (but no comparable or comparably widespread artifacts treating "face" as equivalent to "black face") means that white kids will come across these artifacts and never have the experience that a little black kid will have: "Why aren't faces like mine represented?"

Of course, this is a small thing. But there are lots and lots of small things like that. There is the fact that 44 out of 45 US Presidents are white. There is the little fact that the majority of US Senators and Representatives are white. There is the fact that most CEOs are white. These are just demographic facts and historical facts, and I'm certainly not responsible for them and should not, as a white man, feel guilty about these facts being what they are. But they do mean that as I was growing up, I was inundated with role-models of leaders who were "like me." There was no need to seek them out, no need to set aside a special Black History Month to call attention to them. So, there is a set of realities about our society and its history that gives me an advantage, however small, over persons of color (and over women).

And these advantages hold even if we deny that there exist any implicit racial biases (unconscious, socially-ingrained biases favoring white persons over black ones). But the research shows that such bias does exist—all over the place in society. For example, there was a study in which college professors in graduate programs were contacted out of the blue with e-mails from individuals claiming a desire to study under them. The researchers varied the letters only in terms of whether the name was a common "white" name or a "black"-sounding name, Hispanic name, etc. They then tracked how likely the professor was to respond to the unsolicited email. Guess what? They responded less frequently to the emails with the non-"white" names.

And that is just one study among very many studies that all point in the very same direction over and over and over again. None of this means that a white person, by virtue of being white, is going to get white privilege checks in the mail. It doesn't mean they will experience all-things-considered privilege. And it certainly does not mean that the typical white guy minding his business and treating others with respect and decency is guilty of anything. It just means he has a kind of advantage that people of color do not have, because of a complex array of historical facts, demographic realities, legacy effects of segregation and red lining and other marginalizing practices from previous generations, self-concept affirming cultural artifacts, and persistent but unconscious culturally-ingrained biases.