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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On the meaning and overuse of words...

Today on Facebook, I ran across this link on the Trevor Project's feed.  I was struck by the use of the word "homophobic" and decided to view the video and see what the "casually homophobic question" was.  I was expecting something more than what we got.  The video is of Ewan McGregor being asked by George Stephanopoulos (in 2010) about a kiss between Ewan and Jim Carrey at an awards ceremony (or something similar).  I definitely approved of Ewan's answer which was basically to ask why it was a huge deal, but I couldn't help but wonder why the question was deemed "homophobic."  After all, homophobia is "unreasoning fear of or antipathy toward homosexuals and homosexuality." (Dictionary.com).  The question, while silly and a little ignorant, does not seem to rise to the level of homophobia.  This thought then got me thinking about the use of certain pejorative terms in out political and social discourse.

My problem with the terms stems not from the terms themselves, but rather from the fact that they are massively overrused by all parties concerned.  We blithely throw around words like "hypocrite", "homophobic", "sexist", "misogynistic", or other similar terms to denigrate views or people we disagree with.  The problem with the way we throw the words around is that they come to mean really nothing at all.  After all, if everyone who disagrees with what the gay community wants is homophobic, then we have stripped the word of its meaning.  In our desire to protect ourselves or our opinions, we have in reality hurt them.  You can disagree with a certain perspective without being unreasoningly fearful of it.  There may be a valid reason behind the disagreement.

The other problem is that words like this shut down discourse.  After all, if the person you are arguing/debating/discussing with immediately resorts to these sorts of terms, they really don't have a good case to fall back on.  After all, resorting to ad hominem type arguments (like these) is the last refuge of a bad case.  Or at least, it should be.  All too often, it is the first resort of any type of case.  A good discourse requires that both sides be open to the possibility that the other side has a point.  After all, if that is not the case, then why are you discoursing?  Do you have to agree with them?  Of course not.  But you do need to acknowledge that they might have a point and it is worth considering.

But if the other person is throwing out baseless or overblown charges/names, then (naturally) you aren't going to talk with them because those sorts of actions indicate a closed mind that is not open to discussion.  It indicates a certain dogmatism or strict doctrinarity that impedes the search for the truth and a good discussion.

So, the nest time you see something like this, ask yourself:  Is this word really true?  Is it necessary?  If the answer to either is no, don't use it.  Restore the meanings to the words.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Reflections on today and sound public policy

Ok, so obviously something horrible happened today.  I am, of course, referring to the school shooting in Connecticut.  After any such event, people naturally react by demanding that immediate action of one sort or another take place.  This is a huge mistake and (I think) almost morally abhorrent.

Before I go any further, I want to state that is is not a piece for or against gun control.  That is not a discussion that I am looking to have right now.  The discussion I want to have is about how we should react on a political/government/public policy level.  Almost any time the government reacts in a knee jerk manner, the result is tragic (PATRIOT Act anyone?).  The *ONLY* way to get sound public policy is to have a rational and reasoned debate about the issues which cannot happen in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy of any sort.

Part of the reason for this is that people look for the quickest and easiest suspect/scapegoat.  After 9/11, we turned on Muslims and anyone who looked like them (Sikhs anyone?).  After a shooting, we turn on guns and gun owners.  Understandable, but misguided; well, at least partially.  After all, what is the one thing (besides guns) that links these tragedies together?  Mental illness.  A lot of the people who go around shooting others like this are mentally ill.  We need to first look at how we can help them.  Now, will that stop all shootings?  Absolutely not, but it will help.

After we try and solve the horrific lack of mental help for people, we can then have a calm and reasoned discussion about guns.  Here is the problem with that:  People are so caught up in seeing the world in black and white, that they won't have a reasoned discussion.  So, I would like to set forth what I would consider some important prerequisites for any talks.

[1] There will be no blanket ban on all guns.  This is a pipe dream and guaranteed to be a non-starter.  People like to hunt and they need guns for that.  Also, guns are guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment, so unless that is going to change (which I so don't see happening), a blanket ban is a non-starter.  Part of the problem is that there are those who are seriously advocating for a blanket ban and that is putting many people who might otherwise agree to reasonable restrictions in a bad spot.

[2] There must be some limits on the ownership of guns and the type of guns that can be owned.  For example, there is really no legitimate reason for a private citizen to own an AK-47 or another assault rifle.  Like there are those who advocate a blanket ban, there are also those who say that any restriction is inherently bad.  Like the other side, they are wrong.  We need to have some sort of restrictions.  Do I know what these restrictions are?  No.  But I do think they are needed.

Getting back to my larger point, as a nation we need to embrace the rational side of public policy.  All too often, we react to a situation without thinking our way through it.  As almost anyone should be able to tell you, knee jerk reactions are not good reactions.  They are emotional and not thought out, which on a personal level is bad enough.  To make the same sort of decisions on a governmental level is horrible and (as I said above) morally abhorrent.

Say what you will about our Founding Fathers (and yes, they made plenty of mistakes), but they did do something brilliant in how they distributed power.  By taking power and diffusing it, they ensured that it would be hard (albeit not impossible) for one event to dramatically change the course of the government.  By placing the Senate beyond the reach of the public passions (a move unwisely changed), they made it a check on the people's passions as expressed in the House of Representatives.  This was a move that made sense then and still makes sense today.

People; whether as individuals or in groups; do not react well to tragedy or other sudden changes and we often need to be saved from ourselves.  And don't get me started on the whole bogus notion that your emotions are *ALWAYS* right.  Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't.  They have a place in decision making, but it is unwise in the extreme to allow them a ruling place in any decision making process.  As a teacher, I understand that a gut feeling is important in some cases, but those cases tend to be in smaller decisions and are the result of the mind subconsciously reasoning out to a decision and not emotions overruling the intellect.

As human beings, there are two things that set us apart from animals: our soul and our intellect.  Can animals think or feel pain, love, joy, etc.?  Of course they can, but they do not (I believe, after all, it cannot be proven) have souls neither do they have the intellectual capacity of humans.  While we may share some of their more base instincts, we do have a duty to use our God-given intellect to rise above this instinctual level.

I know people are going to disagree with me and that is fine.  I am making assertions that they will disagree with.  As always, I simply ask that if you disagree, give me a reasoned basis for disagreeing and not some emotional reaction.  If we, as individuals, cannot rise above our knee-jerk reactions, how can we expect our government or other institutions to do so?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

On Participating in the Political Process and Term Limits

I was on Facebook today and I saw a link on a friends page for a petition to Congress.  The petition was to a page entitled "Congressional Reform Act of 2012" and listed several reforms that people want Congress to make.  I agree with some of the ideas, but some of the ideas are either bad or things that we can already do.

The main thing I like is holding Congress to the same laws as everyone else.  Currently, Congress does not have to follow all of the laws that they pass, which is frankly ridiculous.  There are proposals there to end Congressional pension and retirement plans, which is excessive to me.  So long as Congressmen and women pay into a retirement system, they should be able to keep it.  They should also pay into Social Security, but that falls under the first point above.  As for the healthcare idea, again, so long as they pay for it themselves, I see no issue with it.

The main argument I have with the proposal lies in two points.  First, the idea that Congressmen and women should be term-limited.  Honestly, I am not fond of mandatory term limits for anyone because I see it as a massive cop-out.  Too many people do not participate in the political process and then proceed to rip the people who participate or who are in the process to shreds.  Seriously, if you don't vote, sit down and shut the hell up.  By not voting, you have totally abdicated any rights to complain.  If everyone who complained about Congressmen/women voted; and voted against their Congressman/woman; then term limits would effectively be in place.  Making term limits mandatory is a way for people to complain about their Congressman/woman and not do anything about it.  Vote and participate in the process or don't and stay out of it.  Period!  I think that all term limits should be repealed and if people want to change things, they should actually participate in the process and vote.  If not, then they deserve whatever they get.

My second argument with the petition is the idea underlying it that the members of Congress were meant to be citizen legislators.  That may be true, but I've never seen the logic of it at all particularly given what we ask government to do today.  Is government too big and complicated?  Maybe.  But we do ask it to do a lot and therefore it will be big and complicated.  Should Congressmen/women be part-time legislators?  No.  On a state or local level that would work, but given how much we ask of the national government, it does not work at all.