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Thursday, October 31, 2013

On racism....

Saw this article in a Facebook post and I had to reply.  I do ask that before you read what I have to say, please go read the article itself.  I am going to be honest and say that I think that while the point of the article is understandable, the author is using words in a certain specific sense that differs from the common usage. i am specifically talking about the term "racism".  In the article, she says

                                  [r]acism exists when prejudice+power combine to form
                                  social constructs, legislation and widespread media bias
                                  that contribute to the oppression of the rights and liberties
                                  of a group of people. Racism is systemic, institutional, and
                                  far reaching. It is the prevalence of racism within social
                                  structures and institutional norms, along with implicit and
                                  explicit enforcement by members of a group, that allows
                                  racism to run rampant and unchecked.

This definition of racism is what most people (myself included) would define as institutional racism.  Dictionary.com defines racism as:

                                  1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the
                                      various human races determine cultural or individual
                                      achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own
                                      race is superior and has the right to rule others
                                  2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or
                                      fostering such a doctrine; discrimination
                                  3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races

The author is defining racism using only the second definition, while ignoring the other two.  I would argue that this is problematic if only because in her article, she discounts instances of racism that do not exist on an institutional level.  Basically, her argument is that unless there is an institutional component, there is no racism.  So anyone who is white cannot (by her definition) experience racism because there is no power structure to enforce prejudice against them.

I am not going to argue that there is no institutional racism in the United States, nor am I going to argue that a white person experiences racism in the same way that a a member of a minority group would experience racism.  However, racism is real and does exist against white people by individuals within minority groups.  When one person beats another because of their skin color, that is a racist action no matter what the color of the attacker's skin or the color of the beaten's skin.  To argue differently is incredibly wrong headed and quite offensive.

I do want to note that I am not saying that the author would condone that sort of action.  But given her argument and her narrow definition of racism, someone could logically come to the conclusion that if an African-American shot a white person because of their race it is not racism whereas if the same white person where to have shot the African-American person for the same reasons, it would be racism.  that does not make any sense unless you are using her incredibly narrow definition of the word racism, which pretty much runs counter to every dictionary definition I have checked.

While I do think that the author has a point that the experiences of racism as experienced by people of different races is very different and that we, as a people, need to learn to listen and work to eliminate racial prejudice whether it is on an individual or a systemic level.

Friday, October 25, 2013

On the assimilation of non-mainstream groups....

While on Facebook the other day, I saw a post in a group asking why gay men should work so hard to get society to accept them.  The questioner asked why gay men don't just insist on being accepted as they are rather than looking for approval from society.

When I first saw the post, I had a sort of "Duh!" reaction in that I was like, "Of course people want to fit in!"  But then, I thought about it an realized that I hadn't really thought about *WHY* people should work hard to fit in.  Instead, I just took it for granted that people would want to.  I've been thinking about it and wanted to write down some of my thoughts.

Before the thoughts, I do want to say that these thoughts can really apply to any group outside of the mainstream of society looking for acceptance, not just gay men.  I will use that group since that is who was asked about and of course some of the particulars will change depending on the group, but I think that the broad strokes are universally applicable.

First off, the question posed had a faulty premise.  The question assumed that we have an "either/or" situation.  Either gay men are accepted or they remain themselves.  I reject that premise.  There is no reason why it cannot be both, at least in the United States.  I will say that the writer was from a Pacific island, so there may be cultural differences that militate in favor of an "either/or" situation rather than a "both/and" situation.

If you study history and movements for acceptance throughout (Western) history, you will notice that there are some patterns that emerge.  I do want to stress that this is all based on the Western experience and may or may not be applicable to non-Western civilizations depending on cultural variables and situations.  I think they are universally applicable, but I could be wrong.

When a new group emerges, the first impluse of the mainstream society is generally to suppress, or at the very least challenge, it.  After all, that which is new is also scary and a possible threat.  As such, it needs to prove itself.  The initial members of the group have to fight hard for acceptance and to gain a bit of a foothold in the society.  Once the foothold is gained, the following generations work to increase that acceptance.  If the group moves slowly and proves their worth, the acceptance tends to come more quickly.  If the group moves too quickly and tries to make too much change too quickly, society pushes back and acceptance is that much harder to achieve.

The thing about acceptance is that it changes both the group being accepted and the group accepting it.  Neither can survive the acceptance unchanged.  This is true on the individual level and on the societal level.  Think about it.  How many times have you met someone and it has made a difference in how you think, react, believe, or in any other way?  The only way to avoid change is to completely isolate yourself from any other person or group, and even then change will tend to happen, only much slower.  So the idea that a group can force another group to accept them "as they are" and expect to remain unchanged (implied in the question) is unrealistic.

At the same time, it is important for societies to respect the individual groups for who they are and allow them to retain their uniqueness while it is also important for members of the groups to realize that they need to make certain accomodations to the society as a whole.  There may be practices that need to be curbed (not eliminated!) or toned down in public to facilitate the assimilation process.  I know that there are going to be people who disagree with me here, but I believe that if a group is looking to assimilate themselves into the larger society, they need to be willing to move at the pace dictated by the society with a periodic push if necessary.

Now, everything I have written above was written with the premise that assimilation is desirable.  However, the questioner was wondering if assimilation is desirable, so I want to address that question now.  I think that assimilation is desirable if only because making a group a part of the larger society makes it harder to do things to the group.  The degree of assimilation also matters.  If a group manages to completely assimilate itself into the mainstream of society, it suffers less afterwards.  If the group only partly assimilates, then they are more likely to suffer aftereffects.  It also matters how much change the society is expected to take at any given time.

A society is like a living organism, if you try and force too much change down its throat, it will choke and there will be problems.  Part of the problem in the US today is that many, many groups have tried to force lots and lots of change on the United States in too short a period of time and the society has not had time to assimilate one change before having another forced upon it.  Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that all of the changes are bad.  But, as with any living organism, change needs to be gradual in order for it to have the greatest effect.

The larger problem with the United States lies in the Western conceit that Judeo-Christian culture is the pinnacle of human culture and that all others must adapt themselves to it rather than vice-versa.  There is also the tendency (at least in the US) to look at anything which is Judeo-Christian in origin as "the right way" and "the way things are supposed to be" and to automatically reject anything that disagrees with it as being completely wrong.  This makes the assimilation of any group outside of the mainstream problematic at best and impossible at worst.

Thoughts?

Friday, October 18, 2013

On marriage...

Chances are that I am going to catch some flack for this, but I felt compelled to comments on this article which I saw on a friend's Facebook page.  The article is entirely too long for me to respond to the whole thing, so I will not attempt to.  Rather, I want to reply to some parts of it.

First off, the article gives a very good summary of the Catholic belief regarding marriage.  The Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament with dual purposes.  A valid marriage must be between one man and one woman and must be ordered towards procreation.  If procreation is not intended by a couple, than the Church does not view the marriage as valid.  Therefore, a homosexual couple's marriage cannot be valid in the eyes of the Church because it does not fulfill either of these purposes.  Also, a marriage must be entered into freely (a coerced marriage is inherently invalid) and the couple must be faithful to each other.  In addition, unless the marriage was invalid for some reason, divorce and remarriage are not allowed.  Therefore, the Church can declare a marriage invalid (and therefore never a true marriage) if these requirements are not met.

All of that is very logical, but there is a major issue that arises from it.  This definition is religious in nature and, as such, cannot be applied generally in the United States.  The Founding Fathers (wisely) chose to not allow the state to form an official religion, thereby avoiding the interreligious and sectarian strife that so marred the Old World at that time and earlier.  What this means practically is that the United States has set up a dual track for marriage.  If a couple is so inclined, they can be married in a religious ceremony.  However, to enjoy the civil benefits of marriage, the couple must apply for and obtain a marriage license.  My youngest brother was married in a civil ceremony and not a religious one.  My sister married a pagan and they had two marriage ceremonies in order to accomadate both of their religious beliefs.  My point is that marriage is no longer solely a religious concern and, as such, cannot be limited by the beliefs of one religion.

After all, the United States is a pluralistic and secular nation.  By that I mean what I said above, there is no official religion for the country.  While a majority of the country is religious, there are a wide variety of different religions and there are also many people who are either agnostics or atheists.  This means that no one religion can (or should) dictate how the country defines a public institution such as marriage.  In a similar manner, the government cannot force a religion to accept a definition of marriage that differs from the one that the religion recognizes.

For civil purposes, there is no reason not to recognize a same-sex marriage.  After all, there are many benefits (tax, inheritance, health, etc.) that come from being married.  To deny these benefits to a same-sex couple is a matter of injustice in a civil sense.  In a religious sense, there is a different story.  Since each religion can define marriage on its own, different religions will allow different people to be married.  Some religions will marry same-sex couples and others will not.  There is nothing wrong with this and there is no legitimate reason for the government to force a religion to marry people if the marriage is counter to the religion's beliefs.

The article also addresses the sociological implications of marriage.  I am not familiar with the literature, so I will remain silent on most of it, but there is one thing that I need to reply to.  The article talks of the "traditional" meaning of marriage is that of one man and one woman.  While this is generally true, particularly in Judeo-Christian influenced cultures, there are enough glaring exceptions to give one pause.  There are many cultures where a man or woman can marry multiple people and where, in fact, this practice is undertaken particularly by the rich.  After all, the richer you are, the more wives (or husbands) you can support, thereby making multiple spouses a status symbol.   The article does note that there are people who favor marriage to multiple partners, a view which is not incompatible with history.  While it may be looked upon as odd, if every member of a group freely agrees to be married, there is no reason (in a civil sense) to deny them the right.

That being said, I do think that we need to come up with a definition of marriage that will make sense.  I believe that in a civil sense, the following requirements make sense:

[1] The marriage must be entered into freely by adults.  Arranged marriages, marriages obtained through coercion, or marriages involving minors (with the exceptions listed below) would not be valid.
[2] As a corrolary to number 1, a marriage involving a minor would only be valid with parental consent and if the minor clearly and without coercion agrees to the marriage.  Parental consent can be avoided if there is a legitimate and demonstrable concern that obtaining their consent will cause harm to come to the minor.  In that case, the court will appoint a suitable guardian who will ensure that the rights and concerns of the minor are being looked after properly.
[3] If there is to be a marriage with more than two partners, then each member of the group must freely and without coercion agree to the union.  Without that consent, the marriage would not be allowed.
[4] A religion would not be required to marry anyone when their religious beliefs are against the marriage.  This would be a rule with no exceptions and there would be no civil penalties attached to any religion or church that refuses to marry people due to their religious beliefs.

I think that these requirements make sense and should be enough to protect religions and preserve their autonomy.  They will also allow the government the flexibility to recognize a variety of different marital arrangements while simultaneously protecting people from being exploited or forced into a marriage that they do not want.

Any thoughts?

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[Added October 21, 2013]

On my drive home after writing this, I was considering the multiple partners aspect of this and felt that I wanted to write a little more about it.  Basically (as far as I know), there are two main views (not sure if this is the right word) at play here.  The first is polygamy which is when one person is married to multiple people of the opposite sex.  When it is one man and multiple women it is called polygyny and when it is one woman and multiple men it is called polyandry.  The second is polyamory which is when a person has deep, intimate (although not necessarily sexual) relationships with multiple people.  This can take the form of a group marriage or polygamy of some sort or it could be a less formal relationship.  The thing is that in order to engage in a polyamorous relationship, one must practice radical honesty.

Polyamory is distinct from swinging or some open relationships because it is not about sex, rather it is about forming deep emotional bonds with multiple people with the knowledge and consent of your partner(s).  Now, it is possible for these relationships to be either same-sex or opposite-sex and it is also possible for these relationships to be sexual, it would depend on the rules as agreed to by the partners in the relationship.

The relationship between this and my earlier post is that the writer of the article mentioned above was worried that if same-sex marriage was allowed could it be used to allow for polygamy or polyamory?  To which I ask, why not?  If it is purely a civil matter, if all participants are freely consenting adults then it doesn't matter.  Also, as I said above, throughout history polygamy of one sort or another has been the norm.  Monogamous relationships have historically been mainly an obsession of the Judeo-Christian European world.  Is it wrong?  No.  But it is also not the worldwide, traditional version of marriage and should not be painted as such.

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[Added October 28, 2013]

Saw this article over the weekend on CNN.com and thought it was interesting.  Quite relevant to what I added to this post.