Friday, September 23, 2016

Triumph of Love Excerpt #2: Loving the Sinner but Hating the Sin

Posted below is the second of my promised excerpts from my work-in-progress, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. This is the introductory section of a chapter exploring the uses and misuses of the "love the sinner but hate the sin" mantra. Enjoy!

The story is common enough. Joe and Mary are walking out of a college classroom where the topic of homosexuality just came up. Joe, a conservative Christian convinced that all homosexual sex is sinful, expressed this conviction during the class discussion. Mary, a lesbian, isn’t quite ready to let that go. She’s tired of staying quiet.

“You really think I should break up with my girlfriend,” she says, “even though we love each other?”

“The Bible says it’s wrong. I can’t go against that.”

“But what about love your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that in the Bible, too? You really think it’s loving to break apart people who love each other?”

“I’m not breaking you apart. You’ve got to decide to do that for yourself.”

“But you think we ought to break up. You would encourage us to break up.”

“That’s what God says.”

“You really know what God says? How arrogant can you be!”

“I…it’s in the Bible. I don’t have anything against you or your girlfriend, but the Bible is clear. What you’re doing is a sin, and I can’t condone sin.”

“This is the most meaningful relationship of my life. Anyone who knows me knows what ending it would do…it would be…” She falls silent, seething with frustration. She doesn’t know how to say it. He seems to her like a wall of righteousness. She gropes for words: “If you think the world would be improved by Katy and me breaking up, what you really think is that the world would be better if both Katy and I lost the most meaningful, beautiful, loving relationship either of us has ever known. You think the world would be a better place if this beautiful thing were destroyed, if it were taken away from us, if both of us were left heartbroken. How is that love? How can you possibly claim to love me and Katy if that’s what you think should happen? You think it would be loving to tell a happily married couple they should break up, that it would be wrong for them to grow old together? You think it would be loving to call what they have an abomination?”

“I didn’t use that word.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“But it’s not the same thing. A married couple—”

“It is the same thing!”

“It’s not! One’s a sin and the other isn’t!”

“I’m telling you that Katy and I have something beautiful together, and wanting to tear us apart is wanting to destroy something that makes our lives better. That’s not love.”

“I don’t want to tear you apart. That’s not what I’m saying.”

“You don’t? So you think it is fine for us to stay together?”

“No! I’m saying I’m supposed to love the sinner while hating the sin.”

“That’s a f**king copout!” she shouts. “If you hate my relationship enough to insist that it should end, then you don’t love me and you don’t love Katy. You can’t call what we have a sin and still love us. That’s bulls**t!”

Mary storms away. Joe stands there, shaking a little in the aftermath of her fury.

So is Joe right that he can love Mary while condemning as sin her most intimate relationship? Is Mary right that to hate her relationship is incompatible with loving her?

The question is important. Setting aside extremists like Fred Phelps with his “God Hates Fags” signs, conservative Christians typically agree that we ought to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves—in other words, that the Christian call to love one another includes sexual minorities. But they typically hold that such love is fully compatible with condemning homosexuality—because we can “love the sinner but hate the sin.”

For many of my gay and lesbian acquaintances, they’ve heard this phrase so much it has become an emotional trigger. They react as if it were nothing but a smokescreen for perpetuating hateful practices and policies, a false promise of love to make the reality of hate more palatable (that is, more palatable to the agents of hate and third-party observers, not to the victims).

In a recent Tulsa World op-ed, Mike Jones expresses just this sort of cynicism. He concedes that the “love the sinner, hate the sin” phrase could be used in beneficial ways. “But what can be a helpful, even comforting phrase, under the right circumstances,” he says, “has been hijacked by those whose purpose is to hand down judgments . . . ” And instead of being a general remark about sin and sinners, it has acquired a focus. In Jones’s experience, the phrase “is used now almost exclusively for those who disapprove of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.”

The widespread LGBT suspicion of the phrase doesn’t spring out of nowhere. James Dobson, for example, repeatedly says that we should love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves. The following statement is typical:
Christians have a scriptural mandate to love and care for all the people of the world. Even those who are living in immoral circumstances are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. There is no place for hatred, hurtful jokes, or other forms of rejection toward those who are gay.
But as we’ve already seen, Dobson has persistently used rhetoric that feeds anti-gay ideologies of division, including claims that homosexuals are a threat to children. Dobson founded the Family Research Council and remains closely tied to it—the same Family Research Council that published the slanderous pamphlet we looked at in the last chapter, in which homosexuality was falsely linked to pedophilia through egregious misrepresentation of the research.

When such public figures pay lip service to loving gays and lesbians at the same time that they pursue and supporting unloving practices, it is not at all surprising that when gays and lesbians hear “love the sinner but hate the sin,” they find it a kind of disingenuous double-speak that is mostly about making hateful practices tolerable to the wider public by wrapping it up loving words.

But in my experience, most individual Christians who talk about loving the sinner while hating the sin are sincere. There was a time when I used the phrase myself in relation to my gay and lesbian neighbors—and I was earnest enough when I did so. My problem wasn’t that I didn’t mean it. My problem was that I didn’t wrestle with what it means to show love for gays and lesbians. The phrase became a mantra that I could fall back on to avoid confronting a real difficulty—the difficulty highlighted in the exchange between Joe and Mary. What is involved in believing that homosexuality is a sin—that is, really believing it, acting as if it were true? And what is involved in really loving my gay and lesbian neighbors? And are these things compatible?

There is a tension here, and conservative Christians who invoke the “love the sinner, hate the sin” dictum are often dodging that tension. The dictum becomes an easy conversation-stopper, a way to hide from challenging questions about what it means to show love. Gays and lesbians have every right to complain when Christians do that.

Nevertheless, I think the dictum is an indispensable part of the Christian moral life. No Christian who seeks to live by the ethic of love can deny that we must love sinners while hating sin. The problem doesn’t lie with the dictum itself, but with how it is invoked and with the challenge of figuring out what it implies.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Triumph of Love Excerpt #1: The place of emotions in loving debate

As promised, I start this week sharing excepts from my forthcoming book, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. For the first excerpt, I've chosen a passage from the last chapter of the book, in which I move away from the question of what the love ethic demands with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors and focus on how sincere people who disagree on these matters can pursue their disagreements in a spirit of love.

Let me offer just a few words of context. I reject the notion that any of us should simply "agree to disagree" when the actual fate of people we are called to love is at stake. If we're convinced we have an important truth to share, we do no one a favor by hiding it or obscuring it in an effort to be nice. What love calls for is honest debate that avoid psychological manipulation and seeks instead to illuminate truth. We are called to share why we believe in ways that may move others if our reasons are as compelling as we think they are, and may expose the weaknesses in our thinking when they're not as compelling as we think.

One question that arises in this context is the place of emotions and emotional appeals in loving debates. After exploring an example of an illicit appeal to disgust (an example I addressed a few years back in this blog entry), I move to a broader discussion of the place of emotions in loving discourse and debate. Without further ado, the excerpt:

Appeals to misleading emotions are one of the most potent forms of improper manipulation, and the appeal to disgust is just an example. Consider a slightly more complex case involving shame, fear of ridicule, and the desire for belonging. Suppose I’m having a conversation with several people, talking about my gay best friend, and I notice that one member of the group—call her Jane—starts to shift uncomfortably. She finally asks how I deal with the biblical passages that condemn homosexuality. Imagine that I respond with something like the following: “You don’t actually think homosexuality is wrong, do you? I mean, that’s ridiculous! This is the twenty-first century. You’re smarter than that, right?” 

Such a comment is designed to manipulate Jane with the fear of appearing a fool. Instead of inviting an open sharing of perspectives, it shuts down such sharing. A hint of flattery—“you look smarter than the kind of person who would think that”—is really a basis for invoking the specter of public shame. More often than not, the person most influenced by such a tactic may not be Jane, but the fence-sitting bystander—let’s call him Joe—who hasn’t thought much about the topic but sincerely longs to belong. The more he witnesses those with another view being shamed and silenced, the more he gravitates to the socially safest choice. At its worst this strategy can generate an arms-race of shame, in which each side of the debate escalates the social costs of rejecting their view in order to ensure that siding with them represent the socially safest choice. The winner of such an arms race has done nothing to illuminate truth.

While invoking misleading emotional responses for persuasive purposes is inimical to debating issues in a spirit of love, this does not mean that our discussions and debates should be divorced from our feelings. Not every emotion is an irrelevant emotion. 

Sometimes a compelling story generates a strong emotional response, and the reason is because the story has stimulated our capacity for empathy. We are suddenly in the shoes of another person, feeling what it’s like to be them. Our eyes tear up because we vicariously feel their suffering. We smile because we suddenly understand their joy as if it were our own. 

That kind of emotional resonance is crucial for loving our neighbors as ourselves, because it gives genuine insight. We can’t make wise decisions about how to love our neighbors if we can’t empathize with how they feel, if we can’t discern the truth about what it is like to be in their situation. 

Sometimes, in disagreements and debates, what we have to offer is a way of looking at an issue that invites and encourages this sort of empathy, thereby eliciting an emotional response. That emotional response is hardly irrelevant, because it is part of the insight into truth. If I didn’t feel some vicarious anguish at the story of a mother who can’t produce enough milk to feed her baby, that means I’m not seeing the truth about her situation. 

Likewise, there are some emotional responses to the experiences of others—compassion for those who suffer, anger at injustice—whose absence betrays a failure to appreciate what is going on. While our emotions are tricky, there is a strong intellectual tradition that sees them as having cognitive content: emotions are about something. Anger, for example, is a response to a perceived wrong. If injustice does not anger us, if it’s just some fact about the world that our intellect tells us is wrong, then a part of us has failed to see that it’s wrong. Our emotional selves have become blinded to the injustice, and so we aren’t discerning the injustice with our whole selves. 

In discussion or debate, part of our aim might be to awaken others’ emotional selves to a truth they have failed to see (even if their intellects have discerned it). In other words, we might not limit ourselves to making an intellectually dispassionate case that something is unjust. We might go further, looking for an analogy or image or narrative that helps to expose the outrageousness of the injustice. This is not an appeal to an irrelevant emotion, but rather a way of extending the intellectual argument beyond the merely academic, theoretical level. It’s a way of helping the heart, and not just the mind, to see. 

But because the emotions can be misled—because some rhetoricians have the power to paint something as outrageous even when no wrong has been done—it is best to wed such emotion-evoking arguments to more intellectual ones, to argue in a way that awakens the heart along with the mind, as opposed to awakening the heart alone (while, perhaps, the mind is kept deliberately asleep so the heart can be more easily led astray). 

Christian love, whatever else it is, is emotional. To love our neighbors as ourselves is to feel for them and to feel with them. Any strategy of debate and argument that is cut off from our emotions is therefore at odds with the very nature of Christian love. But truth-oriented arguments that extend to our emotional selves are not the same as manipulative ones that evoke emotions in order to confuse and obscure and misdirect. Love calls for the former, and rules out the latter.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Coming Soon: Triumph of Love Excerpts!

Some of you may have noticed that my blogging dropped off this spring and vanished entirely over the summer. There is a reason for this: I've been pouring all my writing energies into finishing my newest book, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic, in an effort to beat the December contract deadline.

The good news is that I am now working on the final chapter of the first draft, and with my sabbatical this semester I have no worries about being able to revise the whole manuscript in time, so long as I stay focused. The bad news is that I still want to resist blogging about current topics so I can be sure to meet my deadline. This is probably a good thing, since the current election season would likely inspire posts that are nothing but expressions of incredulity.


There is no reason why I can't, over the next few months, post a few choice excerpts from my work-in-progress. Look for the first one next week.

I post these for two self-serving reasons. First, to generate some interest in the forthcoming book. Second, to elicit critical feedback.

Just a word about that second aim. I don't take all critical feedback seriously, because I don't find all critical feedback helpful. Some of it doesn't even qualify as critical feedback. I generally find feedback of the following sort unhelpful: it commits formal or informal fallacies; it does little more than accuse me of being a heretic; it is an exercise in creative name-calling instead of a critical engagement with the substance of what I have posted; it expresses righteous indignation over my utter failure to consider argument X (which, while I don't address it in the excerpt, I address elsewhere in the book).

Of course, with respect to the last issue, you can't know whether I consider argument X elsewhere in the book or not. So you should feel free to point out that argument X is relevant to issues raised in the excerpt. I'm likely to be quite receptive if you use something like the following form: "This excerpt made me think of argument X, which I think is relevant for reasons R1 and R2. Do you address that argument in the book?" I just get irritated when you use something like the following form: "What an idiot you are for failing to consider argument X! And to think you call yourself a philosopher!" If you do use the latter form, it is helpful to include a winky-face emoji at the end.

(That said, if I really did miss arguments that strikes me as important, I will likely look up scholarly articulations of them and find ways to work them into the manuscript even if you direct me to them in an a$$#0l-ey way.)

If you do feel motivated to offer serious feedback that engages with the substance of what I argue in a posted excerpt, I will be appreciative. I may not, however, take the time to engage in the kind of back-and-forth discussion that I pursue when I have more time. My energies will be directed primarily towards revising the manuscript, and I know from experience that the discussion section of a blog post can be a serious time-suck if I start responding to comments there. So my engagement may be minimal, although you may find that other readers of the blog are eager to engage.

Finally, my main aim with posting excerpts is to generate some interest and give those who are already interested a foretaste of what's to come. I have volunteer readers for the manuscript who are likely to offer far more substantive and authoritative feedback than what I can get from those who happen to read a few pages out of context. But if you surprise me, it's not totally inconceivable that the acknowledgments section of the book might include a sentence like this: "Thanks also to the various commenters on my blog, some of whom offered feedback on early excerpts that ranged from actually helpful to only moderately perplexing."

I know, I know. Heady stuff.

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?