Archives for category: opinion

You already know the facts: Jared Loughner, an unhinged young man, fired a gun at a congresswoman and into a crowd, killing six and injuring eleven. Loughner has invoked his right to silence, leading the media to endlessly question his motives and influences. He was, according to friends, “totally normal” in high school. How did he get to this point, at age 22?

I don’t know the answer, but I think it will be depressingly pedestrian. Something went wrong in his brain, and he didn’t receive help. He shows all the signs of paranoid schizophrenia, which usually sets on in the early twenties. Whatever the answer, it’s unlikely to hold many real world lessons the way Columbine did; spree shootings, and shootings of political figures, are rare.

That hasn’t stopped political pundits from trying to milk the tragedy to gain political points. The shooting happened in Arizona, home of the controversial SB1070 bill. Loughner appeared to have a heavy marijuana habit. The right and the left have used these facts, and some wild accusations, to accuse each other of all manner of base misdeeds, most notably fostering a “climate of hate.”

Let’s discuss the word “hate” for a moment. Hatred is an emotion, like anger, joy, resentment, fear, and so on. It may be the basis for a political position, but it is not a position in itself. Everyone reading this has probably felt it at some point in their lives.

“Hate speech”––whatever that means––is free speech, even if it encourages hate in others. Fostering a “climate of hate” is just as legal as fostering a “climate of love,” provided you do not incite a mob to commit violence or threaten an individual.

“Hate groups” are, presumably, groups of people motivated by hate. Does that imply the existence of “love groups,” “pity groups,” “fear groups” and “feeling a bit peckish groups”? More to the point, how can you know if an entire group’s philosophy is built upon hatred? Probably you are projecting your own issues with their position onto them; you hate them, so therefore they must be full of hate.

As I mentioned in my essay on spirit day, correlation with increased violence is not sufficient reason to censor free speech. If intolerance of gays increases the suicide risk for gay teenagers, you can point out the correlation and complain, but you cannot force them to be tolerant, to change their views, or to shut up.

Likewise, if far-right or far-left rhetoric encourages paranoid schizophrenics to turn violent, that says nothing about the rightness or wrongness of the positions advocated. It’s more sensible, and more moral, to try to find these people before they turn violent than censor political discourse because someone might misinterpret it, however disastrously.

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Calling an idea a “stereotype” does not refute it. If one believes, for example, that atheists tend to be rich and white, one doesn’t deny the existence of middle-class, impoverished and non-white atheists. Nor does one say that all rich white people are atheists. Nor does one say that all atheists are 2-dimensional figures made from one mold. One simply means that, in one’s own experience and the experience of others, most atheists have fit a certain pattern––in this case, being wealthy and white.

A stereotype is, more often than not, the end product of prolonged pattern recognition. It is a simplified observation. Reality might be more complicated, but the stereotype is true enough to be serviceable and useful in daily life. And one cannot be analyzing reality all the time. If your car breaks down in a rough neighborhood, you will start using stereotypes, whether you like it or not.

It is also simple to prove or disprove many stereotypes. Examine the data as if you were Spock. If a stereotype is blatantly false, it will often be easy to see, through crime rates, illegitimacy rates, achievement rates and so on. If it’s confirmed, it isn’t the end of the world.

For example, it’s long been a stereotype that Irishmen are alchoholics. This stereotype is based on fact, not fancy. There are Irish people who don’t drink, who don’t like to drink or who can drink responsibly. But if you are Irish, you’re at greater risk for developing alcoholism than a Spaniard or Italian. It doesn’t mean you will––but it doesn’t mean you should ignore this risk as if it doesn’t exist.

Stereotype hysteria denies people the vital ability to evaluate strengths and weaknesses given to them and their family. Knowing that you are genetically predisposed to alcoholism, depression, low intelligence, high intelligence or cancer is very important if you are looking to have children. It is far more important than giving people a wishy-washy feeling of everyone being more or less the same.

Purple Mustache

This essay discusses “Spirit Day,” a day of remembrance for sexually atypical victims of bullying. The first Spirit Day was October 20 of this year (2010).

This essay was originally published, in an abbreviated form, elsewhere. It is republished here in full.


Six gay teenagers committed suicide in the past few months. Most were victims of bullying. This distresses a large number of people, including many who never met the suicides. A teenager decided to make October 20th “Spirit Day” to honor homo-/bi-/transsexual victims of bullying. Many people joined the cause, from Dan Savage to Cyndi Lauper; Tumblr’s staff re-skinned their website in purple to fit the theme.

Every article I’ve read about Spirit Day makes liberal use of vague stock phrases, e.g. “bear witness,” “raise awareness,” “faith leader,” “tolerance” and so on. Alarm bells ring in my head when I hear these phrases, because I know they mean nothing––or, more accurately, that they mean very different things to every person. Words hold histories within them, histories stretching back through civilizations into the beginnings of consciousness and pre-verbal thought. They illuminate or obfuscate, depending on how you use them. When you use them in stale and timeworn ways they cease to mean anything.

Stale and timeworn language simultaneously hides and expresses lazy thought. Anyone who has written a term paper on short notice will know what I mean. These phrases save considerable time; instead of coming up with a novel idea, or a novel expression of a timeless one, you simply let the language do the work for you, and before you know it you have seven pages of “raise awareness” and “take a stand” and “actionable gestures” and “people of faith.”

Why, then, the unfocused language? I think it comes from an indefinite purpose. For some, Spirit Day is about mourning the deaths of those six teenagers, for others, it’s a day against bullying in general, to others, it’s against bullying based on sexual orientation, or  it’s to “raise awareness” of a problem, or it’s a day to teach tolerance.

I do not support bullying. But I do not see how it could be eliminated from every high school in America, while maintaining any sort of ethical code. Suppose we dispense with ethics; even a Heathers-style plot would probably not work in real life. And bullying is not the only endemic social problem schools have to face. E.M. Forster expressed this, quite well, in The Longest Journey:

“There’s very little bullying here,” said Agnes.

“There was very little bullying at my school. There was simply the atmosphere of unkindness, which no discipline can dispel. It’s not what people do to you, but what they mean, that hurts.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Physical pain doesn’t hurt–at least not what I call hurt–if a man hits you by accident or play. But just a little tap, when you know it comes from hatred, is too terrible. Boys do hate each other: I remember it, and see it again. They can make strong isolated friendships, but of general good-fellowship they haven’t a notion.”

How could you foster “general good-fellowship” among teenagers, especially ones brought up believing their comfort, self-esteem and satisfaction are of upmost importance?

Note the draconian undertone of some of these pronouncements. We start out with a stand against bullying, and end up at a position where dislike/disgust with homosexuality is partially responsible for the suicides of distant strangers. If true, should we mandate that all people believe that gay is okay, so no more children will have to die? Even if many people hate homosexuals, how on earth will berating them help anyone, least of all the recipients of their hatred? The “atmosphere of unkindness, which no discipline can dispel” may be painful, but it cannot be banished through force. Likewise, people are entitled to believe whatever they like, including beliefs that, if widely held, might drive someone to suicide or murder.

It’s also unclear if all the gay suicides came from bullying. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds; some of these are bound to be gay, bullying or no bullying. There are also straight children who commit suicide because of bullying, though there’s an essential mystery in anyone’s motives to kill themselves.

While standing up to bullies can go a long way, conflating bullying with dislike of homosexuality does everyone a disservice. Plenty of people view homosexual and bisexual behavior as unnatural or immoral, yet they don’t act on it by psychologically torturing children. When you conflate bullying with someone saying that they think homosexuality immoral, you attempt to reframe the debate so that anyone who disagrees with you is morally equivalent to someone who torments a 13 year-old. Which you may believe––but I don’t.

Proponents of Spirit Day also appear not to consider practical solutions to sexuality-based bullying, such as homeschooling, private tutoring, school vouchers or an early high school exit exam (a CHSPE in California) to take the victim out of the offensive environment. Making expulsion from a public school possible for egregious bullies (along with other offenders) has not been brought up, to the best of my knowledge. No one deserves abuse, but it is foolish to expect it never to happen. Rather than bemoaning its existence, why not take practical steps so more and more children can learn in safety, free from undue harassment?

Let’s move on to emotions. All beliefs are based on them. I suspect that every person over the age of six, with normal cognitive functioning, has experienced every major negative emotion: hate, anger, bitterness, jealousy, rage, desire to kill, desire to hurt, race animus, sex animus and more. Can you, reader, honestly say that you have never felt any of the above? Depending on your social circle, certain people, groups and organizations are acceptable targets for negativity, while others are protected and sacrosanct. Often, people who “show solidarity” with victims use that as an excuse to batten on the enemy. We should not ignore this facet of human nature, since it motivates much seemingly altruistic action.

Showing solidarity with bullying victims is a worthy cause. But stopping there, as this campaign seems to do, is more cruel than ignoring the problem entirely. What will you do the other 364 days of the year? Does anyone plan to, say, build a boarding school or a safehouse for sexually atypical, at-risk youth? Or run a crisis center for young people struggling with life? And what will happen to those bullies, anyway? Perhaps, on some distant day, all people will join hands in harmony; until that day, I have to agree with J.D., from Heathers:

The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.

It’s still not clear to me whether Spirit Day is about discouraging people from mistreating each other, or upbraiding other people for disliking a group they’re supposed to like. If it’s the latter, I cannot support it.

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