“Why Are People Calling Me a Racist?”

The Trayvon Martin tragedy has been an eye-opener to me. I’ve been pretty sympathetic in the past to anti-racist activists, but have mostly stayed on the sidelines. At times, I have even questioned the stridency of the rhetoric, wondering if it was really warranted in the case of something like an unintentionally stereotyped character depiction. I never expected, though, to see the same racist arguments trotted out when someone has literally died, and to find myself trying to talk sense to people who feel like their hurt feelings over the mere implication that they might be racists trump the death of a child. It makes me sick. So from here on out, I am hereby radicalized, and I apologize for every time I may have unintentionally defended one of these dickwads, in public, or in private, by suggesting a debate was getting impolite or out-of-hand. I now realize it is all part of the same fucked up pathology, and it needs its ass kicked even when the stakes don’t seem that high.

I think the most important thing that white people can do when racism is a subject of public discussion is to shut the hell up. Your white fantasy of the perfect colorblind society is wrong. Colorblindness and “treating everyone the same” is inherently racist, because it provides cover for a lot of sneaky, underhanded abuse. I even wrote on that theme in my story, “Midnight on Tabula” in the Dec. 2004 issue of Analog.

But for white folks who feel compelled to get into discussions about racism online, how can you avoid being called a racist? Well, I would recommend not saying racist stuff. The problem is that most people who are not white supremicists are dealing with unconscious racism, and when behavior is the result of an unconscious thought pattern, it’s really tough to identify it without help. Just about everyone suffers from unconscious racism. When I went to Vancouver, my realization that 60 percent of the population is Asian exposed some of my unconscious racism. I was then able to analyze and process it, and now I’m a slightly better person.

If you don’t want to be called a racist, here are a few simple rules you can follow, even if right now you can’t understand what they’re for. I was going to get all bloggy and explain each one, but I decided not to, because everyone needs to figure this stuff out on their own.

Don’t use the N-word. Just don’t.

Don’t complain about not being allowed to use the N-word.

Don’t say “I’m not a racist.”

Don’t explain why you’re not a racist.

If someone calls you a racist, use these words exactly, “I’m sorry I offended you. I won’t do it again.”

Do not vary from the script. Don’t insert the word “if” at any point.

Don’t explain to people of color why something is not racist.

Don’t explain racism to people of color.

Don’t tell anyone, ever, that they are being oversensitive.

Don’t deny or dismiss someone’s experiences just because they don’t match your own.

Don’t dominate the conversation. Listen twice as much as you speak.

Calling people out on racism is painful, unrewarding work. Don’t mistake it for someone’s hobby.

Don’t use phrases like “you people” or “that noise about racism” (example from recent kerfuffle). Always be respectful.

Be willing to learn and change.

Instead of arguing on the internet, go read some books about the civil rights movement.

Don’t make the conversation about you and your own hurt.

Don’t try to turn things around and say that calling out racism is itself racist. That’s bullshit.

Remember that if you oppose people who are protesting racism, you have just aligned yourself with White Supremicists and Neo-Nazis. Congratulations. Don’t like your new allies? Then make a better choice.


I’m sure I could think of lots more tips, but the key takeaway is that whenever you find yourself called a racist in any conversation, something has gone wrong. Either you have miscommunicated your position (it can happen), or the other person has identified certain attitudes that reflect some actual unconscious racism on your part, and they are doing you a favor by pointing it out. If you can’t own it, at least don’t torture people with ten thousand words of flailing about how you’re not a racist. Instead, get off the internet and do some reading and thinking about why you keep giving people the “wrong” impression.


June Analog is here!


The June 2012 issue of Analog, with my story “Titanium Soul,” arrived in my mailbox yesterday. It will probably be a month or so before it hits the news stands, but you can get it on Kindle immediately. I haven’t even received my contributor’s copies yet. I didn’t get an interior illustration on the story this time, but I like the cover illustration quite a bit. “Titanium Soul” is one of my favorite stories by me, so it has my endorsement as a story of me, recommended by me, for your enjoyment of me. That is all.

Noli me tangere

Last week my son’s school held its annual Mosaic Night. The theme is diversity, and each classroom chooses a theme and prepares an exhibit on the theme. Some of them are related directly to what we perceive as diversity issues, like disabilities, race, etc. Other rooms explore occupations, personality types, and more. My son’s room did “Nature,” which I believe was code for “Granola Crunchers.” Posters in the room included stuff like alternative diets, yoga, and ecology.

My favorite room was the Intravert/Extravert room. The class had prepared T-shirts. One said, “Extravert” and, smaller, “and we need alone time too.” The other said, “Introvert/and we can be leaders, too.” There was a quiz you could take to find out which shirt was right for you, but I didn’t need to take the quiz to know that the white Introvert T-shirt was the choice for me. (The Extravert shirt was black.)

Introversion is often confused with shyness or social anxiety, but these are not the same thing. I am a shy introvert, and I’ve dealt all my life with others’ demands that I should change or be different. Both are a part of who I am, and I would not change them if I could. But the shyness particularly has presented obstacles to accomplishing my goals, and I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of it out there.

I’ve heard people say that extraverts “get energy” from others, and that introverts “get energy” from being alone. I’m very suspicious of any explanation of a medical or psychological phenomenon using the word “energy.” In my experience, it that leads to crystal stroking. It’s not very scientific.

To me, introversion is like this: There is a lot going on in my head. Running monologues. Essays, stories and blog posts partially drafted. Numbers, calculations, days, months, dollars. TV shows I’ve watched or want to watch. Books I’m reading. To do lists.  Any computer or book I have open in front of me becomes part of my interior world. All of you right now are inside my mind. It is a noisy place.

If I go out and socialize with friends, that’s even more noise. Conversations. Voices talking to me. Some people are boring and they talk for too long. Some people are fascinating and funny. And always in the background the running monologue, the blog posts, the TV shows, the dollars and calendars. It is extremely noisy.

As an introvert, I can only take high level stimulation for so long before I need some quiet time to recuperate.

I don’t know what it’s like to be an extravert. I actually think they probably have just as much going on inside, but in some way are able to tolerate or integrate it better, so the stimulation that comes with being around other people is comfortable. Possibly they even need some outside stimulation in order to feel normal, and have trouble fully relaxing when isolated. I believe introverts and extraverts need each other. We are all part of the mosaic of human society. (See what I did there?)

Writers are often introverts, and I imagine the reason is that writing is an essentially solitary activity, and we have a high tolerance for being alone. It’s not an absolute determinant, though, as obviously there are many extraverts who are very good and successful writers, too. It takes all kinds!

Shyness, on the other hand, is something else. At Mosaic Night, the information presented by the class said that shyness was “about fear of judgment.”

That feels so wrong to me, and so unfair, as if we could all just snap out of it if we could stop thinking wrong thoughts. What is going on with shyness or social anxiety is so much more primal than that. And, personally, I don’t see it in myself. I am not particularly worried about people judging or criticizing me, and yet I definitely deal with social anxiety.

I even know people much more outgoing than myself who have confessed to me terrible fear of judgment by their peers–at a level I can’t even understand. So I have to remind myself, “Sometimes people are really, really worried about judgment and criticism. Be gentle.”

To get past the shorthand for shyness, you have to dig deeper. Let’s talk about animals for a minute. I love animals. Shyness is a trait that is almost universal in wild animals. So much so, in fact, that it is pretty much the defining difference between a tame and wild animal.

In domesticated animals, shyness is a fault, and shy animals are culled to prevent the trait being passed to offspring. Shyness is genetic, but is it really a fault? Every elementary school teacher I ever had would say yes, but I have another theory.

You know another thing about shyness in animals? The more fearful or shy an animal is, the more curious it is. A fearful animal has to spend a lot of energy exploring its environment. It has to know what is safe and what is not safe. It can’t just walk into a room and plop down on the couch and take a nap. It must explore every object. Smell it, tap it, push it. Wait for loud noises, sudden movements. Advance, retreat, run away, come back, nose twitching. Only after thorough exploration could one attempt a nap on the couch. Shyness and curiosity are inextricably linked.

I have a cat, Simba, who is not the least bit shy or fearful. Simba is a great cat. Everybody loves Simba. There’s no question his lack of fear is appealing. He greets everyone like a friend. Guests at our house are in peril of having Simba leap on their shoulders. The bigger they are, the more Simba wants to jump on them.

Simba has been known to lie down for naps in the middle of the street, and wander into the homes of our neighbors. He is the life of every party. He’s a great dancer and a whiz at karoake.

However, Simba is also much more likely to be eaten by a coyote than our feral kitten, Athena. Oh, sure, we habituated her to humans and she’s a good pet. But Athena disappears in a flash if anything unusual happens, like a human walks into the room wearing a piece of clothing she’s never seen, or if she hears a noise. At the same time, she’s everywhere, and into everything. You can walk through a room and see her sleeping in a chair, and by the time you get upstairs to the bedroom, she is waiting for you, like she teleported. Nothing happens in the house that she doesn’t investigate.

Athena has survival skills, mostly because she is shy, cautious…wild.

Humans, too, are domesticated. Domesticated animals have a quality called neoteny. That means they look and act like juveniles for their whole lives. It makes them more playful and less fearful of threats. Humans also have the quality of neoteny. Compared to our great ape relatives, we resemble infants, and we retain juvenile traits (playfulness, sociability, etc.) into adulthood. Domesticating ourselves has been a successful strategy for our species, as there are now more than six billion of us on the planet. But just as with dogs, cats, or cattle, some individuals will be more domesticated than others.

Some of us are Simba. Some are Athena.

I am not nervous in social situations because I’m afraid of being judged. I am nervous because I am not fully tame.

Think about the primal human society. You might have a total of only a few hundred people in your band, and meeting strangers would be extremely rare. You might be called upon to socialize with strangers only a few times in a lifetime. Mostly, strangers are a threat.

In our modern world, we’re asked to interact with strangers all the time. Constantly. Even in my small city, there are strangers everywhere I go. Millions of years of evolution scream to me that it’s threatening. Twelve years of public schooling whisper that it’s fine and I’m broken because I can’t handle it. Guess which voice wins?

Maybe some humans have an adaptation to living in large communities and being exposed to thousands of strangers each day. Some of us definitely don’t.

(Remember, if I lived in a small hunter-gatherer band, there would be no exposure to strange people, and therefore nothing to identify me as “shy” in any way. I would be able to speak, sing, dance, sleep, relax, play, and do whatever I wanted with my group without experiencing social anxiety ever.)

Now, what can you do about shyness if it’s interfering with things you need to do? Some people will tell you to stop worrying about the judgment of others. That’s not totally useless advice. If you find you are worried about what other people think of you, then try to get a handle on that. Try to accept that some people will not like you, that some people will be critical, and get over it. Sure, that’s fine. Probably good advice for everyone, not just the terminally shy.

But the more successful strategy, in my experience, is desensitization. Baby step your way into comfort with the situations you will be facing. Take classes in public speaking, look for opportunities to deal with the situations that trigger your fight or flight reflex, and do it over and over. Eventually, it will go away. Like Athena kitteh, you will eventually decide that humans who wear bulky winter coats are just humans underneath, and you won’t have to run away in panic when they approach you.

It doesn’t happen overnight. These are deep-seated, primal responses. They don’t just go away. But over time you will be able to speak in public. You will be able to act or dance or sing–anything you want. You’ll recognize that the rush of adrenaline isn’t a flaw or a fault like your second grade teacher insisted. It just means you’re alive.

Let Us Lay to Rest the Myth About Boys and Female Protagonists

My twelve-year-old son devoured The Hunger Games and its sequels a long time ago. Where did he hear about them? From his friends. His twelve- and thirteen-year-old male friends. When the movie came out, he waited for it eagerly for weeks. “I can’t wait for Hunger Games!” he said. He and his friends talked about it at school, and made plans to see it. No doubt they are rehashing its awesomeness at school right this very minute.

After we saw the movies, I saw him engrossed in a book on his ereader. I glanced over to see what he was reading. The Hunger Games! Again!

Let’s lay to rest the myth that boys won’t read books about girls or watch movies about them. No, let’s drive a stake through its heart, disembowel it, cut its head off, cremate it, and then bury it.

Similar to other humans, boys like a good story. I suspect they care about the gender of the protagonist somewhat less than girls, actually, because they are not marginalized in our society and aren’t desperate for positive depictions of characters that somehow resemble themselves.

Sure, there could be some boys out there who won’t read books about girls. There are also some grown men out there that believe women shouldn’t be allowed to vote or have good jobs. Are we going to create entertainment for THEM? Are we going to relegate smart, capable, courageous female characters to perpetual Hermione Grangerdom? Are we going to let Hollywood take the Princess out of Princess of Mars?

I say no. Boys will read books about girls. Give them a chance.

Could Falsifying Medical Records as an Act of Civil Disobedience Have Gnarly Unintended Consequences?

This week John Scalzi published an essay on his web site by an anonymous doctor that was a call to action for physicians to protest laws in various states that require an ultrasound before an abortion through civil disobedience. I agree that these laws are bad policy and bad medicine, and I support physicians speaking out on this subject, and opposing the state’s attempt to legislate any type of one-size-fits-all patient care. No matter what side of the abortion debate you are on, you should oppose laws like this that usurp the doctor’s judgment and introduce all kinds of problems.

In mulling over the proposal, however, I’ve come up with some questions that I’ve not seen addressed in any of the discussions on the internet. Rather than trying to make a persuasive argument one way or another, I am writing this post in order to get the questions out there somewhere. These questions are mostly intended for physicians and/or malpractice attorneys. Since I am neither, I can come to no firm conclusions on my own.

Falsifying medical records is against all standards of medical ethics. People have asked why the doctor doesn’t come forward publicly with this proposition. It’s because any doctor caught falsifying records would lose her medical license at the very least. Publishing that manifesto with her real name and credentials attached could very well bring her under scrutiny and get her fired, all by itself, even without evidence that she’d actually carried out the actions she advocates.

Some parts of the essay strike me as naive. I don’t doubt that the essay was written by a doctor. I think John Scalzi has enough of a reputation for integrity that there’s no need to question that fact. However, if she were a gynecologist, I think he would have mentioned that specifically, so it’s probably accurate to assume this is not a physician with a regular clinical practice in the field of ob/gyn or an abortion provider.

For the uninitiated, in order to get a clear picture of a pregnancy earlier than about 14 weeks, it is necessary to insert the ultrasound probe into the vagina, rather than putting it on the abdomen, as is normally done in the second and third trimester. In early pregnancy, the uterus is tucked way down in the pelvis, where it can’t be visualized through the abdomen. The ultrasound probe lets you get a “close up” of the uterus.

Although the probe is pretty large, and, in fact, the technician will cover it with an actual condom, it is not jammed way up into the vagina. Generally, it’s not a painful or uncomfortable procedure, but it is invasive, and if you’re not used to it, or if you have a high threshold for modesty or other sensitivities, it can be extremely embarrassing. There is no question it is an invasive procedure.

In addition to visualizing the embryo and taking measurements, every transvaginal ultrasound I’ve ever had has surveyed my ovaries, as well. Ovarian cancer has no symptoms in its early stages, so pretty much the only way it can ever be diagnosed early is by taking a quick look during an ultrasound. My understanding is that the ovary check is standard-of-care.

Ultrasounds are almost always done by ultrasound technicians, not physicians, and having had a number of them in my life, I am having trouble understanding how a doctor or a technician could get away with entering false information images into the record. Ultrasound machines have their own dedicated computers and file formats. During the exam, the technician manipulates a pointer on the screen to take measurements, and then captures those measurements using the software. Typical measurements for a very early pregnancy would be the overall size of the embryo or crown-to-rump length. 

If the heart is beating (it begins around the sixth week of pregnancy, or a” real age” of 4 weeks), the machine will also record and document the heart rate. Typically several images are taken, not just one, and the information from the exam is entered into the patient record.

Falsifying this type of exam would take more than just a jpg downloaded from the internet. It would probably require putting together a sophisticated package including images in the format used by the machine, plus data files with all of the information captured by the machine.

Assuming all of that could be done, does this type of civil disobedience only have consequences for the physician? Or could the patient’s health be at risk?

Here is where I am asking for expert opinions or responses. Let me propose a couple of scenarios.

Scenario 1

A woman who is six weeks pregnant shows up in Dr. A’s office for her pre-abortion ultrasound. For whatever reason, Dr. A does the ultrasound personally, instead of having a technician perform it.

In the privacy of the exam room, Dr. A says, “Do you give your full consent, or are you having this procedure under protest because it is required for your abortion?

The patient answers, “I am having the procedure under protest. I have not given my full consent.”

Dr. A answers, “I won’t perform the procedure without your full consent, but I will help you fulfill the legal requirement for an ultrasound 24 hours prior to your abortion by falsely documenting that you had one and entering a standard image and data for a six-week pregnancy into your file.”

The doctor uploads the data from a flash drive, closes out the record, and sends the patient on her way.

The patient goes home, and instead of having the abortion, she has a meaningful conversation with her partner that lasts into the wee hours of the morning. By the end of it, they realize that they really do want to have the baby together, and the patient cancels her abortion. The next day, she schedules her first prenatal visit with an obstetrician, at the tenth week of pregnancy. During her conversation with the nurse to schedule the appointment, she says, “I’m having some cramping, is that normal?”

The nurse kicks it up to the ob/gyn, who opens up the patient’s medical record, sees the normal ultrasound image and normal data for a six-week pregnancy and says, “Yes, that’s fine. Tell her to put her feet up and drink plenty of fluids, and we’ll see her in four weeks.”

The patient follows her doctor’s instructions. However, a week later she experiences severe pain and collapses. Her partner calls an ambulance and she’s taken to the hospital where it is found that she’s had an ectopic pregnancy. In spite of all of their best efforts the doctors can’t save her. She dies.

Scenario 2

Same as scenario 1, except the patient miscarries naturally before she gets to her first prenatal appointment. The miscarriage is normal and uncomplicated, but the patient has bloating and cramps that continue to get worse rather than improving. (While she was pregnant, she thought these were just symptoms of pregnancy.) Another month passes before she decides she’d better see her gynecologist. At that appointment, the doctor finds masses on both her ovaries. Further tests reveal that the patient has stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. Her oncologist, reviewing her medical records, sees that she had a transvaginal ultrasound less than two months prior that showed no abnormalities. How can that be? But wait, the metadata in the files shows the wrong date and wrong patient ID… It seems the scan was falsified and the doctor who did the ultrasound therefore missed a diagnosis of cancer, resulting in a two-month delay to lifesaving treatment. Unfortunately, the patient dies.

My Questions

Would either or both of these outcomes be considered malpractice? Would the doctor be able to offer as a defense that it was an act of civil disobedience? Granting that ultrasound was not medically necessary at the presentation of each hypothetical case, is the doctor still morally responsible to provide the standard of care, even if the patient asks her not to?

In other words, is it possible that having a fake ultrasound could be more harmful than having none at all?

Take the Personal and Make It Universal

I had a wonderful English teacher in high school, Mr. S. He was my English teacher for junior and senior year, teaching English literature and then AP English. I think he was a genius. He was always an enigmatic figure. He habitually wore dark navy suits and there were rumors that he had survived a tragic loss of his whole family. We suspected he wrote gloomy poetry in his spare time and published it under a pseudonym. It was clear that he loved teaching and he showed a genuine joy in his work every day. (This is not the beginning of a eulogy, by the way. As far as I know, he is alive and well.) We used to hang around in Mr. S.’s room after school to talk with him, or during 7th hour when he didn’t have a class and us seniors didn’t, either.

The level of learning we had in that English program in my underfunded, troubled urban high school was far beyond anything I’ve ever seen in college or even at Clarion. Mr. S. managed to teach us to diagram sentences and to appreciate Shakespeare. He taught us to write a research paper and he gave us time to freewrite in the classroom with music playing in the background. Every year, he made each of us memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales and recite it in front of the entire class. In some kind of accent. It could be in some semblance of a middle English accent, “Whan that Apreeel, weeth hees Shooress sowtah, the drokt of mayrch hath persed to the rowtah.” But he also accepted presentations in any other type of accent we might fancy. People stood up and recited the prologue in French accents, German, Russian, whatever.

He motivated us to memorize the piece with this story:

Once upon a time a professor from Oxford spoke at an American university. I think it was Columbia. He began talking about the superiority of the English public school system. (Public being what we call private.) He said that American public schools couldn’t match the excellence of the education students received there, and as an example, he smugly asserted that in those English schools, each student memorized the prologue to the Canterbury tales.


We were all tremendously inspired by this story, and determined to memorize it well when surely we, too, would be challenged by an Oxford professor to prove our worth by reciting this piece of literature from memory. (Note: it hasn’t happened to me, yet, but I should probably brush up, just in case.)

In addition to all the learning and mentoring, Mr. S gave us the single best piece of writing advice I’ve ever had. “Take the personal, and make it universal,” he said.

I’ve known other bits of writing advice that come close. “Bring on the jets of semen,” is in the right neighborhood. (An apocryphal quote attributed to Gardner Dozois.) “Open a vein and bleed on the page,” is another one, but makes it sound like writing must be painful, or that what you write is only valuable if it exposes something bad or hurtful. I think Mr. S.’s words have the most truth.

In our lives, those experiences and observations that seem most unique, most internal, most strange–those are the very things that connect us together as a whole. It is not the bland, generic experience of going to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk that interests others. It is the story about how you arrived home a different person afterward because of something unique that happened to you along the way that people want to hear.

This advice has also been the most difficult for me to master. It’s so much easier to stay “safe,” to not tip my hand to the reader about what I think and believe and what is important to me by pouring so much of myself into the story. But, in the end, that is all the reader really wants.

Last I saw Mr. S., he told me that he had kept some of my papers. Never returned them to me, and had kept them all of these years to read over occasionally, because they were so good. I was touched and flattered. But I think I’m still learning from him. I am still traveling down the road he set me on.

The Extremes of Rhetoric

[Wordpress seems to have forgotten how to format paragraphs properly with a space between, and I am not up to figuring it out right now, so apologies for the ugly formatting.]
[Update: I couldn’t stand it so I went through and fixed every paragraph tag by hand. You’re welcome.]

This comment came in anonymously on LJ last week, in response to a discussion over there about free speech and culture war stuff. (Comments on the main site continue to be turned off until I have time/energy to figure out a spam management method.)

Cath: I think I can pretty confidently say that most conservatives, even the very religious ones, don’t fully believe in some of those ridiculous positions they take.
Anon: I wasn’t going to get into this one from a sheer standpoint “don’t have time,” but is that the difference, then? Because I don’t think most liberals are taking stances on things they don’t really believe in. I am not kidding a little bit when I say that I don’t think we should tell women what to do with their bodies, or similar. Not even a little. And I don’t think any liberals are pushing that kind of viewpoint because they feel it’s necessary rhetoric or an extreme position they are hoping to find middle ground from.Or am I missing your point?

Dear anonymous: What an uncomfortable position you’ve put me in, here! It is the nature of humans that when two parties are engaged in conflict, and when that conflict escalates to extremes far beyond the original parameter of the disagreement between them, that any attempt to point out that things have become symmetrically irrational will be met with cries of, “I AM NOT BEING IRRATIONAL I AM TOTALLY SERIOUS HERE,” from both sides.

From the point of view of someone who has had a literal lifetime of trying to convince someone with extremely irrational beliefs that they are being irrational, I am not eager to jump into that quagmire.

And if I did, guess what would happen? Whichever side I was trying to convince was being irrational would immediately attempt to engage me in that disagreement, pushing me to defend and become an apologist for the other side.

When you say, “I am not kidding a little bit when I say that I don’t think we should tell women what to do with their bodies,” you are pretty much daring me to critique any tiny portion of the current liberal/progressive position on abortion/birth control with what I perceive as an implicit threat of a very vigorous response.


You might think that’s my cue to exit this discussion and tell you to take that particular debate to your favorite conservative blogger, who would no doubt welcome it.

However, I am actually going to indulge you. In return for opening myself up to criticism of THERMONUCLEAR proportions from both sides of this INCREDIBLY INFLAMMATORY public debate, I’m going set a couple of ground rules for discussion.

  • Don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. If it seems like I am saying one thing which might imply something else, please ask questions first. Such as, “Excuse me, but what you said just now makes it sound like you hate America. Could you please clarify your position? How much do you hate America, on a scale of 1 to 10?” Then WAIT FOR A RESPONSE rather than proceeding with part 2 of your comment. “So, assuming that you do hate America, how long ago was it you stopped beating your wife.” See how part 2 might not be necessary?
  • Make your point and let it be. If it seems like I, or anyone else, is not coming over to your side, there’s no point in belaboring things. Some of my blogger friends can moderate comment threads with hundreds of posts in them. I was challenged to keep up with last week’s discussion including bare dozens. I don’t know how they do it.
  • We can all still be friends. I’m sorry, anonymous, that you didn’t feel comfortable attaching your name or LJ handle to your question, because it’s a fair and reasonable question and I would never hold it against anyone to ask that.

Okay, having said all of that, let me dive into the birth control topic. First, let’s go over the irrationality of the republican/conservative position. So there’s been a debate over whether Catholic institutions like universities should be allowed to offer health insurance policies to employees under health care reform that do not include coverage for birth control, even though reform otherwise requires those services to be fully covered by health insurance policies.

Only a tiny fraction of Americans actually believe birth control is immoral. Most Americans, even Catholics, consider contraception a good, and use it. This is typically considered a matter of conscience. However, lately it has become fashionable to suggest that hormonal contraception is actually a form of abortion. This is not supported by science. The most you could say is that termination of a very early fertilized, unimplanted egg is not ruled out by what we know of how those contraceptives work. But even that is a stretch.

Nonetheless, that stretch has led some people, a tiny fraction OF a tiny fraction of those who objected to using birth control, to conclude that the use of birth control by anyone, anywhere, of any faith, is a form of abortion, and that any “assistance” by them would be immoral.

Since this is mostly a Catholic thing, I have to explain that assisting with an abortion, even by driving someone to an abortion clinic, is an excommunicable offense and mortal sin in the Catholic church. However, as far as I know, there have been no excommunications for people who fill birth control prescriptions, or, more to the point, employers who pay PART of the premiums for health insurance that covers contraception which their employees may or may not use without their knowledge.

So that tiny fraction of a fraction that believe birth control is tantamount to abortion have convinced a large proportion of conservatives that this is a matter of religious freedom, causing a great many people who actually have nothing against birth control, and may even use it in their own relationships, and who may not even be religious themselves, to support the anti-birth control position based on arguments of “religious freedom.”

Are you with me? This is pretty irrational, no? Are we all on the same page?

Lets move on, then.

My thesis here is that when arguments escalate, both parties get driven to extremes of rhetoric that they don’t believe in because they feel they need to defend a position.

So where is the liberal irrationality? Well, earlier this week, I heard a story on NPR about how much money the government would save if it provided free contraception to all Americans.

Where did that come from? How were we even talking about free contraception? As far as I can tell, this is a response to misunderstanding from conservatives that we are somehow talking about government-provided universal health care. Rather than clarifying, however, that we are only talking about government regulation of health insurance provisions, a number of left-leaning people seem to have run with it. Why not have the government provide contraception for everyone? That would be great! Look how much money we would save!

And suddenly now we are debating some kind of universal government birth control plan instead of working on getting access to health insurance for everyone.

Before this debate happened, say, a year ago, did anyone really think that the government owed each American access to free contraception? Isn’t that kind of ridiculous? Are there any governments, anywhere, that have free contraception for all? I happen to know that Canada does NOT include birth control in its universal health care, because I recently visited a Canadian clinic and there was a sign making this very clear. Does anyone really believe that is more important than people not going broke because they have cancer, or not dying because they have a tooth ache? I don’t think so. But here we are.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, I was seeing mockery of conservatives who were trying to argue against free government contraception. They were pointed at as being stupid because no one had actually suggested such a thing. Now we have college students standing up and asking Mitt Romney for free birth control. Whatevs!

I’m calling it. Crazy on both sides. Go sit in your corners and come back when you are able to make a compromise.

So, here’s the thing. I don’t want to be the one going around telling people their positions are irrational. When I say there’s irrationality on both sides, what I hope people can take away from that is a “they are more afraid of you than you are of them,” kind of thing.

Conservatives and liberals are BOTH afraid of some kind of sexual dystopia. The conservative worst case scenario looks like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where children are not raised in families, but in public creches and adults are drugged out on soma and using their “Malthusian belts” to have a lot of sex that is no longer in any way connected to love, marriage, or stable families.

The liberal dystopia is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, where fertile women are pressed into reproductive slavery for wealthy, infertile couples.

So I’m suggesting that understanding the irrational fears of the other side of a debate might lead to more helpful debate strategies. Instead of letting things escalate to a discussion of extremes that no one really cares about, we could instead acknowledge the fears of the other side and look for common ground and emphasize shared values.

Nebula 801 Reading, Home Stretch, Keep Going!

We’re nearing the end of March, and it is time for the final tranche of Nebula 801 assignments. Hugo nominees haven’t been announced, but I’m pretty sure if you’ve read the Nebula ballot, you will have also read at least part of the Hugo ballot. Keep going, keep going! Be an informed voter! Let your voice be heard!

I am consistently surprised by how challenging it is to fit this reading in. Maybe other writers have more time for reading or are better at using their time, but I am waaaay behind on this, and kind of worried that I won’t have given each item a chance before the March 31 voting deadline.

Read this week:

Novels (first three chapters)

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, Genevieve Valentine (Prime Books)

The Kingdom of Gods, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

Novella (read ten pages)
The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Ken Liu (PanverseThree, Panverse Publishing)
“With Unclean Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction andFact, November 2011)
Novelette (read five pages)
Short Story (read three pages)
Ray Bradbury (rent them this weekend)
  • Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen (writer/director) (Sony)
  • Source Code, Ben Ripley (writer), Duncan Jones (director) (Summit)
  • The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi (writer/director) (Universal)
Norton (read three chapters)

Authors Petitioned PayPal in Defense of Free Speech

In parallel to the Rush Limbaugh scandal and backlash, there has also been a scandal over censorship by PayPal of material sold on Smashwords that it considered offensive. PayPal refused to process payments for certain types of books that were otherwise legal to distribute in the U.S. It has since reversed its policy under great pressure and outcry from free speech advocates.

In a letter signed by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and others, PayPal is criticized harshly for censorship. SFWA’s board of directors also voted unanimously to sign the letter, but the point became moot when PayPal reversed its position.

In all of the discussion of the PayPal incident on the internet, I can not find anyone, anywhere, who says that “freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom of consequences” with respect to this situation, and that “a corporation has the right to exercise its freedom of speech by denying payment processing for offensive material.” No reasonable person thinks that’s okay. No one. Even though legally it’s in the clear. It’s not a constitutional matter, it’s a moral matter.

It also shows how the popularly suggested sinecure, “he should go get a blog,” or “he should self-publish his book,” is no solution. There is no “consequence free” publication option for speech that offends. There is no platform anywhere that is not supported somehow by the community. Even having flyers printed up requires the cooperation of a print shop–and that print shop could be pressured by offended groups to stop servicing those flyers. And as we’ve seen here, even a normally invisible party like a payment processor can decide that it gets a “vote” in the publication of material.

The letter states:

The Internet has become an international public commons, like an enormous town square, where ideas can be freely aired, exchanged, and criticized. That will change if private companies, which are under no legal obligation to respect free speech rights, are able to use their economic clout to dictate what people should read, write, and think.
PayPal, and the myriad other payment processors that support essential links in the free speech chain between authors and audiences, should not operate as morality police.

When we take a position that an action is morally wrong, there can be no allowance for double standards based on whether we think one side or the other is more right. Tolerating speech that offends and outrages us is the price for protecting speech that we believe is important and would otherwise be marginalized. Always.

Support who you want. Listen to who you want. Shut the door on who you want. But think hard about using “economic clout” to get between a voice and an audience that wants to hear that voice. Think hard about how that could possibly be different than what PayPal tried to do, or why you think you are safe from becoming a victim of turnabout.

What if They Threw a Culture War and No One Came?

I didn’t expect to get so much feedback on my first amendment post yesterday. Here’s one from Phil Brewer. His opinion is representative of others I heard from. And while I very much understand that point of view, I don’t think what I had to say would have been even slightly controversial twenty years ago, when it was very popular for people to cite the quotation popularly attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”

The internet tells me that this is not a direct quote of Voltaire, but variations of it have been used to describe his beliefs about freedom of expression.

So often now, though, especially on the internet, discussions of freedom of speech are framed in terms of limitations. The sentiment is not “I will defend to death your right to say it,” but “You have the legal right to say it, but I will silence you by any other means that I possibly can.”

This makes me sad, because freedom of speech or expression is not a legal technicality of the US Constitution, but a globally recognized human right and probably THE key differentiator between an open society and a closed society. When Voltaire formulated his ideas, he was not talking about the U.S. constitution. He was born in 1694 in France. He knew nothing about the U.S. constitution. He was not describing a legal idea, but a moral practice.

The philosophy of freedom of expression is so much more than a single sentence in our constitution, to be interpreted in narrowist possible fashion, but an entire philosphy developed by thinkers of the enlightenment period including John Milton, John Locke, Denis Diderot. (I am cherry-picking heavily from the wikipedia article on freedom of speech because I am lazy and because all of my history and philosophy texts are in boxes in a storage unit.)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In order to protect not only our American constitutional right to free speech, but a global value of freedom of expression as a human right, it is incumbent on every citizen to “buy in” to the spirit of the law, not in a grudging way, but in an open-hearted embrace. I know that people point to Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church as some kind of failure of freedom of speech, but we shouldn’t think of it that way. Much as I despise his idea, his message, his very existence, every time he pulls out his protest signs, he proves that we truly live in a free and open society. Phelps has offended everyone. If we didn’t live a free and open society, he and his whole family would be dead.

I like this quote by former UM President Lee Bollinger:

“the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters.”

In the discussions around this subject on the internet, the overwhelming message I get is that words are not enough anymore. Countering poisonous or harmful ideas with words is no good because no one is listening and people will believe what they want to believe, so ignoring or debating ideas you don’t like is never going to work. Instead, you have to use economic leverage, intimidation, “shouting down,” google bombing, DNS attacks, hacking, or any number of other means to silence those words.

I blame the internet, partially. The internet gives everyone with the bare rudiments of language and access to electricity and a phone line the ability to “publish” their ideas. And unlike Voltaire’s words, those hastily concocted essays are often barely literate and filled with hatred. When faced with that kind of avalanche of ignorance, trying to make a moderate, rational argument can feel like yelling into a gale force wind.

A blog post by author Alex Bledsoe, serendipitously published today, touches on this subject by discussing the phenomenon of the “internet pile on,” which he aptly describes as a form of bullying. Bledso writes:

And this leads directly to the pile-on, as these fans, followers and commentators rush to join the bloggers in being the most offended by whatever (or whoever) the topic at hand might be. Often, the people most offended have, as they say, no dog in the fight. They simply enjoy being part of the pile.

Over the years, I’ve noticed how the phenomenon of piling on has discouraged people from engaging in debate or presenting dissenting opinions in blogs. Bloggers who write about controversial subjects may congratulate themselves on having “civilized” discourse in their blog comments, without realizing that dissenters have literally been bullied out of the discussion. Some of those dissenters retreat to their own echo chambers, where they can have safe “civilized” discussions with people who agree with them. Others have simply given up engaging in any kind of debate on controversial subjects.

But it makes me sad, because words are as powerful as they ever were. In the hands of the ignorant and semi-literate, those words of hate lack any power.

In contrast, a thoughtful essay by a skilled writer shines like a beacon. Every single person who dissented with me on this subject is a person I respect, listen to, and am influenced by. They are people whose words matter. They are people who can make a difference in this world by telling the truth.

I also blame the culture war. And this is kind of ironic, because Rush Limbaugh has been one of the most prominent and long-lasting culture warriors of the political right. I think he has possibly been more influential than any single conservative politician. A lot of people aren’t familiar with Limbaugh or his radio show. Last I knew, he was on the air two or three hours a day, every week day, and almost all of his airtime is dedicated to warning and illustrating how the liberals are conspiring to take away all of our rights, including free speech. Especially free speech. Limbaugh has been an innovator of the “words are not enough” school of political advocacy.

(And this is hard to write because I have loved ones in my life who are fans of his show and read this blog, but twenty years of living among liberals has convinced me that liberals are not interested in dismantling our constitutional rights, and are in fact equally worried that conservatives want to do so. We need to stop being afraid of each other.)

Silencing him is not the answer. In fact, any minimally successful attempt to silence Limbaugh, or force him to find another outlet would absolutely set fire to his fan base, confirming every fear in them that Limbaugh has spent decades stoking.

Getting back to the title of this post, what if we decide we don’t want a culture war? What if we refuse to wage it? What if, when faced with paranoid, hateful, intolerant speech, we turn and walk away? Or instead of concentrating all of our energy battling over rare, irreconcilable questions such as what is the beginning of life, we focus on the great many goals and values we all share, like how are we going to build sustainable prosperity for all? or how are we going to take care of all the sick elderly baby boomers we’re going to have on our hands in twenty years? What if we decide we CAN be a multicultural society, with all of the abundance of tolerance, understanding, and forgiveness that implies?

I worry a lot about indirect boycotts–boycotts of advertisers associated with offensive media, boycotts of publishers that produce offensive material. You don’t have to follow that trend very far to realize the outcome is an increasingly balkanized media. One source of entertainment and information for right wingers. Another for left wingers. Never mind if we all like vacuum cleaners, the manufacturer will have to choose whether to sell it to a liberal or a conservative audience. Would you like to sell vacuum cleaners to fans of the Daily Show, or of Bill O’Reilly? And don’t say you want to sell to both, because they each have economically active fanbases who will stage a boycott if you “support” offensive material by purchasing advertising time from the other side.

I can’t tell people what to do with their money, but I would suggest that love of a good vacuum cleaner is something we can all share regardless of our religious and political affiliations, and that it might be good, after having heated discussions of politics on the internet or with friends and families, to maintain a politically neutral marketplace where we can focus on quality, customer service, and fair trade practices, and allow advertisers to follow their audience rather than signing on to one or another platform.

I’ve enjoyed the dialogue on this subject, and I appreciate that there are still places on the internet where people can discuss difficult subjects openly without resorting to least-common-denominator insults and name-calling. It keeps me glad, every day, that I, unlike Voltaire, was born into a free and open society.