In which I further tick off a noted professor

 



I feel it's important to follow and listen, carefully, to those with whom I'm pretty sure I disagree. This helps to bolster my own position, and of course sometimes makes me change my position. I've written in several other posts about this. As important as this is, such a system only works if others play by the same rules. In the case I'm talking about here, the salient rule is that of listening carefully.

One of the sources I follow is a blog written by a professor of evolutionary biology, of some note and fame, having written a book on the incongruity between faith and science, which is how I first learned of him. He was a Vietnam war protester, and a supporter of the original civil rights movements, but seems to have turned into a bit of an old fogey lately, as his blog writings decry the efforts of modern, younger activists as merely over the top, theatrical, disingenuous, and foolishly misguided, even damaging or detrimental to the fabric of society itself. I am guessing he forgets that these exact same claims were made by the fogey's of his youth about his beliefs back then. It seems this is the way with so many humans as they get older – fond appreciation for the exuberance they channeled in their youth into causes that were progressive at the time somehow never gets translated onto youths of today and the targets of their own progressive exuberance. They turn into grumpy oldsters, hollering at those damned kids, “Get off my lawn!”

I have initiated comments twice on his blog. As careful readers of my blog here know (sometimes I wonder if there are any at all!), I am transgender. PC-Cat (as I'll refer to him to avoid naming names, for me this is done to avoid drama but he's free to identify himself if he so chooses but really the names are immaterial) has held the position that, as an expert on science and biology, his claims about transgender people in, say, sports or public bathrooms, are without fault and beyond question. He may claim that I'm overstating this, but his absolutely bitter, defensive, petulant replies to my comments prove the point. At the same time, he is quick to claim that he has never denigrated a trans person on his blog, which may be true (I'm not so sycophantic as to follow every word on his blog, and every comment he makes there). I have seen this type of claim before, and while I cannot and will not say that he is a transphobe (I've never said this but was accused of it – more later), I can say that he constantly posts material that is antithetical towards progress in rights for people like myself. This includes videos of congressional testimony by an author of a book that makes a horror-show case against transgender youths being able to enjoy support and freedom to explore and live their own personal truths. He also posts supposed biting satirical commentary by one Titania McGrath, a pseudonym for some person who is hyper-reactionary to the most extreme fringe beliefs and commentary on many trans-related issues.

If, as I said below in one of my unpublished responses, the politicians claiming over and over again that the election was stolen and convincing people of that through rote loud repetition can be used as evidence that the election was in fact stolen, then I concede the point of PC-Cat. But we know how ridiculous that is, right? By presenting a one-sided set of material, he is without doubt pandering to those on one side. To claim otherwise is just a simple lie, whether told intentionally or under self-deception. Either he is the cold, rational, Spock-like perfect engine of logic he claims or not. If so, then present all the evidence. You can't present one side only and pretend that you're as open, rational, logical, as you'd like to be perceived.

OK, PC-Cat is certainly free to post that material on his own blog, and I'd never attempt to tell him otherwise (again, something of which he has falsely accused me). Since he accepts comments (that he moderates and limits in length and number) I of course comment, but this is not the same as shutting him down or telling him to not post material.

What I wonder is, where is his supposed objective curiosity about the other side? I have never once seen a post or any material in support of, for example, The Equality Act, a bill that as of this writing has passed the U.S. House of Representatives. I guess either he thinks it is ridiculous on its face, it is unimportant, or he's just being passive-aggressive against it. In a comment on his post in regard to the video I mentioned above, I posted a link to a very informative video – it's almost 90 minutes long and has some production values around LGBT and Millennial humor, but as I said in the accompanying comment, it is well worth a watch, as Natalie lays out a very good case why the positions put forth by PC-Cat, Joanne Rowling, and Abigail Shrier are wrong and also hurtful to the trans community. I was immediately questioned by several of PC-Cat's somewhat sycophantic followers, one of whom apparently is in the camp that the T should be removed from LGBT – tell that to Marsha P. Johnson, and to the many drag entertainers who have been the backbone of LGBT progress and safe spaces, many of whom are transgender, and virtually all of whom support the 'T.' This seems like a solid case of “I've got mine, now the hell with everybody else.”

But I digress a little – what I'm getting at is that even though I posted an informative video and implored the readers to spend the time watching it, all comments back indicated that it was just too much trouble, too long, etc. One commentator asked why I didn't just make the case in my original comment – well, a fair treatment is not a sound bite nor a two-paragraph commentary. Golly gee, sometimes it takes at least 90 minutes of listening to an actual trans woman talk about these issues.

What sickens me is that these people, commentators as well as the PC-Cat himself, feel entitled to have a firm opinion on a subject about which they have put zero effort understanding. Or close to zero. As far as I know, I'm the only trans person to comment on his blog, and I openly state that, not as a way to get “brownie points” but to lend perspective and to hopefully get peoples' attention to the fact that even though I disagree wholeheartedly with some of what is said and posted there, I'm paying attention and listening soberly.

Oh, if only the favor were returned.

Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion; however, I'd be surprised if PC-Cat felt that having an opinion is an entitlement that comes without obligation – the obligation to at least form the opinion with some amount of reason and evidence. So here we are – a self-confessed “traditional liberal” professor posting clearly one-sided material, without comment or countervailing material, that promotes a rejection of a law that would expand civil rights to explicitly include transgender individuals under existing laws (it would also explicitly include the rest of the LGBT community as well). He can say what he wants, hide behind what he clearly feels is his own perfect, coldly rational objectivity, but to post the way he does is an endorsement against The Equality Act. Honestly, it seems a bit cowardly to obliquely post one-sided videos and snarky commentary without just saying out loud how he feels. Don't be scared - shout it from the rooftops.

His utter lack of curiosity about the subject is troubling, given that he has a rather large following and subsequently has a loud megaphone, and also that he posts the material he does. His responses to me have been curt, defensive, and riddled with false claims about what I've said. I am very disappointed in this last, since as a professor for many years I would assume his reading comprehension would be superior instead of lacking. For instance, he has claimed that I said he was against transgender people, which I did not. He claimed I accused him personally of nitpicking, which I did not – context clearly indicates my casting that aspersion on society at large and in particular at disingenuous lawmakers. He insinuated that I called him or his commentators “transphobes” but I did nothing of the sort. In his most recent reply, he simply said he rejected my claims, and felt personally 'insulted' when I stated that what he and the others were doing was harming my cause. These next three paragraphs are for the Professor himself:

Gee whiz, I'm sorry you are butt-hurt that a member of the minority in question sincerely thinks you're damaging prospects of people like me to have full and equal rights in this country, I should never presume to question your highness' opinion. How dare I, even if I attempted to do it in the most polite and rational manner. I am indeed ashamed.

Just kidding – fuck you. Your life experience has allowed you to do some great things and enjoy health, decent income, world travel, good food, and education, but it has also unfortunately let you remain unaware that these things are largely or completely out of your own control – as much as you claim to be a hard determinist, it puzzles me that you could simultaneously display such a monumental egotism. How can you compartmentalize your mind that way? Your ego prevents you from even considering a compassionate, empathetic viewpoint or the slight possibility that you may be mistaken, or even the mildest curiosity about the viewpoint of an actual (Gasp!) transgender person. Instead you attack me for a simple comment, in which I attempted to raise valid points. I guess you're so hypersensitive to those kids on your lawn that you react, as I correctly said, viscerally, to anyone disagreeing with you. I find it incredibly sad that while you fondly talk about your youth yet you give zero leeway to the youth of today or the causes they find important. If a preponderance of the curmudgeons of your time had been as stiff, arrogant, and unrelenting as you are today, your causes would have gone nowhere.

Remember all those older folks calling you a “damned hippie” or whatever insult they used? That's you today – congratulations, ya bitter old fuck.

What I've come to realize is twofold. I have a known blind-spot in my personality, where I always assume the best of people. I always think that everyone shares high-minded motives all the time, is kind, caring, and is looking out for others. This is especially true of people with whom I share commonalities, and it has caused me pain and difficulty, so I try to mitigate it but it seems to always sneak up on me. That's the case here. Intellectually I share a lot with PC-Cat. We are both determinists, staunch atheists, believe strongly in science and the scientific method. We both lean left politically. We like a lot of the same authors and share similar philosophies, at least in print. Oh, and we both like cats.  But the blind spot again manifested itself in the supreme disappointment that I have just finally come to understand the professor might be just, well, kind of a conceited asshole. This may be borne out of the arrogance which many, many professors share, or it may be something he's had his whole life, I don't know, but it makes him abrasive as hell to those of us who even mildly disagree with him. Seems a common feature in professors so that may be the case. 

By the way, this blatant arrogance is what those on the right perceive as the “elitist” mentality of the academics, and they have a point.

It's odd that so many decry the utter polarization in this country, which we imagine as being starkly aligned with right vs left politics, yet when I disagree in a comment thread with someone that I share so much politically and intellectually, I get misrepresented in his hyper-defensive reply. What gives with that? Is he just too busy to really give it much thought? If so, then maybe he shouldn't post material that pushes one narrative or the other while not expecting any kind of response to the negative. It may be that he really doesn't like me, the way I write, or the fact that I'm transgender & somewhat outspoken and educated; I'm sure he'll claim otherwise – I'm just saying I don't know why he is so presumptive that I'm attacking him other than that he reads I'm transgender and immediately puts me in the “loony cancel-culture” bin. Ironic is the fact that this same person decries cancel-culture all the time, he's almost obsessed with it, yet he pulls virtually similar BS on me – overreacting to even the slightest disagreement. He has met the enemy and it is himself.

One of my claims in the comment was that folks like Rowling and Shrier are allowing their visceral reactions to vitiate their reasoning. This is objectively true. Their internal perceptions of personal experiences have changed how they approach subjects of import to many other humans – to wit, transgender humans. They are under the influence of one or more of the many cognitive biases all humans share. How is this even under dispute? Yet PC-Cat disingenuously strikes back at me, saying I am claiming he and they are “irrational.” I try to not put words in other peoples' mouths, as I appreciate Dan Dennett's take on arguing against a position: try to frame the other sides position so well that they say “Darn I wish I had thought to put it that way.” PC-Cat has utterly failed to do that here, and as a number of his commentators also did, he instead sets up a straw man argument by putting a word into my mouth I did not use. I expect better from the professor – he gets a 'D' on that assignment. He goes on to say that my claim that they are harming “my cause” and giving cover to bigots is an insult. I'm very sorry to not be sorry in the least, but it's not an insult if it's true. The completely one-sided coverage given on his blog, and many writings by both Joanne and Abigail, are absolutely hurting the cause of transgender rights (that's exactly why they write what they do, duh) and are undoubtedly being used by bigots and disingenuous politicians. This is all simple fact, but again that escapes the good professor's awareness. He just doesn't like it when an uncomfortable truth is pointed out about him, which is a slap in the face to his claim of hard rationality and impartiality.

Again, he doesn't have to support my side, but to present only the other side and then insinuate he's being objective and perfectly balanced, or that he's not harming the cause, is simply untrue.

He goes on to again misstate my position about nitpicking (it seems almost deliberate at this point, it's not the first time it's happened), and tries to say he's just raising valid points about, among other things, rape counseling, which hasn't been mentioned at all in anything I've read. Again, if he wants to be as rational and well informed as he would like to think he is, he'd take the time to either read my comments carefully, or at least watch the damned video I suggested. And he might actually attempt to address the counterpoints I make in my comments instead of merely attacking straw men and misrepresenting what I stated. I think he just has formed an opinion that aligns with his predilections and is firmly set in that opinion. He doesn't owe me a debate, but at the least he should be straightforward in his responses, not lie or misdirect.

One last point I'll make before adding the actual comment thread is to address what I suspect may be a counter claim that I'm the one who's really butt-hurt here. I will freely admit to that, but to me, it's quite a personal issue; to PC-Cat, it affects him not at all, so he has the luxury of blithely taking a counterpoint out of some illusion of academic distance - it must be nice to debate others' rights from a superior vantage point. What he and folks like him don't appreciate is that they indeed occupy a place of privilege – I'm sure if he's bothered to read this far he'll rail against that in his mind as he's very opposed to any of that type of characterization (white privilege, implicit bias, etc) but as someone who has read a small amount of the scholarship around these issues and also as someone who has a child studying these issues academically, I can say that PC-Cat, again, is letting his visceral reactions get the better of his logic and rationality. Humans without a doubt are the victims of any number of cognitive biases, I'm sure he'd concede that. As a determinist, it's irrational to say that one's cultural upbringing has no bearing on one's states of mind or on the perceptions others hold in their minds about one based on one's outward or social attributes. His bemoaning of these things being brought to the awareness of a wider swath of society is because he cannot empathize with those on the other side – he's likely never been asked for a receipt every single time he walks out of Wal Mart because of his skin color, for example, or had car doors lock as he walks past, been followed in stores by security personnel as he shopped, or been repeatedly pulled over for drummed up traffic violations so that the cops can search his car. These experiences are absolutely real and nearly universal in this country, and they show that our society is complex in a way that, were PC-Cat not viscerally reacting to being an actual human being with affective and connative experiences as well as all the other baggage that comes with a human mind, he would appreciate and understand. I don't understand how someone with such a keen brain can at times discount such a large part of of human experience, simply because he feels it reflects negatively on his self image as a perfect, unbiased, rational difference-engine. Why would anyone want to be like that? He's not in fact always that way, as some of his posts that most affect me emotionally are those having to do with the Holocaust, and I know he is also affected likewise. He just conveniently switches it off when challenged. Again, that's a luxury many simply can't afford, and he is utterly unappreciative of that fact.

My message to PC-Cat is this: Settle down. It's OK to be fully human, to be wrong, and to take your feelings or someone else's into account. These things are important. And this particular subject matter is of immense and immediate importance to quite a lot of your fellow humans, so try not to be a hypersensitive and reactionary dickhead when you reply. Why the hell did you think I took the time to watch the videos you shared and to reply, multiple times? Did you think I'm just trolling you? I guarantee I have much better things to do than to poke a vainglorious professor.

So yes, this is quite a diatribe in response to a simple series of comments on a blog post. My predisposition is to respond fully to things that matter to me, and I was unable to do that in the comments (see below), but I am a believer in dialogue and in making one's case as thoroughly as possible, so that's why I've done this. PC-Cat can write all he wants on his blog; I enjoy and exercise the same privilege here.

So, below is the entire comment thread from the most recent post, beginning with my initial comment – I wrote in response to him posting two videos of Abigail testifying in front of the judiciary committee against The Equality Act. I went back and checked, and the comments “awaiting moderation” were never approved and so are not visible on the blog. As you can see, I tried to respond to the commentators with deliberation and forethought. See if you think PC-Cat's response is, well, a bit whiny and reactionary:

I watched with dismay the testimony by Abigail, and to see the same unfounded tropes and misdirection is depressing. On the point of women being raped in prison, I’d think that the fact that anyone gets raped in prison is a disgrace worthy of note, but this seems like a matter of convenient and selective timing on her part. There is no trans person, and surely no trans activist, who would condone the conditions leading to anyone being raped in any situation, including prison. Surely there are ways of avoiding these situations, and nobody is claiming that any system is perfect and cannot do better – Abigail’s time might be better spent finding ways to improve the prison system and reduce incidences of rape there (and elsewhere) instead of targeting an already vulnerable population with a rhetorical shotgun blast. On the women in sports issue, I’ve said this before, but the evidence to date does not support the claims of those wringing their hands over the mere possibility that some unscrupulous person may claim to be transgender in order to dominate a sport (see NCAA and Olympic sports history in allowing transgender athletes to compete). In fact, here in NC, a biological female recently dominated wrestling in her weight class among boys and girls. The alarmism around this issue is uncalled for; as I’ve also said before, it seems that every single LGBT gain no matter how small, has to be nitpicked and analyzed, and never so by people like me who are actually part of the minority in question. Somehow those opposing this particular bill feel that every jot and tittle has to be perfect, and that every single hypothetical case, no matter how unlikely or unproven, has to be handled up front, or else they will oppose it, even if that means that tens of thousands of young people, already vulnerable targets in so many ways, will continue to suffer discrimination. Others have dealt with the alarmist claims and done so better than I, so I’m linking a youtube video by Natalie Wynn where she talks about Joanne Rowling’s comments, and why they’re both largely untrue and hurtful – many of them are similar or identical to those spoken of by Abigail above. It’s a fairly entertaining video, but she makes some excellent points so please stick with it; I’d hope that those on the other side of this debate would take the time to listen fully. Natalie is both smart and fair-minded in this treatment.

We’re all victims of our own biases, and I don’t know why so many have such a visceral reaction to the thought of transgender people having equal rights (and I’m not claiming that Jerry or anyone here is in that camp). I feel that Abigail’s reactions, and also Joanne Rowling’s, are in that same vein. But I can say that they way they allow those visceral reactions to guide and, I’d argue, vitiate their reasoning is genuinely harmful to people like me. Not in the sense of inciting violence directly, but it impedes progress by giving cover to genuinely bigoted people who have and use power to the detriment of the well-being of folks like myself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gDKbT_l2us

Reply

  1. GB*

    March 18, 2021 at 1:15 pm

    Your case, I think, relies on the assumption that there simply are no biological differences between male and female humans. I don’t think the argument as much about “rights” as it is about wether biology matters to human animals or not.

    Reply

      1.1 Vicki

      March 18, 2021 at 4:20 pm

      Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      That’s not at all what I’m assuming, and, as Natalie points out in the video linked above, there are close to zero trans people that think they are indistinguishable from a cisgender or biological person of their identified gender. That’s a fallacy or a straw man argument that keeps getting repeated. Again, we don’t think we are the same as a biologically-born person – I don’t think I’m exactly the same as a biological woman, for example. The argument is absolutely about rights, human rights. I’m a human, therefore I have rights. Please re-read my comments and watch the video for clarity.

      Reply

  2. Phillip *

    March 18, 2021 at 1:53 pm

    it seems that every single LGBT gain no matter how small, has to be nitpicked and analyzed”

    Don’t lump T together with LGBT. Excluding the stupid people who reject any of the four letters (or any of the others which are sometimes included; by leaving them out, are you just as bad as those who want to leave you out?), most “liberal” people have no qualms at all with L, G, or B people. Not treating them like everyone else is just stupid, there is no reason to discriminate against them,, and it is simply a fact that some people are L, G, B, or whatever. The reasons for it are irrelevant. Not so with T. One often hears the claim that T people are equivalent in every way to their chosen gender, which is obvious biological bullshit, as Jerry has pointed out here many times. Also, if they really are equivalent in every way, why the letter T applied to only some of the corresponding group? In addition, in some areas, treating them the same as people born into their chosen gender does disadvantage others, trans women dominating women’s sports is a good example (which has happened in many places at lower levels, if not yet at the Olympics).

    Other reasons for the difference: The LGB community has been at the forefront of the idea of treating people as people, based on what they do and what they say, and not because they are the member of this or that group. But the whole point of T is the desire to be treated like a member of a certain group, to be discriminated (for or against), in some sense returning to gender role models many find obsolete today. Also (though I don’t agree with it), many campaigners for equal rights claim (whether or not they believe it) that men and women are intellectually equal in every way. That is obviously incompatible with the idea of T, which only works if one assumes that there is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain.

    Reply

      2.1 Vicki

      March 18, 2021 at 4:26 pm

      Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      Please, as I pointed out above, stop saying that trans people always think we are the same as a person born with the biological gender with which we identify. We simply don’t, except in rare and ignorant occasions. It’s a straw man argument, and the reason you keep hearing it (and that people keep fearing it) is basically the same reason that republican senators are now claiming there’s substantial public concern about the election being “rigged” when they are the ones who constantly pushed the false narrative that the election was “rigged.” I would ask again that you watch the video I linked to, as Natalie does a much better job of going through this than I can do in a comment thread.

      Reply

  3. {PC-Cat}

    March 18, 2021 at 4:51 pm

    Sorry, but I reject your claim that either me, Rowling, or Shrier are “vitiating our reasoning”, which is a way of claiming that we’re irrational. And I reject your claim that any of us are giving cover to bigots and impeding progress, much less harming you. This is normal argument over principles, and none of the people you named is a “transphobe.”

    Lumping me with Rowling and Shrier (and I don’t mind that company) and then saying that we’re all harming your cause and providing cover for bigots is an unwarranted insult.

    Further, on this site we have never nitpicked “every LGBT gain”, as you claim. The only thing I’ve questioned is the issue about sports, rape counseling, and prisons–several worrisome concomitants of claiming that you’re a member of the gender different from the sex to which you’re born.

    Reply

  4. Jez*

    March 18, 2021 at 6:21 pm

    In fact, here in NC, a biological female recently dominated wrestling in her weight class among boys and girls. The alarmism around this issue is uncalled for; as I’ve also said before, it seems that every single LGBT gain no matter how small, has to be nitpicked and analyzed, and never so by people like me who are actually part of the minority in question.” – Reading your sentences, I genuinely can’t help wondering who is doing the nitpicking here.

    How common do you imagine it is for a biological female to dominate in her weight class like that? What ages were the competitors? And for how much longer do you see her continuing to do so?

    These are sincere questions to which I would appreciate equally sincere answers.

    Reply

      4.1 Vicki

      March 18, 2021 at 7:54 pm

      Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      I’m glad to reply but I don’t think Jerry will allow it, he has sensible rules on people taking up too much space in the comments and I may be over that limit. There are a couple of other replies I’ve made that are still awaiting moderation.
      So, on the nitpicking issue – my point is that we pass all kinds of bills and laws and statues with varying degrees of vagueness and ambiguity. Then we adjust as we go along – it happens all the time and our system is set up to handle this. It could be the same here, but it seems to me that the forces resistant to change are employing the tactic of “death by 1000 cuts” so to speak, arguing over every hypothetical scenario – much of this is disingenuous on the part of politicians. I have never, ever said that Jerry or anyone in particular on this site is nitpicking, I wish he’d stop assuming that, I get the impression he thinks I’m attacking him but I’m not – I’m just trying to add some perspective as a member of the group in question, and what we see as irrational fear of change manifested in smear campaigns and absurdly unlikely hypotheticals, or in problems that are more effectively addressed in other ways than continuing to discriminate. And I’ve not called anyone a transphobe here either.
      On the commonality of a female dominating a particular weight class, I’d say it’s probably at least as, and probably more, common than a biological male masquerading as trans to dominate a particular sports event. This was a high school state competition. I don’t know if she’ll compete in college or not, her name is Heaven Fitch. My larger point is that, given the amount of abuse trans people suffer, it’s very unlikely that a male with an ego desirous of dominating a sports event would be willing to suffer it. And there’s scant evidence that it’s ever happened, just like there’s zero evidence that trans people prey on women in their bathrooms.
      Anyway, I do appreciate you reading what I wrote and responding. I’m a firm believer in dialogue, and I’m not a cancel-culture nutjob, just a person trying to live life and leave things better than when I found them. I look at both sides of an argument, which is clearly what prompted me to write my original comment. Please watch the video I linked above – Natalie does a great job of making the points I’ve touched on here.

Some Thoughts on Firearms



A while back, I watched a very moving video of a speech given by a student from the Stoneham Douglas High School, which had been the scene of a horrific mass shooting not long before. I also watched, and read, some nasty commentary directed at her and her classmates, as they became vocal, visible, and popular advocates for reform of our gun laws here in the U.S. I am very disturbed by the nature of the attacks on these kids, who are absolutely doing the right thing by making their voices heard.

I have given lots of thought to the issues around firearms, and, like a number of positions, my mind has changed the further I've delved into things. I have considered history, philosophy, psychology, and statistics when thinking about it, and since my initial position was as a gun-owner and moderate enthusiast, no one can claim that I am merely putting forth a gut reaction, nor am I merely constructing a post-hoc rationalization for my feelings.

One of the most obvious points to address is that here in the United States, we have the Second Amendment to our Constitution, adopted in 1791, which states: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The wording of this couldn't be more obscure, or grammatically problematic. Yet, it is always the object pointed to by ardent gun-enthusiasts. The history around this subject clearly indicates that many of the founders were suspicious of standing armies in general, and wanted state-run militias to counter a possible threat by any standing federal army. This was understandable given their recent experience having broken away from England. I've seen lots of posts containing quotations by the founders and others, for these are of course compiled and promulgated by the NRA and other gun rights advocacy groups. As I've scanned them I have noted that many, perhaps most, of them refer directly to militias, which are noted in the actual amendment as "well-regulated." One interesting thing I've observed is the irony of including quotes from the Federalist Papers in support of anything in the Bill of Rights, as the Federalists opposed it's inclusion, even though Madison ended up being the one who presented it - he had apparently changed his stance, something which we should take note of. Another thing we should remember is that Alexander Hamilton (another author of The Federalist Papers) died in a tragic and pointless duel with pistols against Aaron Burr. I'll touch on this a bit later.

I don't believe any reasonable person would deny another the right of self-defense; this is essentially the point put forth by those using quotes from the founders, for most of those are concerned either with the self-defense of a state against a tyrannical federal government, or with defending oneself or one's loved ones. One thing I would question is whether the Second Amendment, as ratified, has anything to do with an individual's personal self-defense vis-à-vis firearms, for there is nothing in its language to indicate such. Laying that problem aside for a moment, it is reasonable to ask, however, about the means available to defend oneself, or, rather, what means should be available. Any means at all? What if I feel the need to have a hand-grenade to ward off multiple possible attackers? Or a fully-automatic rifle? Perhaps a chemical or biological weapon? Unless you agree that I (or anyone else) should have all of these means at my disposal, you have already admitted that there is a discussion to be had concerning limitations on available weaponry for individuals. I see no a priori reason to halt the discussion at semi-automatic rifles or handguns, but that seems to be where many on the pro-gun side of this debate have planted their flag. In fact, there is no reason why firearms must be on the list of available measures at all - at least, there's no antecedent reason based in the Second Amendment or in the bare concept of self-defensive measures that requires they be included. I feel that the onus is on the gun-advocate to put forth a reason why they should be considered essential, and, if the Second Amendment is used as part of that justification, they must also explain how and why that is or should be the case. I would preface any rebuttal they offer with this: if you appeal to equal force, i.e. an eye for an eye, then you run the risk of vicious cycles of violence through retaliation in kind (because individual human judgment is imperfect and inherently biased), and you also must explain why we would need police or any legal authority whatsoever - why not just let everybody have whatever weapons they want and have the strongest, or the most accurate and fastest shooter, or even the most well-armed and least scrupulous about collateral damage, win?

The psychology of violence is a huge subject; for an excellent primer on it I'd suggest Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" where he talks about not just the psychology behind violence but also the physical systems and causes in our brains that surround violence and violent behaviors. He also discusses game theory and how we can fall into traps like escalating cycles of retaliation. That book had a very big impact on my views towards violence.

My preference on personal protection is to proceed from first principles. I have studied self-defense through traditional martial arts, and I know others who are professionals in the military and the police. Any professional will tell you that without a doubt the concept of self-defense starts with observation, situational awareness, and preparation. If you are worried about the security of your home, fortify it with sturdy doors and windows, an alarm system, and acquire a dog. Ensure that you have at least one room in the house with a very strong door, and keep a cell phone or radio in that room. Don't walk alone in unfamiliar places, keep your eyes open and your wits about you in a crowd, on a bus or plane, and while driving. Notice those around you, and don't let social anxiety or embarrassment prevent you from avoiding a situation that could be dangerous. If you carry large amounts of cash, say for a bank deposit, do it during the daytime and not after work, vary the day and time you make the deposit, and wear different clothes when doing so (i.e. not a shop uniform). Get some training in hand-to-hand combat-arts and mental-preparedness for self defense. Improve your physical conditioning and quit smoking so you can run more than 10 steps. Don't drink alcohol to the point of physical or mental impairment. Learn to manage your ego so you avoid the trap of being unable or unwilling to run away when it's the best option (hint: it usually is), and so you can stay out of situations where your life is at risk for something worth far less, as in the case of Alexander Hamilton's death in a duel over mere journalistic insults. In my mind all of these things should enter into the discussion long before any type of weapon at all is mentioned, much less a firearm. I will state rather bluntly what should at this point be obvious: if you don't take these steps, or at least some of them, then you are simply irresponsible and lazy, unless of course you are permanently impaired, physically or mentally. In fact, your laziness puts the rest of us at a huge risk while doing little to actually increase your own security, and to me that's unacceptable (more on this below when we look at some statistics).

The point of the foregoing discussion is to make clear that the pro-gun side has failed to make an irrefutable claim that firearms have some kind of protected status in debates about self-defense, and my position is that they emphatically do not. I have yet to hear a viable argument on why they should; virtually all of the pro-gun positions boil down to the simplistic: "There are some bad guys with guns so I should have one too."

Let's take a closer look at that. What has always bothered me about that statement is that, first, it paints those opposed to easy-firearm-access as fools willing to risk their lives and everybody else's; without doubt, that is the most common form of the assertion which is often snorted derisively. However, my self-defense discussion above shows that to be untrue, as many of us have carefully considered the options; I certainly don't live in constant fear, worried about imminent attacks; this is primarily because I take common-sense precautions and have made preparations. I understand there's risk, but even if I carried an arsenal of weaponry, wore tactical body armor, and only did my traveling ensconced within a bulletproof pope-mobile, I would still incur some possibility of injury or death. It simply becomes a matter of understanding the level of risk, and how much certain measures reduce that risk; it is also important to understand if other risks may actually increase due to adoption of any given measure. After all, we are part of a society and we must interact with our friends, our neighbors, those with whom we disagree, and even with our enemies - and we must do this daily. We can't have a deadly incident every time we disagree or whenever someone makes a simple or common mistake. It's incumbent upon us all to proactively avoid tragic consequences, and our fellow citizens must be included in that equation - we cannot consider only ourselves or those within our direct family or sphere of influence.

So now let's take a look at a few numbers that tell us something about the risks. These have not been cherry-picked; they are from legitimate and in many cases government run organizations. However, on a side note, I will say that, for such a large scale problem affecting so many, it is notoriously difficult to find actual public numbers on gun violence as there are forces which actively try to thwart any public funding of such research, and they are largely successful. For those reading from outside the United States, these are figures relevant only to the U.S. I did, however, look at homicide rates worldwide, from the the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, for years ranging mainly from 2009 to 2017, and by my count not a single Northern or Western European country had a crime rate higher than the U.S., while admittedly the homicide rate here is still far lower than in quite a few countries (see DATAUNODC).

Guns are used in self defense in 0.9% of contact crimes. When they are used in self defense, they reduce the risk of injury to the defender by a mere 0.1% compared to any defensive action taken at all (4.1% vs 4.2%). These numbers are from the National Crime Victimization Surveys taken between 2007 and 2011. The rate of violent victimization is 0.98% nationwide, in the USA, last year. This means that your chances of being violently victimized while using a gun in self defense and having it save you from injury are less than 0.00001% - yes, that's percent! Even given that minuscule chance, many will still say it's worth it. This is indeed a claim that may be asserted, but then the next legitimate question then becomes one of figuring the actual cost.

A study often cited by pro-gun advocates conducted in 1992 by Kleck and Gertz claims that guns are used 2.4 million times a year in self defense - this was published in 1993. One issue with that particular study is that it relies on self-reporting by gun owners of instances where they have used their weapon; this seems problematic. On it's face, though, that means that one had about a 0.9% chance of using a gun in self defense. When we compare these numbers with the victimization data, it would seem to indicate that guns were used in self defense in almost 92% of all reported violent incidents, which seems astonishing. Clearly the numbers don't jibe with one another. Even if we split the difference evenly between 0.9% and 0.00001%, we come up with less than half a percent chance that any random citizen might have a gun, be victimized while carrying it, and successfully have used it in self defense, escaping without injury. Not very good odds.

According to the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, there were approximately 240,000,000 civilian-held firearms in the United States in 1992. If the Kleck study is true, this means that 1% of guns were used annually in self defense, in the U.S., but the parameters of that study indicate that merely divulging the possession of a weapon would count as self-defensive use.

I would have to say that, objectively and as someone who looks at data as a large part of how I make my living, that splitting the difference between those two is excessively generous to the self-reporting study's veracity; the lower numbers are from multi-year surveys & the FBI's national crime statistics, and are more recent. As a scientist I'd say the number is at most two orders of magnitude lower than what is cited in the self-reporting study from 1995 (i.e. more like .004%).

As for the cost, we must look at collateral damage (suicides, innocent bystanders) as well as victims of intentional violence. These don't include only deaths but also injuries from firearms. From 2010 to 2012, suicide deaths by firearm occurred at a rate of 7.19 per 100,000, or .0072% while accidental firearm deaths are much lower, at .0002%. Nonfatal firearm injuries are much higher, with those resulting from an assault having occurred at a rate of .016%, and accidental injuries at a rate of .0036%.

While others may make more concrete the numbers for their own ends, I want to make sure that these numbers are understood in terms of actual people. The total, per 100,000 people, of the above numbers is 11.04. The US had a population of 314,000,000 in 2012. This means that by the best estimates of well-vetted numbers, there were well over 84,000 victims of gun violence, and while many of them were admittedly suicides, non-suicides accounted for the majority, namely 62,000 of those victims. That's 62,000 lives affected by gun violence, where that gun violence was inflicted on them by another person. Most of those are non-fatal (just over 600 were fatal). However, if we add fatal firearm injuries as a result of crime, there were another 32,000 victims.

This is 94,000 of our friends and neighbors, who were victims of gun-violence, which is 0.03% of the population.

So, the calculus that must be performed is thus: is the injury or death of nearly 100,000 of our fellow citizens a cost we are willing to pay so that people can remain lax about taking even the most simple self-defensive measures, outlined above?

What we don't know about the surveys claiming high numbers of self-defensive use of firearms is this: would the behavior of those claiming to have used firearms in self-defense been different if they were not carrying a firearm? Does the act of carrying a weapon affect one's posture and attitude? What factors of human psychology are important in this discussion?

The evolution and physical operation of the human brain in conjunction with how we develop and function as a society has important consequences regarding our behaviors; humans have common tendencies in our thinking that drive our behaviors in remarkably predictable ways. These tendencies are well known and studied, and are often called biases. Given an array of optional responses to particular situations, we have a number of unconscious promptings that result in nearly all humans choosing a predetermined path. The most well known and understood of these is Confirmation Bias. Humans will inflate the importance of evidence that supports a position that they hold, while discounting or outright ignoring the importance of evidence to the contrary: we favor evidence that confirms our own pre-existing notions. An article in Nature talks about the statistics (again, using well vetted numbers) that show how gun violence affects women and people of color disproportionately. These numbers make it easy for white men to select data allowing them to gravely discount the possibility that they will be victims of gun violence; that demographic without any doubt comprises the wide, vocal majority of protesters favoring gun proliferation and ease of ownership.

Another cognitive bias humans possess is called the Availability Heuristic; this is when the mind assumes that things most easily recalled must be the most important and most valid, while things more distant in our minds (or not present at all) have lesser importance or validity. This could explain the ease with which many people dismiss numbers on gun suicides: most have never harbored serious thoughts about suicide and therefore completely discount the possibility that it might affect them or that it has any bearing on gun violence at all, even while victims of gun suicides number in the tens of thousands every year. This bias also has bearing on both sides of the debate under consideration; we are well aware that negative press sells better than positive press, so we see many more stories on negative gun-use outcomes than on positive-use outcomes, which makes those negative stories more present in our minds, activating the availability heuristic. This is of course compounded by confirmation bias, where gun availability advocates will discount those stories, and gun-restriction advocates will inflate the importance and possibly the frequency of such negative occurrences. The only way out of this trap is a scientific, rational look at all of the statistics.

While gathering material for this essay, I came across a video of a supposed “2nd Amendment” speech given by Mark Robinson. In that speech he exhibits a third type of bias, so-called Belief Bias. This is where the subject bases their perception of the strength of an argument not by assessing the logical or factual merits of the argument itself, but on whether the conclusion reached by any given argument is plausible in the subject's mind. The part I'm talking about comes early in the video, linked below, starting at around the 50 second mark. He begins (at the 35 second mark) by telling the audience about some young folks who had been giving statistics and he discounts their information completely (a clear confirmation bias), then he says “There's an element to this that everyone forgets – it's common sense.” The appeal to common sense is, for lack of a better word, the most common manifestation of belief bias. It is common in his mind, so it must be the best argument possible. Notice the interplay of various biases at work here – confirmation bias to discount countervailing evidence immediately followed by belief bias; the speaker knows that most in the audience feel the same about “common sense” (when in fact they merely exhibit an identical belief bias). In fact, the person recording the speech can be heard exclaiming, “Yeah” immediately after that phrase is uttered.

A third bias on display throughout the video is called Hyperbolic Discounting, which is the tendency to place higher value on what are perceived as more immediate payouts than on later payouts (which are often of a higher intrinsic value). In fact, the wholesale discounting of even the possibility of reducing the number of firearms to produce a less violent future in favor of the possible earlier payout of defending oneself with a firearm might explain a significant portion of gun-advocates' tenacious position.

Of course I've put forth a case that biases are grossly affecting the pro-gun side; I'll leave it up to the other side to make the counter case. There are doubtless things that have been said and positions put forth by my side that are also bias-affected, but my contention is that there are far fewer of them, and that the facts are objectively preponderant here.

The above biases clearly affect public opinion on the subject; however, the question still remains as to the effect of carrying a firearm (and, conversely, not carrying) on one's social posture and responses. I must here agree with a good friend of mine who commented on a social media post about guns, as follows:

“As a retired Police Officer I don't even have one. Firearms make someone ten feet tall, stupid and bulletproof.”

I'll add to the opening of this discussion by citing another well known cognitive bias, Overconfidence. One article in Psychology Today claims it is “the mother of all psychological biases.” People are prone to all kinds of claims that are on their face ridiculous; for example, over 90% of drivers in the U.S. claim they are better than the median. Bowlers will tell you that “they never bowl below their average.” 65% of Americans consider themselves as above average intelligence. Overconfidence is where a person overestimates their own abilities in relation to abilities in other people. Overconfidence is compounded by egocentrism, where one places greater significance on one's own abilities than on those of others. This can be clearly seen in the attitudes of those possessing guns, who harbor fantastic notions of how they would perform with their weapons in a given situation. This is true even of some of the least well-trained and least-practiced gun owners, all of whom boast proudly about how they would certainly “take down a bad guy.” One look at a rally or gun-rights event makes it clear that the majority of those advocating supposedly on behalf of their prowess as society's defenders are deluding themselves to a tremendous degree. They do not train with their weapons even as much as the most mediocre small-town police officer, most are in poor physical shape, and they adopt comical postures of machismo, bravado, and false-confidence. Much like the video discussed above, they are living paradigms of cognitive biases. As a friend of mine (one with vast military and law enforcement experience) bluntly put it when we were looking at an image of protesters armed with all kinds of modern tactical gear: “If those guys were actually in a military unit, there's no way they'd be issued that gear. They'd be given a typewriter and a roll of toilet paper and told to go sit their asses down.” 






Fear may be another important motivating factor both in the possession of guns and in the behavior of those carrying them. Surveys reveal that the most common justification for handgun ownership is self-protection, which is of course driven by the owners' perception of risk. The largest group of those owning guns, however, is that of white men, in rural communities, making more than $100,000.00 a year; hardly the highest risk group for violence. People are notoriously inept at accurately estimating risk, in large part due to cognitive biases; admittedly evolution gave us a tendency to overestimate risk that has so far served us well, but that doesn't mean we can't improve ourselves. So, as I sit here reading the last two sentences I can hear objections in the minds of many readers, who are either not white men or who make less than $100,000; the reason to call out such statistics is not to show that upper-middle class white men are the only ones laboring under a misguided understanding, but to point out the fact that risk is being miscalculated by the majority of gun owners. For a startling estimation of how poor we are as individuals and as a society at gauging risk, consider that after the events of September 11, 2001, many people opted to forego flying and instead drive because they were scared of flying and of thereby falling victim to terrorism. Several studies have been done, and there are suggestions that since the injury and fatality rate are so much higher for automobiles than for planes, a significant number of completely unnecessary deaths occurred solely because of the misperception of the risk of flying.

The fear of victimization certainly drives much of the gun ownership; however, I feel an equally powerful force driving it is what another friend of mine and I have discussed as “fetishization” of gun ownership. As an example, my friend, who visits a number of European countries for work, has taken pictures of entertainment magazine racks there as well as here; representative images are below. The first is a typical rack of magazines from the Czech Republic, the second is from here in the United States:





As is obvious, here in the U.S. there are almost a ridiculous number of magazines devoted to fanatical promotion and ownership of guns, specifically tactical or military style weapons, whereas in most places overseas there is virtually nothing of the like. The fancy and glossy depictions of slick, modern, dangerous looking firearms is nothing if not a bizarre form of erotica for those obsessed with guns, and with an overdeveloped sense of confidence in their ability to wield them. We feel this is a symptom of a deeper crisis, which is an excess of machismo in the form of toxic masculinity. While this may be a hot button issue that ignites passions on every side, it is indisputable that our society is rife with signals that everything hyper-masculine is sexy and indicative of success. Marketing campaigns for everything from deodorant to muscle cars are intended to make those of us who are less masculine feel inadequate. The sports that are popular (American-style Football, Boxing, Wrestling, Mixed Martial Arts fights) as well as the heroes we hold up are cut from the same cloth. We watch movies that glorify masculinity and violence (John Wick and Rambo come to mind). These signals would be ineffective without a willing consumer base, and of course we strive to emulate our heroes – that's why they're heroes, after all. So another layer of complication on guns is the obsession with tough-guy culture, or with the need to “be a hero,” or at least to make oneself feel like one would (or could) be a hero in any circumstance. The thing about real-life heroes is, they don't walk around with a constant self-awareness of their own hero-ness, and they certainly don't take pains to artificially cultivate that within themselves. They just exist as the people they are, trying instead to be always decent, watchful, and considerate, and they act heroic in the moment simply because that's who they are, not because it's who they're trying to be. On reflection, maybe it's not so much a flaw in the types of heroes we hold up, but rather the flaw is in the way we clumsily strive to emulate those heroes. That emulation should be a natural extension of the way our environment and our society shapes us. We should strive to build a society that nurtures the hero in everyone.

Now, we shift gears again and return to the question of the actual Second Amendment and its applicability to individuals keeping arms. If one doesn't merely cherry-pick the second clause but also includes the first clause, which is quite obviously intended to set parameters around the meaning of the second, then it is clear that the Amendment is related to the founders' worry about a federal army taking control of the states, a concern of the Anti-Federalists. Note here that it refers to a well-regulated militia as a deterrent to federal armies taking control of states, not to flabby weekend-warriors opposing the government in any loose sense. It could be construed (should in fact be construed, in my opinion) as protecting the right of citizens to bear arms only in service to a well-regulated state militia. There's at least some room for debate here; but again, the right allegedly conferred to all citizens to bear arms is not absolute nor is it necessarily unbounded, just as the right to freedom of speech is not unbounded.

I found the statutes that govern militias in my home state, North Carolina, and discovered some facts of which I'm sure many pro-gun-pro-militia types are unaware. I believe that many or most states have similar statutes.

The governor of the state is the Commander-in-Chief of all militias. He serves in this capacity and has the sole authority to call up and direct the actions of the militias. The militias in NC are comprised of two major categories: Organized and Unorganized militia. The Organized militia is subdivided into the NC National Guard, the Naval Militia, the State Defense Militia, and the Historic Military Commands. The unorganized militia consists of all other able bodied citizens over the age of 17 that haven't been dishonorably discharged or convicted of a felony.

Unless one is in the National Guard or the Naval Militia, then one is not an active-duty militia member, unless called upon by the Governor. The function of the State Defense Militia seems to be limited to securing National Guard and other bases when those forces are in deployment. The governor, of course, can call them to perform any duty he sees fit, but this is what is proscribed in the statutes. The unorganized militia serves to replenish the State Defense Militia in the event it is called on for active duty, subject of course to the direction of the commander in chief. The governor also has the power and duty to arm the militia, and is therefore given the authority to purchase and distribute arms. Nowhere in these statutes do I see any mention of private citizens publicly bearing privately-owned weapons when not on active duty as directed by the governor. Perhaps they could after being drafted into a militia (which is also within the powers of the governor); I wonder what the weekend warriors would think if they received a draft notification from the governor, especially from a governor who does not share their political beliefs.

All this is to say that it is obvious the states have interpreted the 2nd Amendment as granting them the right to the indicated “well-organized militias.” As far as I know such interpretation has never been challenged in a federal court.

I am sure there are any number of folks reading this who have grown increasingly angry or alarmed, or who have started thinking of counter arguments. I'd like to close with a few thoughts on the practicality of what I think my discussion entails. The first thing I think it means is that we have an obvious gun obsession, which I feel is a symptom of an obsession with all things “tough” and “macho.” These obsessions drive and are served by cognitive biases; they are also served by those with vested interests in the business of weapons manufacture and related industries; the result is a glut of dangerous weapons in the hands of under-trained and under-prepared individuals. Many of these individuals also see themselves as playing a role of hero or defender, another misguided self-image which is promoted, and likely even exploited, in popular culture. All of this is exacerbated by gross exploitation of our instinctual desire to find the easiest way, which in this case means arming oneself with a weapon instead of taking the more difficult path of continually training and preparing oneself.

I would ask any reader to please note that nowhere in this utterance have I proposed any particular action with regard to gun laws; this was intentional, although to be honest it does not fully reflect what I think is a reasonable debate to be had on sensible legal reforms that should occur right now. What I would like to see is for our culture to become sufficiently self-aware aware enough so that it can affect change in a direction towards greater sympathetic empathy, less toxic masculinity, an ability to look sensibly and soberly at hard statistics and facts, along with a wider knowledge of our own biases and other cognitive pitfalls that cause us to make bad decisions. This can only come about through improved education coupled with greater interaction between dissimilar people, in spaces where one is both free to speak one's mind and obligated to let the other side's position be heard. When we understand one another more fully we will be less inclined to fear each other, and less likely to feel a need to possess weapons with which to kill one another. At that point we may begin to talk about further legal restrictions. 

An Unfortunate Turn Of Events


 
A few days ago, a close friend and I had a disagreement; it was a decidedly political disagreement, and unfortunately for both of us it turned bitter.  As you can probably guess, if you’ve read many of my posts, I lean towards the liberal side of things, politically.  However, I have made and continue to make public statements decrying things I don’t like about the left’s politics, attitudes, and approaches.  I used to be conservative, then aligned with the libertarian party, and have ended up where I am now: left of center on nearly every issue but with reservations about (and public criticisms of) the extreme elements on this side.

I’ve arrived at this position through a combination of maturation, raising two wonderful children, coming out as openly atheist, bisexual, and transgender, examining things around me in some detail, reading quite a lot, and investigating stories to see if there’s supporting evidence instead of just instantly sharing or commenting on social media posts. I also do indeed read things that I disagree strongly with; I am a firm believer in understanding all sides of an issue as much as possible. I have never unfriended a single person based on religious or political differences on social media. I do not and have never subscribed to or consumed news or information from any single source, or purely from sources slanted or biased towards one political affiliation or another.

As I’ve gotten older I have made a conscious decision to not keep my mouth shut on issues that are important to me and to society.  I have also decided that I will not sit idly by while people make demonstrably false and/or derogatory statements. If someone were to make such statements about me, I would hope that my friends, or anyone with a conscience really, would try to correct the error.  I’ve written elsewhere (including on this blog) about why & how I think we humans are all connected; having a willingness to extend oneself to correct mistakes of this sort is an expression of that belief.  Where I may sometimes fall short on this is by reacting too quickly or too harshly, by failing to consider the feelings and motives of others, or by ascribing such to them that assumes a dark nature or ill intent.

If my friend happens to be reading this: please understand that I still consider you as a friend and would help you in any way I could; also, please read this entire post only when you have time to consider what I’m saying carefully and without distraction – read it when you’re at home in the evening relaxing with your kitties and our favorite drink. I’m saying what’s in my heart and in my head. This blog is how I process many things in my life, and I hope this writing doesn’t make you angry (or angrier!) at me. Out of respect and deep affection for you I have thought a lot about this, and it’s my hope that the words I set down here, for all to see, make clear where I was (and continue to be) coming from. If it seems harsh and clinical, I apologize, but as I’ve told you before more than once, I have closed my heart off for the most part, so this is what’s left talking. I want to make sure that I set down my thoughts on this while they are fresh in my mind.

Back to the general audience: This friend was very close and very dear to me. We both were aware of our political differences and had engaged in disagreements before; they sometimes got heated, of course, and they were nearly always left unresolved.  I’m sure each of us harbored some secret thoughts after these exchanges that the other had quit because the argument was unwinnable from their perspective.  I confess that I had these thoughts.

The reason I had these thoughts is what bubbled up in this last exchange with my friend.  We were engaged in a game of Trivia at a local bar, and the answer to a particular question regarding an Obama-era Attorney General was “Eric Holder.”  When I said this was the answer, my friend remarked that Eric Holder was a “piece of shit.”  This bothered me, of course, so I asked what made Holder a piece of shit.  His immediate and sharp response was that everyone in the Obama administration was a piece of shit. 

I didn’t expect this level of vitriol. I knew my friend despised the Obama administration, but this was kind of surprising. What made it a bit less surprising, or should have made it less surprising, was that my friend has recently been going through some difficult changes in his life.

Since it surprised me to hear this, I continued to push the issue, which brings me to the reason alluded to above whereby these thoughts bubbled up. I have noticed in many, many exchanges with folks with whom I’m in disagreement, that they quickly reach a point where their ability to support their side or opinion falls apart. It happens time and time again; I have been unfriended by a few conservative friends over disagreements on politics and also on religion, and in every case the discussion ended when I kept pressing an issue or asking a question that they could not answer, but which they would attempt to rebut by effectively changing the subject or making an irrelevant point, or by making an assertion unsupported by facts easily at-hand.  I have even pointed this observation out to a number of people directly, but it just seems to enhance their frustration. I don’t understand this at all – when I’m incorrect or missing a fact I want to be set straight.  I really, really don’t like to be wrong, which is one reason why I look into things maybe more deeply than a lot of folks.

Perhaps one difference between me and them is not that they also don’t want to be wrong, but rather that they are afraid to be proven wrong, or that they cannot admit when they’re wrong due to internal psychological mechanisms.  I freely admit when I’m wrong – I work in a very technical field, which can be quite humbling on this score. People who cannot admit a mistake, and course-correct afterwards, are decidedly unsuccessful where technology is involved. I’m wrong on a lot of days, sometimes more than once in a day.

Since the person I’m talking about here was a very dear friend, and since I’ve reached the point in my life where I think it’s far more important to seek truth than to avoid bruising egos, I kept up the discussion.  I am simply tired of having lopsided discussions with people who refuse to address a point directly, or even acknowledge a point to begin with. 

I told this person during our conversation that I loathed hyper-conservative media (including of course fox news, rush limbaugh, sean hannity, glenn beck, and the like) for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that they bombard people with a constant wave of ultra-right-wing talking points which warps their thinking, or inhibits their ability to see any side other than the one they’re hearing; in fact, it prevents them from having even the most mildly open curiosity about what the other side thinks.  This is, I feel, the case with my good friend, who is otherwise a very compassionate, generous, unselfish, and kind individual (qualities which drew me to him very powerfully). As far as I can tell, for the entirety of the previous administration he immersed himself in conservative “news” media and talk shows – such a diet can produce only one mindset. And that mindset is so very closed in upon itself it is incapable of even allowing that the other side may have a valid point. It is rigidly ideological and breeds a loathing of anything tarred with the label “liberal.” Those outlets are so toxic, they cause long-time consumers of their product to have completely visceral reactions to anything coming from, or purported to be coming from, the left.  Thus, his comment about literally everyone in the Obama administration being a “piece of shit.”  These outlets serve to further inoculate their consumers against opposing ideas by demeaning deep thought – they promulgate anti-intellectualism by sewing suspicion of those who use sophisticated language or “big words,” and denigrate institutions of higher learning as "liberal-elitist."  The parallels between what used to be called brain-washing and the tactics of modern conservative media are unsettling to me.

In a subsequent text message, in response to him telling me I had been belligerent and offensive, I told him that he had made an offensive and stupid statement that he couldn’t back up and to which I responded. I’m not sure if it meant anything substantive to him, or if it just served to isolate him further from me, but I was being sincere, frank, and completely honest when I said that.

In several blog posts here, I have written about disagreement and resolution, what it means to disagree and how to resolve differences. My friend claims to have read my blog in its entirety but I guess that my words around those subjects, into which I put a lot of consideration, meant little. What I have always tried to do is boil down our differences to tangible, concrete positions that we can discuss and maybe come to agreement on at some basic level.  I have always tried to do this. When I feel someone is telling me their stance, which I see as being comprised of a number of presuppositions, I will ask probative questions to try and establish what dependencies lie behind that stance. This is how to get at the root of differences of any kind, political or otherwise.  The parties must keep peeling back layers of disagreement until they arrive at some basic level of agreement – at some point I feel that we all as humans share basic elements, parts of our psyche and ways of approaching problems that are common due to the biology of our brains and the cultural similarities that drive and sustain all societies. At some level we have to be able to agree on something, in other words, no matter where we start or how far apart our differences begin.

What opened up this particular conversation was his belligerent and rude comment about someone I thought highly of – this set the tone for the rest of the conversation, so I responded in kind. Granted, I had enjoyed a couple of drinks before all of this happened, so I was likely a bit loose, but my recollection is clear. I countered, probed, and inquired, and became frustrated myself when my friend had a loss for words, which I understood to mean that he couldn’t back his position. I kept asking questions and making points, in an effort to drive home the major point that one shouldn’t make statements that one cannot support, especially when those statements are belligerent, crude, and offensive to one’s good friend. I admit here I was spirited and also a bit angry myself, out of the frustration borne from a hundred similar conversations with conservatives who simply make an outrageous statement and then refuse to even attempt a defense of it. It’s almost as if some feel they have the right to any opinion without the corresponding responsibility to ensure it’s at least minimally defensible, especially when that opinion impacts one’s interactions with society at large (e.g. voting habits or the reputation of an individual or group). I would argue that the more outrageous the statement, the more accusatory or defamatory it is, the greater the need for supporting evidence or reason. This is just basic decency and logic.

Now, he may feel that he doesn’t have to justify his position, at least not to me. He in fact said so, stating that he could, of course, come up with a list that I could then pick apart and grade like a school paper. He may be right, but he should at least be able to justify it to himself, and I’m pretty sure his lack of ability to make even a single cogent or indisputable point in defense of his statement is more a reflection of the lack of evidence than it is a reflection of his reticence to present such evidence to me. My response to this should have been: “Why not produce such a list?” If it will stand on its own, what’s to lose? If I’m really important to you as a friend, and if you respect me even a little, and if this is important enough to you to make callous blanket statements, why not give me the details behind your opinion?  I say with all honesty that I would listen to these and consider them. I would also examine and probe them, not out of some sense of conceit or condescension as was implied, but out of a genuine need and desire for truth. If the evidence were there, and were also supported by other evidence and reason, then I would change my position. That’s exactly how I arrived at my current political and religious outlooks, and is why I take these matters so seriously. I am willing to follow the evidence, but only if I am allowed to see it.

My follow up, sent the next day, bemoaned the inability of two supposedly close friends to even discuss their differences, no matter how far apart those differences may be and no matter how spirited the discussion might become, without resulting in a hard-stop to our relationship. My friend has since said publicly that he feels as if he were pushed until he broke inside, clearly by me. I regret that it came to this as we had a wonderful, fulfilling, and substantial friendship; I’m deeply sorry that I hurt his feelings this badly, I hate to have added to his difficulties or made him sad in any way. But I cannot honestly say that I regret engaging in this conversation, and I disagree that I pushed him until he was broken. I think that there was something inside him broken already which merely came to the forefront, and that is his ability to step outside the ultra-conservative mindset and consider even the mere possibility that there may have been some good things to come out of the previous administration, or at the very least that every single person in that administration was not a “piece of shit.”  I don’t think in the end I was really asking for that much, especially when we were such close friends.

My friend, if you’ve made it to here, this last part is again for you:  I’m genuinely sorry that I upset you and that you felt cornered by me, especially when you’re going through so much right now. I never intended to be unkind.  All I can say is, please try to see my side of it as well and don’t judge me too harshly.  I respect your intellect and compassion too much to pull punches or walk on eggshells. What we share should be stronger than this disagreement, but it also means that I will always be completely honest and open with you whether it is what you want to hear or not – I would not be much of a friend if I did anything less. If we never speak again, please take care of yourself; you should know that I only wish you the best of everything.