Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gay Abandon

"My dear, I don't care what they do, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses."
Mrs. Patrick Campbell, British actress 

"Who do you love?"
George Thorogood

Yesterday 55.5% of the Supreme Court justices revealed their decision that same-sex marriage is a civil right, and by the way, if you disagree you're a nasty homophobic Kluxer.  Further legal wrangling notwithstanding, homosexual couples can now enjoy formal marriage, with all rights, privileges and responsibilities thereunto appertaining. 

Except for the all too familiar liberal bigotry contained in the DOMA opinion, for which somebody should be slapped, I can't get excited one way or the other. My preference would have been for civil unions (marriages in all but name) to take care of legalities such as benefits and inheritance, and religious ceremonies by sympathetic clergy for their personal, symbolic benefit. I think that would have satisfied most people on both sides of the issue, and let the country get on to more important things. But it is what it is, and that's done.

Well, except for the social conservatives, once again insisting that one-man, one-woman marriage has been the norm in all societies for thousands of years. They were repeating that all over the radio and TV Wednesday, and will be for the foreseeable future. Because I generally like these people and stand with them on a lot of nonreligious issues it's a little painful to say this, but...they're wrong. Utterly, completely, totally wrong.

Please note I'm not contesting their religious or moral arguments, which are matters of faith. Their right to hold and express those moral principles is absolute. I'll defend their rights as I would my own, by any means necessary. But their historical arguments are matters of fact, and they've got the facts wrong.

Even the most casual reading of the Old Testament reveals that polygamy was the norm in Biblical times. Likewise, even casual reading of ancient history and archaeology shows us a huge variety of marital arrangements. Consider the Pharaohs, for whom incest wasn't a sin but a commandment. In modern times history, anthropology and sociology show us still more. Mormons happily practiced polygyny (multiple wives) until it became a political liability, and some still do. There are places where polyandry (one woman, 2 or more men) is common as well. One-woman, one-man marriage is hardly universal.

If you want to be traditional about marriage let's go back just a few hundred years, when they were arranged based on politics and economics. Marriage is a set of contractual rights and obligations. Dowries, bride-prices and the like have always been important, as have political and business alliances. Our modern idea of "romantic love" comes from the songs of medieval troubadours, who sang about mythical nobility and their soap-opera romances. Those, you should know, always ended tragically. Marriage was considered too important to be left to the emotions. If we were really conservative we'd leave the kids out of it and let the families and their lawyers negotiate.

I won't let the homosexual community off the hook, though. Now, or shortly, they'll have marriage. Shortly after that they'll have divorce, custody hearings, property disputes, legal fees, and all the rest. It happens. Marriage may be a blessing, or a sacrament, or whatever, but it's also a difficult job. There's a lot of good in it, but that good has to be earned, every day. I wonder how many people, caught up in romance and righteous political fervor, will wake up to realize that the days, weeks and years after the honeymoon are what matter?
That the candle-lit dinner doesn't count for much if you can't agree on who cleans the toilets?

Then there are the other alternative lifestyle groups waiting in the wings, ready for their time on stage. They're less public, not as well-funded, but they have just as much right to a hearing as the "conventional" homosexual community. There are the polygamists, of course, as the social conservatives remind us. Why should fundamentalist Mormons (or, for that matter, Muslims) be denied the right to marry as their desires and consciences dictate? And if one man can have multiple wives, why shouldn't one woman have multiple husbands?  Wouldn't it be sexist in the extreme to deny them the right to an emotionally (or otherwise) satisfying relationship?

Let's not forget the polyamorists. Many of these folks are more or less pan-sexual, but in any case have multiple sexual and emotional relationships. Familiar terms like "bisexual" don't fit them; they find love in many different kinds of arrangements including two, three, four or more people, men and women alike. I've known some of these people, and outside of their unconventional forms of sexual and emotional expression they seem perfectly normal, conventional and as nice as anyone else. Maybe nicer, since they have to pay more attention to their relationships. It seems like way too much work to me, but I wouldn't stand in the way of someone who wanted to try, say, a quintuple marriage. Besides, I can't wait to see a children's book titled "Bobby Has Two Daddies---And Three Mommies."

What I really wonder, though, is how much support the homosexual community and their allies will offer all these people in their struggle for the same rights the court has just recognized. We'll see how much principles count.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Trials and Errors

Jury selection is strictly an emotional process. They're looking for people they can manipulate. Both sides are.
Joseph Wambaugh

George Zimmerman will be convicted. I'm making this prediction based on inferences from one fact and 30 seconds of TV news coverage. Details follow.

The fact: The Zimmerman jury is all female. Women, for better or worse, are more easily persuaded by emotional arguments.  Right now some of you (probably women) are thinking "Not aaallll women, you sexist bastard!" True, not all, but what follows is a statistical argument and the numbers are indifferent to your ideology. Besides, I doubt that there are any female mathematicians, engineers, physicists or other reputedly more systematic thinkers on that jury.

The TV coverage: The prosecutor is relatively young and relatively handsome. He stands erect, and speaks authoritatively while telling the jury the story of gun-toting would-be vigilante George Zimmerman, who set out to hunt poor, young, innocent Trayvon Martin.
Not with murder in his heart, perhaps, but with a vision of himself wielding the Sword of Justice against an imagined evildoer. That vision predisposed Zimmerman to violence.
According to the State's story, why else would Zimmerman have a gun, an object most women regard with emotions ranging from distaste to dread? Why else would Zimmerman have disregarded instructions to stay in his car? It's an easy story for these jurors to believe, because it fits the way most of them already think.

The defense attorney is older. He leans forward to address the jury like an aging uncle with advice to give. He opens with a lame joke, then tells the jury Zimmerman was defending himself against a vicious and unprovoked attack. He feared for his life, says the lawyer, justifying the use of lethal force. This is a technical argument that relies on evidence and legal reasoning, requiring the belief that young Martin was the aggressor. It takes substantial mental effort to process; the juror must want to be logical and unbiased.* The trouble is, most people think they're being logical and unbiased even when their judgement is the most skewed.

How do jurors decide guilt or innocence? The best theory we have tells us that these judgements are based on a "story model." That is, which side tells the most coherent story of the events? That, in turn, depends on both the storyteller and the listener. In this case, both the predispositions of the jurors and the superficial "cues of credibility" (see, e.g., this paper) are on the prosecutor's side. 

But wait----a jury verdict has to be unanimous. Only one juror can hold out and possibly sway the other five! Truth and justice can prevail! Right. How much are you willing to bet?
What research since the 1960's has shown is that group decisions (including jury verdicts) are based on the "weight of opinion" held by group members before any discussion at all. An even split of opinion might result in a hung jury, but if four of the six Zimmerman jurors buy the prosecutor's story, social pressure will do the rest.

You might care what I believe. As is often the case, both sides have it partially right. Zimmerman acted stupidly, looking for trouble when there was no need, his head full of sheepdog fantasies. He's a sad, fat little man who wanted to be a hero, and whose idea of heroics derived from silly action movies. Yes, he was defending himself against a young, aggressive punk who might well have injured or killed him---but he put himself in that position. Was Martin justified in attacking Zimmerman? Absolutely not. On a strictly legal basis, as I understand the law, was Zimmerman justified in shooting Martin? Absolutely yes. Does any of that matter? Sadly, probably not.

George Zimmerman is screwed.

*For a short introduction to these issues, see this.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Moral Panic

“Someone has said that it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think.” 
Emma Goldman

Once again the American public is being treated to a festival of gibbering and arm-waving over the statements of a semi-public figure. Charges of bigotry are flying like arrows in a 1950's cowboys-and Indians movie. Their target this time is Paula Deen, the chunky, (formerly) smiling restaurateur and celebrity chef. Sued by a disgruntled white ex-employee for "discrimination"---of what sort, unspecified---she admitted in a deposition to having used the dreaded "N-word" on more than one occasion some years in the past.  The Food Network promptly cancelled her show, and would-be pundits across the political spectrum rushed to condemn her.

Interestingly, nobody asked if she'd used other racial, ethnic or religious slurs, for instance the "J-word" for Blacks, the "K- or S-word" for Jews, the other "S-word" or the "W-word" for Mexicans, the "G-word" for Koreans or Vietnamese, and so forth. Using those might mean that she was in fact an all-purpose bigot.* She and others claim in her defense that that the word in question was commonly used in less enlightened days, especially (but I promise, not exclusively) in the South. While admittedly in bad taste, they say, its historical use alone should not blacken anyone's reputation.

Let's get serious here. The public condemnations of Deen's private conversation aren't about bigotry in general or this case in particular. They're about either political or psychological advantage. Race pimps like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton speak out against her; they pretend to bravely defy bigotry, as if a moderately wealthy old white woman was a legion of hooded Klan bullies. Two fourth-string Atlanta radio hosts inveighed against her, one opening his show talking about her "fat food" and her diabetes. He seems to be enjoying schadenfreude, taking pleasure from someone else's misfortune.  Perhaps he doesn't like her cooking style, and in his sophomoric arrogance believes nobody else should, either. The other piously proclaimed that the "N-word" should be forever expunged from our vocabularies, wrapping himself in a comfy cloak of self-righteousness and, just maybe, higher ratings. Perhaps he believes that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn should be burned or Bowdlerized. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's house cartoonist drew a crowd of costumed Klansmen outside her restaurant, once again illustrating the intolerance and prejudice of the "liberal." 

If any of these frauds and fools really cared about fighting bigotry, they'd simply shut up. They'd let a court decide if Deen and her relatives actually discriminated against anyone or if the charges simply represented the rancor of a disaffected employee. They'd realize that the surest way to get someone to do or think something they shouldn't is to tell them they must not do it. ** But living your own life well and being thereby an example to others isn't nearly as much fun as picking on an old woman, is it?

* Apparently, I missed the fact that Deen had told ethnic/racial jokes as well. According to my source, these included redneck jokes, so it's hard to take them as evidence of racial bigotry.

Still, fair is fair, and I had to correct myself. The rest of what I said above stands as written.

**Reread the second paragraph and don't think about the meaning of the various "initial-words," for instance. Now, don't use any of them. Ever.