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Mandragora swallows the moon and the oceans turn to fire

Is it a prion disease? Have aliens orbited Make’EmStupid Satellites to keep us in our place? Why is this happening everywhere at once all over the world?

Fundamentalists in India gobble up Modi’s us-against-them bullshit and start torching mosques. They’re Hindu fundies, not Christian, but it doesn’t seem to help one bit. Duterte, Putin, Trump, LePen (although the French managed to avoid electing her), Taliban, Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping, the list goes on and on, everywhere. Reality disappears behind made-up stories people kill for. Or would like to kill for.

The top-of-mind recent example is antivaxxers. They invent metastasizing conspiracies in favor of a devastating disease to avoid the safest medical intervention there is. Covid vaccines are gobsmackingly safe. Safer than aspirin. Safer than burgers. Safer than lettuce, for all I know. I don’t think we collect statistics on lettuce. But if we did, I wouldn’t be surprised if vaccines turned out to be safer. Antivaxxers condemn people to die rather than admit that all — all! — of the evidence is against them.

There’s the anti-choice crowd. They’ve twisted “my body, my choice” into its opposite. Reproductive choice means women don’t die from botched abortions. Nor does it kill their neighbors. Antivaxxers are saying they can do whatever they want, no matter whether it kills you. It is the opposite. But words mean nothing now and nobody cares that “Don’t kill me” morphed into “Shut up while I kill you.”

Then there’s the whole melee about transwomen. (Transmen barely appear, which gives the game away. Misogyny 101.) Instead of escaping society’s invented gender boxes, that movement has decided sex doesn’t exist. Biological sex. The method for making babies, which leaves babies everywhere, which would kind of prove it exists. They’ve decided it doesn’t. It’d be news to Silurian fish that sex is vague. It’d be news to pine trees, if pine trees read the news. Evolution could barely happen without it. It’s a denial of reality on the order of flat earthers. (To be clear, you can believe what you like in your own world, where it doesn’t damage nonbelievers. Nobody else has to buy into your sense that it’s turtles all the way down.) But a bunch of trans rights activists (#NotAllTranswomen) have decided to believe in the transubstantiation of the flesh of men into the essence of women, and ruin and death to the heretics.

The biggest and most lethal group, though, is the deniers of the climate crisis. The chemistry that means carbon dioxide in the air traps heat has been known since the 1800s:

In a series of experiments conducted in 1856, Eunice Newton Foote — a scientist and women’s rights campaigner from Seneca Falls, New York — became the first person to discover that altering the proportion of carbon dioxide (then called “carbonic acid gas”) in the atmosphere would change its temperature. This relationship between carbon dioxide and the earth’s climate has since become one of the key principles of modern meteorology, the greenhouse effect, and climate science. … [N]o one acknowledged Foote was the first to make this discovery for more than a century

Meanwhile, right up until now (yes, I mean Manchin), people whose salary depends on not understanding that fact tell themselves stories about natural variation or a hotter sun or tech solutions or that we’ll just turn up the A/C. Anything to force somebody else to take care of it, even when it kills people.

(Just for the record: No, the variation is off the charts. No, the other planets aren’t warming. No, people make and use technology. If technology was the solution, rather than people being the problem, the tech would have already been applied. No, there’s no way to turn up the A/C for all of nature, except by not idiotically warming the planet to begin with.)

The climate crisis deniers are the worst of the lot because they’ll kill billions of people. Billions with a “b.”

So here we are, trapped in alternative “facts.” If the loonies don’t get us for ignoring them, reality will when it crashes down.

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The world’s most taboo subject

Do you remember this article from a couple of years back? It was big in the media for a few days. Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children.

Having a child contributes some thirty times as much to warming the planet as the next closest action an individual can take: living without a car.

Climate change impact of having a child: each one adds 58.6 tons of CO2 equivalents per year. Using a car adds 2.4 tCO2e per year.

And yet, amidst all the discussion of air travel and bicycling and electric vehicles, there’s a ban on mentioning population control.

Another example I came across recently was in a very encouraging article about greening the Sahel in Africa.

… {Farmers had a] cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms.

Garrity recalls walking through farms in Niger, fields of grains like millet and sorghum stretching to the sun planted around trees, anywhere from a handful to 80 per acre. “In most cases, the trees are in random locations because they sprouted and the farmer protected them and let them grow,” he says. [Depending on species] [t]he trees can be cut for fuel… They can be pruned for livestock fodder. Their leaves and fruit are nutritious.

One tree, Faidherbia albida, goes dormant during the wet season when most trees grow. When the rains begin, the trees defoliate, dropping leaves that fertilize the soil. Because they have dropped their leaves, the trees do not shade crops during the growing season. Their value had long been recognized by farmers….

[But] “He laments that work is moving too slowly. With the Sahel’s population doubling in 20 years, Reij says regreening needs to be finished within 10 to 15 years.”

He makes it sound as if this doubling is a great force beyond human influence, like a solar storm or a meteor strike. It’s not. It’s merely human reproduction. We’re helpless only because the subject is so untouchable it can’t even be said out loud.

What’s up with that?.

I think the answer lies in the two possible trajectories to control births.

One is coercive. China’s one child policy is perhaps the most famous recent example. Since women are the ones giving birth, you have to control women. You punish them if they have too many children. You enforce abortions on mothers. Or, if you’re a Nazi in the 1930s who wants lots of blond babies and no browner ones, you try to enforce a eugenics program on women. You sterilize gypsies or the disabled or Jews while giving “your” women the option to be incubators or nothing.

All those methods involve hideously totalitarian pre-emption of individual choice and body autonomy (like the supporters of forced pregnancy, but we’re more used to them so it doesn’t feel as outlandish). But on the bright side, they don’t require any changes to misogynist and patriarchal social systems.

The other trajectory is to give women control over their own reproduction. Wherever that is done, birth rates drop dramatically. They may not fall all the way to replacement levels, but they get much closer than any other method. Giving women control works, it works sustainably and long term.


But it deprives society of its main tool to control all aspects of women’s lives. Your reliable producers of the next generation, your unpaid domestic servants and nannies and handholders and caregivers, gradually find other things to do with their lives. Members of the upper caste might have to do their own dishes. Your whole system falls apart.

And therein lies the rub. All our current problems are made much worse by overpopulation. Dealing with that requires treating women like human beings. Which gives the patriarchy the vapors.

So suddenly respect for medieval religions and medieval cultures make it impossible to promote birth control. They might be offended!

There’s not the same action-limiting respect when it comes to things that serve the caste system. Porn is all over the place even though the Pope disapproves. But breastfeeding is too avantgarde for the delicate sensibilities of men on Facebook. Nor is there ever equivalent concern that women object to being erased.

The discrepancy has a name. Sady Doyle wrote about it almost three years ago, Trump, Putin, Assange, and the politics of sexism. Supposedly all three are exponents of radically different systems, and yet they have a lizard brain-level understanding that they’re on the same side. Her focus is social and political effects, but the same allergy to anything kind or well-meaning is everywhere.

Recently, reactionaries have made The Misogyny of Climate Deniers obvious by their revolting comments against a 16 year old who’s done nothing except use the full weight of all the evidence to disagree with them.

The connection has to do with a sense of group identity under threat, … both by developing gender equality—Hultman pointed specifically to the shock some men felt at the #MeToo movement—and now climate activism’s challenge to their way of life, male reactionaries motivated by right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism increasingly overlap, the three reactions feeding off of one another. … Climate change used to be a bipartisan concern, the first Bush senior presidency famously promising to tackle global warming. But as conservative male mockery of Thunberg and others shows, climate politics has quickly become the next big battle in the culture war—on a global scale.

Misogyny isn’t the only motivation of reactionaries. There’s greed and garden variety hatred in there, too, but misogyny is the core. It’s misogyny, not greed or racism or ordinary hatred, that makes men fear weakness more than anything. And fear of weakness is what ties together the worst of what they do.

They think strong man governments are a good idea. They like guns and “defence” — war, really, so long as somebody else dies in it. Peace is only tolerable “through strength.” The reactionaries are against anything that doesn’t shout big power. They like nukes because gigawatts! dangerous! The truth is that even building a new gigawatt nuke every two months from 2010 till 2050 would solve only a small part of climate change and energy needs. Meanwhile renewables could provide all our energy by 2050 for a fraction of the cost and without radioactive waste. But distributed power, whether that’s rooftop solar or real democracy, strikes reactionaries as la-la limp-wristed hippie crap. Likewise, restraint against environmental destruction is pathetic weakness in the face of hard choices.

And weakness is the worst thing you can show. They (“They”) come and take your man card away. It’s the only thing that gave you any standing and it’s gone.

That is a future so horrible it’s worth burning the world down to avoid it. It must never be spoken lest saying its name calls it forth.

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Just call US a Dark Age dictatorship

The global gag rule the Dump in the White House signed not long ago will kill women. But officially that’s an unfortunate unintended consequence.

Not this. The whole point is to go out and find people minding their own business and kill them. [Update 2017-10-08] It’s about more than gays. It also supports the death penalty for apostasy (leaving a religion), blasphemy (saying things like “Christ on a bike!”), and adultery. At this rate, the planet’s overpopulation problem could soon be solved. (Ostensibly, this US vote is because of the dreadful risk it might interfere with their ability to off prisoners when they want to.)

US votes against UN resolution condemning gay sex death penalty, joining Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The full list:


And you shall know them by the company they keep.

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Offensive offendedness

I haven’t commented on the murders of freethinkers at Charlie Hebdo or in Copenhagen because I’m too angry. Goons want to send us all back to the Dark Ages. We mustn’t let them. That’s beyond self-evident. Human rights, basic freedoms, secular governments, obliviousness to blasphemy rules, these are all essential to peaceful societies where everyone’s rights are equally respected.

(Yes, it includes blasphemy. Otherwise, if you can’t say anything I don’t like and I can’t say anything you don’t like, and nobody can say anything Joe doesn’t like, it won’t take long before everyone can say nothing and there is no freedom of speech.)

I do realize that free speech which gives offense is a complicated subject. It is said to justify harassing women into silence, soaking a crucifix in urine and calling it art, or drawing Mohammed to comment on the methods of violent loonies who call themselves Muslims.

Do I think it justifies these things? In the order given, no, yes, and yes. I’ll do a second interminable post on it some day explaining exactly why simply because I feel compelled.

But, really, there’s no need. It’s all been laid out by Evolving Perspectives in one cartoon. (I took the liberty of translating the French back to English. Click on the image or the link to the source for a full size version.)

What to do about offense: a flowchart. (Note the first fork: Is anyone harmed?)

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The joke is on me

When I wrote a piece years ago called “Are women human?” that title was supposed to be funny. Or at least tongue-in-cheek.

I didn’t think the answer was “no.”

But it’s official. Corporations are human. Now even with religious beliefs! Woohoo!

And women? They’re just non-artificial ambulatory uterine incubators. What’s the point of rights for a mass of blood vessels that’s a waste of space unless it’s feeding babies?

Actually, strike that “ambulatory.” Incubators are easier to use when they’re not wandering around loose. That’ll be the next decision by the Five Guys:

It’ll be entirely consistent when they come to it. They’ve never cared that some rights are essential for the others to have any meaning at all. That’s because they’ve never cared about rights, except the kind might makes. Controlling your own body is up there at Right Number One. No other right means anything if other people can do whatever they want to you. The Five Guys just knocked the whole structure down.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting. “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

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Atheists know all about God

Which ought to be a bit surprising. How do they know? They say believers can’t prove god exists. But then, by the same token, the atheists can’t prove god’s nonexistence. Unprovable works both ways.

The problem is that belief is an internal feeling, like loving another person or enjoying the feel of the sun on your back. There’s no way for anyone else to tell you you’re all wrong, you really don’t like the feel of the sun. Nobody else can know that. Nobody can tell you what you feel, since only you can know that.

So where (in god’s name?) does someone like Dennett get off saying religion is a common cold that needs a cure? He also says it’s an addiction that needs a cure. He should make up his mind. The two are very different.

Dennett is new to me. The loudest exponent of the Church Militant of Atheism has been Dawkins, who’s recently been showing his arrogance in new ways. I’m always struck that he honestly does not seem to get the irony of telling people they’re wrong about an unprovable subject because he’s right.

Now, although these beaks claim to be anti-religion, I suspect their knickers are in a twist because of what people do in the name of religion.

They’d be on much stronger ground if they stuck to the subject. You can tell people to keep their beliefs to themselves. You can tell them what they can and can’t do to others. That’s called civil society and a legal system. God is no excuse for killing people over cartoons, for caging women, for destroying the planet because Judgment Day will be along any minute.

Maybe if all these bright thinkers had a truly evidence-based attitude, which can never go further than agnosticism about religion, and used their stature to condemn harm, rather than an unknowable god, we might actually get a bit less harm in the world.

Religion overthrows heresy, sculpture by Pierre Le Gros

Righthinkers overthrow wrong ones (Religion overthrows heresy and hatred, Pierre Le Gros, 1698)

Ricardo André Frantz: Wikimedia

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Freedom can’t be free

(Fair warning: one of those loooong posts.)

Nobody can choose to live without limits. Anybody who tries just ends up crashing into them. Eating without limits will make you too sick to eat at all. Gas guzzling without limits will end in no gas — or enough global warming to make the whole thing moot. (That’s not an exclusive “or.”) Too much information causes overload, not wisdom. There are always limits.

Drawing by John Tenniel for Alice Through the Looking Glass of Humpty Dumpty yelling at one of the very stiff King's men.

Too much information

(Illustration: John Tenniel)

The only real choice is whether to recognize the constraints instead of crashing into them and whether to find optimal ways of working within them instead of suffering through constant crises.

In that spirit, I want to discuss the First Amendment, the right to free expression. It has limits — such as not falsely yelling “Fire!” in crowded theaters and requiring tiny dollops of truth in advertising — but somehow only the old limits are okay. Updating the limits to deal with updated technology is out of bounds. It’s as if, when it comes to free speech, the most liberal among us all subscribe to a doctrine of Original Intent.

That blinkered view has worked well enough in the past because past problems were small enough to be kept at bay with small fences. Broadcasting at one time was limited by lung power, and only the immediate circle of a loudmouth had to put up with their constant blather. The change began with the printing press, sped up with radio, ran away with television, and is now screaming up the exponential part of the curve with the internet. There are more and more loudmouths to shut out. Ads. Insults. Bullying. Harassment. Grossness. Drivel. Lies. Politicians. The problem is getting so bad that more and more voices are being raised saying it’s time to do something. Most people aren’t sure what.

I’m not sure either, but what I am sure of is that we absolutely must get out in front of this. The only people who are sure of the solution are places like Saudi Arabia, and nobody (except the Saudi Arabian government) wants them deciding on the limits of speech.

The sorry piece of work known as “The Innocence of Muslims,” better titled “The Nastiness of Christians,” has led to a recent spate of shouts for censorship. One example:

In Saudi Arabia, the government demanded that Google block its citizens’ access to the video. Google complied on Sept. 19; it had already done the same for Libya, Egypt, India and Indonesia. …

This Internet censorship is [in] line with the kingdom’s muzzling of its national media. Overall restrictions have worsened since the Arab Spring popular revolutions of 2011. …

“Bearing in mind that countries cannot apply their own laws to acts in another country, there is a crying need for international collaboration to address ‘freedom of expression,’ which clearly disregards public order[.]”

Saudi Arabia is not an outlier in this case. Pakistan would like the UN and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation to start enforcing international anti-blasphemy laws. The Prime Minister of Egypt said that we all should “take the necessary measures to ensure that insulting … belief in their Prophet, that should not happen, and if it happens people should pay for what they do.” Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister says the anti-Islam film must be blocked and that is not censorship, but says nothing about why it differs.

It’s easy to feel sympathetic when the trigger is something as revolting as the Nastiness of Christians.

Then I read that the Turks are putting an internationally renowned pianist, Fazil Say, on trial for insulting Islam on Twitter. The “insult” was poking fun at a cleric for being in a hurry: “Say tweeted: ‘Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?’ Raki is a traditional alcoholic drink made with aniseed.”

The real problem isn’t even the possible 18 months in jail. It’s the hassle, expense, time, and stress of dealing with the legal battle. Even if he and everyone like him were always ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, the possibility of legal harassment would stop most people from saying anything, just in case.

The West is not immune to calls for some kind of action. In Britain, a new Public Order Act (it’s interesting how these things always seem to be justified by “order”) — has made “insults” illegal.

Section 5 of the Act … outlaws threatening, abusive and insulting words or behaviour….

What constitutes “insulting” is not clear. It has resulted in a string of controversial arrests.

They include a 16-year-old boy being held for peacefully holding a placard reading “Scientology is a dangerous cult”….

These and similar flailings toward a solution prompted Jonathan Turley to write,

The very right that laid the foundation for Western civilization is increasingly viewed as a nuisance, if not a threat. Whether speech is deemed i[n]flammatory or hateful or discriminatory or simply false, society is denying speech rights in the name of tolerance, enforcing mutual respect through categorical censorship.

As in a troubled marriage, the West seems to be falling out of love with free speech. Unable to divorce ourselves from this defining right, we take refuge instead in an awkward and forced silence.

Turley doesn’t actually say so in that piece, but I get the impression also from his other writing that he feels there is no way to stop the bad without also destroying the good. In general, the majority response to calls for limiting free speech is that any limits, beyond the old ones we’re used to, will put us on a slippery slope to losing the vital right entirely.

I don’t see that. If the old limits on free expression enhance the right for everyone, and they do, then new limits applied in the same spirit won’t end in censorship either.

The vital point about the old limits that work is they are based on balancing other rights with the First Amendment. There’s no right to cheat people out of money. Stealing by using words is still stealing, which is clear to everyone on an individual basis when con artists try it. It’s no less true when it’s broadcast as advertising, and hence we have (minimal) truth-in-advertising laws. Those aren’t based on censorship. They’re not favoring a message. They’re recognizing that the expression involved is not being used to communicate, but as a tool of burglary.

The same goes for false shouts of “Fire!” in crowded theaters. The intention of the speech in question is not communication but a specific, and potentially dangerous, effect. People are terrified for nothing except somebody’s sick idea of a joke, and could even get trampled and hurt because of it. Again, it’s not censorship because what is being suppressed is not one message as opposed to another, but the use of any words purely as a tool to harm people.

Those examples point up the difference between a rights-based approach and censorship. Censorship favors some messages by suppressing others, whereas rights must be equally applicable to everyone. Any inequality favoring some over others is a privilege, not a right. In a rule-based system, everyone can apply the rule and the results are the same no matter who does it. It is a government of laws, not of “men,” to use the old phrase.

Censorship cannot be applied by everyone equally, and that’s why it cannot be a valid tool to serve free speech. As it’s commonly understood, it refers to some authority, usually governmental, deciding what can be said and what cannot. It is asymmetrical by its very nature. Only a few people can decide what’s acceptable, If everybody did it, the whole system would break down instantly.

I suspect it’s that sense of asymmetry that makes so many thoughtful people adamantly opposed to any new rules regarding free speech. Turley, for instance, in the piece quoted above, mentions the pitfalls of the government deciding what people can and cannot say. I would add that it’s not much better when any other institution does it. A rule-based system that applies to everyone equally can’t allow any subset of people to make those decisions, whether it’s the movie industry, the recording industry, the search engine industry, or even the association of university professors.

We have several types of censorship already operating now. The music and movie industries enforce warrantless takedown notices against content they don’t like. Search engines refuse to be transparent about criteria and thus effectively censor lowranked results. Companies control app stores with a significant user base and decide without transparency or right of appeal what those users can see. There’s not much worry about these new forms of censorship because it’s not The Government doing them and because profit is assumed to take precedence over free speech. (Nobody agrees with that last when it’s stated plainly, but it is how people behave. “It’s their app store. You don’t like it, go somewhere else.”) Even though we’re not worrying about private censorship, it’s still censorship.

The practical implications of real free speech rights mean that the likes of Google must be globally regulated to make their rules for selection of information known to all. They mean that copyright law can’t be used in the service of industry business models. They mean that trade treaties, which should have no impact on basic rights, cannot have an impact on basic rights. Right now, for instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is being negotiated in secret. On the basis of leaks, “The ACLU claims that the copyright provisions in the TPP are ‘the biggest threat to free speech you’ve never heard of.'”

While we’re worrying about government censorship, other forms of suppression are compromising our rights as we speak. That’s another reason why new rules to limit and protect freedom of speech are essential. What is and is not acceptable in the public square has to be explicit and must apply equally. An open legal system accessible to all is another foundational principle of Western civilization, together with freedom of expression. By ignoring that, and by refusing to even think about new explicit limits made necessary by modern technology, even censorship is starting to look good. Refusal to contemplate constraints, for fear of losing the right to free expression, is itself destroying the right. That is foolish.

The first step in dealing with any problem is to acknowledge that it exists. And it does. Cyberbullying has poisoned countless children’s lives. Certainly, non-electronic bullying has, too, but that doesn’t make the electronic version less damaging. Creepshots are just one of many internet phenomena that make living while female a punishable offence. Tracking has become so pervasive and entrenched it’s becoming hard to imagine any response other than pretending it doesn’t matter. Levels of disrespect for the dead that would be unacceptable on a battlefield, let alone outside it, are being justified in the name of free speech. One of the laws of war, at least as old as the Old Testament, is that opposing sides must let each other bury their dead in peace. The list could go on and on and on. Many people see a problem. It’s not limited to tetchy Muslims.

That millions, even billions, of people feel abused by free speech suggests there is some deficiency in our interpretation of it. It’s especially likely given that the unhappy people are as different as atheist feminists and religious fundamentalists. It’s also possible they’re all wrong, but the size and diversity of the group who feels harm means it makes sense to examine the merits before deciding that the current status quo is the only possible one.

The symptoms of unhappiness all trace back to the same larger problem: that time and space are no longer enough to filter out the loudmouths among us. Technology, by taking away some limits, as it has also for instance by enabling birth control or environmental impacts, makes us bump up against limits in our own understanding and behavior.

However, although there’s a common element to the causes, the resulting harm can be very different. Annoyance at a spammer is not the same as the violation caused by creepshots or the real world consequences of voters fooled about climate disruption or the totalitarian potential of minute knowledge about every detail of everyone’s life. Expression may be the problem, but the answer may or may not be silence. I’ll try to lay out some of the separate strands.

Freedom of speech has so far been asymmetrical. Freedom of motion, for instance, doesn’t give you the right to walk into someone. But freedom of speech is missing its matching right, the right not to hear.

The inability to refuse to hear is at the root of many emerging problems: telemarketers who used to call during dinner (in the days when people still sat down to eat dinner), spammers, demands to censor sex “for the sake of the children,” and demands to censor all religiously objectionable expressions everywhere. That last, in particular, makes me think of the story about the king who wanted his land paved in leather because it was nicer on the feet, until a sage pointed out he could wear shoes instead. A right not to hear implies ads should not be seen or heard unless you request them. Imagine that world for a moment. No wonder nobody even mentions the right to silence.

Then there is the increasing problem of offensive messages. They’re not a problem for the originator, who doesn’t find them offensive, but for the subject, who does. The offended people may not even be the target audience — usually they aren’t — but that doesn’t lessen the offense for them. Here again, the missing right is being able to avoid those messages. Mass media have started to take baby steps toward giving people some control by flagging particularly gory news images before the reader sees them. But we need vastly expanded abilities to control how much and how badly the rest of the world can step on our toes. Judicious tagging that coordinates with filters could go a long way toward removing sexism, violence for entertainment, impiety, religiosity, or whatever other criteria the user wants. Yes, that would require the creators to help people avoid their content. If there was the same level of respect for the right not to hear as there is for free speech, there’s no reason why people of good will would not cooperate. And, as with free speech, there are remedies in law for those who violate rights. Note the important point that the user decides what to filter. Since it’s the user who has the problem, the user should control the solution.

I realize this whole zone of offensiveness is rife with contradictions, over-reach, and over-reaction. I realize I’m suggesting something like parental controls on steroids with the one enormous difference that it is under the control of the user. The difficulties of limiting offensiveness don’t change the fact that we need some replacement for the old rules of politeness which kept people from being rude to each other’s faces. Those rules were there to reduce the murder rate. They are necessary. I don’t know the best ways of implementing a right not to hear. What I’m saying is that we need to explicitly acknowledge the existence of that right, and that it is not enough to give up simply because the solution isn’t obvious.

To the extent that effective countermeasures against offensiveness have already been taken, they’re generally the wrong ones. The rules against offense in private life emphatically do not extend to politics. Expressing political opinions on political occasions is just about the whole point of free speech. Yet the only real limit on “offensiveness” seen recently has been on the expression of political opinions that inconvenience the powers-that-be during political events.

Security at George Bush’s events in the mid-2000s became notorious for removing any visible dissent. Even wearing the wrong t-shirt was enough to be expelled. Political t-shirts might be inappropriate at a summer picnic, but they cannot be inappropriate at a political speech. It’s also become customary to contain protests at political events in very small free speech zones. The justification, as always, is order.

A money bag walking past a protester inside a tiny barbed wire enclosure, saying, 'You missed a good debate.'

The limits to limiting free speech

(Illustration: Joel Pett)


In a praiseworthy attempt to avoid the travesty of little “free speech” pens, the Supreme Court recently fell into the other error: removing all limits from offensiveness. The case involved anti-gay fanatics who disrupt funerals to insult the dead person being honored. The Supremes held that the fanatics had a right to express their opinion, which they do, and that they therefore had a right to express it anywhere. They don’t, not at funerals. (I know that officially the justification is that they had a right to use the public sidewalk for their demonstration, but that’s nonsense. If it was about the sidewalk, they could use any other sidewalk they wanted. They wanted to use the one that interfered with the funeral.)

It is not essential to the preservation of free speech rights that people be allowed to express absolutely all opinions absolutely anywhere in any way they please. Congress wouldn’t tolerate a rock concert on the floor of the House during a debate. There are other places to hold rock concerts. A kindergarten class doesn’t need to take place in church during Sunday service. Demanding silence for a tea ceremony would be stupid in the stadium during a football game.

It actually seems rather easy to come up with a rule of thumb that both preserves free speech and appropriate behavior. Limits on expressing opinions should be the rarity, not the rule, and should require valid justification. When there is justification, small spaces can be preserved as islands of controlled speech. Outside of them, control violates free speech rights. Free speech pens are unacceptable because they invert the proper size relationships and, when in a political context, because they also limit political statements at political events. Nonviolent political speech at political events can never be inappropriate. It might be disruptive, but disruptive is not the same as inappropriate in politics.

Offensive speech shades into hate speech. There is no absolute line between the two, but there is a difference. Offensiveness is a by-product of some other goal. The content is not produced in order to offend. When it is, then it becomes hate speech. The difference lies in the intent of the speaker, and when there’s an intention to be hurtful, then it’s run over the line into hate speech.

The recent revoltingness with the Innocence of Muslims / Nastiness of Christians is a good case in point. It is unquestionably offensive. What makes it hate speech is the fact that when it did not generate enough attention, they paid for a translation into Arabic. They wanted to be sure that as many Muslims were insulted by it as possible. That is hate speech.

It may be necessary to point out that the motive for wanting to hurt people doesn’t matter. It’s the harm that matters. Profit, for instance, is not a better excuse than hatred. Producing, posting, or linking to hateful garbage because it brings in clicks and revenue is still hate speech.

Hate speech is not about ideas, not even primitive ones. It’s about using expression to do harm. That is the vital point to remember because it clarifies why hate speech has no business finding protection under the First Amendment. It’s intention is harm, not communication. It is using speech as a weapon and the words or images are just ammunition. That’s a fundamentally different category than anything covered by free speech protections. The First Amendment protects expressions, not weapons. Just because hate speech uses expression to cause harm doesn’t change that. It only camouflages it.

That’s just as true for private hate speech as public because one’s right not to be harmed by others doesn’t depend on quantity. Robbery doesn’t have to be a group activity to be illegal. Cyberbullying, for instance, is a subset of hate speech that can be private. It’s the use of speech as a tool of harm.

It’s probably also worth pointing out that private speech generally, when it’s not hate speech, should be as unregulated as it is now. Nobody wants a world where you can’t yell at your own TV. There again, though, the essential difference is that nobody is trying to harm another person when shouting at TVs, whereas in hate speech, they are.

As with any other activity whose purpose is to harm others, society’s response has to be to prevent it, or failing that to shut it down and to punish it. Hate speech is one case where silencing is not only justified, it is the only valid response.

Does that mean I’m advocating censorship? I say no because I think it is useful to distinguish between favoring some communications over others (censorship) and stopping harm to fellow citizens. Those two are not the same, and that should be recognized by using different terms. Maybe we could call it hate speech disarmament.

If the suppression of hate speech is to differ from censorship, then it must be based on rules equally applicable to everyone. Its distinguishing feature is an insistence on humiliating and otherwise harming its targets. Detecting intention always requires judgment calls, but that’s not something new for the legal system. The complexity of determining hateful intent is not that different from estimating intent generally. It’s difficult, but not always impossible. In gray areas, the accused gets the benefit of the doubt, as usual, but when it is possible to make a determination, then the hate speech involved should be shut down.

Another rule that could be applied without discrimination is a prohibition against all suggestions of violence. Criticism of governments, businesses, individuals, ethnic groups, religions, of anything at all, never requires advocating physical harm to people. I realize that if that rule was applied strictly, it would silence a majority of comments on the web. For me, the price of having to find new insults is worth the benefit of more easily distinguishing hate speech. If we’re serious about silencing hate speech then any speech which is indistinguishable from it except in the stated intent of the speaker has to be silenced, too. Claiming it’s just an expression or a joke or a mistake isn’t good enough because the same claim is made by anyone caught being hateful.

The distinctions between hate and harmless but offensive speech isn’t easy, but it’s something that needs attention before all the people infuriated by hatred sabotage free speech itself. To say that people (usually other people) should suffer hate speech because it’s too difficult to come up with a solution is an excuse, not an answer.

Privacy is yet another area where actions justified under First Amendment rights sometimes trespass. First, let me define terms. I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about the concept of privacy. It’s assumed to be about specific types of information, and which are acceptable to publicize. There are some quite exhaustive studies discussing where to draw the line. Whether insurance companies can share certain types of medical information with employers, whether it’s acceptable for robots to read emails and use that information, who can publish your address and where, whether publishing people’s faces or car license plates on Google Streetview is okay, and so on. They miss the point.

Privacy is about control of one’s own information. If you and I are both on Facebook and you want your contacts to know you’re now the proud owner of an iphone, then you won’t feel a loss of privacy when Facebook’s Beacon publishes that fact. I, on the other hand, might live in the sort of neighborhood where I don’t want word leaking out that I have eminently resaleable electronics. Same data, different priorities, and different reasons for those priorities. So long as what we each care about stays private, neither you nor I feel there’s any harm done. It’s the control that matters.

If privacy is about control rather than specific information, then the right response to violations of it is to give that control back to the person from whom it was taken. The balance is not between free speech and censorship. It’s between free speech and privacy.

(I realize there are technical issues with getting rid of data once published, but I’m just trying to discuss the rights involved. Once those are clear, then we could go about figuring out which technical issues need enforcement and how to go about it.)

Tracking for marketing purposes is one near-universal invasion of privacy. It’s taking information about you and using it without your permission. If tracking respected the right to privacy, it would have to be opt-in and never opt-out, always and everywhere. Furthermore, when there’s a right to control your own information, the permission would be revocable at any time. As with opt-in advertising, just imagine that world for a moment.

There’s a tangent about privacy that perhaps needs to be explicit. Privacy rights may not be in the Magna Carta or the US Constitution, but that’s only because, once again, technology has removed limits that protected us from our own bad behavior. As I’ve said elsewhere:

[C]ontrol over one’s own information is necessary if other rights are to have any meaning. The only reason that hasn’t always been obvious is that we haven’t had the technical capability to spy on each other 24/7, or to retain every whisper forever. When anyone on the internet — including, for instance, your boss — can look over your shoulder and examine where you live, which plants grow in your window boxes, which gym you visit, who you have sex with, and how you looked in your baby pictures, there will effectively be no freedom left. Everything will have to be hidden if everyone can see it. What you can say will depend on what others approve of being said. Where you can go will depend on where others approve of you going. Old-fashioned police states, which depended on limited little human informants to keep people in line, will come to seem like desirable places with a few minor constraints. The logical conclusion of no privacy rights is no [meaningful] freedom of speech, movement, or assembly.

“Free speech” violations of privacy can be much worse than supposedly trivial tracking. The internet phenomenon of creepshots is another invasion of privacy, among many examples of pornographic violation on the web. Few things could be more private than sexual photos of oneself, and they fall unequivocally under a right to privacy. There’s nothing wrong with sexual photos when they’re under the control of the individual involved. They’re very wrong otherwise. Sexual humiliation using free speech as an excuse is not merely rude, unfortunate, gross, obscene, or annoying. It’s a violation of the fundamental right to privacy. Violations of rights are crimes, not minor annoyances.

+ + +

I started with the goal of examining free speech rights given modern technology and have ended with a world we don’t live in. One where we have real privacy rights, even when it bothers Google’s bottom line. One where content providers have to make it easy for people to avoid their content. One where hate speech is not a joke. It’s hard to feel such a state could be more than a (fever) dream precisely because it is so alien.

The rights being ignored for the sake of free speech vary from the clearly recognized one of not suffering physical threats to the more recently recognized right to privacy and to the still-unrecognized right to silence. Solutions have to vary, too, if they’re to deal with the actual cause. It’s not a simple matter of being for free speech and against censorship.

A rights-based system has a characteristic that may be worth mentioning as an aid to differentiating it from not-as-good substitutes. Equality implies that maximum control compatible with equal treatment of others must always be vested in the individual. Individuals decide what to say, what not to hear, what to keep private, what to broadcast. Equality also cannot coexist with censorship, even in good causes such as public order or profit.

The government does have a role in free speech. It’s the same one it has now. Rules, including those formal ones called laws, need enforcement, which is a function of government. But state powers do not decide what the rules are. When the goal is rights rather than privileges, what’s acceptable is what works when everyone does it. What’s not acceptable is what doesn’t work when everyone does it. The rules, not any person or group of people, define some behaviors as allowable and others as not.

The hard part is fine-tuning those rules so they get better and better at hitting the target — preventing free speech from encroaching on other rights — without opening the door to prosecuting pianists and peaceful demonstrators.

Difficult as the hard part is, and it is ferociously difficult, we can’t go on pretending that the problems of free speech can be solved with more free speech. We’re going to have to do something about the way it damages other rights or we’ll lose free expression itself. No democracy could survive that loss. It’s not an optional quest.

Update: Every time I think I have the last paragraph written, yet another news item comes along as an example of what I’m trying to say: 19 year-old jailed for overstepping the bounds of good taste.

Everyone agrees that his “jokes” making fun of two kidnapped girls crossed the line. Matthew Woods swiftly became an object of contempt after he posted the crude and offensive comments on his Facebook page.

But did he deserve to be locked up for them?

A judge thought so, and ordered the 19-year-old to spend 12 weeks in jail, essentially for overstepping the bounds of good taste.

With a right not to hear and adequate filters, the doofus could be crude without going to jail and the rest of us wouldn’t have to pollute our minds with his garbage. We really need that right recognized.

Angry responses streamed in almost immediately after he pressed the “send” button. Public vitriol escalated to the point that a mob of about 50 people reportedly gathered outside Woods’ house, causing police to take him into custody for his own safety.

As I said, the old rules against offensiveness were there to reduce the murder rate.

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No, you cannot tell me to live by your beliefs

Just no. I’m not sure what is so hard about that concept.

Muslims are upset about some non-Muslim’s pictures somewhere. Again. This was the result in that case. (Via BBC, Day in Pictures, Oct. 2, 2012.)

Buddhist monk leafing through burned book in a burned building

It has, apparently, escaped the rioters that these are Buddhists. Not Muslims. Muslims do not get to tell Buddhists how to live their lives. Nor do they get to tell Christians. Or atheists. Or, for that matter, even other Muslims except on a voluntary basis.

So just get over it. There may be pictures out there your religion forbids. Too bad.

There’s one thing you can do: don’t look at them.

There’s one thing the rest of us can do: make it easy for you not to see them.

The mistake we make is not making it easy enough. There’s a lot we could do there. The freedom of speech enthusiasts haven’t yet realized that it’s matched by the right not to hear. Just like freedom of motion is matched by the right not to have people walk into you.

You’re within your rights to insist on not seeing what hurts you. You’re way outside them when you hurt others.

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We need anti-pollution laws for free speech

Religious nuts belong in padded cells with the other nuts. They think they can say anything they want, no matter how untrue and nasty it is. And because it’s based on something they call “religion,” nobody wants to deal with them.

There was the kook in Florida who was going to make a big deal out of burning the Koran. Apparently in his mind that shows the superiority of something he believes in. That time people died in the Middle East and Africa.

This time another lunatic’s hate speech has led to more deaths.

Ambassador J Christopher Stevens reportedly died of smoke inhalation after a crowd stormed the consulate.

Three other Americans were also killed and the consulate set ablaze.

Update 2013-05-14: The four deaths at the consulate seem to be unconnected to a specific hate speech event. Hate speech repeatedly incites people to kill, but this is not an example of that as it turns out.

Not only that, but Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and probably a score of other places are having to take steps to prevent — they hope! — violence. That’s effort, time, and money better spent on real needs, not on hysteria whipped up by infectious mental patients.

These troglodytes are a terrorists. We have a whole goddamn department of government to deal with terrorists these days. Why are they asleep at the switch?

The Biblebangers have no right to spew hate speech and incite riots. Why aren’t the creeps thrown in dungeons for their flagrant flinging of poo?

What is it going to take for people to wake up to the fact that we have to stop giving religious nuts a free ride? Religion is a belief system. It’s not an excuse.

Update Sept. 14, 2012: Good background, details, and more recent information by Juan Cole.

Update Sept. 15, 2012: [Following link bad 2015-05-07, but this one has the same points.] Roger Ebert adds some points about the complete lack of merit in the clip and its purely inflammatory nature. One real give-away for the intent to inflame: when it didn’t get enough Muslim attention, our local loonies paid to have it translated into Arabic.

Update Sept. 18, 2012: I can’t resist a you-heard-it-here-first remark. Sarah Chayes opinion piece in the LATimes going into more detail as to exactly how much the Nastiness of Christians film is incitement to riot.

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Here’s an idea: civil rights for everyone!

You know, everyone. Including those everyones who are female.

Rights are the solution to the Todd Akinses of the world, and it would be unspeakably obvious if people could remember that rights matter.

For some reason, even people on the left don’t get it. I had somebody say, when I was carrying on about free speech rights and Pussy Riot, “Fuck theories of speech. Free Pussy Riot.” So, let’s see. “Forget about rights. Give ’em their rights.” Uh huh. That makes a lot of sense. And that’s the “thinking” on the left.

People don’t even get it when it concerns their own rights. There are way too many examples, but here’s just one from Lexia commenting at Reclusive Leftist: “…the woman’s mother, who had worked as a nurse (she had wanted to be a doctor), but mostly as a wife, and so was left at retirement age, divorced, impoverished and living in a trailer with thirty seven leaks….

“The woman’s mother said to me, in response to some remark I made about women’s rights: ‘But that has nothing to do with us.'”

I’m not sure where this reluctance to think about principles comes from, but that’s why we have a problem. That’s why we can’t see that


I know we’re not supposed to shout, but, honestly people, what is so hard about that concept?

Take religion, for instance. At this point, it’s enough to say, “But it’s my religion!” to excuse just about anything. The media just stand there, being respectful, when a Todd Akin says “Women don’t count. I’ll tell ’em when they’ve been raped. I’ll tell those uterine incubators what to do. It’s my religion.” The Left mostly nodded along when Obama quite agreed that Catholic bishops shouldn’t have to put up with anything so anti-religious as female citizens making their own medical decisions. (But because he’s such a nice guy, it won’t be as bad as if that horrible Other Party was giving the bishops their wishes).

May I make a suggestion? I think we need a Church of Savage Death to all Godbags. They’re interfering with my religion, which is that we all leave each other in peace.

Yeah, I know. That’s about as logically consistent as destroying women while Allah is said to be Merciful and God is said to be Love.

It always takes only about one step to fall into complete logical absurdity if religion is put above civil rights.

It’s obvious if you think about it at all. No other right means anything if you are not, as the old language had it, secure in your own person. If you can be imprisoned until you agree with me, you have no freedom of thought. If I can requisition a kidney from you (because I’m dying and my life is at stake and you’re a perfect match and my religion is pro-life), you’re nothing but ambulatory organ storage.

If all that drivel was understood in the context of rights, the Todd Akinses and their spiritual cousins, on up to the mild-mannered and socially acceptable versions in the White House, would all be obvious for the antidemocratic throwbacks they are. They’d never get near the teevee. Because the media are dimly aware that no religion is so important that it can demand human sacrifices. Not even female ones.

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Our mutilations are good, yours are bad

I haven’t closely followed the story about male circumcision in Germany. A judge ruled that as an elective surgical procedure with permanent effects, it required the informed consent of the patient. Just about the most basic right is control over what gets done to your own body, and the ruling makes every kind of sense. Newborns can’t informedly consent, so suddenly circumcision of male babies was illegal.

Cue indignant protests by observant Jews. But it’s part of our religion. Cue protests by others. The Germans! Are telling the Jews what to do! Or rather not to do! Besides, circumcision helps prevent Aids.

Christ on a bike, people. You either agree to the principle that others can’t mess around with your body without your consent, or you don’t. If you do, there’s no difference — except that we in the West are used to it — between generally minor mutilation of male babies for the sake of Judaism or medicine, hacking away at the genitals of female children as is done in parts of Africa, or performing cosmetic surgery on a six year-old so she can win perversions such as Toddlers in Tiaras.

The judge was right the first time on this. Parental rights should not extend to reshaping the physical bodies of their children. Parents don’t own their kids. They take care of them. Or they should.

And religious rights can not trump human rights without running smack into a complete utter idiotic logical absurdity. What if my religion was to kill your religion?

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Civil rights aren’t religious

The Prop. 8 stuff here just goes on and on and on. The anti-gay marriage crowd is using the law to delay civil rights as long as possible, and the courts let them get away with it because due process is more important than the rights the process is supposed to protect.

It would take any normal human being outside the law about a quarter of a minute to figure it out:

  • 1. Are all people considered equal before the law? Yes. Go to point 2.
  • 2. Can some people get married? Yes. Go to point 3.
  • 3. Therefore: all people can get married.

That’s how it works with civil rights. Very simple.

Religions, of course, can be much more complicated. If you deeply believe same-sex marriages are wrong, there is something you can do. Don’t marry someone of the same sex.

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My religion is to kill your religion

The discussion about the birth control pill fiasco has boggled my mind. I’ll explain the title toward the end, but let me start with my bogglement. There are whole swathes of blogland who feel that so long as the pills are available, it’s all good. They don’t see a problem with the fact that, as Charles Pierce puts it:

The Church has claimed — and the president has tacitly accepted — the right to deny even its employees of other faiths the health-care services of which it doesn’t approve on strictly doctrinal grounds. That is not an issue of “religious liberty.” That’s the enshrinement of religious thuggery in the secular law.

That’s also a remarkable departure in a country founded on the separation of church and state, a country where as recently as twenty years ago even the most conservative of Supreme Court justices asserted that religious practices cannot conflict with the law of the land. Dakinikat quoted a few days ago:

The free exercise [of religion] clause and its meaning is well established. There is very little ambiguity about what it is and what it is not.

“In 1878, the Supreme Court was first called to interpret the extent of the Free Exercise Clause in Reynolds v. United States, as related to the prosecution of polygamy under federal law. The Supreme Court upheld Reynolds’ conviction for bigamy, deciding that to do otherwise would provide constitutional protection for a gamut of religious beliefs, including those as extreme as human sacrifice.”(1)

The Court stated that “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.”

Or, as the Reclusive Leftist says:

“[I]n 2000, the EEOC ruled that employers who failed to include birth control coverage in their prescription healthcare plans were in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That’s because the Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination on the basis of sex. The EEOC allowed no exceptions for religious institutions.

What the Obama Administration has done now is to basically reverse that. They’ve said, “You know what? Never mind. That clause in the Civil Rights Act about discrimination on the basis of sex? Forget it.”

So, yes, the pills will still be there for women who need them. But not because the government says women have the same right as everybody else to make their own decisions about their own health care.

The pills are still there, but not because you have a right to them. It’s because nobody has taken them away yet.

Losing your rights is not a win. Getting birth control pills by the grace of Obama is not a win. Unless you mean a win for him. Now this is something that’s his to bestow … or for those bogeyman Republicans to take away. Or, given Obama’s past actions in non-election years, his to bargain away.

That is why rights are important. Having rights means people who violate them can be held accountable. Receiving dispensations means constantly asking (begging?) for what you need, and tough luck when you don’t get it.

We’ve seen that movie play out in abortion rights. Riverdaughter summarizes:

The same thing happened with abortion. It was merely a few workarounds, a few inconveniences. If you really need an abortion, it will still be there for you. You just need to assuage the consciences of a few religious people. That’s how it started. But how has it ended? In some states, there is only a single provider and women have to risk losing their jobs to get an abortion. It’s no longer just a few workarounds. Now, it’s a major ordeal.

And that progression happened because for too many people it wasn’t about the right to decide your own medical procedures. So long as they still had some kind of escape from forced pregnancy, it was just too difficult to argue about rights. The result is that here we are. Too many people are just glad they can still get birth control pills. Arguing about rights is divisive, difficult, aids and abets Republicans (see above, re “bogeyman”), and time-consuming. And it’s physically nauseating to realize that you’re not a human being in other people’s, including the President’s, mind.

Because the subhuman status of women is an unavoidable consequence of not acknowledging their right to make their own medical decisions. It’s a logical consequence of putting a religion, any belief, ahead of the civil rights of citizens, any citizens.

I’ll go through the steps. There aren’t many. Read more »

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You have no rights

The Stupak amendment, the greatest rollback of rights for women in decades is now in that thing the House has been calling a “Health Care” bill. (Links from Reclusive Leftist, The Confluence, WiredLeft.)

But women are just, as always, the expendable canaries in the coal mine. Their rights are toast, which means so are everyone else’s.


Rights are for all. When only some people have them, they’re just privileges. And privileges can be taken away.

Think through the consequences of what equal rights for all really means, and you wind up with a system that doesn’t look much like what we have now. There’s lots more about it here, but this is the bit (paraphrased) that concerns us right now:

The right to control one’s own person is fundamental. Even the right not to be murdered is secondary, since killing is allowed in self-defence.

Abortion muddies the argument only because some people believe the fetus is a person with legal rights greater than those of the mother since it can require her life support. There is nothing to stop women from believing this and living accordingly because there is a right to control one’s own body. Depending on beliefs, an individual’s dilemma about abortion may be very complex.

But fair social policies are simple. Either everyone can live according to their beliefs, or nobody can. And personhood is necessarily a belief, a social or religious category. It’s not possible for it to be a matter of objective fact. Biology can only determine who belongs in the species Homo sapiens, but no cellular marker lights up when someone is due to get legal rights.

I’ll repeat: personhood is necessarily a matter of belief, whether that’s based on religion or social consensus.

Therefore those who oppose abortion because they believe the fetus is a person with special status have to hope they are never successful in legislating how others handle their pregnancies. If they are, it means that exceptions could be made to the right to control one’s own person.

Once that principle is admitted, then there is nothing to stop a majority with different beliefs from legislating forced abortions.

Over-population is, after all, the source of the environmental problems killing the planet.

There is nothing to stop an aging population from requisitioning a kidney from healthy people walking around with a spare.

There is nothing to stop doctors from performing medical experiments on you for the public good.

There is nothing to stop the majority from deciding all those old folks are too expensive to live.

Really. Nothing. Once you take away the right to control your own body.

Extreme? Sure. So why is it okay when applied to women?

Stupak, abortion, Health Care Reform Act, HRCA

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Conflating Morality and Disgust is Immoral: Haidt and the Happiness Hypothesis

Liberals, says Haidt, don’t understand morality. They think it’s only about fairness, something he thinks operates between individuals. Conservatives see the bigger picture, the social glue that makes people behave themselves. That depends on loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. That “broader view” of morality which is not “limited” to notions of fairness, is ingrained, and goes back through evolutionary time. He knows this because he spent some time in India.

I kid you not. Okay, I kid you slightly. He studied other cultures once he returned. He is now a professor at the University of Virginia and researches moral psychology.

I have so many problems with his views, I hardly know where to start.

  • 1) If he wants to imply that morality is genetic, something that evolved like standing upright, then he needs to look at entities that change over evolutionary time, like species, not ones that change depending on the stories people tell, like cultures.
  • 2) He has conflated religion, morality, and disgust without even realizing it, apparently. This is like confusing heterosexual relationships with good parenting. Heterosexuality is not unrelated to parenting. Good parenting can include heterosexuals. But the two are separate issues, and mixing them leads to neither good relationships nor good parenting.
  • 3) He seems oblivious to the role of power in social relations. This is mindboggling. It would be like ignoring this:

    BBC picture of Banksy art in Los Angeles: elephant painted like pink chintz in a pink chintz living room

I’ll go over my reasons for vehemently objecting to Haidt. In fact, I hope to beat his points to death. And I’ll also explain why I feel that strongly.

Starting with the biological angle, my first problem is that he didn’t start with it. Read more »

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Stem Cells and Ethics

We’ve heard it all by now. “Stem cells will cure everything.” “Stem cells kill embryos.” “Stem cells are overrated.” We hear much less about the science of it all. (Oh, no! Not science!) And that’s too bad, because it can tell us a lot about the rest of what we hear. Let’s get to it.

Think of stem cells like tiny organ transplants, and you’ll be pretty close to grasping the essentials. If you could grow a new heart from your own tissues, there wouldn’t be any need to worry about transplant rejection. That’s how adult stem cells work when used in the adult they came from. Used in another person, they’re like a transplant. Anti-rejection drugs need to be taken for the duration.

So, conceptually, stem cells are simple. Politically, it’s another matter. I’m going to try to give the Cliff Notes version of both the science and my take on the ethics, as well as what we can realistically expect in the way of cures in the near term.

Intro … at warp speed

Adult stem cells are a very rare cell type, are hard to grow, and are hard to turn into useful tissues. Embryonic stem cells are easier to find because they’re present in much higher proportions relative to the total number of cells in the embryo. The earlier the embryonic stage, the more stem cells, until at the very earliest stages (zygote, blastula) it’s pretty much all stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are easier to grow and mature. They can generally be coaxed to mature into a wider variety of tissues.

Also, the earlier the stage, the less developed the immune system is, so the less chance there is of rejection even when the tiny cell transplant is given to an unrelated person. However, due to research restrictions in the US, there hasn’t been enough work done here to know whether rejection will be an issue or not. Research is being carried forward elsewhere (Britain, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, China, Brazil, and other countries), but I haven’t heard about definitive results on this question yet.

The downside of stem cells is that they can have a nasty tendency to turn cancerous. There’s some evidence (eg here, and here) that at least some cancers get their start as stem cells that lose the fine-grained regulation necessary to grow and differentiate into something useful. Instead, they just grow. However, it’s still not clear whether so-called cancer stem cells start as normal stem cells or just look like them in some ways.

There are also other down sides. One is that more research really does need to be done. We’re just taking the first baby steps in this field.

Some results are being obtained now, and those are therapies for conditions due to malfunction of a single cell type. Things like macular degeneration blindness (retinal cells), replacing insulin-producing cells, and regrowing damaged nerve cells, such as in Parkinson’s (simpler, here), and brain or spine damage. But we’re years away from growing new organs.

[update, Sept. 4. The hardest thing about writing this post is that the field overtakes me before I have the paragraphs finished. The scuttlebutt is that Israeli researchers have grown a whole heart from embryonic stem cells. So we’re obviously not years away from growing new organs. We’re not even days away, if that report is right.]

Getting a stem cell to mature into one cell type is just a matter of figuring out how to trigger it and then keep the cells alive while they grow. An organ is dozens (hundreds?) of cell types, all of which have to be perfectly placed together in order to function. At this point, we’re miles (but not light years) away from understanding cell growth regulation well enough to know how to do that. Figuring out how far away we are from growing new hearts or limbs is an unknown itself. It’s like trying to figure out how far away a mountain peak is when you’re hiking. If you’re seeing the whole mountain, it’s on the horizon and maybe fifty miles away. If you’re only seeing the tip, then the base is around the curve of the Earth somewhere and it could be 500 miles away. We don’t know enough about growth regulation to know how far we have to go, but we can see the peaks in the distance.

And then there’s the huge downside that people get hung up on stem cells, especially when they’re from an embryo. So let’s just dive right into that issue, since it has to be addressed before anything else can be done.

[Fair warning: this is a long post…] Read more »

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