Saturday, December 21, 2013

Who Needs Christ in Christmas?

This is the question of a sign in Times Square, sponsored by American Atheists. President David Silverman has appeared on several news shows to defend the sign. He maintains that the idea behind the sign is not an attack on Christianity, that he is improving Christmas, and that nobody believes in Jesus anyway and Christians all hate going to church so they should do something else on December 25.

I find myself more disturbed as a human being than a Christian by Mr Silverman's attitude, and his sign. After all, Christianity has been under attack since it started. Our saviour, Jesus Christ, the son of God, was nailed to a cross. You can't get much more rejection than that. And while Christianity, like every other religion in the world, has been guilty of oppression and persecution, I suspect that most Christians are like most Muslims, or Jews, or pagans, or members of any other faith system. I believe that most of us just want to live our lives in accordance with our beliefs and we don't want to hurt anybody.

I now believe this is true of atheists, despite the sign. I admit I had fallen into the error of thinking that all atheists were hateful people who only wanted to attack people of faith. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the woman who had prayer banned in schools, founded American Atheists, and I thought she was a typical example of an atheist. But then I saw that sign on the news, and I heard David Silverman defending it in such hurtful terms, and I began to wonder-can all atheists really be this obnoxious? So I went looking.

I went to the American Atheist website, and a few other atheist websites, and I looked for some blog posts, and what I found was that a number of atheists are not happy with the sign either. One atheist put it very well-a statement of belief should not be depending on a negative. In other words, you wouldn't expect to see a sign that said Happy Hanukkah-Jesus is not the Messiah. Hanukkah, like Christmas, like Ramadan, is about affirming a personal belief system. You don't affirm yourself by attacking someone else. So I was pleased to see that so many atheists feel that the sign is a bad idea, that it is indeed an attack on Christmas and on Christians, and that their viewpoint would be better served by expressing it in a positive way, without leaning on attacking another belief system.

I am reminded of Isaac Asimov, atheist, humanist, and creator of the Zeroth Law. He started out with Three Laws of Robotics. 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. Later, he added a fourth law that took precedence over the others-that a robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. This was the Zeroth Law. And it's easy to see, with these laws, that while every major religion has some version of the Golden Rule, this is not a religious or even a spiritual rule. This is a basic rule of decency and humanity that can even apply to robots. I also like Rabbi Hillel's thinking, that what you don't want done to you, don't do to others. It's not a complete blueprint for harmonious living, but it is a good place to start.

So to answer the question of the sign in Times Square, Christians need Christ in Christmas. Jews need menorahs, Muslims need Mecca, pagans and Wiccans and Buddhists and Hindus and even atheists all need what affirms their basic belief systems. For a sign to say that not everybody needs Christ in Christmas would be acceptable. Some people don't believe in Jesus, they want nothing to do with Him, and Christmas is a pervasive Christian holiday that must leave every non-Christian feeling a little left out. I get that, and a sign that reminds people they can have fun at Christmas even if they are not Christians might not be a bad idea. A sign that arrogantly asserts that no person anywhere who professes the Christian faith needs Christ is completely unacceptable. It's unacceptable as an attack on Christianity and Christians. But even more, it's unacceptable as a violation of the Golden Rule. I don't think Mr Silverman has treated others as he would like to be treated, I think he has done something to others that he would not want done to himself, and I believe he has given atheists another boost in negative perception by the public. In any case, I am a Christian who needs Jesus. I love Him, I have accepted Him as my saviour, and my dearest hope is to be with Him one day in Paradise. I am not alone in this feeling, yet even if I were, my one spark of faith would outshine the sign in Times Square and negate its message that nobody needs Christ in Christmas.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Race and Intention

I recently participated in a discussion at an on-line forum about race in America and one of the things that came up was intention. One of the posters brought up an incident where some American Indian women were talking about a play they wanted to see. They were worried they might not get tickets and joked they would have to roll someone for them. The poster joked they could go to a ticket scalper. Well, the Indians got completely offended at the use of the word "scalping." That's bad enough-it's in the dictionary as a verb to resell at a price higher than the established value, and it's a common word used wherever tickets are sold. It's perhaps not surprising the women took offense, because that's what people do nowadays. They take offense. And if there's no legitimate reason to be offended, they will make up a reason to be offended.

What bothered me was the poster feeling that she had done something wrong. Now, it's an old saying, going back to Cervantes' novel Don Quixote, that you don't talk about rope in the house of a man who has been hanged. It's not like being sensitive to the feelings of others was invented by the politically correct of the twentieth century. And I could understand, if the women had been convicted and served time at some point in their lives of scalping someone. Then, certainly, it would be more polite and thoughtful and kind not to bring up that word, even in casual conversation about tickets to a play. This was not the case, however. It was just a matter of "We're Indians and how dare you bring up the word scalping!" I found myself wondering how far these ladies take their prejudice. If they go to the doctor for a scalp problem, does he have to refrain from using the word "scalp?" I study herbs, and people have asked me for recommendations for, among other things, head lice. I've asked them about the condition of their scalp before telling them about herbs they could try. Should I now ask, "Are you an Indian, or whatever politically correct term you prefer for that particular heritage?" And if they say yes, should I find another word for scalp? doesn't seem to have any words to substitute for the skin on top of the head where the hair grows. I suppose I could say all that, or maybe just point. It makes my head swim.

Anyway, the point was made that, if one is white, one must be sensitive to the history of the person one is speaking to, as long as that person is a member of a minority group. One must be aware, as a white person who has a lot of privilege that was not earned, that it's important to realize that person might take something wrong, regardless of intent. And this bothered me the most of all. I'm a white person. I'm also a Cajun. My grandmother had a little farm down in Louisiana, she didn't speak English, and she was illiterate. This was back before people decided Cajuns were cool and my family were subjected to abuse on the grounds that they were "yellow-bellied Frenchmen," among other things. My grandmother lost her husband in World War II, and as an illiterate non-English speaking member of a despised minority group, she was unable to get any of the benefits she was entitled to from the government for her husband's death while serving overseas. She just couldn't navigate the system, there was no one to help her, and so she had to do without and raise her children alone as best she could. They did live on a farm, so they could grow a lot of their own food, and my grandmother was a good shot and went out hunting to put meat on the table. But my mother quit school in the eighth grade to go to work and help my grandmother make ends meet. And my mother and father had a pretty tough time financially because one of my sisters had a severe medical problem that ate up the money as fast as they could make it. So I may be white, but I come from a disadvantaged background. I didn't have "privileges" or a lot of extras. My parents could barely manage the basics. And I had to work for everything I have. Do I have the right to be offended that I am lumped in with the privileged upper crust, just on the basis of my race, which has never done a thing for me?

Sure, I have a right to be offended by the standards of today, where intention doesn't matter, and offense is not in the words of the speaker but the ears of the listener. I refuse to be offended, however. I simply refuse to take the attitude that somebody has done something wrong by saying something that upset me. If I get upset about something, that's on me, not on them, unless they deliberately say something to try to hurt my feelings. How often does that actually happen, though? I've had to deal with rude sales clerks of a different race, I've been hassled by cops of a different race. Were they trying to pick on a white person? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they were having a bad day and they just weren't acting the way they normally would. Or maybe they were just obnoxious people who treat everyone badly. Isn't it better to give people the benefit of the doubt when it's not clear they are doing something deliberately because of race or gender or whatever? I think so. I think Harriet Beecher Stowe was correct when she said, "There is one thing that every individual can do-they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?"

This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Like a lot of people, I wonder what the man who dreamed of a world where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, would make of a world where a rodeo clown is castigated for mocking the President. Mocking the President has been a staple of rodeo clown routines for decades and the only reason this particular clown is in trouble is because the President is black. What would Dr. King think of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright? Would he remind us of Booker T. Washington's warning, "I'm afraid there is a certain class of race problem solvers who don't want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public." Whatever Dr. King would make of today's world, I don't think he would believe, or advance, the idea that a well-meaning person should have to censor every word they say lest someone somewhere be offended for some reason. We should all be kind to others, and thoughtful and sensitive. But I greatly fear that in today's climate, the only way to avoid giving offense is never to say anything to anyone. And if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that Dr. King would not believe in silencing a portion of the population. I think he would tell us that we should all, regardless of our physical attributes, strive to be kind to each other and not look for offense where none is intended. And I think that's something we can all work on every day and if we did, we might just find the world a better place.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Change is good, right?

Anybody who reads this blog will not be surprised to hear me say I'm a little suspicious of technology. It's not that I don't like technology, mind you. Obviously I've written this blog on a computer and posted it to the Internet. I don't have anything against technology, as such. It's just that there's so much of it, and there's always something newer and shinier than what I have, and the people selling the newer shinier toy are always so enthusiastic about it until you buy it, after which you get relegated to customer service with someone who doesn't speak your language.

So I'm a little suspicious of it all, and I tend to hold onto things. I had my last cell phone for six years. It was a cute little red clamshell phone that could make a phone call, and it had a calendar and a section for notes. After I put a card game on it, it was just about perfect for me. Sadly, the phone finally broke and I had to replace it. I had been eyeing my son's smart phone for a while and borrowing it to play tangrams, a Chinese puzzle of seven pieces that can be used to form over one thousand different patterns. Totally addictive, but I couldn't get a tangram game on my old phone. You need a touch screen.

Now, if there's anything I hate, it's a touch screen. Touch screens get fingerprints. My son bought me a Kindle, over my strong protests, and I wound up liking it very much, but I refused to even consider a touch screen. I wanted the one with buttons. What do I care if my students in elementary school say it's a fake Kindle because there's no color and sound like a Kindle Fire? It has buttons, and that's good enough for me. But tangrams are totally addictive, and with the lure of putting a tangram game on the phone, I opted for a smart phone.

So there we were, in the store, and I asked for the dumbest smart phone. Really. I know there are phones that do everything but walk the dog, but I just couldn't go from a cute little red clamshell to a superphone. I was willing to get a phone with a touch screen-that was enough for one decade. My son bought me a Go phone. Did I say the touch screen smart phone was enough for one decade? While we were in the store, the salesman tried to talk my son into switching from Cox to Uverse. It was a good deal-fifty dollars less a month, three hundred dollars to switch, and a bazillion channels to choose from. Well, when you're willing to say goodbye to the clamshell and hello to the touch screen, I guess you get a little crazy, so we went with Uverse.

It hasn't been easy. True, the phone has tangrams. It also has a Kindle app, which lets me read my books on the phone, and it has a music player, so I can download all those old songs from people no one has ever heard of, like Glenn Miller and Jimmy Durante and Frank Sinatra. It has a radio, and a button I can push to see the weather for the next week. It's not any more accurate on the phone than it is on the news, but it's pretty cool to push a button and see what the phone imagines the weather is going to be like. It's also got a nice little camera and I can even record a video. The phone is fun, when it works.

There have been growing pains. I accidentally deleted all the music at one point. Don't ask me how-I must have pushed a wrong button somewhere. And the music downloader doesn't always cooperate. This morning I had to cancel a download, kill the task, force stop the app, power off the phone, and take out the battery to get a download to stop. It seemed advisable to stop it, since the phone was heating up, the battery was draining, and the song wasn't downloading. My son just nodded sagely and said that happens to his phone sometimes. Why don't they warn people about these things?

Then there's the TV. We have hundreds more channels, we can set things to record, we can even pause a broadcast, which is all great when the TV turns on. For some reason it takes three remotes to turn on the TV now, and if you hit the wrong button, it will just sit there, stubbornly telling you it has no signal. I don't really miss the TV we had when I was a little girl-the one that only had seven channels and had to be turned on fifteen minutes before the program so it could warm up. But those were the days-it only had one cord that plugged into the wall, and while you had to change the channel by hand, at least you could get a channel. You might have to adjust the rabbit ears on top of the set, but it didn't tell you there was no signal if it wasn't working. It just stayed black-it didn't sneer at you.

I think I know how to turn on the TV and turn off an app well enough now to be confident that I can watch a show and make a call without trauma, but this has been some learning curve. My students keep wanting to look at the phone because they can't believe I got a smart phone. One of the teachers said I no longer look like an old lady, now that I've joined the 21st century. My son has a new hobby-showing me all the wonderful things the TV can do now with its three remotes. The only downside is the fingerprints. I have to keep polishing the fingerprints off the touch screen. As a matter of fact, I think I'll go do that now.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Political Correctness and Crushable Adults

I saw a bumper sticker recently on a car that proclaimed Baby On Board and I've been pondering it for several days now. What exactly is the driver trying to say? That because they are transporting a baby, drivers should be careful not to smash into their vehicle? And is the implication that adults not carrying children in the car are expendable? I find myself wondering if perhaps it would be better to just remember that all moving vehicles have precious human lives on board.

This seems to be the latest incarnation of political correctness-the ugly attitude that some humans are more valuable than others. The corollary that follows from making one kind of person more valuable is that people who are not in that group are less valuable. With all the concern for more courteous discourse in America, I would think that making some people less valuable than others would be a problem.

Look at the latest idea being advanced in public schools-that students should be taught to respect the LGBT community. On the surface, that sounds like a great idea. No one should be bullied because of their orientation. Certainly I don't think any fault could be found with teaching that the word "gay" should not be used as an insult. But wouldn't it be more productive to have zero tolerance for bullying of ANY students, regardless of their orientation? If LGBT students are accorded extra rights and protections, does that make the heterosexual students more acceptable to bully? What about tall kids, short kids, kids who climb on rocks, fat kids, skinny kids, and even kids with chicken pox? If we teach children that one group is off-limits, does that send a message that anyone not in that group is fair game? It could be possible that the youth of today would be better served by the simple idea, consistently enforced, that all people are of equal value and that bullying any of them will not be tolerated. It would certainly save time in the classroom, time that could be put to use teaching children to read and write and do arithmetic. And it would give them a rule that is a lot easier to remember than trying to keep track of all the "special" groups they are supposed to be extra-sensitive to.

Come to think of it, looking at how gay marriage is up before the Supreme Court, what if we were to advance the idea that marriage is simply a contract entered into between two sane adults? Just take the government AND the church out of the equation as far as defining marriage goes, have a civil ceremony that allows couples in any state of the union to enter into a contract according them the benefits and responsibilities traditionally accorded marriage, and leave it at that. If they want to get married in a church, let them. If some couples want to call their marriages "traditional" or "Biblical" that would be okay too. After all, there was a time that marriage was not regulated by the government. The institution of marriage pre-dates recorded history, and exactly what constitutes a marriage has as many different definitions as there have been cultures to define it. Some cultures allow a man to have more than one wife, or more rarely, a woman to have more than one husband. Other cultures insist on monogamy being the cornerstone of marriage. The ancient Greeks didn't even have a specific ceremony for marriage-just a verbal agreement between the two parties. In Britain, marriage wasn't regulated until the Marriage Acts of 1754 and 1835. And in America, common-law unions have always been recognized as a sort of marriage, with some of the obligations and benefits of marriage being held by each person. Think of all the time and energy we could save, not to mention the animus we could defuse, by making marriage a simple contract between two people and not concerning ourselves with what orientation or sex the people were.

I often think of an article I read a number of years ago, written by a blind woman whose name I do not remember. What I do recall, vividly, is her musing about how she was born blind, then she was called handicapped, then disabled, and finally visually challenged, yet no matter what term was used to describe her condition, she still couldn't see. Does language really control our thought to this extent? Or is it possible that we've tried to control our language to the point where it's difficult to think? It would seem so. In February, 1999, Amelia Rideau, an English major, complained that a professor used the word "niggardly" while discussing Chaucer. It's an archaic word, it hasn't been in general use for at least a hundred years, and it does sound too close to the N-word to be appropriate in general conversation. However, one expects better thinking skills from a university student in a class about Chaucer. One would not expect the student to tell the professor that she was offended by this word, which she should know, or be willing to learn, has nothing to do with the N-word and was in common usage in England at the time Chaucer was writing. This story had a happy ending-the student's complaint was intended to support the school's speech code, but wound up destroying it. An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal thanked Miss Rideau for clarifying precisely why speech codes have a chilling effect on academic freedom by reinforcing defensiveness among students who ought to be more open to learning.

The Wisconsin incident is just one example of how people are looking for reasons to be offended. The right to be offended seems to be the most sacred cow of political correctness, and it seems to be a given that the offended is never misunderstanding what was said, or taking it out of context, or just plain wrong. Nor is it in good taste to ponder whether the offended is acting under some personal or political agenda. All that counts is that something has been said that someone found offensive, and whoever spoke is automatically guilty. A real offense and an imaginary offense become virtually indistinguishable under these criteria. Wasn't this how the Salem witch trials were run? Accusations, no matter how wild, being taken as solid evidence of egregious offenses? I seem to recall this being the case, and that this event in our history had sad consequences for all involved and left a legacy of shame in its wake.

Amelia Rideau is an old story but current examples of the chilling effect of political correctness are readily available. This week, Dr Ben Carson, a noted pediatric neurosurgeon, became the subject of a petition to remove him as the commencement speaker to the graduating class of 2013 at Johns Hopkins. Why don't the students want him? Well, he questioned Obamacare and progressive taxation and said that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. He also said that no group, be they gays, members of NAMBLA, or practicing beastiality, should expand marriage rights. Were his examples troubling? Perhaps. If they were, people should have been troubled when the references to NAMBLA and beastiality were first raised by Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. But then Sotomayor is not held to the same standard as Carson-she's a liberal and in the hall of political correctness, free speech is acceptable coming from liberals, much like when Nina Totenberg made her infamous remark about how Jesse Helms should get AIDS.

It may be that we can learn to be kind towards one another without having to walk on eggshells, and that we can foster intelligent discussion without being worried that every word is being weighed and measured on a scale that could only make sense to a listener who is looking for trouble. It may be that pigs will fly-the one seems as likely as the other. Like most people these days, I am careful about what I say, but eternal optimist that I am, I continue to hope that when I open my mouth, I will not encounter someone who is determined to accuse me of putting my foot in it. And that I won't be seen as crushable.