Thursday, December 3, 2015

Counting Violence

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Okay, I'll preface this post with a disclaimer that the entire point of this is in no way related to the morality of violence or gun violence in any way shape or form. I felt like the vast majority of people who would read these comments would not be able to examine it from the realm of academic inquiry that I'm trying to present it from, and, frankly, that was a debate that I didn't want to have with many of the people on my page at this time.

As you may be aware, I'm actively working on my dissertation. Part of my dissertation involves the analysis of crime data, particularly as it relates to high school neighborhoods. But, it does particularly focus on violent crime. As a result, I've learned quite a lot of how violent crime is classified, categorized and reported over the last few years.

I read this article yesterday:
The title struck me immediately as sensationalized garbage. 355 Mass Shootings this year? How can that be?

The problem is that there is a bit of Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon going on. For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, it's what happens when you buy a new type of car, and then suddenly, you see THAT car everywhere. It's not that a bunch of other people rushed out and bought that same car. It's been there the whole time. The difference is that now you're used to what that car looks like - its part of your schema (the way your brain interprets information subconsciously) so you start to see it everywhere. (This is also the case when a new disease is suddenly's not necessarily more prevalent, but our familiarity with it allows us to spot it more, but I digress).

All of the crime in the United States is reported back to the FBI. No, scratch that. All of the crime from the major metropolitan cities is reported back to the FBI. Small towns like Gila Bend or Podunkville, don't usually make it into the database. The data is collected, analyzed and reported on each year in a source called the Uniform Crime Report. One of the things that comes up is the question "if people from different cities are reporting the crime to the FBI, how do you get them to report it consistently?" It's a valid question. There's a huge Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook ( that breaks down every possible crime into different categories and classifications, and even "intensities". Suppose that a criminal stole something at knife-point (burglary), got into a knife fight (aggravated assault), then stole a car (grand theft auto), and then ran over a mailbox (property crimes) all in the same incident. You know, because criminals only limit themselves to one type of crime, right? The handbook includes a complex algorithm to report these crimes accordingly and consistently. In this particular case, Armed robbery would be the most heinous of these crimes, so the entire incident would be coded as that. Unless of course the perpetrator killed his attacker, then it would be coded as a homicide.

Now, that brings me back to this Washington Post article. 355 Mass Shootings? Really? Looking at the data, the media is getting this information from Reddit. That's right. Not the FBI. Not Homeland Security, DHS, or any other federal agency charged with our protection and safekeeping, but rather internet users on a chat board. Why is this important? Because it means that Reddit users are defining a "mass shooting" differently than the FBI, and as a result of this different definition, they have different numbers....very different numbers.

The Reddit Group defines a "Mass Shooting" as a single incident where a bullet strikes more than 4 people, including the shooter. So, if a shooter shoots three people in the leg and then shoots himself in the arm, then that gets counted by the Reddit Group and viola, another mass shooting.

The FBI, on the other hand, is much more stringent about how they define "Mass Shooting". For one thing, the FBI does not count domestic violence as a "Mass Shooting". That's a different type of crime that has a different type of personality and different reasoning behind it. Behavioral Analysis of these perpetrators reveal a vastly different profile than other mass shooters, so it's scored differently. Also, Gang Violence is not included in the FBI's count. So if there are two street gangs that have a beef over some turf, maybe MS13 is throwing down against some Bloods in south LA and they shoot each other up, that's not counted as a "mass shooting" by the FBI, because, again, behaviorally, it's a different profile, with different motivating factors and different outcomes and prevention. The FBI only defines a "mass shooting" as an incident were 4 or more people are killed, particularly by a shooter who has no connection to them and is targeting unarmed people with the intent to kill them.

The Washington Post article cites "Another mass shooting" in GA earlier yesterday. In it, 1 person was killed and 3 more were injured. That meets the Reddit Group's criteria for "Mass Shooting", but not the FBI's definition. See where I'm going with this? The FBI isn't counting that, but the Reddit Group is. This creates a huge difference in numbers.

To take an example, let's examine the numbers from 2013. According to the FBI's data there were 17 separate incidents that left 44 people dead and 42 people wounded. According to the Reddit Group for that same year, there were 363 events, 502 deaths, and 1,266 wounded. This is a huge discrepancy. One that, seemingly, over-inflates the severity of gun violence.

There are also reports that the US has more "mass shootings" than any other country in the world, but that's also a problem of definition. Many countries do not even have a formal definition of "mass shooting" and downplay the incidents. Also, even in countries where firearms are banned, such as China, there are still mass assaults and mass murders, but because no firearm is used, they can't be included, which automatically makes that statement true. It's the old "Audio Express" logic. "No one installs more car stereos for $1 than Audio Express". Well, considering that every other company either does it for free or charges more than a $1, then the statement is automatically true regardless of how many stereos they actually install.

According to the FBI's data, Violent Crimes in general (all types, including shootings), are going down:
In fact, all crime, across the board, is declining:
This table, from the UCR, shows that since 1994, all crime, in every category, including gun violence, has been steadily and significantly trending down.

And yet the media latches on to data compiled by the Reddit as their source for their statistics and people are up in arms over it. There is a definite discrepancy in the data. The FBI's data says the problem is getting better. The media's data says the problem is getting worse. Both sets of data cannot be right. In this particular case, since the FBI has had a longer track record of tracking this data more consistently than any other group, and they are the one's responsible for national security of this type, I'm going to look to their data and take it as being more credible first.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Of Apparent Truths...

[Johnathan Clayborn]

More and more I am beginning to realize that not everything that can be considered "truth" can be measured empirically. Often we write our own truths via our perceptions. Other times, we allow ourselves to be fooled by things that sound logical on the surface. A clever story can appear truthful on the surface, even if it is entirely inaccurate. I came across an example of this earlier this week that I will share here, during which time I will break it down and explain how this story, which appears to make logical sense, is largely inaccurate.

The story starts with a preface:
This is soooo interesting!! Totally feeling pretty blessed right now and not "piss poor"!

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot & then once a day it was taken & Sold to the tannery.......if you had to do this to survive you were "Piss Poor"
But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn't even afford to buy a pot......they "didn't have a pot to piss in" & were the lowest of the low. The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be.

In this first part the author of this tall tale begins with an element of truth; yes, tanners in the ancient world did use urine during the tanning process, particularly in Ancient Rome. This practice was well documented. However, this is not where the term "piss-poor" comes from. According to the Etymology Dictionary the term "piss" as an amplifier dates from WWII. And, in this particular case "poor" wasn't a reference to their financial status, but rather the quality of their work; ie: a Piss-poor mechanic. The first example of such is from 1940: Piss-rotten. The first recorded instance of Piss-poor comes from 1946. And while "didn’t have a pot to piss in" is an idiomatic expression which portrays destitution, it is also not from the 1500's. It first appeared in print in "Nightwood" by Djuna Barnes, which was published in 1936. The story goes on...

Here are some facts about the 1500s:
Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June.. However, since they were starting to smell . ...... . Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting Married.

Brides carrying flowers had nothing to do with their use as an air freshener. Flowers were symbols of fertility and feminism and it was believed that carrying flowers on their wedding day would bring a couple luck in conception. Also, bathing once per year was wrong. The lower class people did not bathe at all, for fear that the bath water would widen their pores and expose them to terrible diseases. The upper class people did tend to bathe, but they did so a handful of times each year, and certainly not on any set schedule.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the Bath water!"

This is also incorrect. In many medieval cities there were public bath houses, which were common features since the Greco-Roman times. Aristocratic nobles who had a private bath often had a tub that was made from copper, bronze, or stone, so picking it up to dump it out would have been, for all intents and purposes, impossible. There was no modern plumbing during the 1500s, so filling up an entire tub with enough water to bathe an adult would have been a feat in and of itself, let alone the feat of engineering that would have been required to heat that amount of water. Poor people who did bathe and did not have access to a bath house typically just bathed in the local steam or pond. Now, to be fair, the phrase "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" first appeared in 1512 in Germany. It was written by Thomas Murner in the book Narrenbeschw√∂rung (Appeal to Fools). Scholars question the intent of this expression since the work in which it appears is satirical in nature. In the accompanying woodcut illustration the bucket that the woman is holding is clearly not large enough for an adult, which would lend support to the idea that the author was using this expression in an allegorical manner.

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof... Hence the saying "It's raining cats and dogs."

Mice and bugs did, in fact, live in the straw thatched roof, that is certain. However, cats, and especially dogs, did not venture up there. The terms "raining cats and dogs" first appeared in the 17th century, not the 16th. There are number of theories about the meaning of this term, but the most widely accepted theory is that it is intended to evoke the image of a tumultuous engagement of a cat and dog fighting which the speaker is trying to equate the ferocity of the downpour to.

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.

Canopy beds actually existed prior to the 1500s. The first iterations of these beds were used by nobles and aristocrats for two pragmatic purposes. The original canopy beds also featured curtains around all four sides that could be drawn closed. The first purpose that this served was to afford the sleeper some privacy from any other people who may also be sleeping in the room. But, more importantly, there was a mini-ice age going on during the middle ages and this curtain system provided extra warmth. Keeping the sheets clean would have been an added benefit and a by-product of the first two issues, but this is ignoring the fact that most nobles who could have afforded canopy beds would also likely have had solid roofs with wooden shingles.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, "Dirt poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a thresh hold.

"Dirt Poor" is not even a British expression, it's an American one, so there's no way that it dates from the 16th Century. Dirt Poor comes from the American Great Depression and is in reference to the Dust Bowl.

Also, people didn't add "thresh" to their floors. They kept Rush on the floor. Rush is a type of long, flowering grass. In modern times some places, particularly parish churches, will perform acts known as "rushbearing", where rushes are gathered up and strewn on the floor. While the lower classes would have probably used loose rushes, most higher status houses would have been furnished with woven mats made of rush. The term "thresh" means, "to trample". The threshold is the first place that you step inside of the home. Presumably you would trample the rush on the floor, but thresh is a verb, not a noun, so a threshold isn't used for keeping "thresh" inside.

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme: Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old. 

Almost. Yes, most meals cooked in the pot were stew, and yes pease porridge could sit there for a couple of days, but often not more than 2 or 3 and only to improve the flavor. Peasants diets consisted of lots of breads and grains, including beer (beer was actually more sanitary than regular water). However, according to most accepted understanding of human development, such as that outlined by Professor Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, getting meat would not have been particularly difficult. Cows, Pigs, Chickens, and Sheep were among the first four animals domesticated for food. Even peasants would have had access to one of these on a pretty regular basis. Also, the leftover stew was often eaten for breakfast the next morning.

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, "bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.

As Dr. Diamond noted, pigs would have been quite commonplace among peasant villages. When pigs were slaughtered for food the meat was often smoked in order to keep it from spoiling, so smoked ham and bacon was a staple of their diet. The term "bring home the bacon" was coined in the United States circa 1906 with regards to boxing, specifically. The first recorded instance is in telegrams relating the 1906 fight between Joe Gans and Oliver Nelson, in which Gans "brought home the bacon".

"Chew the fat" wasn't recorded in print until the 19th century. There are many debates about the meaning and origin of the phrase, but the one thing is clear is that it did not originate in the 1500s.

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Not quite. Pewter could contribute to lead poisoning, but pewter was used for goblets, usually. Rich people had wooden plates, or sometimes stone plates. Poor people had plates made from bread called "trenchers". Regardless of the type of plate that they were eating on, they were not eating tomatoes as tomatoes are native to the Americas, not Europe. They could not have been in Europe until after Columbus returned from America with them. Europe was slow to adopt them mostly because they were unaccustomed to their taste and because they resembled other fruits that were known to be poisonous.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

One example from 1490 instructs people to "cut the upper crust of bread for your sovereign". However, most scholars agree that this was not a literal instruction, but rather an analogy to simply provide some of your food to your lord. The context in which it is presented here didn't come about until the 19th Century.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would Sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial.. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.

Wakes had little do with checking to see it people actually woke up, although that was one minor function. In most cases wakes served two purposes; pragmatically someone watched over the body to keep the vermin and small animals from feasting on it. Symbolically some religions, such as the Celts, believed that a spirit could only pass on to the afterlife in certain conditions; if there was a candle to light the way, if the window was open, etc. The Wake was intended to ensure that these conditions were met so that the soul could pass over. Although, more likely, these religious descriptions were adopted as an excuse for sitting there all night.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive... So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.

While there have been historical accounts of people being buried alive, it was certainly not as frequent as 1 in 25. And historically many graves were not dug up and reused. In ancient, pre-Christian England it was typical to burn the bodies of the dead rather than to bury them. This was common throughout most of the Celtic empire. There are many places in England with graves that still date back to before the 1500s. Although there were coffins with bells affixed to them out of fear of being buried alive, this happened during the 1800's at the peak of the cholera outbreak. These "safety coffins" featured bells described in the manner above, but they were not used in the 1500s.

"Saved by the bell" is actually an expression from boxing and refers to a fighter who is clearly about to lose, but the bell rings to end the round before his opponent can finish him off.

"Dead Ringer" comes from an 1888 newspaper article in the US in the Oshkosh Weekly. In the 1800's a "ringer" was a stand-in horse that was run in the place of another horse, or a horse that had its pedigree or name falsified. The "dead" part refers to a precise, absolute, or exact reckoning; Dead-ahead, dead right, dead on, etc. Thus, a "dead ringer" is a duplicate horse that looks like the original. Even the original article cites it in this context: “Dat ar is a markable semlance be shoo”, said Hart looking critically at the picture. “Dat’s a dead ringer fo me. I nebber done see such a semblence."

The graveyard shift is also not from the 1500s. It dates from the 19th Century as well. In 1895, the May 15th, New Albany Evening Tribune has a story about coal mining that features the expression; “It was dismal enough to be on the graveyard shift…” The most popular accounting of this expression is from the sea. According to Gershom Bradford in A Glossary of Sea Terms (1927), the watch from Midnight to 4am was called that “because of the number of disasters that occur at this time,” but another source attributes the term to the silence throughout the ship.

And that's the truth....Now, whoever said History was boring?
History is indeed interesting, but there's no reason to make up stories about it. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

On Racism and White Privilege

[Johnathan Clayborn]

I will preface this by saying that this one is going to be rather long, because I'm pretty worked up about this issue, but it should be worth the read.

Just yesterday I was discussing the recent bouts of protests in Baltimore, Maryland that were sparked by the tragic death of young Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. Some ignorant, narrow minded racist actually had the nerve to sit there and call me racist, which was met with applause by his group-think companions. Even though this person did not know me, and was clearly incapable of grasping any of my comments with any ounce of understanding or comprehension, this still bothered me, so much so that I swore off even commenting about politics or religion or equality on Facebook.

To any of my friends who know me personally, they recognize that there's not a racist bone in my body. I may be a great many things; I may be naive at times, I may be idealistic, I may be a hopeful dreamer of a Utopian future that will likely never come, and I am definitely overly analytical and highly logical in my thoughts, but I'm not racist.

So why was I called a racist? Because I actually proposed that people be treated equally and fairly and that the color of your skin should not, under any circumstances, play a factor in deciding who is awarded benefits or opportunities. I stated that the fact the job applications and college admission applications even have a race field seems like a sad, sad commentary on how far we still have yet to progress. You are either qualified for the job, or you are not. You are either capable of academic success, or you are not. The color of your skin plays absolutely no bearing on how you perform either of these functions. But to suggest that people be judged as individuals based on their own personal merits and abilities rather than skin tone is, apparently, racist.

A lot of people are upset, rightfully so, about the excessive use of force by police and the shootings of unarmed civilians. The media and society is generally far more upset when the suspect who was shot is black. Curious about this, I actually went a looked this up. According to the CDC WISQARS database on injury mortality reports there are some interesting values to be considered. When pulling the data from the database I examined "legal intervention" as the cause of death. This is their way of saying "police caused". I also looked at data for both genders for ages between 15 and 50. The breakdown of the results of that search are below:
It might not be noticeable right away, but the table tells an interesting story. If you look at it strictly in terms of number of total deaths, numerically, then it shows that police kill  white people more than twice as often as blacks. Some people would argue, where's the bias there? However, if you evaluate the number of deaths as compared to their percentage of the total population (the total number of available victims possible), then the data tells the opposite story; blacks are killed at twice the rates of whites. All of this will inevitably, invariably turn into an argument between two sides; blacks are killed more because they commit more crime, which will be counter-argued with blacks commit more crime because the police target them and profile them and racially discriminate. Which group is right? I don't know, I honestly have no idea Realistically, it's probably somewhere in the middle. But, it's completely irrelevant. How can I say that? I'm a racist asshole, remember? No, really I'm not. The point of the protesting is that police brutality and unnecessary use of police force is an epidemic problem. As the data on this chart shows, it's a problem that affects everyone. I had suggested that they stop using the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter and instead use the hashtag #Allivesmatter. That's also, apparently, racist thinking. 

When one considers the main crux of the argument, and the points of the riots, it's that police treat people unfairly. Ancient wisdom tells us that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. By using hashtags that turn the issue of police brutality into a racial issue, then it tears apart and divides any real traction that the movement might have before it even begins. Ancient Chinese wisdoms taught by Sun Tsu in the Art of War explain strength and unity. If you pick up sticks one by one you can break them easily. If you pick up a bunch of sticks and bundle them together, they cannot easily be broken in half. This same logic applies to social change and social reform. One unified voice all demanding the same change will get results. Divided voices are easily swatted down, broken, and quickly lose focus on exactly what it is that they want in the first place. Do they want Justice for Freddie Gray? Do they want an end to police brutality? Or do they want to change the paradigm of thought process? The answer is probably "all of the above", but prioritization must take place. 

All of these conversations brought up another point, one that I've argued against for some time; the idea of White Privilege. As a white male, I have not, at any point in my life received any sort of privilege simply for being white. My family doesn't have "connections". We don't have "family money". We don't own land. For generations we were poor farmers. I am moderately successful by most interpretations of that word, but I only got there through hard work and determination. I got there through working a full-time job and going to school at more than a full time rate. One person argued with me saying that where she was from in the south, all of her white friends were just handed jobs and that's how they succeeded, and that her family directly benefited from her being white. That's fine, for you, but it never benefited me in any way.

Here's the real root of the bigger issue though; Saying that White Privilege even exists is a racist ideology. I know, I know, I keep making outlandish "racist" claims, but here me out. The problem with thinking that there is even such a thing as White Privilege assumes that all white people are the same. Would it be fair to say that Native Americans are the same, or do they have unique and distinct cultural differences between their tribes? Would it be fair to assume that all Latinos are the same and that people from Puerto Rico had no differences when compared to people from Brazil and Chile? Would it be fair to assume that all Black people are the same and that people from Nigeria and Kenya are the same as people from Somalia? If the answer to these questions is no, which it is, why then is it okay to assume that all White people are the same?

The whole concept of White Privilege is that white people have a better socioeconomic disposition than Black people because they aren't discriminated against when looking for work or applying for school because they're white and society caters to whites. Within the broad spectrum of White cultures that make up the total overall White demographic, my particular culture that I identify with is Irish. Irish are probably, aside from the English, the epitome of "white". Then you have French, and Germans, and Italians, Russians, Polish, etc. I want you to consider these images here for a moment: 

Consider for a moment that Irish and Italian immigrants to the US were discriminated against. They were denied work. They were denied education. They were denied other benefits and opportunities in exactly the same way that people of color were denied to them. So what then, pray tell, would these people claim was the reason that they weren't successful? Are they going to claim White Privilege held them back also? That's crazy and it doesn't work because, oh wait, they are white. 

The whole point of this particular illustration is that just trying to say that people of color are underprivileged and it's due to White Privilege not only grossly oversimplifies the situation, but it actually completely detracts the conversation and shifts the focus away from the actual mechanisms that cause social injustice and inequality in the first place. Clearly not every black person is destitute, underprivileged nor a criminal. Clearly not every white person has doors and opportunities available to them simply because of the color of their skin. If you honestly believe that, then either you are totally ignorant of actual history within the United States, or you're harboring racist thoughts yourself. 

So what is racism anyway? Really, racism is the discrimination, mistreatment or abuse of another person or group of people due to the color of their skin or their ethnic origin. To combat racism there's another word that's thrown around a lot lately; equality. We talk about gender equality, we talk about racial equality, we talk about religious equality and social equality. But there's a problem with this: 

Everyone keeps talking about equality, but no one actually wants to be equal. I am very egalitarian in my worldviews and beliefs. I think that all things; rewards, opportunities, benefits, punishments, everything, should be decided equally, unilaterally, and fairly to every person without regard to race, religion, or socioeconomic status. Is that a realistic thought? Maybe not, but it's still how I think that the world should be run. 

As I had said to some of my friends discussing this issue; "you cannot create a racial construct as a response to a socially or institutionally racial issue and expect the underlying racism to be resolved". Case in point, consider this for a moment: If there was a scholarship for one group of people, but another group of people could not apply because of the color of their skin, would that be racist? Of course it would, right? So if there is a scholarship that was available only to white people and no people of color could apply, that would be racist, right? Of course. Well, what if it was a basketball scholarship because there aren't enough white basketball players? Still racist, right? So, why then is it okay to have scholarships for black people and other people of color where white people are not permitted to apply, but that's not racist? I'll tell you why, because it actually is racist. But, wait, Affirmative Action! That's nothing more than a bullshit excuse to exercise more racism because of racism. To those people of color who were discriminated against it might feel like vindication, but it's still racism at it's very core. 

The whole argument for Affirmative Action scholarships and programs in the first place is that people of color have been historically underprivileged socioeconomically and therefore had less access to money for healthcare and education. (We'll pretend that the Irish and Italians that were also discriminated against just got money from magic leprechauns for a moment). Going back to the logical, egalitarian way of thinking, financial aid should be awarded on the basis of need as the sole criteria. Race should never play a role in these kinds of decisions. So, if that is the case, and assuming that people of color are underprivileged, then by default they would also have the most need (because they make the least amount of money). And, because they had the most need, they would also, therefore, be pushed to the front of the line as an intrinsic result of their low socioeconomic status. The people who have the most need for the money are the ones who get it, period. Race need not be an issue. Creating special categories whereby certain races are excluded or prohibited from applying at all because of the color of their skin is the very definition of racism. If you can't see that, then you are a part of the problem. 

The issue of why certain populations are underprivileged is a complex issue that does not have a simple answer. Trying to summarize it as a race issue is not only ignorant of historical context or understanding of race, but it also does the entire conversation a disservice. How can you truly understand a problem and get to the real root of the situation if you enter into the conversation with an outlook that you already understand the problem and are closed off to hearing the viewpoints of others? I recently removed some people from my Facebook feed because I was tired of their racist dribble while they spouted that those people who didn't agree with them are racists. 

By continuing racist lines of thinking, such as white privilege, it further undermines their efforts to bring about meaningful social change. For example, by making this a racial issue, instead of simply a social issue, then it serves to alienate all of the other white people, like myself, who might be otherwise sympathetic to the plight of the underprivileged because they are or were underprivileged themselves. It's not a white vs black issue, it's much more complex than that. 

Some of the arguments that were thrown around were that the "power structure" of the country was skewed and that white privilege exists because white people have the power. Again, this is racist thinking and oversimplifies the issue. We've already established that it's racist to think of all Natives the same way, and that it's racist to think of all black people the same way. So which white people is it that have the power, exactly? It certainly isn't me. It's certainly not anyone that I personally know, either. This kind of thinking, that all white people are the same, creates additional problems that weren't there before in addition to everything else. 

I ask you all, if you truly want to understand the people around you, start looking past the end of your noses. Stop this racial nonsense and actually listen instead of pretending to know all of the answers. You've been discriminated against by those in power. That sucks. I would know because I have been too. But, rather than seeing myself and people like me as an ally, as a brother in the same boat of suffering, most people will instead downplay my personal successes and undermine me and lump me in with the same group of people that discriminated against me in the first place, all while calling me racist for thinking logically and rationally. 

The whole point of this rant is this; if you want to protest, that's your right, protest. If you want to speak out against the abuse of power and the social injustice that exists, that's great, I'm right there with you screaming for exactly those same things. I don't want to be abused by those in power. I don't want to be unfairly punished or rewarded for things I don't deserve or didn't do. But as soon as you start making it about the color of my skin or the color of your skin, then our common ground and our common goals dissolve away and become divided. So I ask you, if you are upset about Baltimore, if you are upset about unjust police brutality and unnecessary use of force, then what is it that you want? Do you want actual, meaningful social change, or do you just want to be right? 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

On Religious Freedom

[Johnathan Clayborn]

The internet, and the media in general, is buzzing with talk of Indiana and their passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, formally known as SB 568 (not to be confused with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993). As with many pieces of legislation this bill comes with very heated controversy from both sides of the fence. The reality is that this is very muddy water.

One of the first things that becomes clear is that proponents of the bill, and several media outlets, have suggested that Indiana's RFRA is similar to the federal act passed in 1993 and similar to those in 19 other states. In truth, this is not the case. While other states and the federal government do also have RFRA laws on the books, they are not the same. The biggest difference between the laws is that Indiana's law is much broader and would allow for blatant and widespread discrimination.

Under the provisions of the federal laws, and the laws in many other states, the RFRA could only be used as a defense against a lawsuit by specific people and organizations and within very specific contexts and applications. Under Indiana's version of the bills, those restrictions are removed and anyone is allowed to claim "religious freedom" under any context. Indiana's bill expressly allows for-profit businesses "the free exercise of religion", which is directly contrary to most other states RFRA bills which expressly exclude for-profit businesses from being permitted to exercise this defense.

Most other RFRA bills include verbiage that restricts the defense to actions brought about against an organization by the government. If the government files a lawsuit that says that you can't wear purple shirts to church on Sunday, then the organization can respond with an RFRA defense and argue that such a suit would violate their right to practice their religion. It's very specific in the context of when and how it can be used, and by whom. Indiana's bill opens this defense up for businesses to use in response to lawsuits filed by private citizens.

Let's recap; all other RFRA laws to date expressly forbid for-profit businesses from exercising RFRA as a defense against a lawsuit and confines it to churches and non-profit organizations, but Indiana's bill allows for anyone to use it. All other RFRA bills also limit the use of this defense to litigation brought to bear by the government, but Indiana's bill opens this up to allow for this defense to be used against everyone. These are major differences with far-reaching repercussions.

One particularly muddy consequence of this that will undoubtedly happen, is that this state's law violated federal laws that protect against hate crimes. Even if a person or a business in Indiana uses the RFRA as a defense in a lawsuit, they may still be found guilty of federal crimes for discrimination. This inevitability will almost certainly lead to renewed debates about how much power the federal government should be allowed to exercise over the states and private individuals. The US Supreme Court has not yet made a final ruling on the federal status of same-sex marriages nationally. The general expectation by most legal experts is that this conclusion is inevitable and only a matter of time before it happens. When that happens, if Indiana's bill remains in effect as-written, things will get very complicated.

Legal issues aside, depending on where one stands on the issue, this bill is viewed as either a sword or a shield that will either be used to attack a person's civil liberties, or protect them from unholy sinners. Already one pizzeria has used the RFRA as an excuse to refuse service to a same-sex couple who were trying to hire them to cater their wedding reception. As gay allies began lashing out at the pizzeria online, conservatives in support of the bill rallied to the pizzeria's defense by donating more than $300,000 to it for use in legal defense.

The major proponents of the bill, including some of the lawmakers who tweeted about it during it's passage through the system, are hard-line conservative Christians. They generally believe that the moral fiber of America is becoming degraded by sinners, such as gay couples, and that the homosexual population has a secret agenda to "make everyone okay" with their lifestyle.

Within the United States, the vast majority of people are Christian, according to self-reported studies by the US Census Bureau and Pew Reports. 16.1% of people are unaffiliated with any church (which includes 1.6% who are atheists and 2.4% who are agnostic, and 12.1% who are "spiritual"). 4.7% of the population is "other religions" (which includes 1.7% Jewish, 0.7% Buddhist, and 0.6% Muslim). The remaining 78% are Christian.

This is where is starts to get weird for me. 51.3% of the population are Protestant. 23.9% are Catholic. 1.7% are Mormon. The rest of Jehovah's Witness, Orthodox, or "other".  Although I identify as atheist in my adult life, I grew up in the Christian church. My family has been Protestant for about 10 generations or so that I know of.

Christians oppose this bill because they don't want to be associated with "gay sinners". My question is, which Christians? The United Methodist churches that I grew up in were very tolerant of basically everyone. The Ecumenical Catholic church accepts gays. As does the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Presbyterian Church, to name a few. The Baptists stoutly refute homosexuality in any way. And the Roman Catholic Church also views it as a "moral evil" and "contrary to the laws of nature"... unless it's a Catholic Priest who is partaking of homosexual behaviors with young boy. Yes, I know, I'm citing a stereotype and not all Catholic Priests are like that. I know that. But it's happened enough that it seems highly hypocritical for a Church to take a stance against homosexuality when that many of it's ordained leaders are in trouble for it. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But I'm sure the young children who were molested or forced into child prostitution by their priests felt that their fate was unfair.

As someone who grew up in the Christian church the one thing that I find ridiculous about this law is that I know that the Bible says "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7) (a concept also recognized in the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well). That being the case, by what right do any of these "Christians" have to judge anyone else? Isn't the nature and frequency of a person's sins between them and God directly? We all sin, we just sin differently. Where in the Bible does it say, "love thy neighbor, unless he sins differently than you do, in which case shun and reject him". I don't recall ever seeing that.

Even more importantly, if the laws like this are going to be brought into play to protect religious freedoms, my resounding question is which religion? Which specific flavor of Christianity is being catered to with the passage of this law when Christianity as a whole is, itself, divided on the issue of whether or not being homosexual is a sin? And what makes that specific church more important than another?

I am very egalitarian in my worldview. I think everyone should be treated equally and fairly and justly as often as is possible. It's unrealistic for me to think that everything will always be equal and fair, but that is my hope and vision for the human race. I could get into all of that for hours and hours, but I digress. I personally think that this bill is a mistake, a huge step backwards in civil liberties. However, if it is the will of the people that this law be passed, so be it. But, this law must be upheld unilaterally and uniformly across the board without question. If a "Christian" pizzeria wants to refuse service to a gay person because it's against their religion (and somehow they are personally in a position where God made them responsible for passing judgement on others), then a Muslim Grocery should also be able to refuse service to a Christian because he doesn't pray to the East. A Jewish Accountant should be able to refuse service to a Christian because he doesn't wear a Kipah. An Atheist should be able to refuse service to a Christian because they believe in God in the first place. If this doesn't happen, then it's immediately clear that this bill is just a clearly veiled excuse to exercise hatred and bigotry.

No one is saying that you have to be accepting of "homos". Their sexuality is not your concern. Their sins are not your concern, that's between them and God, it's not for you to judge. What proponents of this bill fail to see is that this bill, if applied equally and justly across the board, becomes a double-edged sword that serves no purpose other than to leave everyone bleeding and once unsheathed, it's difficult to put back without causing injury to each other. I'm pretty sure that God, however you may believe in him, would not want his followers to go around deliberately hurting other human beings. As an atheist, I certainly don't want to hurt anyone, especially not deliberately. And if your God demands that you discriminate and hate and hurt others on purpose, then that just reinforces my decision that I don't want anything to do with your God.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Just Google It...

[Johnathan Clayborn]

This particular post is part rant, part plea with people who have half a brain. I have seen a growing trend on the internet....or perhaps I'm experience Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon and I'm just noticing it more. In either case, the behavior perplexes me and I don't understand it.

If you've ever read my my blog before you will know that I enjoy having intelligent discussions with people who disagree with me because I am always secretly hoping that people can provide me with new information that I had not considered before.

The infuriating trend that I'm noticing of late goes something like this. I engage in a conversation about a topic. Someone else makes a general claim opposing my position about said topic. I am genuinely interested in how they arrived at their conclusion, so I ask them what information they read to arrive at their conclusion and they reply with "just Google it".  This is infuriatingly maddening.

Any Google search that I do would have presented me with information that I would have already considered when taking my original position. But, we don't all use Google the same way. For example; I might have searched "photo-voltaic architectural constructs whose primary purpose is the dissemination and distribution of vehicular traffic", but someone else might have searched for "Solar Roadways". Because the information that I get from Google is limited exclusively to my worldview, lived experiences, and vocabulary, it's always a possibility that I missed something when I looked in the first place. Hence the reason I enjoy engaging in discussions with people who do disagree with me. They have different experiences and knowledge and their Google searches would, probably, yield some different results based on their search criteria.

One of the claims made by the people who use this defense is "I don't feel like doing the research for you". This is a bullshit cop out. For one thing posting a link to a resource in a comment is not even remotely close doing the research. The article still has to be read, validating, synthesized, etc. If you are one of the people doing this, stop. You might think that it makes you seem smart, but it doesn't. In fact, it has the opposite effect; it makes you look lazy and stupid. It makes you look like you are afraid to cite your sources because you are afraid of being called out on bullshit.

If we are going to ever have a serious conversation about anything online you must at least be able to cite your sources. If you are confident in your beliefs, then back them up. If you generally want to actually try learn something, cite your sources. Telling people something and then not providing any examples or references to cite your sources makes you an intellectual coward. The person that I was engaged in conversion with today responded by essentially telling me to go to hell because I asserted that he was not capable of doing research due to his inability to provide a source. The funniest part of all of it is that at the beginning of our conversation I thought Solar Roadways might be a feasible idea in the long-term and he asserted his opinion that it was not feasible. I now actually believe that it is not feasible or possible, but only because other friends in my circles stepped up and shared their sources and provided information that I had not seen before. I am not afraid to change my position based on new evidence that comes to light. I am not afraid of making a mistake in my initial analysis because I approach things logically and consider new facts as they are presented. Those who have the intellectual prowess to analyze things cognitively and rationally generally don't have this issue. People who lack the wherewithal to engage in cognitive analysis, in my experience, generally tend to cop out and make excuses. They make wild claims and then refuse to back them up. They don't come across as intelligent, they come across as ignorant, and sometimes a touch crazy. Don't be that person. Seriously, share your sources. Learn something from each other.

Friday, January 30, 2015

On Bullying

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Sometimes I get emails from to my inbox. Some of them I sign, others I laugh at. Today I've received one on an issue that honestly has me torn: bullying. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating bullying, not at all. I'm not convinced that our approach is handling bullying is the right way to go.

This particular article started with a tale of woe about a 14 year school girl who was bullied at school and online and then, tragically, took her own life. The girl's mother pushed to have legislation enacted that would keep bullying out of schools. The petition was sent out to stop SB-500, which basically states that the schools would not be allowed to initiate disciplinary action against students who cyber-bullied other students on the grounds that the school doesn't have the authority to control children on the nights and weekends and that the school is not the police department.

Obviously, bullying sucks. Anyone who's ever been bullied knows that. So, on the one hand, I totally relate and have empathy for these kids. But I'm torn because I don't think that pretending that bullying doesn't exist is the right approach. Okay, so you've effectively put up a wall of make-believe at school and made the students stop picking on each other, great. What's going to happen when those students go to work and find themselves working with coworkers, or even for a boss who is a bully? What if the HR person is a bully? (Yes, that happens, while I never was the target of that, I have personally seen it). It seems to me that instead of trying with futility to change the whole of human behavior, we should be teaching children how to respond to bullying. I suppose it's possible (but I think highly unlikely) that they might teach kids not to bully other kids and that once they are out of school those kids will suddenly all just become nice people, but what happens when those people interact with people from other countries where bullying isn't outlawed? They will literally have no skills to handle such a situation. I don't see how that is helping. We don't tell our kids "Hey, bicycles are dangerous and you might fall down and get hurt so we're going to put a ban on bicycles until you're 25 and how no idea how to ride them anyway." No, we teach our kids, this is how you ride a bike. This is how you get up and dust yourself off when you fall down. This is how you laugh it off and take it in stride.

Rather than protecting our kids from this menace I really feel like a better use of our time and money would be to teach kids to have confidence in who they are and embrace their quirks. I vociferously oppose the "zero tolerance" policy in schools. I have, and will always tell my kids that they have the right to defend themselves. If someone starts a fight with them, they are allowed to fight back. Even if the school suspends them, they will not face repercussions at home as long as they didn't start it.

I've found that most of the people who bully do so because they are insecure themselves, and most of the people who tend to get bullied are some of the most awesome people. Wil Wheaton has talked several times about how he was bullied as a kid, and he has really great advice: I was called a nerd a lot in school. I know, that's a big surprise to everyone who knows me even a little (sarcasm). I am huge nerd. I make no apologies about that. It's who I am and I fully embrace that fully. I'm a dork, and I'm silly and I find wonderment in life from the inner workings of our universe down to the smallest atoms and how photosynthesis works. It's just absolutely amazing to me. I wouldn't trade any of what I know for people to stop calling me a nerd. The more I know, the more beautiful and amazing the world becomes. In some ways I do pity those who rebuke science because they will never see how beautifully intricate everything is. We shouldn't be teaching kids to run away and hide from ridicule. We should be giving them the confidence to embrace who they are enjoy what they love.