Friday, December 21, 2012

Fries don't kill people, or do they?

Guns don't kill people, they just lie there.

Hold my gun while I eat.
*Bad People with Guns can only be stopped by Good People with Guns.
*It’s the makers of violent video games that are to blame for the violence in America.
*Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.
*I call on congress to enact legislation that will put an armed policeman in every school in the country.

I didn’t hear the entire speech by the representative of the National Rifle Association (NRA) today, but the points I did pick up are summarized above. For anyone who has read my previous two blog posts or my review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, it will come as no surprise that I won’t be debating the points; others were doing this on radio and TV commentaries already; it’s a futile exercise.

The principal consideration of “liberal” morality is the harm/care paradigm, followed closely by fairness/cheating. Liberals are most likely to be critically offended when people (particularly innocent people) are harmed or the weak are scammed or taken advantage of, according to Haidt.

To assume, however, that the “republican” mind is blasé about harm-to-innocents or poverty is a mistake; the American citizen who was not moved and offended by the shooting of children and their teachers at Sandy Hook would be hard to find. For the NRA, there is something more fundamental than care/harm, though, namely individual rights, particularly the right to defend oneself as one sees fit. It sounds to me like there is in the republican mind an overwhelming fear that much more is at stake than the weapons they own, that to limit the number and kind permitted is a stage in the de-Americanization of the citizenry. This is repeatedly bolstered by reference to the 2nd Amendment in the Constitution: A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Haidt points to evidence that says reason follows intuition, and it was not surprising today that the NRA sought to divert any complicity in the atrocity away from their agenda by taking aim at the liberal side with reasonable alternatives: violent videos, lack of security in schools, etc. We all grasp for—and generally find—the logical arguments that support our position. Where republican logic says “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” the liberal response is likely to be “Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people,” and therefore to the liberal mind, gun control makes eminent sense (as if knives, clubs, poisons, bathtubs and balconies didn’t exist.)

There is something about the knee-jerk grope for remedies on the liberal side that needs to be considered more carefully. In an earlier post, I cited statistics that indicate the huge number of gun killings in the USA compared to a few countries that have strict gun controls. And yet, I don’t fully believe that even the removal of all but hunting weapons from the public in the US would achieve the desired result, although, granted, it would have cut down the toll of the killed in Sandy Hook or Columbine. If a person gets a headache every time it rains, it seems reasonable to assume that the rain caused the headache. However, it may be that a change in atmospheric pressure caused both the rain and the headache. Is it possible that the insistence on owning weapons, the prevalence of violence in the media and on the street, the rancorous politics and the existence of so much poverty in a wealthy nation are all caused by another, yet-unnamed villain? Or that if the USA could name and defeat that villain, that the violence would abate, guns or no guns?

        I wonder.

I recently read a report noting that the removal of lead from gasoline was coincidental with a reduction in mental disturbances of various kinds as well as incidents of violence among teens and young adults. Who would have guessed it?

Maybe we liberals should be looking at diet. Changing the minds of the gun lovers is a non-starter. Americans love burgers and pop; junk food may be the villain acting like lead, poisoning people’s chances of achieving mental health. 

Put down that bag of fries and coke and eat your vegetables, Clint Eastwood!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dying for the sins of others . . . again.

Like Columbine, (an unincorporated area of Jefferson County in Colorado) Sandy Hook (a suburb in the city of Newtown, Connecticut) now bears a name that will forever live in infamy. This post is not about the massacre of children and their teachers in Sandy Hook, but I’m remembering that after a visit to the concentration camp at Dachau, we asked ourselves, “What would it be like to have Dachau as your address?” That name, too, lives on in the history of the diabolical and I’d be inclined to say, “I live near Munich,” if asked for my address.

               Very logically, the two questions, “How could this happen?” and “How could it have been prevented?” are again on the table. In the USA, this presents a real dilemma; the country is almost exactly divided between those who favour Republican values and those who see the world through more liberal, Democratic eyes. It appears very difficult there to raise a nationwide commitment to addressing any problem in a non-partisan manner; in this case the option of revisiting gun control laws will be raised but will again fall victim to the political stalemate. At least that is what many pundits are saying.

               Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind remains fresh in my consciousness, partly because he addresses this very scenario. (My review of the book is available at I think everyone should read it, particularly those who feel strongly that their moral stances are obviously right and the “other side” are a bunch of dimwits. There are plenty of statistics ( that favour the gun control lobby—like the statistic that in 2002, the USA (with lax gun control) had 9,369 gun murders while the UK with strict gun controls had 14—but Haidt suggests that uttering statistics makes no difference in the short run, at least, because our gut feeling prevails and we credit only that which justifies what our intuitions tells us is right.

               In the long run, though, people can be seen to change their minds. There was a time when even progressive, Christian leaders like Tommy Douglas favoured eugenics as regards the sterilization of mentally-challenged persons. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone these days who would admit to such a conviction: conservative, liberal or libertarian.

               The inability to dialogue openly and honestly, to compromise where no consensus is reachable may be one of the great sins of our age, although by far not the only one. Through Jesus’ example, if for no other, we ought by now to understand that innocents will die for persistent, pernicious corporate sin; history demonstrates this over and over again. I’m not given to dire predictions, but if preventive remedies are not found, the USA must be prepared to accept that in future, somewhere around 10,000 citizens will be deliberately shot to death annually, and many of them will be innocent of any action contributing to their deaths. (In Canada, the equivalent toll will be a mere 150 or so.)

               So maybe this was about Sandy Hook after all. All those innocents “crucified” for the sins of their country. 
               It can’t but break your heart.
               Matthew 18:6
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Feed my Sheep

Spruce Winter

Sunset, December 8, 2012
“Backed by $50 million in public and private funds, a new research institute at the University of Saskatchewan will try to find new ways to feed the world.” (Saskatoon StarPhoenix, December 11, 2012)
               It’s unclear in the article quoted above what is visualized by “new ways,” but inasmuch as the bulk of the $50 million is coming from Potash Corp, I’m guessing that it has something to do with increasing the amount of food an acre of arable land can produce.
The taxpayers of Saskatchewan are chipping in a mere $15.00 per person.
That a growing population requires a growing food supply is obvious; whether or not the earth’s capacity to keep pace with the present rate of increase is not as clear. “According to a United Nations report, world demand for food will increase 70 per cent by 2050, thanks to an estimated global population of nine billion people.” (ibid) The newly-minted Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan will bring together all disciplines related remotely to food production under one umbrella to research possible solutions.
In cattle country, the phenomenon of too many feeders on too few acres is called “over-grazing.” The feeders in our case (the human population) are dependent on earth’s ability to produce in proportion to growing demand. Meanwhile, there’s ample evidence that we have seriously “over-grazed” our oceans, for instance, and unless a way can be found to revive, increase and sustain fish stocks, one source of food, at least, is in decline when growth is desired.
Growth mentality does strange things to our heads. In Canada at this time, public rhetoric is almost exclusively about economic growth, about more, more, and always more. In Saskatchewan, the propaganda is currently about increasing population, burgeoning production and growing GDP. These are the signals of success and well-being into which we so easily buy. Ask any mathematician; a geometric progression is bound to peak sooner rather than later unless the growth space (the feeding acres, in this case) is infinite.
Wild animals that overpopulate an area end up starving. A good rancher knows that grazing must be controlled, knows how to match population to resources and acts on this knowledge.
If  the Global Institute for Food Security helps us to be good ranchers, it will be worth the $30.00 my household is contributing, but since it’s funded primarily by a fertilizer corporation and secondarily by a growth-oriented government, I have serious doubts about its achieving anything more than postponing the inevitable awakening by a few minutes.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why won't you change your mind?

Did we really have a summer??

Academy B & B Graduate Room
I watched an episode of Lang & O'Leary Exchange on CBC last night. An item they discussed was the threat of a strike among elementary school teachers in Ontario. (I use the word discussed loosely; it was actually a quarrel between the two on their diametrically opposed views on unions. O'Leary stood by his conviction that unions are evil and should be banned; Lang defended their efficacy on the basis that there is no other way to prevent worker exploitation other than a banding together along with the power to withdraw labour.)
            Clearly, neither of them was likely to change his/her mind. The “righteous mind” is seldom swayed by reasonable arguments.
            Which takes me to a useful tool for rethinking how we arrive at moral stances and how these stances—so often set in stone, apparently—do and don't change. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt tackles a very tough but highly relevant subject. I'm barely into it, but I'm already sensing that I've gone about my attempts at moral suasion (when they've arisen) in a fruitless and wrong-headed way.
            Think of us as having two parts. One is intuition/emotion (the affective domain, if you will) and the other is reason (the cognitive domain). Historically, according too Haidt, reason has been given too much credit as being the birthplace of our moral positioning. In other words, we've assumed that having been given the facts, we apply them and arrive at logical, rational positions.
            According to Haidt, current research shows that moral positions are gained in the affective domain and cognition (reasoning) has the primary task of justifying the position by rallying whatever favourable evidence can be conjured or found. Only seldom is change in initial positions observable as a consequence of reasoned argument.
            Here's a typical Haidt scenario. A researcher gathers 30 students in a room and asks them to make a judgement on the following situation: a family's pet dog is hit by a car and killed. In order to avoid being wasteful, they cook and eat the dog. What do you think of that? Most respondents assert quite strongly that it is both wrong and revolting. When the logic that a) we eat animals all the time, b) that the dog is dead and c) will feel no pain nor indignity and d) that there is no law against eating dogs, the respondents don't typically change their position, but instead, try to justify it with reasons like, “Well, it's an indignity to the pet.” Some will simply say, “I don't know why it's wrong; it just is.”
            The revulsion against eating dog, let alone pet dogs, is deeply engrained in our affective beings. We cannot be rational about an act like the one portrayed in the test.
            It's not surprising that some of us are politically conservative for life and others are equally social-democratic. The underlying orientation is not generally won through rational analysis of the two positions; most of us can can trace back to the beginnings of our “leaning” where we're likely to find a parent and/or teachers who leaned the same way so that our stance politically is all bound up with emotional attachments and revulsions dating back to early days.
            Most men lean left or right in concert with their fathers, unless they hate them, in which case they may obstinately demonstrate their feelings by leaning the other way . . . in defiance.
            The quarrels about the presence or exclusion of gays in churches have by now become classic in the story of the Christian Church. On the one side—the “liberal” side—a litany of reasons for treating gays evenhandedly has had virtually no effect on the “conservative” side's stance that a gay lifestyle cannot be scripturally supported, is therefore sin and has no place in the communion of Christians. According to Haidt's view, I would say that this deviation of moral stances cannot be resolved no matter how many and forcefully the reasons on either side are trumpeted. The division is embedded in the affective domains, the centres of emotion and intuition, i.e. the relatively stable moral predispositions of the people involved.
            The quarreling around contentious issues is a clamouring for reasons in support of an exceedingly stable position.
            Accepting Haidt's contention that “intuition precedes reason” should help us mitigate the rancorous divisions we live with, both religious and political. At the political level, governing parties should take initiative in fostering affective relationships among all legislators; it's through relationship and relationship alone that good governance might finally become a reality. Imagine a question period that is amiable and courteous, an opposition working at the same problems as the government and a government happy for their help because they have developed the appropriate intuitive and emotional trust of each other’s intentions.
♫Wouldn't it be nice♫
            Regarding the quarrel in churches over the inclusion or exclusion of people living a gay lifestyle, suffice it to say that the end result of the arguing won't lead to unity if Haidt is right. That's been amply demonstrated already. It hasn't been that long since gays were given tacit permission to be openly gay. As time passes, the liberal viewpoint will eventually dominate given that youth are growing up in an environment of greater tolerance of non-conventional sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, there remain two alternatives: church members and congregations can separate ties and regroup with those who share the same moral stance on the subject, or members and congregations could agree to disagree on the particular matter and focus on those things on which they share intuitive and emotional common ground.
            That, too, would be nice.
            Meanwhile, I suggest you don't waste your time with Lang and O'Leary Exchange if it's enlightenment you're looking for. Intuition precedes reason, remember.