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245 posts categorized "Philosophy"

March 02, 2007

Second Life vandals deface Edwards HQ with blackface

JreslAmanda reports that online vandals in Second Life defaced John Edwards' virtual headquarters.

Second Life is a online virtual 3D world created and owned by its 4 million virtual citizens.

On the left is a screen shot of the "damage." Note the picture of Edwards in blackface on the bottom left.

Shakes has more details, via robinrising of the Edwards blog:

Shortly before midnight (CST) on Monday, February 26, a group of republican Second Life users, some sporting "Bush '08" tags, vandalized the John Edwards Second Life HQ. They plastered the area with Marxist/Leninist posters and slogans, a feces spewing obscenity, and a photoshopped picture of John in blackface, all the while harassing visitors with right-wing nonsense and obscenity-laden abuse of Democrats in general and John in particular.

I witnessed this event, taking names and photos, including the owners of the pictures. I also kept and saved a copy of the chat log. I have filed an abuse report with Linden Labs, and am awaiting their investigation.

Not funny, guys.

I don't play Second Life, but I find the concept fascinating on a philosophical level. (Do people play Second Life? Maybe it's more accurate to say that I don't maintain a Second Lifestyle.)

What real-life ethics should govern gameplay in a virtual world that partially recapitulates the real world? On the one hand, it's all virtual. Characters in second life are role-playing. In some ways committing a crime in Second Life is like writing a first-person story about a crime.

On the other hand, people play Second Life with real money, and users invest a lot of time building their stuff. Second Life Edwards HQ was built and paid for by Jerimee Richir (aka "Jose Rote") who views his creation as a form of real-life political outreach to Second Life players.

Second Life isn't like a traditional game with consensual rules and objectives. People go to Second Life for very different reasons. Some want to interact or compete, or persuade. Others just want to be left alone to build their Second Life dream houses and hang out with their friends. It's not clear that a hostile group of players has a right to impose its vision of the Good Second Life on non-consenting fellow players. So, there are real ethical questions about whether it's okay to destroy people's virtual stuff, even within the context of the game.

Being a dick in Second Life isn't cheating, per se. The game is designed to allow people to play as vandals or criminals, or anything else they can imagine.

It's hard enough to figure out the meta-ethics of first life--i.e., why should we be moral. The meta-ethics of Second Life are even more complicated, because they probably presuppose answers to the the meta-ethical problems in real life.

Also, it's important to remember that defacing the Edwards headquarters was a virtual performance for a real-life audience. When creations reference real life people and events, the boundaries between the real world and the simulated world aren't so clear.

If your online expression is a means of real-life intimidation, you're being immoral in the real world. Burning a real cross on an actual lawn doesn't usually cause direct physical harm to the victims, but that's hardly the point. I don't see how virtual cross burning would be any better, if the online cross-burner's goal is to frighten or subordinate people watching in the real world.

Suffice it to say that defacing the Edwards HQ with excrement and blackface was a pathetic waste of time.

January 22, 2007

Wife enduces labor so husband can watch Bears/Saints game?

Congratulations to Colleen and Mark Pavelka on the birth of their son Mark. But the timing of this joyous event raises interesting and unusual problem for medical ethics...

Mark, Jr. was due to be born today, but according to the AP's sports reporter, Colleen opted to induce labor on Friday so that her husband wouldn't lose out on his Bears/Saints football tickets.

Due to give birth on Monday, Pavelka's doctor told her Friday she could induce labor early. She opted for the Friday delivery.

"I thought, how could [Mark] miss this one opportunity that he might never have again in his life?" said Pavelka, 28, from the southwestern Chicago suburb of Homer Glen.

At 10:45 p.m. Friday, Mark Patrick Pavelka was born at Palos Community Hospital after close to six hours of labor.

While her husband watched the Bears play the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field Sunday, Colleen planned to watch in the hospital with the baby wrapped in a Bears blanket -- a Christmas gift from his grandmother. [AP]

I hope Mark, Sr. buys his Colleen Bears season tickets for life. He really owes her.

I'm assuming that inducing labor a few days early carries little or no risk to mother and baby. I've heard that obstetricians routinely induce labor just to get off work at a reasonable hour. Obviously, it's not right to induce labor under the guise of medical necessity when you really just want to get off work. On the other hand, if it's true that otherwise ethical doctors induce labor for their own convenience, I don't see why families shouldn't be allowed to access the same technologies.

A lot of people are going to be outraged by Colleen's decision, but if she really wanted to do this, I don't see a problem.

I gather that she's a diehard fan herself who would have wanted to be at the game. No matter which day she delivered she couldn't go, but if she could arrange it so her husband could go, why not? I think it's telling that the AP headline writer put her husband's desires front-and-center, while Colleen's own preferences were relegated to the body of the story. I gather from the story that she was looking forward to at least watching the game on TV, instead of delivering a baby that day.

It would be different if Colleen were indifferent to football and her husband pressured her undergo a medical procedure purely for his convenience and enjoyment. If my partner asked me to induce labor for a sports match, I'd be shocked and appalled. (He's not a diehard fan of any sport and neither am I.) But given that this is a family of sports fans, I can imagine Colleen voluntarily undergoing induced labor.

As Angry Black Bitch points out, a lot of otherwise well-meaning people tend to romanticize labor and childbirth. Obviously, unlike many of the births ABB talks about, the Pavelka's decision was made under relative privilege--getting to choose the timing of your birth is a luxury. On the other hand, given that you're lucky enough to have such an option, I don't see any a priori reason not to exercise it.

Ultimately, women should have the power and the social approval to induce labor at their own convenience, within the bounds of sound medical advice.

January 13, 2007

Normativity 24/7

norms, originally uploaded by . olivia ..

Today's Flickrfind.

January 10, 2007

Gorenfeld interviews evangelical atheist Sam Harris

Investigative journalist John Gorenfeld explores the kookier side of Sam Harris, the self-appointed public face of atheism in contemporary America. Harris is the author of The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation.

As an atheist, I find Harris a continual source of annoyance. The guy's not doing our side any favors. I suspect that Harris is famous precisely because he confirms society's preconceptions about atheists: that they're dogmatic, intolerant, secretly religious, and amoral.

The late, lamented Carl Sagan was the "safe," charming, distinguished public atheist who captivated the public by defying their expectations. Sam Harris is the minstrel show of unbelief. Producers trot him out as a provocateur who makes religious people feel better about themselves, and worse about atheists.

Gorenfeld discusses Harris's sympathy for Eastern mysticism, parapsychology, and reincarnation. Without studying Harris's metaphysical arguments in detail, it's impossible to say whether any of these beliefs conflict with his brand of atheism. After all, secular devotees of Eastern philosophy abound. Few philosophers in the Western tradition presuppose that their favorite texts are divinely inspired. You can learn a lot from Thomas Aquinas, even if you don't believe that he was a saint who performed miracles. So, why not Lao Tzu, Confucius, or Buddha?

Unlike Harris, I think parapsychology has gotten a deservedly bad rap, but there's no a priori reason why an atheist couldn't believe in ESP, or telekinesis. Indeed, if the best scientific evidence shows that people can read minds or see through walls, then scientifically-mined atheists should accept that evidence.

Of all Harris's unusual beliefs, reincarnation seems the least congruent his stinging dismissal of other religious belief systems. Reincarnation requires souls that travel between bodies. Now, the existence of souls wouldn't imply the existence of God. On the other hand, if you're prepared to accept that disembodied minds can survive the deaths of their bodies, it's not so crazy to think that there might be other beings out there in the immaterial mind world, too--e.g., gods, or demons.

Gorenfeld also relates Harris's remarkably weak argument. Harris maintains that torture is okay because collateral damage is an acceptable part of war:

Society is remarkably free, however, in airing justifications for putting Muslims to the thumbscrews. Harris's case for torture is this: since "we" are OK with horrific collateral damage, "we" should have no qualms against waterboarding, the lesser evil. "It's better than death." Better, in other words, than bombing innocents.

Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of air-strikes might have been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from cable news. Instead the logic he lays out -- that Islam itself is our enemy -- invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He writes: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Harris elaborates more fully on his torture argument on his blog. I think he's arguing that secret, extra-judicial torture is okay in ticking bomb scenarios because the suffering of the torture victim is a fair tradeoff for saving innocent lives. The analogy is that the suffering of a waterboarding victim is just unavoidable "collateral damage" in the war on terror. This doesn't strike me as an argument so much as a restatement of the premise that torture is okay.

The whole bit about collateral damage is extraneous. Either the ticking bomb fantasy works on its own, or it doesn't. It's a non-sequitur to say that because you reluctantly accept the accidental killing of innocents in war, you must therefore accept the deliberate infliction of agony as general intelligence-gathering strategy.

Harris's enthusiasm for torture and the "compassionate killing" of Muslims concern me, not his mysticism. It seems that Harris is becoming a "useful atheist" who provides cover for would-be Muslim bashers.

January 07, 2007

"Ashley's Treatment": The ethics of growth stunting in profoundly disabled children

A few more thoughts on the case of Ashley, the 9-year-old Seattle girl whose parents opted to stunt her growth with high-dose estrogen so that they could continue to give her the safest and most fulfilling life at home.

Ashley's parents feared that if their daughter got taller and heavier, they would be unable to hold and carry her. Ashley functions at the level of a 3-month-old. She can't sit up, speak, or even shift her position in bed. Even so, she craves stimulation and human contact. Her parents strive to include her in the day-to-day activities of the family.

Ashley's parents have always been committed to caring for her at home regardless of her size. They committed to lifelong home care long before they knew growth attenuation existed. However, they also realized that even with the best help a larger Ashley just wouldn't have the same quality of life as she enjoys today.

As my friend Linda (who taught disabled students for 20 years) pointed out in an earlier thread, there are technologies that can enable a single caregiver to move a 200 lb person safely. I agree that we should use all the technological and environmental "fixes" available before we start treating living problems as medical conditions That said, Ashley's parents had a reasonable concern that their daughter's life would be fundamentally changed if she couldn't be held and carried.

Ursula, a commenter on Pandagon, explains how an adult-sized Ashley's life would be different, even if her parents had enough staff and technological help to continue caring for a full-sized adult at home:

If you’re going to rely on a mechanical lift, each and every move becomes a big production. Which doesn’t seem to be the life that these parents want for their child. If they can carry her easily, she can go, during the day, from her bed, to the sofa, to her wheelchair, to a blanket on the floor, to a bench swing in the yard, to visit friends and neighbors with non-accessible houses, and just about everywhere the family goes. If they have to use a Hoyer, she goes where the Hoyer goes, and not for very long elsewhere. Particularly since she doesn’t seem to be comfortable in the wheelchair for extended times, so that, say, a visit to the neighbors might involve walking over in her wheelchair and then being moved to the sofa for comfort. If a mechanical lift is needed to get her out of her chair, they either stay home, or she goes on the visit and is uncomfortable the whole time. Extended visits are out - if they can lift her to the floor or a bed, they can change her diapers in just about anyone’s home, but if they need the mechanical lift, they have to head home for a change. Family vacations would be sharply curtailed, rather than just needing an ordinary wheelchair-accessible hotel room, they’d need to bring along the lift, and be sure the space is big enough to use it.

Having to rely on a mechanical lift would take away a lot of what “independence” she has - the ability to move with the family in a spontaneous way as they go through their life together. It would be one more step away from being a part of the family in every way, in every activity. Using one as a help at home and at her school may be appropriate, but growing so large that they have to always use one would be a loss, for her, of a lot of her opportunities for pleasure.

A Hoyer or other mechanical lift is an appropriate tool to use when one can’t lift and carry a person safely, but it isn’t an ideal substitute, and it brings with it its own set of restrictions and limitations. [Emphasis added.]

Some commenters have suggested that the height attenuation procedure itself was somehow cruel or traumatic for Ashley. In fact, there's no reason to think that Ashley suffered any fear or pain as a result of the growth stunting. The treatment was just high-dose estrogen and the hormones merely accelerated the natural process of puberty. Ashley had already started to show signs of early puberty before she underwent the height-attenuation treatment. She would have eventually developed breasts and periods even without the treatment.

Before the hormone therapy, Ashley's doctors removed her breast buds and uterus. If they had not done so, 9-year-old Ashley would have been saddled with full breasts and menstrual periods. The decision to remove some of Ashley's reproductive organs is, if anything, more controversial than the decision to stunt her growth. Some have argued that these surgeries were an inappropriate attempt to stifle Ashley's sexuality, or a misguided attempt to prevent rape.

In fact, these procedures were an attempt to prevent estrogen-induced side effects and forestall certain health problems.

It's easy to assume that doing nothing is more benign than intervening in the "natural" course of things. However, Ashley's entire physical condition is "unnatural" in the sense that human bodies aren't designed to thrive when immobilized and tube fed. That's a good thing, too. Ashley would die without these unnatural interventions.

Suppose suppose the doctors had left Ashley's breasts and uterus alone. Those choices would have had consequences, too. Ashley would have been fertile, for one thing. As lots of anti-surgery folks have pointed out on this thread, all women are some risk of being raped all the time, even (perhaps especially) in their own homes. Ashley’s parents would have had to make some decisions about birth control for their daughter. What were they supposed to do? Ignore the risk? Put her on birth control for the rest of her reproductive life, will all its potential risks and side effects? An IUD for a child who can’t say where it hurts? Tubal ligation surgery? Repeated endometrial ablation surgeries if she developed heavy bleeding, which her doctors say they were concerned about from the start?

Patients like Ashley often have to undergo general anesthetics just for pelvic and breast exams because they find these routine medical procedures terrifying. People who can’t participate in their own care are at greater risk of undetected cancers and other medical problems. Ashley could never report a lump in her breast or a subtle change in her menstrual function. She would be at the mercy of her caregivers to catch any health problems or even any sources of discomfort.

So, the choice is not between leaving her breast buds and uterus alone and living happily ever after vs. cutting them out. The choice is between the two sets of risks and health problems. We shouldn’t assume that the range of health risks associated with breasts or uteruses in a mobile person is in any way representative of the risks for patients who are completely helpless and immobile.

Why are we so enamored of what’s “natural” that we forget to consider what’s best for the patient?

January 06, 2007

Parents stunt growth of profoundly disabled daughter

Amanda has an excellent post about Ashley, a profoundly brain-damaged girl from Seattle whose parents chose to stunt her growth so that they can continue to care for her at home.

Ashley's parents made their decision in conjunction with her doctors and a the 40 members of the hospital's bioethics committee. Not surprisingly, the move has has generated a great deal of controversy. At first glance, it seems absurd to stunt a patient's growth in order to facilitate home care. Why not give her parents more help? Isn't it obscene to remake a person's body for the convenience of her caregivers?

However, upon closer examination, it appears that Ashley's parents made the right decision in this very unusual case. The critical question is whether this treatment is for Ashley's benefit.

It's important to appreciate how severely disabled Ashley is when assessing the appropriateness of her treatment. Her brain literally stopped growing shortly after she was born. She can't stand, sit, speak, or shift her position in bed. She has the mental age of a 3-month-old. Her parents call her a "pillow angel" because she stays exactly where she's put until someone readjusts her. She will never get better. (Creepy phrase, I know, but it seems to be an accurate descriptor of Ashley's level of functioning.)

Ashley can feel pain, but she can't say where she hurts, or even point to the sore spot. She can also experience boredom, which is a chronic problem because she's confined to her bed for most of the day.

Ashley's parents have devoted their lives to giving their daughter the best possible life at home. They are determined to keep her close, as an integral part of the family. Ashley now weighs 65 pounds and her parents are already struggling to lift and carry her. Doctors had estimated that Ashley would eventually grow to 5'6" and weigh at least 125 lbs. Thanks to her treatment, Ashley is expected to be about a foot shorter and 50 lbs lighter, which makes all the difference in terms of her parents' ability to care for her at home.

If Ashley had gotten much larger, she probably would have had to be institutionalized. Furthermore, Ashley has a long life ahead of her, and her parents worry about what will happen when they get older.

To stop Ashley's growth, her doctors used high-dose estrogen to induce early puberty. Unfortunately, early puberty would also have saddled the 9-year-old with breasts and periods. In consultation with physicians and bioethicists, Ashley's parents decided to have their daughter's uterus and breast buds removed in order to spare her the discomfort menstrual cramps and large breasts, not to mention the risk of certain hormone-sensitive cancers that run in her family.

It's important to understand that the breast and uterus surgeries were done to prevent the side effects of the estrogen treatment, not as ends in themselves. There's room for debate about whether these secondary procedures were the best solutions to the side effects of estrogen therapy, but they seem defensible relative the alternatives.

The doctors didn't just remove the organs capriciously. Some critics accuse Ashley's caregivers of mutilating their daughter to assuage their own discomfort with the prospect of her sexual maturity.
In fact, Ashley's breasts and periods would have impaired her quality of life in various ways, without benefiting her at all.

Some critics might be more comfortable if Ashley's breasts had been left in their "natural" state, but Ashley herself would have suffered. She had a history of nipple pain before her hormone therapy, and her parents reported that her sore chest made her uncomfortable in her wheelchair. Larger breasts might have been a big impediment to a more normal life, as the wheelchair is Ashley's only way to experience the world beyond her bed, and she has already experienced considerable discomfort from the chest straps on her chair.

As anyone with breasts can attest, they sometimes get sore and need to be repositioned. For most women, that's a trivial matter. Stand up, roll over, stretch, change into a comfy sweatshirt--problem solved. Remember, though, that Ashley can't even roll over in bed. Imagine being stuck, lying on top of sore boobs, helpless to move or explain what's wrong.

Contrary to some sensationalized media reports, Ashley will not be consigned to a child's body. Her ovaries are intact. So, she will continue to have normal monthly cycles, just without menstrual cramps or bleeding. She will develop pubic hair, hips, and other secondary sex characteristics. The breast-bud surgery left her with normal nipples and intact chest tissue, save the two almond-sized clumps of milk duct tissue that doctors extracted through incisions in the skin. So, Ashley will be a 4'6" woman with a flat chest, instead of a 5'6" woman with big breasts.

Ashley's parents explain how staying shorter and lighter will preserve their daughter's quality of life on their blog:

The main benefit of the height and weight reduction is that Ashley can be moved considerably more often, which is extremely beneficial to her health and well being. Currently, one person can carry Ashley, versus requiring two people or a hoisting harness and ropes, should she have grown larger. As a result, Ashley can continue to delight in being held in our arms and will be moved and taken on trips more frequently and will have more exposure to activities and social gatherings (for example, in the family room, backyard, swing, walks, bathtub, etc.) instead of lying down in her bed staring at TV (or the ceiling) all day long. In addition, the increase in Ashley’s movement results in better blood circulation, GI functioning (including digestion, passing gas), stretching, and motion of her joints.

Given the severity of Ashley’s disability, an average height contributes nothing to her quality of life. Ashley’s brain damage is so severe that her doting parents aren’t even sure she recognizes them, let alone anyone else. It's safe to assume that she will never feel awkward or embarrassed because she doesn’t meet some external ideal of adult height.

Being taller and heavier would only make Ashley's life worse. A larger Ashley would have been at greater risk of bedsores and more likely to be injured in the course of lifting and carrying. Obviously, height attenuation isn't the only way to manage bedsores, and full-sized adults can be carried safely. On the other hand, bedsores are a constant battle even for immobile patients who get the best care. For example, quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve died of a bedsore-related infection. If you were a parent, wouldn't you at least consider a painless treatment that could improve your child's safety and comfort for life?

Ashley's treatment has been attacked as a kind of eugenics. In fact, Ashley's hysterectomy had nothing to do with eugenics. The pseudo-science of eugenics is about preventing people with "inferior" genes from reproducing in order to improve the health of future generations. In this case, everyone agrees that Ashley shouldn't be having sex or getting pregnant. Protecting defenseless people from rape and forced pregnancy has nothing to do with micromanaging the gene pool. This is almost beside the point, but Ashley's condition isn't even genetic! So, no eugenics here.

Some people argue that Ashley's treatment was just socially-sanctioned abuse of the disabled. However, these critics are uncritically appealing to ability-centered assumptions of what constitutes a "good" or "healthy" body. These assumptions hold for the vast majority of humans, and even for most people with profound developmental disabilities. But Ashley’s a tragic exception. The fact that her needs are very different from someone with severe Down's Syndrome or advanced Alzheimer’s disease is no reason deny her treatments that will improve and extend her life.

December 03, 2006

Sexual metaphors and profanity

Neil the Ethical Werewolf has an excellent post about the connotations of sexual obscenities. I can relate to Neil's tendency to analyze foul language.

Swearing is a fascinating empirical and philosophical topic. Why is it that people reflexively scream taboo words in non-sensical contexts when they're angry, scared, astonished, or otherwise riled up?

One interesting thing about "swear words" is that they're conventionalized. You can't paraphrase expletives, except by substituting a culturally approved euphemism. For example, you can't use "sexual congress" in place of "fuck" in real swearing situations. "Screw you!" will work as a substitute for "Fuck you!", but "Get laid!" just won't get your point across.

Only certain words can be used to telegraph that kind of raw emotion. Kids are very interested in figuring out exactly which words are on the list. Do you remember intense debates on the playground whether some racy word was "a swear" or not?

Pure expletives seem to work independently of the nominal cognitive content of the expression. When someone bangs their thumb with a hammer and yells, "Fuck!", chances are that sexual intercourse is the furthest thing from their mind.

It's surely not coincidental that our culture's forbidden words usually have to do with sex and bodily functions. In Quebec, where the Catholic Church has historically cast a long shadow over daily life, the offensive expressions tend to be blasphemous rather sexual or scatological.

Interestingly, Quebec's atheists and agnostics use these blasphemous epithets with just as much gusto as believers. "Sacre!" still works, even if you aren't Catholic and couldn't care less about the church. English has a few blasphemous expressions, but "damn it" just doesn't pack the punch of "fuck it." "Bloody" and "hell" are hardly even rude anymore. ("Bloody" is a reference to the blood of Christ.)

Gutter insults are a little different from pure expletives. Most taboo names are actually similes. You can insult someone by directly accusing them of being stupid, lazy, inept, sexually unattractive, dishonest, or whatever. Or, you can use a curseword that stands in for the particular set of bad qualities you want to attribute to someone.

If you call someone "a pussy" you're imputing stereotypically feminine faults to them: namely being weak, squeamish, and cowardly. If you call someone "a prick" or a "dickhead" you're delivering a very different insult. By calling someone "a whore" you're attributing characteristics that our society normally associates with prostitutes: either a willingness to debase oneself for money, or sexual promiscuity. As Neil, Amanda, and zuzu observe, that elision only works because it piggybacks on our society's contempt for sex workers and sexually active women in general.

By contrast, there's no difference in the meaning of "Fuck!" vs. "Shit!" as a pure expletive, even though the two words refer to totally different things.

Some abusive taboo words function more as similes than others. "Bastard" used to be tied to the stigma of illegitimacy, but not any more. I remember being puzzled as a child when I found out that "bastard" literally meant someone whose parents weren't married when the were born. "Why would real bastards be more likely to be backstabbing or obstreperous?" I wondered. "Idiot" used to be a direct allusion to mental retardation. Nowadays, most people consider it an interesting bit of trivia that the term was originally a legitimate medical classification for developmental disability. To most people, "idiotic" is just another synonym for stupid.

Maybe taboo words have a life-cycle. They start out as ordinary words for taboo things. For whatever reason, some of them get picked up and conventionalized as expletives and/or terms of personal abuse. As language and norms change, the insulting connotation can remain long after the original taboo has eased.

It's interesting to contrast the status of the word "cunt" in British English vs. North American English. In the UK, the "cunt" seems to be going the way of "fuck" and "shit"--a general-purpose epithet that nobody particularly associates with female genitalia in the context of cursing. "Cunt" has even become a verb, as in "cunt off" and an adjective, as in "The cunting boiler is broken again." Whereas in the US and Canada, you can't use the word "cunt" without triggering associations with female genitals.

If taboo words have life-cycles, that might help explain why there are such vehement disagreements within the progressive community about the appropriateness of certain insults. Swear words reflect traditional values, that is, traditional in the sense of being widely held for a very long time. Our taboo vocabulary is a legacy of our actual taboos and hang ups.

When you use a word like "cunt" to mean a disgusting, immoral, or dissolute person, it's hard to escape the implication that cunts themselves are disgusting.

Notice that "dick," "prick," "dickhead," and "schmuck" are much milder insults than "cunt." What do you think that says about our society's attitudes, past or present, towards the female genitalia? However, you can instantly up the ante for male-genital-based insults if you add an implication of gayness, i.e., "cocksucker."

Most insults are somewhere between a live simile and a dead metaphor. People who speak the same language can disagree about where a particular insult falls on the continuum. At a certain point, "bastard" ceases to be a dig at a person's parentage and becomes the industrial-strength counterpart of "jerk." I don't hesitate to use the word "lame" to describe something inane, but I won't use the word "gimped" to indicate that something's broken. I don't use the word "cunt" as an insult, but I occasionally call wimps "pussies." For some reason, "gimped" and "cunt" just feel too closely tied to values that I reject. I don't have an argument for drawing the line exactly where I do.

Why are progressives, myself included, sometimes tempted to use insults that have sexist connotations? There's the lure of the forbidden, I suppose. There's also the desire to throw out the word you know to be the most offensive, literal denotation be damned. If you think that Michelle Malkin is the most contemptible person in the media, it's tempting to deploy the c-word simply because it's the rudest one-word thing you can call her. Some philosophers would argue that to you "cunt" just means the most despicable kind of person. (A lot of words we now consider to be homonyms started out with the same or similar meanings and drifted apart over the years.)

Most importantly, if you're going to insult someone, it's important that you pick an insult that will actually shock and hurt them. If you're trying to insult someone who's sexist and homophobic, it's probably more effective to call them "a pussy" than "a wimp." Maybe this is also the best reason to stay away from these kinds of words--they force you to play within your opponent's value system. As such, they are the consummate failure of framing.

Calling Michelle Malkin "a cunt" is the equivalent of calling the Republicans "the party of big government"--a terrible rhetorical move whether it's deserved or not. "Big government" is a Republican frame that Democrats have to counter with a better frame of their own. Fighting about who's really the party of big government just helps the Republicans by reinforcing their way of looking at taxes and the state. Likewise, "cunt" and "fag" originated in a conceptual scheme where vulvas are gross and gay people are subhuman. It's very difficult to use those insults without reinforcing the values that made the epithets make sense in the first place. An individual can sever the tie between the word "cunt" and cunt-hatred, but that doesn't mean that word has lost its associations for its audience.

Neil says that he doesn't use words like "cunt" very much because the negative connotation of the word is at odds with the positive associations he has with actual female genitalia. That's more or less how I feel about it. If a metaphor is live for you, and you disagree with what you take to be the underlying value judgment, it's less satisfying to use that phrase as a term of abuse.

[Mandatory context disclaimer: I'm not saying any word should be off-limits. Context is everything. Obviously, the standards are different for using a word in fiction, satire, direct quotation, etc. The appropriateness of the term also depends on who uses it, and for which audience.]

October 08, 2006

Supplemental Sunday Sermonette: Being Duke Cunningham

Like a fish out of water, originally uploaded by colodio.

Yesterday I blogged about Duke Cunningham's irate letter to the reporter who exposed his crimes.

The letter was simultaneously outrageous and heart-wrenching.

At first, I gave the Sunday Sermonette to Duke because of his bizarre religious hypocrisy, detailed in the previous post. Then, it occurred to me that this was a good object lesson for a constructive humanist sermonette--Cunningham's letter says a lot about why the unexamined life sucks.

Cunningham says he hurts worse than anyone can imagine. Reading the letter, I believe it. The interesting thing is that he's suffering much more because of his failures of self-reflection than he would if he just admitted to himself that he did something wrong.

The former Republican congressman is now serving time in federal prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes, including $1 million from his best friend of 16 years, defense contractor Mitchell Wade.

Cunningham doesn't see any contradiction between his Christian faith and his refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. I'm not even sure Cunningham is capable of accepting responsibility at this point. He just can't believe that he's anything except a victim.

Ironically, by casting himself as the victim, Cunningham is torturing himself. Perhaps the saddest part of the letter is when Duke denounces his former best friend:

“Wade is the absolute devil and his lawyer is trying to save his donkey,” wrote Cunningham, reflecting his bitterness at what Wade has been telling federal investigators and the U.S. Attorney's Office. “I should have said no to the gifts. For that, I am truly sorry.”


In the letter, Cunningham clearly blames Wade for those transgressions. And, 16 months after insisting that he was not a personal friend of Wade's, Cunningham's letter describes what was once a close relationship.

“He showers you with gifts, he pretended to be my best friend for 16 years. Taking me to his wifes parents home many times. Taking Nancy and I to Sunday brunches with his wife, hunting together at his father in laws Eastern Shore place. Me taking him to a place where I hunt. When I was in town we were together,” he wrote.

If Cunningham were a more reflective person, he might not be writing off his entire friendship as a betrayal. If he could come to terms with his own culpability, he could acknowledge that he and his buddy got busted for crimes they committed together.

In the letter, Cunningham comes across as a quivering ball of inchoate suffering. He feels bad about everything--his crime, his punishment, even his closest relationships. If he thought more clearly and settled on a defensible interpretation of his predicament, he'd eliminate several sources of misery immediately. Sure, if he took responsibility, he'd have to cope with being a bribe-taking Congressman, but at least he wouldn't have to deal with surges of indignant fury and the agony of imaginary betrayal.

Update: Elsewhere in the freethinking blogosphere, Revere offers a an excellent humanist meditation on what we can all learn from the Amish about rationality and forgiveness.

September 25, 2006

Is it appropriate to use a loved one's MRI as wall art?

David Ng asks:

So, for the last couple of days, I've been feeling a little unsettled. Here's the backdrop, but I'm also interested on what folks think, if they care to comment.

Basically, for about a week or so, I had a MRI head scan of someone I care about on one of my office walls. Initially, the reason to do this was that MRI's are first and foremost impressive looking, and the sort of thing that one can marvel at - that is, the ability to see the brain in different swaths etc.

On occasion, people dropping by the office would ask about it, and this would inevitably lead into an anecdote that is part personal reflection (being a biologist and someone who happens to be knowledgable in the genetic counselling arena), as well as part neurology lesson (there being a reason that the MRI was done in the first place).

A colleague happen to come by on Friday and suggested that having it up in the first place is a bit "wonky." He felt that it should be taken down - it's significance was too close to me. So I did, because he is the sort of person I already trust (even though I don't know him that well).

If you can put up pictures of the outsides of your friends and family in your office, why not pictures of their insides?

Granted, you should get the subject's permission to put up the MRI, especially if it shows something that the subject might prefer to keep private.

Putting up a picture of your friend Bob's normal brain is probably not a big deal, especially if you clear it with Bob first.

On the other hand, it might be a problem if the MRI shows that Bob has a brain disease or malformation that would be obvious to all your colleagues. In that case, it would be important not only to get Bob's permission, but also to make sure he that he understands what the MRI reveals about his health.

You should probably also ask Bob's permission if you want to make this art into a conversation piece. It's one thing to have the picture up, or use it as a teaching tool without mentioning any names, but it's quite another to say to visitors, "Check out my friend Bob Smith's brain!"

If you and Bob come to a mutual understanding, then I see no reason not to display his MRI as art in your office.

September 17, 2006


Dr. Steven Miles is the author of Oath Betrayed, Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror. Dr. Miles is a practicing physician and bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. He was named Minnesotan of the year in 2004.

The Talking Dog interviewed Steven Miles.

In this excerpt, TD and Dr. Miles discuss the effects of the publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs on the security of American troops in Iraq:

The Talking Dog: You've noted that prior to the Abu Ghraib photographs being published, around April of 2004, all American troops captured in Iraq were returned alive, and yet, after that, we have seen beheadings and other atrocities against our troops. (Indeed, the first, Specialist Keith Maupin, was around 2 weeks after the Abu Ghraib photos came out). One can certainly infer that, for example, the fears of the Judge Advocate General's corps that mistreatment of prisoners in our custody almost guaranteed reciprocity were realized, and Americans' giving up some semblance of the moral high ground where we needed the cooperation of the local populace for our own mission was itself not a really good idea, by and large, would you agree that most Americans simply just don't see the relationship between our mistreatment of others and the mistreatment of Americans?

Steven Miles: Most Americans see torture as a form of brutalization of a person. They do not understand that torture destroys civil society. Indeed in most cases, torture is used by authoritarian regimes with the intent of destroying civil society. To this end, journalists, activists, lawyers, teachers, students, labor organizers, and intellectuals are its primary targets. The use of torture in Iraq has made it impossible for the United States to serve as a midwife to civil society there. It has undermined the credibility of our appeals on behalf of the humane and legally fair treatment of proponents of civil society in countries like China or Myrnamar. At the largest level, promoting civil societies must be the overarching policy objective of the United States and other democracies. Such societies are necessary for peace as well as global public health and successful economic development. At the end of World War II, the international community concluded that no appeal to the needs of national soverignty could justify or excuse torture or genocide. The United States has undone that momentous conclusion. It has authoritatively introduced into international relations the precedent and assertion that a national executive with the assent of the national legislature may practice torture in the context of a national emergency.

At Phronesisaical, Helmut discusses what he calls the triangulation of torture.

Helmut and Miles both argue that the media's obsession with fantastic ticking bomb scenarios has completely skewed the public's moral and practical understanding of torture.