Hobby Lobby, hypocrisy, and employers’ rights

I reposted on Facebook an image that declares, “Change ‘Christian’ to ‘Islam’ in the Hobby Lobby case, and the same people arguing for it would be frothing at the mouth against it. It’s called hypocrisy.” This got a response from one connection (a friend of a Facebook friend): “I’ve never asked a Muslim co-worker to buy me bacon, and I wouldn’t demand that a Muslim employer buy bags of pork rinds to put in his vending machine or to fead me with at a lunch and learn session. So in the name of eschewing hypocrisy I take it everyone re-posting or liking this meme also supports having their tax money go to ‘faith based’ charities that provide essential services, err I mean human rights.” Here is the response I wrote to that:

Best solution to the Hobby Lobby issue: not have private companies involved in essential health care. In the civilized world (not including the US) health care coverage is mediated directly by the government. Supplementary coverage for some things the government plan may not cover (e.g., massage, dental, eyecare, prescription drugs) may be handled through plans that are contracted through employers (but paid for at least in part by employees), but the bulk of health care coverage is handled in a far more efficient and effective way as a single-payer public service rather than an inefficient marketplace of multiple levels of profit-taking. Costs are much lower and outcomes much better, and we don’t have the risk of direct employer interference.

Everyone pays for things they don’t like through their taxes. Tax breaks and grants to charities go to organizations that sometimes have directly competing interests. The same government that pays for the army gives breaks to pacifist groups; Zionist and Palestinian relief groups may both get benefits; governments run lotteries and at the same time support through tax relief and, sometimes, direct grants religious organizations that are strictly opposed to gambling. The owners of Hobby Lobby can’t avoid indirectly supporting things they don’t like any more than the rest of us can; government is there as an organism for all of the country, and all of the country is a very diverse set of people with multifarious needs and desires. But of course they don’t want to seem to be supporting it directly. Also, like so many other companies, they are trying to find a way out of the government mandate. Many companies have been looking at cutting their staff hours so that their workers are exempted. Another example of why leaving employers out of the crucial nexus would be better.

But I think it is a very fair statement that many people who see religious rights as being trampled on here are concerned about their religious rights but less so about the religious rights of others. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to find people who are very strongly in favour of the rights of Christians of their particular stripe to exercise the dictates of their interpretations of their consciences who at the same time are directing streams of invective and bigotry against Islam.

This is not so much an analog of asking Muslim co-workers to buy you bacon, anyway. It is a closer analog of a company whose boss is a Muslim setting a strict policy that meal expense accounts can only be used for halal food, and absolutely in no case ever for pork. But it’s not a perfect analog of that, either. Hormone therapy – “birth control pills” – is used not just for birth control but for various other medical conditions as well. And in some cases where it is used for birth control, it is because the woman is taking another necessary prescription drug that is a known teratogen. Some people have chronic conditions that are life-threatening or strongly deleterious to quality of life that can currently be treated effectively only with medications that have a high risk of producing birth defects. Preventing women who are taking those medications from using birth control is telling them that they have a choice of 1) no sex life, even if they are married, 2) a risk of children with severe congenital impairments, or 3) going without treatment for their condition.

But I’m not arguing for employers making exceptions for people with special needs. The would accept the assumption that the employer has a right to dictate how employees receive their health care and live their private lives. The very idea that your employer should have any say in how you live your private life – except inasmuch as it directly affects your employer (e.g., through Tweeting compromising statements about them) – is unacceptable, a throwback to feudalism, and only the United States among all developed countries seems to have a problem seeing that.

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How to protect yourself against a police state

A Facebook acquaintance has presented the argument that gun ownership is necessary to protect ourselves against a police state, and that gun control advocates, who inevitably want to take away all guns, are leading us down the path to something like Communist Russia. We would be better, he says, committing resources to mental health and looking for ways to alleviate the gap between rich and poor. This is my response:

You’re presenting a scaremongering extreme example. Regulating guns carefully, which we do in Canada, obviously does not lead to confiscation of all guns; if it did, it would have done so already. You might as well say that regulating prescription medications — which we do more tightly in Canada than in the US — will lead to unavailability of prescription medications. Or or or.

It’s true that our freedoms are being eroded by the Harper Conservatives, subtly and gradually, in a kind of frog-boiling exercise and entirely through abuse of the system, for example overpadded omnibus bills, but they know well enough, like the cynical and powerful in the US, that guns make pleasant little pacifiers for scared people to hang onto. I would like you to consider the equipment available to the Canadian army, and imagine whether a bunch — or even thousands — of Canadians with heavy weapons could really oppose that — really as in “not in a Hollywood movie.” Now consider the odds of opposing the American army, which so many supposed “patriots” in the US think they could do. It’s frankly laughable.

No, really, it is. In Syria there are freedom fighters with international supply sources going up against a much smaller country and they’re still getting badly hurt. And what we’ve seen with the Arab Spring is that the only way citizens are going to prevail against a hostile government is either (a) to persuade it to resign for fear of looking bad in the international eye or out of some lingering hesitation to murder thousands of citizens and destroy much of the country or (b) with international help.

If groups of “patriots” in the US or Canada decided to oppose a hostile government with armed force, first of all, most citizens would not go along with it; think about Germany, where they won not by taking people’s guns (the Nazis had looser gun control than the previous government) but with the complicity of enough of the populace, though the kind of propaganda assault that is popular with political parties everywhere (only of course more sinister than most), and taking advantage of a populace who were scared and resentful in the aftermath of the first World War and its sequelae. But among those groups that decided to go with armed insurrection, they would not all agree with each other — again, look at Syria, and look at the kind of infighting you can see, for instance, in the US Libertarian Party. Even if there were two million people with assault weapons, they would cause a lot of damage but they would be wiped out by the breathtaking superiority of the US army. Simply scale down the numbers for the Canadian equivalent.

The way to protect ourselves from a police state is NOT TO ELECT ONE. Good grief. Pay attention to who you’re voting for. When a politician puts energy into making you fearful of threats, recognize that you’re being played. It’s the same approach that made the Nazis so successful — and many other less vile but still obnoxious groups.

Don’t tell me what advocates will and won’t do. I am one. You are not one. I know quite a few. You seem to know only your fantasies and straw men.

And don’t waste time with false oppositions either. Committing resources to mental illness is not something that takes away from gun control. Indeed, with less gun violence there is more money freed for other things, since gun violence has its undeniable costs. Likewise looking at the gap between rich and poor — something that certainly does need to be addressed, and is best addressed by good social services in a well-funded (by taxation) state wherein everyone recognizes the rights and obligations of citizenship and sees their government as of, by, and for them, and works to keep it that way, rather than indulging in paranoid us-versus-them fantasies that foster opposition to and disengagement from the government, thereby undercutting the best means of improving social services.

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“The good thing about Rob Ford is…”

I’ve seen and heard it said that the good thing about Rob Ford is that he’s provoked a level of citizen involvement in civic politics that hasn’t been seen in decades, if ever.

Well, yes, it is gratifying to see people really getting actively involved. But I think calling that a beneficial effect of Rob Ford’s administration is like saying “Well, this flu was really good – it got my immune system working.” Or “That hurricane had the positive effect of giving the disaster relief system a good workout.”

A well-run city should not require huge amounts of grassroots involvement. Citizens are having to take on, and think about, things that they elected other people to take on and think about so they could go on doing their own parts in making the economy and cultural life of the city run smoothly.

So it’s nice to know that we have this civic immune system and it works. Now it would be great if it didn’t have to work so hard.

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Pro-life, pro-compassion

I posted a link on Facebook to Why I Am Pro-Life by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, worth reading. In a following discussion, I added some of my own thoughts:

I don’t like abortion. I don’t think very many people think it’s a nice thing. Even the strongest advocates for abortion choice are unlikely to see it as a wonderful thing per se; it’s a very unpleasant way to resolve a very unpleasant situation, but for those who get abortions, the alternatives are, as far as they can see, even worse. It would be much better for a woman never to be in the position of feeling she had to get an abortion. Better birth control, better respect for women’s rights: these are things that help women to keep from getting pregnant when it would be a catastrophic life event. At least now a woman can be pregnant and unmarried and not have her whole life destroyed by societally ingrained prudery and censoriousness.

And that’s the really big point here that Friedman’s making: There’s so much concern for that one part of life, that one stage of life, and so little compassion from many of the same people for other parts of life. A female, for some people, has more rights before she’s born than she ever will again. Let’s see… they expect women to be submissive and compliant, but not, of course, to have sex before marriage. A culture that teaches girls to get their validation and direction from men, but somehow they’re supposed to resist the very people they want validation from when that person suggests something that they have come to believe is a sign of an ultimate emotional bond. Hmm. They insist that birth control, preventing conception, is bad, even though it’s the proven best approach for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. And if a woman gets pregnant before she’s married they treat her with scorn and condemnation. So the easy answer is just not to have sex before marriage, right? If it’s so easy, why are teen pregnancy rates higher in the Bible belt? Why is the rate of abortion as high among Christians as among non-Christians — and higher among Catholics?

And meanwhile social supports are being cut, care for the already-born is being cut, people who think they’re voting for “family values” are electing people who want to “get government out” — which means keeping the main instrument of the people for caring for the people from doing that work effectively. Even though rates of unwanted pregnancy are lower among people with more education, it becomes harder and harder to get a good education, thanks to cutbacks. The rich get richer (and generally behave as though the usual rules don’t apply to them), the poor get poorer and less well educated. And in the midst of all these conditions that conduce to higher rates of unexpected pregnancy, including unrealistic “abstinence-only” and “no-contraception” teaching that is like saying “wearing seatbelts is wrong; as long as you drive safely you will never have an accident” (I know many safe drivers who have been in accidents), the big big big issue for some people is just to make sure that, after the conditions that lead to more pregnancies in women for whom it could be a catastrophic life event, when there is a pregnancy, the still-forming baby’s rights absolutely trump the rights of anyone else. Wouldn’t it be far better for it not to come to such a pass?

And why is it not obvious to everyone that when a woman has been violated, has had the sanctity of her body destroyed and her sense of personal security and control torn to shreds, the one thing she needs more than anything is some sense of control, some sense of a chance to regain control of her security as a person, some sense that she still has some say in the course her life takes? If a woman has been raped, and you tell her that she can have no control over whether she has a child as a result of that, you are perpetuating the damage. If she feels she has control over her life, if she can have a sense of a secure place where she can make decisions about what happens in her future, if she does not have people screaming at her to do this or not do that, then she may find — as some women certainly have — that if she is pregnant she does want to carry the baby to term, on her terms. Or she may find that she simply cannot, that it would be a lasting evidence of the destruction of what she had been. The one thing we should hope is that at least her life will be saved, that she will be able to recover and regain herself. That is the one thing we have in our control that we can do. If we just tell her that she has to do one thing and can’t do another, if we tell her that this thing that has destroyed her life is actually a blessing, we may or may not help the life of the baby, but we surely will be furthering the destruction of the woman’s life.

Compassion. It really shouldn’t be so much to ask for.

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My feedback to Avis

I know this isn’t actually about politics, but it is about people treating other people well – or treating them poorly quite gratuitously. And I just wanted to get this off my chest. So here’s what I just sent to Avis via their feedback. I imagine it will be basically ignored by them. But perhaps you may find yourself nodding in agreement:

I just filled out your customer survey, which did not allow me to give any details as to exactly why I do not intend to rent from Avis again, in spite of having been a regular customer for years and renting several times a year, usually for 2 or 3 days at a time, sometimes longer. Here is why:

Only once in recent memory can I recall not having been dicked around or lied to by Avis staff or frustrated by their lack of knowledge and basic competence. You always have some great people, but you also have some barely competent ones, and you have a culture opposed to customer satisfaction.

I am simply tired of being taken for granted. I am tired of being promised that something will be no problem and then discovering it is a problem and having to spend more than an hour on the phone to sort it out. I am tired of no one at Avis knowing anything about anything anyone else has promised me. I am tired of simple petty meanness over things that do not cost Avis a cent and that I have actually paid for.

Here are some tips:

1. I am paying for 24-hour periods. I am always told that I get that car for the whole 24 hours, it’s on the contract, and I pay for the whole 24 hours. Do not treat me as being late if I get the car back later than I first thought I would but within the 24-hour period.

2. When I’m paying for 24-hour periods and I’m picking up the car when I arranged to or when they told me to come back and pick it up, and I ask your counter staff whether it will be necessary to change the return time in order to avoid late fees, if they say it won’t be a problem, it had better not be a problem, and if they say they can’t change it, that is just because they – and you – are incompetent and intransigent. It had better not involve my having to call one person who says she can fix it, and then, finding it not fixed, getting another person on the line who sees no record of any effort.

3. If I pick up a car at 8 pm one day and the rental location will close at 6 pm on the day I return the car but I can drop it off after hours, I have paid until 8 pm. Not until 6 pm. And you will not do anything with that car until you open the next morning. Therefore, stealing 2 hours from me when you will not need the car for another 11 hours after that is petty and stupid. You could win my loyalty; instead, you have lost it.

4. It is irrelevant whether other car companies will dick me around the same way. That’s their problem, not yours. Your business is providing the service your customers pay for, and not abusing them or taking them for granted. You could be better than this. But you’re not. And I’m just sick and tired of it.

If you can convince me that you’ve really changed your approach to your customers and are being less petty and stupid, I will rent from you again. Not until then. I have spent many thousands of dollars on Avis rental cars, and you still treat me like shit. So I’ll be going to Hertz, National, whoever… not Avis, and not Budget.

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Current government cuts to the civil service (including things like, you know, food inspectors – why would anyone care about their food being safe?) are being done in the name of efficiency.

What a hilarious load of rubbish that is. If you have to move five tons of dirt, what’s more efficient: five guys with big buckets, or fifty with moderate-sized buckets? (Spoiler: in terms of man-hours, the fifty guys, as long as they’re coordinated. People get tired, you know, and have limits to their strength. Plus you can do a proper bucket brigade with fifty. And obviously it gets the work done sooner too.)

People who think you can make government run just as well with fewer people are like people who think you can make an engine run better by taking parts out.

Here’s another “seems obvious but is wrong” thing: Which uses more energy, running up stairs or walking up them? The “duh, obvious” people will tell you that they involve the same amount of work, because the vertical displacement is the same. But actually when you run you propel yourself above the step and then land back down on it, so your total vertical displacement is greater than your net vertical displacement; you burn energy less efficiently above a certain speed (sort of like how a car burns more gas over the same distance at 120 km/h than at 60 km/h); and if you exert yourself a lot, your heart is beating rapidly for some time after, and your system requires extra energy to repair the muscles.

That’s not a tangent or out of left field. The same thing goes for ideas of efficiency in organizations. Yes, they can get so big they get inefficient. But that’s mainly just a lack of proper coordination; you can make a big inefficient organization more efficient by adding more people if they’re doing the right coordination work. But an organization that’s under its optimal efficient size is not going to be made more efficient by being made even smaller.

And don’t forget the blowback. The government equivalent of pulled muscles is lawsuits – and, occasionally, dead citizens. Walkteron, anyone?

I suspect the current government are, for one thing, just eager to have fewer people talking back at them and suggesting that their ideas won’t work.

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The ad hominem

A favourite tactic of trolls – practically a signature move – is to use abusive, insulting language, and then, when called on it, to accuse their interlocutors of using ad hominem argumentation.

Most of the time, this is specious. I’ll tell you why.

There are two important things to remember in this matter. The first is what argumentum ad hominem is. Consider the following three statements:

1. You’re an asshole, so your argument is false.

2. You’re arguing in an obnoxious manner, so you’re an asshole.

3. You’re evidently interested only in being abusive, not in actually coming to a common understanding, so I see no point in continuing to debate with you.

Which of these is an ad hominem?

Answer: In the strictest sense, only number 1 is. An ad hominem argument is, strictly speaking, an argument that attempts to make statements about the truth or falsity of someone’s position on the basis of irrelevant details of that person’s character. (In some debates, the person’s character is directly germane to the point at issue, but that’s not usually the case.) Numbers 2 and 3 make no statement about the truth or falsehood of the proposition debated. They are addressing different propositions (whether the person is an asshole; whether there is any point in continuing) and are doing it on the basis of relevant evidence.

In the broader sense, number 2 could be an ad hominem; if an attack on a person’s character is used to distract from the main point, that is more loosely an ad hominem. Whether or not the person is an asshole is typically not germane to the topic, as we have established, so making this side point can be a distraction.

But it may be relevant, and we’ll be coming to that very soon. In fact, I’ll lead into that with number 3. Number 3 does not address the point at issue, but it does address the discursive situation and its pragmatics. And the pragmatics of the situation are always relevant.

The reason for this is my second important point: All communication is behaviour. Whenever you say something to someone, you are doing something, and you are doing it with the aim of producing an effect on them – getting them to do something or respond in some way. This is why I so dislike the currently popular “I’m just sayin’” disclaimer: It’s always disingenuous. You’re never just saying.

Everything you say communicates not only the observations or thoughts or reported facts or other denotational content (dictionary definitions) of the words you use; it also communicates your mood, your attitude towards the content, your attitude towards your relationship with the person(s) you are addressing, and a definition of the situation in which it is uttered. This is not secondary or accessory. You are addressing this person or these persons because you want them to respond somehow – for instance:

  • to do something for or to you (Could you please close the window? / Close the window. / A bit drafty in here, I think!)
  • to give you some information (Who’s that? / Hey, she’s cute! Friend of yours? / If it’s not impolite of me to ask, I would like to know the name of that lady.)
  • to change their perspective so that they will in future conduct themselves in a way that you consider desirable (Have you thought about losing some weight? / You really ought to think about slimming down a bit for your health. / I have this friend who took up running. Lost sixty pounds. Feels great. Is going to live an extra ten years, her doctor says.)
  • to acknowledge that you are right (this is an important reason many of us get into time-wasting debates online, and we seldom accomplish it)
  • to be angry and humiliated (this is the troll special)

As you can see from the examples above, there are several ways that you can aim to accomplish the same end, and each way participates in a different definition of the situation and relationship between utterer and receiver. Indirect politeness forms (Would you mind passing me the salt?) indicate that you have respect for the person and that you do not place yourself above them in the interactional status exchange (in some instances, politeness forms can also be used to express impatience – please is often used this way). Entirely indirect mention of the topic may be more or less polite, depending on context and details, but is often seen as passive-aggressive (I think I need to put some salt on this…). More direct forms (Pass the salt) indicate less overt respect, though how that will be received will depend on your existing relationship with the person. Sarcasm and abusive language (Whaddya think, I don’t need salt over here? Duh) indicate contempt and generally function to engender conflict.

People who defend rudeness with “I’m just being bluntly honest” are deceiving themselves; don’t let them deceive you. It is always possible to communicate things more or less rudely (though it’s true that there are some topics that are hard to broach without some offence possible), and the level of rudeness communicates not denotative facts but attitudes towards the other person and the situation. Consider:

4. Interesting; I would have thought otherwise.

5. My experience suggests that that may be an inadvisable course of action.

6. I disagree.

7. That’s a bad idea.

8. Are you a moron? You must be a moron. Only a moron would suggest something so obviously stupid.

You can see that all of these can be used to communicate the same assessment of the facts of the matter; how they differ is in the level of respect towards the other person that they communicate, and in what effect they aim to produce (and will produce) on the person.

We should always be aware that there are pretty much always multiple ends being served with every communication. It’s never truly simple. A person who is saying something that is making you angry may or may not intend to make you angry, but even if they want you to be angry they may nonetheless want to debate something with you in a frank and ultimately productive way.

But then again, they may not. Some people enter into a debate with no intent of listening or of coming to a common understanding. They simply want to humiliate anyone who takes a position different from the one they have taken. It may take some time for you to realize you’re talking with such a person, but you will probably eventually notice that no matter what you say, unless it’s cowering acknowledgement of their rectitude, they will only continue their attack from whatever angle is convenient.

In such a case, they are pretending to engage in a debate aimed at establishing the facts about something, but in fact they are really engaged in what is for them a gladiatorial contest aimed at hurting and humiliating you. In short, they are being deceptive; they are committing a sort of interactional fraud, a bait-and-switch. And the worst part is that, while in a real gladiatorial contest you would at least be able to maim or kill them, in debates with trolls, no matter how thoroughly you confute their position, they will refuse to acknowledge your points, will mischaracterize what you have said, and will continue to be abusive.

Now, reasonable people can get upset and dug in from time to time without being trolls. There is a way of determining the sincerity of engagement of the person you are talking with. Say something like this:

Your tone and terms, whether intentionally or not, are abusive and are distracting from the facts of the matter. I think perhaps we need to pause to cool down and then we can continue this more dispassionately a bit later.

A person who is ultimately of some level of goodwill and who truly is interested in a mutual advancement of understanding may be defensive at first but will probably ultimately back off a bit.

A troll, on the other hand, will more likely accuse you of an ad hominem and say you’re just upset because you’re losing.

But in fact it is always relevant to address what ends the person is aiming to achieve and what effects the person is producing. If you say to a person that you’re going to stop debating with them because they don’t appear to be interested in actually sincerely and openly debating, that is absolutely pertinent, in the same way as it is absolutely pertinent if you say you’re going to stop going to a restaurant because they never serve what they say they’re going to serve. It usually has no bearing on the truth value of the ostensible point at issue, true, but it is relevant to the discourse as a whole and merits attention.

And in fact, when a troll accuses you of ad hominem because you object to their abusiveness and you’re getting frustrated with their gladiatorial approach, it is the troll – not you – who is more guilty of ad hominem: the implication of their accusation is that you are unfamiliar with logic (sometimes they come out and say as much) and thus of inferior intellect (they seldom miss the chance to drive that idea home) and, because you are stupid, it stands as further evidence that your argument is garbage. (All of this is weak reasoning.) More to the point for them, of course, it further proves your worthlessness as a person and as a proxy for the argument they wish to see themselves as conquering hero dealing defeat and humiliation to. It is thus a personal attack, as such a distraction from the main argument, and it carries the implication that your position must be wrong because you are a fool.

Implications are insidious, of course; they can often be disowned because they are not overtly stated, and it is true that people can seem to communicate things that they do not intend. It is always best to address implications in qualified terms.

But always remember that all communication is someone doing something to produce an effect on someone else. That is not secondary. That is primary. And it is always relevant. That’s why they’re saying anything at all!

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