Sunday, March 29, 2015

Good Stuff - March 2015

So here's what I thought was eye-opening, mind-opening and/or heart-opening on the Internet this month.  Interestingly, as I look at these posts as a group, I see a thread running through all of them of false dichotomies: the idea that a thing or person must be either A or B, that there is no such thing as C-- and D? Well, that's just silly.

Of Boys and Girls (Good and Rotten) and Climbing Trees at Word of a Woman explores the thinking behind the parable that says girls are like apples on a tree waiting for a boy to come and pick them:
Funny, he says the “good” girls just need to be patient and wait for a brave boy who is willing to climb the tree to the top for them. Forget about whether or not the girls they have judged as being “rotten” and “easy” are actually awesome too. Or whether or not the ones they have judged as “good” and worthy are actually either. “Good” girls he says should wait for a boy to give them validation and approval. Thanks, but no thanks. Instead, perhaps we should teach ALL the girls that they are not some boy’s prize for being brave and not slumming it with a “rotten” girl. They are not an object to be possessed. Their value is not determined by whether boys think they are “good” or “rotten” but rather on the fact that they bear the image of God him/herself. Perhaps we should teach the girls not to compare themselves to each other and judge one another. Perhaps we should teach the girls to love themselves and each other.
The post shows that parables like this one, rooted in and growing out of patriarchy, use a false dichotomy: either you're a good girl, or a bad girl.  But this post, The Impetus of Patriarchy by Greg Hahn at This Brother, shows that patriarchy also uses a false dichotomy for guys: either you're a real man, or you're not, and "real" manliness means having power over women:
You have to be “considered fully creditable as a man”. And the unspoken understanding of many is that you don’t just get that from having X and Y chromosomes and reaching adulthood. You have to earn your manhood, so as to be seen manly by those around you. If you can feel it, all the better, but in the very least you need to be seen that way. . .

And if that’s true, that is ultimately what drives patriarchy: Men living in the pain of not “being the man”, which is believed to be “displaying power to exert control over one’s self and one’s world.” . . .

Apparently the only difference that Piper can see and articulate is that men lead, women follow. So John Piper’s masculinity is inseparably linked to his authority and leadership of women. . . .
I believe that fueling the reluctance to change or to even look deeply into the issue of male/female equality is, in the heart of many men, fear.

Often people think it’s about selfishness or control, and sometimes it is. But I don’t think most guys in the church are like that. It’s usually not a case that they’re bad men. Quite the contrary, most Christian guys just want to live their life, raise their kids and grandkids, serve the Lord and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” at the end. But many men, even the strongest ones, have a deep and abiding fear of not measuring up. 
(Emphases in original)

I think a similar fear motivates people often times towards "America can do no wrong" patriotism. It's another false dichotomy: this time about what it means to love America.  I think President Obama really got to the heart of the problem in his speech Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches on the White House website.
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon. (Applause.)

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.

Roger E. Olsen at his blog of the same name, addresses the human weakness at the heart of the attitude behind the kind of patriotism the President was pushing back against. Olsen's post The Sin of Tribalism defines the us-vs-them, we're-in-and-you're-out mentality as fundamentally un-Christian:
“Tribalism,” however appears when a community closes its ranks around an illusion of superiority and excludes others for the purpose of increasing feelings of superiority. A tribe invents “badges” or emblems of superiority that to outsiders are totally illusory. Tribes rarely recognize themselves as tribal in this sense; members really do think they are superior to outsiders. Outsiders, however, recognize that the badges of superiority are false—unless they want in. . . .
Tribalism is sin—from a Christian point of view.

Jesus confronted tribalism among the Jewish leaders of his day. Some of them claimed that they were especially favored by God only because they were children of Abraham. The Apostle Paul also confronted that attitude. But the point for Christians is not to point a finger at any group guilty of tribalism but to examine ourselves. . . .
A wise and mature person is one who is aware of tribalism and resists it. That’s true whether the person is Christian or not. A wise and mature person, Christian or not, holds himself or herself aloof from the rituals of tribalism even when forced by necessity to be present.

And in You Can Count Me Out of Atheist Tribalism, Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism fights the same human tendency in non-Christians:
To put it simply, atheists who are quick to blame terrorism committed by Muslim individuals on Islam and just as quick to excuse atheism from any role in atrocities committed by atheists are using a glaring double standard. . . .

On some level I think I understand what’s going on here. A number of prominent atheists frequently point to religious atrocities and human rights abuses in order to argue that religion is dangerous and that we should work toward its elimination. When Christians or other religious believers respond by pointing to atrocities committed by atheists like Stalin, these atheists can’t respond with “Yes, and we think that’s bad too,” because their argument is that lack of religion is superior to religion, and examples like Stalin make it clear that a belief in a deity is not a required condition for mass murder or oppression. And so they have to find a way to explain away Stalin’s atrocities as not truly a result of his atheism.
I didn’t leave one tribe, with its demonization of other groups and tribes, ample use of the No True Scotsman fallacy, and insistence on valuing in-group loyalty above all else, to join another tribe doing the exact same thing.

Another false dichotomy shows up in these two posts about racism and why it's so hard for us as white people to see it or even be willing to look for it in ourselves. Why White People Freak Out When They're Called Out About Race by Sam Adler-Bell at Alternet explains:
For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not "doing." 
In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people. 
The good/bad binary is also what leads to the very unhelpful phenomenon of un-friending on Facebook.
If we see racists as only those bad people over there, and never ourselves, we can feel superior (tribalism again).  But seeing racists as those bad people over there also renders it impossible for us to to humble ourselves and admit that we just might be participating in racism unaware. It's just too shameful and horrible for us to face.  So says Understanding the Racial Empathy Gap: the Power of Narratives by Judy Wu Dominick at her blog of the same name.
One of the things the Civil Rights Movement managed to do was inject a keen sense of shame into white America’s collective conscience over its institutionalized abuse of African Americans. It marked a significant turning point in the nation’s history. In the beginning, when shame produced an appropriate acknowledgement of injustice and a desire to make things right, it led to cultural shifts and new legislation that effectively released African Americans from the stranglehold of the Jim Crow era. 
The tricky thing about shame, though, is that it’s a toxic, identity- and value-threatening emotion. and when it’s not processed in a thoroughly redemptive way, it can actually lead to a recycling of our sins instead of a healthy and restorative repentance. . . .
So a new shame-based, reactive narrative set in: Forget the past. We are not racists. We are anti-racists. And we are colorblind. This new narrative unwittingly undermined progress even as progress was being made. First, it imposed a willful forgetfulness on one of the nation’s most traumatic and formative experiences, which desperately required thoughtful, collective, and public debriefing, not consignment to cold storage. Second, it introduced taboo-like sensibilities into the very act of dialoguing about race and ethnicity, which, instead of being helpful, has proven to be very damaging for blacks and other non-whites who wish to have their distinctives recognized, validated, and celebrated alongside those of whites, rather than denied and left unacknowledged.

Folks, this kind of either-or thinking isn't helping any of us.  I'd like to suggest that we start seeing not just A or B as possibilities, but also A and B, and C, and even D.  Who knows, maybe we'll get all the way to accepting and acknowledging Z someday!

And if we do, it will be partly because of the kind of brave people who said these things online this month.

Friday, March 13, 2015

In Memorium: Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett has died.  Somehow it falls kind of flat to simply say he was one of my favorite authors.  In fact, Terry Pratchett was one of the wisest, funniest, most insightful and compassionate writers I ever read.  I loved losing myself in his worlds, absorbing his perceptive intelligence and pithy common sense.  

His most famous series was set on the Discworld, a flat planet with waters perpetually pouring over its edge.  It rested on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a great turtle swimming through space.  It was a world of magic, wizardry and witchcraft, trolls and dwarfs and humans and pixies, into which intruded from time to time some of the phenomena of our own world: telegraphs and trains, the movie industry, the banking world and the postal service.  With a cutting, satirical edge that never became cruel or bleak, that never lost sight of the beauty of the universe or the value of the human individual, Pratchett gave us some of the most enjoyable plots and best characters I've ever encountered in literature:  crotchety Granny Weatherwax, honest Commander Vimes, rascally-but-responsible Moist Von Lipwig, and the ever-polite Death with his hood and scythe, endlessly curious about what it was like to be alive.

But Pratchett also wrote a number of other really wonderful, non-Discworld books. Nation is set on an alternate earth where a young islander and a shipwrecked princess cope with the aftermath of a deadly tsunami.  Dodger is about a young entrepreneur in a Dickensian London.  Good Omens (written in tandem with the great fantasy author Neil Gaiman) is about the Apocalypse, the Anti-Christ and the end of the world.  In fact, this author was so prolific that I know there are still some of his books out there I haven't read yet-- and that I will read them someday with the bittersweet enjoyment of knowing there will never be anything quite like this written ever again. 

There are several web posts (like this one) celebrating Sir Terry by quoting some of his funniest stuff. But I'd like to give tribute to him here by quoting some of his smartest stuff: some of the things he or his characters said that has really made me think, that has opened my eyes and widened my horizons.

Sir Terry used humor and fantasy to explore almost every area of human thought, from religion and philosophy to science and invention.  He was not a Christian, but he had a deep sense of morality and a reverence for the beauty of the universe and the preciousness of life.  (The Demaris Film & Bible Blog has a good synopsis/analysis of Pratchett's beliefs if you'd like to read more about them-- but as I have explained elsewhere, I believe that God's grace is over all the world, and that there is nothing to fear from a manifestation of that grace in any person, whether they agree with my theology or not.)

Pratchett understood people as few of us ever do-- and yet despite all our self-induced blindnesses and stupidities, all the things that make us laughable or even pathetic, Pratchett really loved human beings, just for being human.  His character Death never encountered a human that he didn't treat with dignity and consideration-- even the worst of the worst.  Other authors have made Death terrible; Terry Pratchett made him lovable.  

I think that, paradoxically, this is because Sir Terry's books are filled most of all with a zest for living. When he wrote about trains, he wrote with sheer admiration of the power of the engine and the ingenuity of the engineer.  When he wrote about the postal service, that mundane institution suddenly revealed itself as a showcase of the human capacity for interconnection and mutual service. Nothing, it seemed, was mundane to Terry Pratchett.  Everything was fascinating and worth looking at with the fresh eyes of exploration. Perhaps even death was a thing that, when it came, he was curious to explore. 

So here are some of the things he has said that most capture that sense of exploration and insight. Emphases are in the original texts. The title of the source appears after each quote in italics.

On humans and storytelling:
[A]ll men are writers, journalists scribbling within their skulls the narrative of what they see and hear. - Dodger
On death:
[N]o-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away... The span of someone's life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence. - Reaper Man
On law and order:
[Y]ou were so worried about legal and illegal that you never stopped to think about whether it was right or wrong. - Snuff
On tribalism and its antidote:
It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things. - Jingo
On evil, and how evil happens when the ideology is more important than the person:
Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things. And right now it would happen if you thought there was a thing called a father, and a thing called a mother, and a thing called a daughter, and a thing called a cottage, and told yourself that if you put them all together you had a thing called a happy family. - I Shall Wear Midnight
[I]t's true that some of the most terrible things in the world are done by people who think, genuinely think, that they're doing it for the best, especially if there is some god involved. - Snuff
 On fundamentalist, cultic terrorism:
. . . [E]very deviation from the norm was treated as an attack on all that was truly dwarfish. Others had already fled and died, and who could say they knew how many more were left. . . And the trouble with madness was that the mad didn't know they were mad. The grags [leaders] came down heavily on those who did not conform and seemed not to realize that this was like stamping potatoes into the mud to stop them growing. - Raising Steam
 On cognitive dissonance:
Sometimes people fools themselves into believing things that aren't true. Sometimes that can be quite dangerous for the person. They see the world in a wrong way. They won't let themselves see that what they believe is wrong. But often there is a part of the mind that does know, and the right words can let it out. - Unseen Academicals
 On parenthood and commitment:
He'd be home in time. Would a minute have mattered? No, probably not, although his young son appeared to have a very accurate internal clock. Possibly even two minutes would be ok. Three minutes, even. You could go to five, perhaps. But that was just it. If you could go to five minutes, then you'd go to ten, then half an hour, a couple of hours. . . and not see your son all evening. So that was that. Six o'clock, prompt. Every day. Read to Young Sam. No excuses. He'd promised himself that. No excuses. No excuses at all. Once you had a good excuse, you opened the door to bad excuses.Thud!
On cultural assimilation:
"What kind of name is that, I ask you? Who’s going to take you seriously with a name like that? This is modern times, right?" 
He looked at her defiantly, and she thought: and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls... the melting pot melts in one direction only, and so we make progress. - Unseen Academicals
 On prejudice:
She thought that being foreign was a crime, or at least some sort of illness that you could catch by being out out in the sun too much, or eating olives. - Nation
Everybody knows trolls eat people and spit them out. Everybody knows dwarfs cut off your legs. But at the same time everybody knows that what everybody knows is wrong. - Unseen Academicals
On religion:
[The old man said,] "Everything I know makes me believe that [God] is in the order that is inherent, amazingly, in all things, and in the way the universe opens to our questioning. When I see the shining path over the lagoon, on an evening like this, at the end of a good day, I believe."] 
"In [God]?" asked the girl. 
This got a smile. "Perhaps I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science." - Nation
Finally, these two that I can't locate and don't remember what book they came from, but I have always remembered them, at least in paraphrase:
A good ruler doesn't drive; he steers.
Stories are how we humans tell ourselves who we are.

Anyway, if you've never read anything by Terry Pratchett, I hope you will. And I hope you'll be as amused, as intrigued-- and as deeply touched and moved-- as I have been.