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Friday, August 3, 2018

How can people still trust the church?

The faith of American Catholics has had a bad week.

I started the week following Melinda Selmys' posts about Humanae Vitae.  A lot of people have been saying that the encyclical was "prophetic" because it said, with birth control, men would cease to respect women and treat them like objects.  I hate this argument, first off because a men who actually respected women would respect them regardless of what pills they were or weren't taking; and second off because mistreatment of women is not new at all.

In fact, even the sexual revolution wasn't as new as people seem to think.  Paul VI gave a lot of "predictions" that were actually descriptions -- because birth control had been available since the early 20th century.  All that sleeping around in jazz age novels?  It wouldn't have worked out very well without diaphragms and condoms, both of which were available at the time.  Abortion, of course, has been practiced since at least Roman times.

Anyway, Melinda has been making the argument that the Church's claim to infallibility was actually an overreach.  What the Church actually has is a general promise that God will "lead it into all truth" -- not that Popes won't make mistakes, but that the Holy Spirit will eventually correct them.  This seems plausible to me -- the only proof that the Church is infallible is that it claimed it was, in Vatican I, so if you don't already agree, there isn't really a reason why you should.

There were all kinds of debate going on about that -- people were very emphatic that the Paul is infallible, that Paul VI exercised that infallibility when he banned birth control, and that anyone who disagrees or disobeys is going to hell.  That context made things a little awkward later in the week.

About the same time, there were the McCarrick revelations.  It's still unclear how many bishops knew what he was up to, but certainly some of them must have.  I've also read that the papal nuncio was informed in 2008, which means Benedict must have known.  I'm of the view that Benedict actually did a lot more, quietly, to deal with abusive priests than either John Paul II or Francis.  He defrocked quite a few, and he did force Maciel into retirement.

But, on the other hand, Maciel's retirement was a beach house in Florida, surrounded by mistresses and adoring seminarians.  Benedict was hardline on abuse compared to some of his contemporaries, but not at all as hardline as perhaps the situation called for.  So maybe he did know about McCarrick abusing his seminarians and didn't think it was worth doing something about.

For the first time, I'm seeing the Catholics I know actually getting angry about abuse.  They aren't defending the church, and they aren't pulling any tricks like "what about Protestant ministers who do it too?" or "that was a long time ago!" or "our standards are better now and this will absolutely for-sure not happen again."  They're mad.  They realize that they, the Catholic laity, are not to blame, but their bishops may be.  Some have been talking about withholding donations from their dioceses, or perhaps a prayerful protest in front of the chancery.  And I think that's all very good.  Don't be a human shield for a bishop who didn't do his job.  Be the first to demand some accountability.

But then, with impeccable timing (which almost certainly was entirely coincidental) Francis shook their faith all over again by coming out more strongly against the death penalty than John Paul II had.  Instead of saying it's always avoidable in our time, and therefore should be avoided -- which is a teaching broadly ignored by American Catholics, on the grounds that it's only "prudential" -- Francis said it's "inadmissible" without giving any such exception.

Personally, I'm against the death penalty, but I'm getting the impression that American Catholics are in no mood to listen to the Pope right now.  How dare he make a new rule for them to have to absorb, when he hasn't even cleaned out the episcopacy yet?  And I'm not unsympathetic.  It turns out it is kind of annoying to have the hierarchy binding up heavy burdens for the laity to carry, especially when they aren't even carrying their own loads themselves.

Then there's the whole issue that the church has already proclaimed the death penalty to be moral, almost certainly infallibly, in the opinion of many.  I went through this whole conundrum some time ago and reached the conclusion that this is one of the issues on which the church has already contradicted itself, but the new proclamation is bringing more people face-to-face with this problem.  Was the magisterium infallible in those proclamations in the past, or is it now?  Is it even possible to tell?  Some people are concluding it can't have been infallible then, others that it can't be infallible now.  Some people say the past and present declarations aren't entirely contradictory because the words "intrinsically evil" weren't used in the present one, and "morally obligatory" weren't used in the past.  Some people say that they'll never understand it, but they'll just try to believe it despite the contradiction.  Some people say this is proof that the Pope has committed heresy and forced a schism.  I have never seen any church teaching which gives the laity authority to decide the pope has committed heresy, nor any understanding of a schism that can be anything but you separating yourself from the Pope, not vice versa, but of course people latch onto this because they disagree with the Pope, but don't want to stop being Catholic.  Which is funny given that earlier this week the same people were telling Melinda that she couldn't disagree with the Pope and still be Catholic.

I guess what people are finally noticing is that they don't have a vote.  This is a purely top-down system.  It was very simple for medieval peasants to assume the bishops knew what they were doing, but it's a lot harder for modern, educated Catholics with an internet connection to believe the same.  They know the bishops are up to no good, at least some of them, and they know several successive popes have failed to do anything about it.  They also know what popes of the past declared, and that it is wildly different from what popes of today have said.  They know that there are teachings of the church that don't work out well in their lives.  That makes it really hard to have any confidence in the institutional church.

Yet ... so what if you don't?  There's nothing you can do.  You can't vote your bishop out of office.  You can't demand the Pope take back what he said.  You can refuse to donate, but the diocese will just fire all the catechists and shutter the schools ... they will be the last ones to suffer.  You can protest, but they can just ignore you.  In Chile, actual fighting broke out in the cathedral when Bishop Barros was installed, but the ceremony still went on.  Why should they be concerned that the people are angry?  What is anyone going to do?  They know, and the laity knows, that no one can actually leave.  Outside the church there is no salvation.  If you make too much of a fuss, they can deny you the sacraments, and you won't have any recourse.

It does a lot to prove my thesis that where there is no accountability, there is always going to be oppression.  Every authority must be accountable to those it professes to serve, or it will abuse that authority.  That's happened pretty much universally, so no surprise that it's happening in the Catholic Church.

The question is, why in the world would this structure be divinely ordained by someone who could clearly foresee how it was going to turn out?  And why do people still trust it?

These days, I feel more and more like I escaped from a burning building, but I'm helpless to pull other survivors from the wreckage.  Some feel like there isn't a problem, while flames spread around them.  Some are angry that I'm still hanging around if I don't want to be in the building anymore.  And some love the building so much, they can't bear to leave.  I don't know.  I don't even know how to handle respectfully the reality that's going down right now.  I can't leave well enough alone, because I care too much; but I can't actually do anything helpful because I'm not part of the family that's going through the crisis. 

All I can do is say -- yes, it's terrible. I'm angry that you trusted these guys and they treated you so badly.  I support whatever you can think of that might call them to account.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

July

I know I've horribly neglected this blog lately.  I have reasons!  But I have at least one post a month for years running and I don't want to mess up my streak.  So here is a Post for July.  It may not be a good post, it may not have anything all that interesting in it, but so long as I manage to hit post by the 31st I still win.  By one measure of winning.

It's just been a super hard summer.  Like last summer was, only I feel it more because the school year was so much better.  I used to disapprove of those memes about moms loving the first day of school.  How can you not want to be with your children every second?  Haha.  Well, the first reason is that you've already had five years with them nonstop and that's a very long time.  The second reason is that big kids have a much higher need for stimulation than little ones do.  If they get bored, they will either whine and cry, pick a fight with their siblings, or destroy something.  So you wind up spending all your time preparing interesting and harmless things for them to do, and it turns out Activities Director is a more exhausting job than just Mom.

Marko's behavior has been especially horrible.  School was so great for him, with its consistent schedule and things to do.  Without it, it's like he can't think of a thing to do besides boss his siblings around and attack them when they won't listen.  And if he thinks about school, he feels sad that second grade is over and scared that third grade will be hard.

And of course I'm doing all this with Jackie around as well.  Miriam is no problem, she runs with the big kid pack, but Jackie isn't ready for that.  She needs naps.  That really cuts into field trip time, but if we're at home, the kids won't be quiet.  She ends up getting overtired and doing her thrashing-and-screaming trick for an hour, while the big kids shout over the sound of her screaming, "He looked at me!  He touched me!  She has what I want!  Can I have a snack?"  There is zero awareness that maybe while their sister is screaming is not the best time to ask for something.  Then, of course, Jackie winds up napping too late in the day (=after noon) and being up till ten at night.  I want her to give up napping, but she's not quite ready.

The result is that the house is a mess, stuff isn't getting done that should, I've been unable to write or send off submissions, and my patience is really, really fraying.  So yeah, I'm going to be having a party the first day of school, which (thank the school district) is in only three weeks.

Of course it's not totally Lord of the Flies in here.  Marko has been reading lots.  He is three books into the Chronicles of Narnia--a big deal because he hadn't read chapter books before.  I started him off with a chapter and then left the big illustrated copy lying around.  As expected, he couldn't help reading ahead.  I pitch in with a chapter now and again so he doesn't get discouraged.



We've been going lots of places.  Swimming, soft serve ice cream, museums, parks, hiking, Civil War battlefields, game stores.  We got them Magic: The Gathering cards and that's a game that everyone enjoys on a different level.  (I build decks; John and Marko play; Michael plays according to some made-up rules; Miriam looks at the pictures; and Jackie ... well, hopefully Jackie is napping at the time.)  There have been some documentaries and science experiments.  We're making memories, and it's not just memories of them whining.



Manassas Battlefield Park - hiding from the rain in the reenactors' tent


Ice cream!

National Sporting Library and Museum

Marshmallows!


Rappahannock County Park

Black bean soaking water changes colors when you add acids and bases.


The Shenandoah was flooded most of June, so we played in a muddy overflow zone

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Ignorance and responsibility

You can well imagine, with my strong views on immigration and on attachment, that I've been pretty upset lately learning about the children separated from their parents at the border.  I'm glad the automatic separation policy has been revoked, but detention as a family is still pretty bad, and what is really needed is for their asylum claims to be heard promptly.

Anyway, let's take it as given that I have a strong opinion here.  And naturally I have felt very angry at those who defend the policy.  What has got to be wrong with a person's conscience that this doesn't bother them?

Well, I don't like to rush to judgment so I went looking for where my friends on that side have been getting their information.  Perhaps there's some justifiable explanation, you know?

So I read the DHS "myths" page that a friend-of-a-friend shared.  And I read this article on Breitbart, which paints child detention as a happy daycare that citizen children would be lucky to be sent to.  And it's true, both are masterpieces of propaganda which take careful research to break down.  If you read only those, and nothing else, it makes sense that you'd think people are being hysterical by fussing about this policy.  After all, our country isn't actually ripping children from their parents' arms!  It's rescuing children from human traffickers and keeping them in palatial residences, on the taxpayer dime.  Who could be against that?

Obviously this stuff can also be debunked.  You could read any of these posts:
WaPo: The facts about Trump's policy of separating families at the border
Slate: How the Trump administration defends its indefensible child separation policy
ACLU: The Bogus Reasons ICE Uses to Lock Up Asylum Seekers
Texas Monthly: What's Really Happening When Asylum-Seeking Families Are Separated
Slate: District Court Judge Denounces Forced Child Separation as “Brutal” and Clear Constitutional Violation
Aplus: DHS Called These "Myths" -- But Are They?
I understand why people don't feel as much trust in the ACLU or WaPo as they do in Breitbart.  Somehow they feel Breitbart is on their side and the others are "liberal." I disagree, but I understand.

But at some point I have to say, you're responsible for what you believe.  You're responsible for educating yourself.  Catholic teaching believes in vincible and invincible ignorance -- ignorance you can overcome versus ignorance that's not your fault.  If you aren't allowed access to the internet and all you hear is conservative talking points, I'll acknowledge that your ignorance isn't your fault.  But if you have an internet connection, you could find out.  It's just that people don't want to.

I admit, usually I'm a lot more tolerant of this kind of thing.  We do our best, there are so many blockages to people finding the truth about anything, when we know better, we do better.  But one of the big blockages to finding out the truth is this fallacy: that you're not responsible for what you believe.  That if you already believe a thing, you have zero responsibility to question that because, after all, you think it's true so why would you?

I have to disambiguate a bit here, because I know people are going to be shouting (if they actually pay attention to what I write) "But you say that belief is not a moral choice, that you automatically believe what the intellect presents to you as true!"  And yes, this is true.  But it is a moral choice to investigate in order to find the truth.  It is a choice to set the standard of proof on a level that true things are likely to pass and false things are likely to fail.  There is a right and a wrong way to go about finding the truth, and people all too often pick the wrong way.

Consider the way you react when a big story hits the news.  The natural pull is to do the following: first, you have a reaction based on whether the story confirms or challenges your worldview.  Your brain really doesn't like changing its mind, so it reacts defensively when the story challenges your viewpoint.  You immediately -- barely on a conscious level -- start trying to refute the claims in the story.  Is there a flaw somewhere, anywhere, you can latch onto?  You open another tab and go looking for another article that claims to debunk the first.  But this second article, you don't react defensively to at all.  If there are flaws or holes, you ignore them, because the story seems so obviously true you don't need them.

I know because I do this all the time.  I work really hard to try to stop it, because that's no way to find out the truth about anything, but it takes real effort to go looking for counterarguments for something I want to believe, or take seriously an argument I don't want to believe.  Some people don't make that effort.  Maybe they think it would be wrong to make that effort, because it betrays their "team."  I'm not sure.

All I know is, people not knowing the truth is one of the major forces for evil in the world.  People aren't evil enough to make all the evil we see on purpose.  Instead, they create that evil through ignorance, and no one confronts the evil because of further ignorance.  We always used to ask, "How did the Holocaust happen?  How did the Germans agree to gas the Jews?  How did no one else stop them?"  But we know the answer, I think.  The answer is that people chose to believe it wasn't that bad or wasn't happening at all.  The government had soothing answers, like that Jews were just being sent somewhere else, somewhere pleasant, where gentiles should be so lucky to go -- and on the taxpayer dime!  Rumors of the camps had reached America, and Americans said, "That's ridiculous.  That's overblown.  That can't be happening."  So they turned away boatloads of Jewish refugees, afraid that Communists might be sneaking in on those boats.  It was a terrible thing to do, but they did it based on the information they believed.

But why did they believe that information, rather than the truth?  I guess because they had a preference.  It's hard to find the truth when you strongly want one answer to be true.  And people don't wind up asking the crucial question, "What is true?"  Instead they ask, "Is there a way this can be false?"  When you approach a news story or any other source with the plan to debunk it, you aren't seeking truth.  You're defending yourself from truth.

So you know what?  I'm done excusing bad behavior on the grounds of ignorance.  If somebody, say, denies their child a blood transfusion on the grounds of religion, I'm through with saying, "Well, it's their belief."  Those are terrible beliefs, seriously, they don't ever worry about whether they are false?  You have a responsibility to check if your beliefs are true.  Even if you were raised with them.  Even if you have heard a lot of positive arguments and the only negative arguments were weak ones brought up in apologetics class.  The main responsibility still lies with the leaders of that religion, but everyone who is a part of it also has the responsibility to check it for themselves before they do morally questionable things.  If you make an error in reasoning, I will try to understand, but if you don't even try because you think your beliefs aren't your responsibility?  I'm going to judge the heck out of that.  Because I've heard that a lot of times and I'm getting tired of it.

I'm also done with people who comb through dozens of websites to find one rare tylenol side effect, but explain away side effects of "natural" teething tablets or adult aspirin because they like those treatments.  At some point you've got to notice you're trying to confirm your own biases.  I know because I've done it.  At least have the humility to recognize that you could be wrong, so don't pass yourself off an as expert all over the internet on every topic you read a couple of articles about.

I'm done with people who yell FAKE NEWS at anything they disagree with, and then pass around sketchy unsourced stuff without factchecking it.  You get a pass on the first time, because you didn't know, but after you've seen it debunked and the promised FEMA internment camps didn't show up, then you know you made an error and it's on you to tighten up your standards.

I'm done with people who look at rape victims cross-eyed because "they can't proooooove they were raped" -- except for Juanita Broaddrick and a few choice others, whose assailants you don't like.  Are you unaware that you accept eyewitness testimony for a million other things every day?  When do you start to notice the double standard?  Why is "can't be certain, but he probably did it" abandoned for "you can't prove it so it didn't happen" the second it's a rape case?

And I'm angry at those who defend the splitting up of families.  I'm not just angry at Trump, Sessions, and the rest who dreamed up this policy and know what they are doing.  I'm also angry at all the people who refuse to even entertain the idea that their heroes could be doing something wrong.

Seriously, people.  Make an effort to be objective.  Be skeptical of the things you want to believe as well as the things you don't want to believe.  Ask yourself, "What is the truth, and how can I find it?  What is a method that is likely to reveal the truth?  If I am wrong, how will I know?  What are the risks to being wrong?  How sure am I?"

Because at this point, I'm beginning to think that the root of evil is actually ignorance.  And a lot of that ignorance is willful.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Enriched dough and the things it makes

The other day I got a compliment from a friend on my chocolate rolls.  Of course I was very chuffed.  (My feelings on baking have to be expressed in British-isms, because of British Baking Show.)  So I thought I'd share the recipe for the dough, plus a few of the different things I've made out of the same dough.

Chocolate couronne

Simple bread dough is just flour, water, salt, and yeast.  That makes a nice fluffy bread, but when you want sweet rolls, you add different ingredients to enrich the dough: butter, milk, eggs, and/or sugar.  That makes a very soft bread that doesn't form a hard crust on the outside, and pairs well with toppings like cinnamon or chocolate.  Here's my recipe:

Enriched Dough

1 cup milk
1/4 cup melted butter
1 egg
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 1/4 tsp (1 packet) yeast
3+ cups all-purpose white flour

Mix together everything but the flour.  I like to warm up the milk and melt the butter before adding them, but it's important not to get it so hot it kills the yeast.  Just warm is fine.  That'll speed up the rise a bit.

Add in three cups of flour and mix it well.  This probably won't be enough flour, so keep adding more as you mix -- probably with your hands at this point.  Once it's come together as a big lump of dough, turn it out on a floured counter and start to knead.  Keep sprinkling flour if it's still very sticky.  Knead about eight minutes or until it feels smooth and only a little bit sticky.

Enriched dough can rise a little slower than plain dough.  Cover it tightly and leave it in a warm place for at least an hour.  An hour and a half is better, unless it's already rising out of the bowl before then.  At this point you can refrigerate it, tightly covered, if you're not going to bake it today.  Otherwise, shape into whatever shape you want and leave for half an hour.  Preheat the oven to 350 and pop it in.  How long to bake it depends on the shape, but it should be golden brown on top and not squishy on the sides.  Rolls will be done within 20 minutes, but a loaf will be a good bit longer.

Cherry kolache

So what do I make out of it?  Donuts are a big hit -- just fry instead of baking.  Cinnamon rolls are good -- roll it out into a rectangle, spread butter and sugar inside, roll it up, and slice into individual rolls.  You can also do the same thing with other fillings, like jam or Nutella.  Couronne, babka, and kolache can be made with the same dough.

What I'm making today is a very easy kind of stuffed bread.  You just roll out the dough in a rectangle, spread filling in the middle, and fold in the sides.  You do need to cut some slashes in the top so that steam can escape.  I've used a variety of fillings from sliced apples to pie filling.  Today I'm doing cream cheese and cherry pie filling, because I'm a lily-gilder apparently.

Just roll it flat, add fillings...


...fold and slash some vents...


...let it rise, and bake for forty minutes or so.



Be sure to cool it down before you slice it, or the fillings will all spill out!


If you try my recipe, I'd love to hear what you make and how it works for you!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Cracking the code on sibling rivalry

"Sibling rivalry" is a weak phrase for what I've actually experienced with my kids.  My brother and I had a "rivalry."  My children fight to the death.

Over the years, I've tried a lot of things from "let them duke it out, eventually they'll find it wasn't worth it," to "leap to intervene asap" to "punish both kids."  The trouble with options one and three is that the kids already don't like fighting, they simply don't have the knowledge or maturity to avoid it.  And the trouble with option two is that I'm only one person and after the first few dozen times dragging children apart, I get exhausted.

But things have gotten a lot better recently, and I feel like I have some level of a handle on the reasons they fight and how to prevent them.  Don't get me wrong, part of the reason things are better now is that my children are older.  It is possible that any family with an autistic four-year-old, a two-year-old, and an infant is going to involve a lot of kicking and biting, because none of the children has the self-control not to behave that way.  But I'm going to take credit for at least some of the improvement, because I notice it quickly when I implement my ideas.

Basically, my system is to stop waiting for fights to break out, and start orchestrating positive interactions ahead of time.  I used to think micromanaging children's interactions was too helicoptery, but given the amount of conflict we had, it really is necessary.  I am starting with the assumption that my children want to get along with each other but don't know how.  So I need to be very involved, at least some of the time, to teach them directly the many skills that go into getting along with a peer.

I mean, what are the reasons for conflict among children?  One of the biggest reasons is a lack of understanding.  One child thinks his sister is going to push him, when she was just trying to get by.  Or she thinks the comment her brother made was specifically intended to upset her, when it wasn't.

Another reason is the lack of self-control; a child quickly escalates from "someone offended me" to smacking without a whole lot of thought going into it. 

A third reason is that a child is rankling over something that happened earlier, and is seeing a sibling as an enemy till further notice.

The last reason that comes to mind is that children don't know how to negotiate for compromises, so they assume that anyone who isn't doing exactly what they want is going to do nothing they want.

So, watching their interaction, I can often intervene at the point when trouble first starts to brew.  For instance, Michael says "I'm a lion" and Miriam starts to shriek because she thinks this means no one is going to play princesses.  I can quickly jump in and say, "Michael, Miriam wants to play princesses instead.  Can this be a princess game with lions in it?"  Often this is all it takes.  Or, "Marko, Miriam isn't going to hit you, she was hoping she could hug you, is that okay?"  Or, "Michael is pretending we're in the North Pole, he's not saying wrong things on purpose to upset you."  That helps a lot.

Another thing, which I've mentioned before, is making sure kids are aware that I will intervene quickly.  When I physically stop fights as soon as they start, or before the first blow falls, they stop being so hypervigilant and seeing conflict everywhere.  And when I verbally scold or give a timeout to the aggressor, the victim gets over their offense a lot faster.  They want to know that something has been done to ensure it won't happen again.

Last of all, and this is something that can be done at any time, is to just take over and organize positive interactions among the kids.  Very often they would like to play together but can't think of a game they all like.  Or they'd like to play together but don't know how to start.  Or sometimes one kid is feeling crabby at another, so getting just those two together and suggesting some fun things they can do goes for a lot.

All of this is especially important in our family, because Marko is the oldest and frankly terrible at the leadership skills other oldest children often have.  But it helps all the kids.  They're learning, bit by bit, that if they want to play with their siblings, or they want to feel that their siblings like them, they have to start something.  Sometimes Marko thinks the others don't like him, so I encourage him to do something nice for them.  Sure enough, they are happy about that and do it back to him.  They give each other thumbs-ups and hugs and offer to share favorite toys.

I have had this fear, ever since the boys were three and one and started fighting over everything, that my kids were going to grow up hating each other.  So far, that isn't so.  But it does take a heck of a lot of work to manage.  I'm hoping as they grow in social skills and self-control, it will slowly take less.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Appropriating victimhood

In the progressive movement, there tends to be a sharp division between victims and allies -- if you are a victim of something, the rules are different for you than they are for allies.  Likewise if you are an oppressed minority, the rules are different from someone who is more privileged.  Privileged people are supposed to do all the work to understand those who are oppressed; they can't speak for them; they're supposed to listen.  Intersectionality is the understanding that people can be privileged in some ways while oppressed in others.  For instance, a white person may be privileged due to skin color, but oppressed due to poverty.  So because of that, they are supposed to listen to black people on the subject of racism, but they're allowed to be central in a conversation about poverty.

I don't really have a problem with all that.  I learned early in life that a good joke punches up -- that it's funny when someone respected or powerful is the butt of the joke, but when you pick someone disadvantaged, it's just mean.  But there's a new trend that's beginning to worry me.

See, in a competitive culture, everyone wants to be powerful.  You hide your weaknesses and try to be brave, because peers will be merciless.  Ours is more about a preferential option for victims -- we try to be extra nice to people with an obvious disadvantage.  But the problem is, soon everyone wants to be a victim.  After all, that's how you get sympathy.

And that's how this new trend got started when everyone started claiming to a victim.  Men?  Victims.  White people?  Victims.  Christians?  Victims.  It doesn't matter that these people have (in our country at least) the vast majority of both political and economic power.  They can always point to some disadvantage they have.  Men, for instance, commit suicide more often than women.  White people are accused of being racist sometimes.  Christians get mocked in ways that, in our country, polite people never joke about Muslims.  Basically people from dominant groups are arguing that political correctness -- the protection of "victim" groups -- has turned them into the new victims.

I find it pretty infuriating, because the hidden assumption throughout is, "We are being oppressed, so in order for things to be fair, we need more power than we have."  Which is a reasonable thing for a group that is actually being oppressed to say -- I mean, yes, black people could stand to have more money and women should hold more public offices and people should harass immigrants a lot less.  But if you're not being oppressed, it raises the question of what you actually want.  If you are speaking for straight white males and you claim that your group is being oppressed, what can possibly be a corrective that will satisfy you?  You already have most of the government and the CEOs of most Fortune 500 companies and most judges and most police officers and on and on and on.  What do you want, one hundred percent straight white males?  Or are you just concerned that some straight white males care too much about women and minorities, to the point of ever hiring them or awarding them custody?

I guess I have three main points here.

First, it actually matters whether or not you are being oppressed.  Microaggressions like jokes or wearing your culture's clothing are no big deal generally if you're not being oppressed.  Irish-Americans generally can laugh at St. Paddy's Day jokes because they're not meant seriously; but one hundred years ago those were dead serious and Irish people would never have laughed at them.  The difference is that when you're denied jobs, service in some businesses, and a position in respectable society, those jokes hurt a lot more.  So I don't think it's hypocritical to say that you shouldn't make black people the butt of jokes, and at the same time say that white people should have a thicker skin if they hear an occasional joke about themselves.

Second, suffering and oppression are not the same thing.  Oppression suggests that something is unfair, that the oppressed person has a lack of power which needs to be rectified somehow.  So I will freely agree that a man who identifies as incel is probably suffering.  I empathize with it.  But I can't agree that he is oppressed, because he has everything reasonable for him to have: a free shot at convincing someone else to love him.  We all have that, but we can't have anything more without encroaching on another person's freedom.  To call himself oppressed suggests that he doesn't want women to have freedom, and obviously women feel threatened by this.

Third, maybe it would be better if, at least when talking with the general public, we phased out all this talk about victimhood, oppression, and privilege and talked instead about fairness.  Everyone should have the same things, and any small differences should be about making up larger differences.  If we talk about fairness, it soon becomes clear that fairness is the last thing (for instance) that MRA's want.  They want every situation where things are unfair for them to be rectified (no domestic violence shelters for women unless men get one too!  equal custody!) but they generally want to keep any inequalities they benefit from.  That's a distinction that can be lost when we're busy arguing about privilege (a word many conservatives find offensive) or who the real victim is.  It's possible that men are victims of some things -- weaker friendships, poor mental health, a lack of role models -- and women are victims of other things, like rape or discrimination.  So it's not a matter of victims and oppressors, heroes and villains, as it is about rectifying things in our society that cause unhappiness -- preferably without taking away anything from anyone else.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Body horror and alternative medicine

I've been thinking lately about how the emotions of disgust, horror, and fear lead people to reject conventional medicine and sometimes to turn to alternative cures.

All humans have a disgust reaction.  It keeps us from pooping where we eat, among other things.  But I've noticed there's a wide variety in the things people feel disgusted by.  These can be personal or mediated by our culture.  For instance, people in my culture are generally disgusted by the thought of eating bugs, because we don't eat them.  However, people in my culture usually are fine with the thought of eating clams or shrimp, while I can't make myself put those things in my mouth. 

Disgust goes beyond eating, though.  Feelings of disgust may underlie some of our moral choices, such as sexual rules.  There may be reasons why we think incest is wrong, but those reasons are strongly reinforced by a feeling of, "incest, ick, that's just wrong."

For me, the thing I have the strongest disgust reaction to is what I've heard called "body horror."  You know, blood, guts, and gore.  But violent injury is not as disgusting to me as medical scenes - like that scene in House where they trepan a lady's skull with a rock drill.  *shudder*  The thought of the body out of place or invaded, or foreign substances inside the body, makes my skin crawl.  It's the worst.

I don't think this stems from any particular trauma; I had very little contact with doctors as a child since I was in excellent health.  But I have always hated having to take medicine ... the thought of the foreign substance inside my body, changing it, switching functions off and on ... brr!  I have slowly, with effort, gotten used to ibuprofen, but cough medicine still requires a little pep talk.  Needles are worse.  But, given the choice, I'd rather have blood drawn than anything injected.  If you get blood drawn, the second the needle is pulled out the horror is gone, but when you get a shot, that foreign substance is still inside you.  I get all kinds of psychosomatic reactions to shots; I always feel like I am going to get sick from them, though I never have.

People in the 18th century worried vaccines would turn them into cows

Anyway, I can say, with the wisdom of hindsight, that a lot of why I didn't want to get vaccines for my kids stemmed from this emotional reaction.  Shots are scary and feel dangerous to me, so why would I get them for my kids?  And any book or article that confirmed that they were scary and dangerous felt very believable to me.

So why, after all this fear and disgust of doctors, would people turn to alternative providers?  Well, I think alternative providers are well aware of who they're dealing with, and so they're very careful to avoid provoking the same reaction.  Look, it's just a plant!  So basically it's like drinking tea or eating salad.  Look, you don't even have to eat this one, just diffuse it in the air or rub it on the skin!  See, I'll just give you a special massage and your own body will heal itself!

But sometimes, these providers play with that reaction in a way that's more sinister.  What is grosser than having to take medicine?  Parasites.  And that's why so many of these weird made-up diseases that alternative providers claim to treat are parasitic -- worms, tick-born diseases, fungal overgrowth.  Stuff that's so icky that people will take literally any medication -- turpentine, bleach, IV antibiotics -- to get rid of it.  I struggled even to study parasitic diseases in middle school because they're so gross, and I would always feel like I was getting symptoms of them.  There can be no actual evidence that the person has any parasites, but as long as they're thinking of parasites, they feel awful and want someone to treat them.  And that's my theory as to why people who believe in chronic Lyme often claim to have any number of other tick-born diseases.  If you rule out Lyme, why would your next idea be a more rare illness also transmitted by ticks?  The answer is, ticks are super gross.  I have been scared of ticks long before I found out about Lyme disease because they are horrifying.  It's easy to convince people they are basically biological time-bombs waiting to go off.  And if it has the side effect of making parents paranoid about ever letting their children play outside . . . who cares?  The quack still gets paid.

Medicine is a really difficult field, in part, because of all this subjectivity.  If you feel like you're sick, you can convince yourself you're sick.  If you think you're taking a cure, suddenly you stop noticing your symptoms.  And, of course, people spontaneously fall sick and get well all the time.  I've been reading about medical history lately, and it's just fascinating how many crazy cures people strongly believed in -- because they had tried them and the person had gotten better.  Only in the past 200 years ago have we really gotten serious about controlling those results by seeing if people get well more or less often on their own or with the treatment.  Without that, it really is a mess.  I remember thinking for months that Marko had food sensitivities because of his random screaming and refusing to nurse.  I cut out basically everything and it seemed to help ... or else he grew out of that stage.  Who can say?  I eventually added everything back in and he was fine.  And then like a year later he had night terrors and I tried doing it all over.  But after awhile I decided that I'd never be able to sort out the different foods it could be when the behaviors I had an issue with were intermittent anyway.

Alternative medicine throws out the whole model of control groups and random studies and instead says: just try the thing and see if you get better.  If you do, that proves it works!  They're basically working on all our biases and inability to generalize, as well as our fear and disgust of medical procedures, so that we'll buy their products.

It's funny that I should turn from being so crunchy to writing posts against alternative medicine, but I just get mad realizing how easily manipulated I was.  I really needed to believe that only what is natural is good, that my body could heal itself of anything, that if I ate right I'd never be sick.  My one salvation was that I was too cheap to buy any of the expensive cure-alls.  I stuck to elimination diets and fermented vegetables (which I still believe in, though they probably won't cure cancer) and never going to the doctor.  There are worse things.  Some people spend fortunes on natural treatments.  Some develop such food anxiety that they pour every ounce of their energy on making sure no white flour passes their children's lips.  Some miss serious illnesses because they won't see a real doctor for them.  And some have serious reactions to the supposedly "safe" medicines they've taken.  And that really upsets me.  It's taken thousands of years for medicine to get to the state where it finally does more good than harm, and people want to throw it away and go back to the good old days where one in three children died before five.

What should be done?  Well, I could certainly wish that mainstream doctors were more considerate of people's feelings.  I often feel that they find patients' emotions a burden they don't want to deal with.  Maybe it has something to do with med school being so grueling that it weeds out patient, empathetic people early on.  Or maybe they just have to see too many patients a day.  Doctors should take the time to explain risks and benefits of everything, and make sure the patient feels like the agent of his care rather than having it forced on him.  I also think people should be better educated about biology, so that kids graduate from high school knowing how to read a study and differentiate a high-quality study from one that isn't.  Everyone should be taught in school about the history of medicine -- how common diseases were before we found out how to cure them, and how we managed to prove the germ theory of disease.  (Even today there are people insisting it's "just a theory.")

And for me, I have learned to accept that my reaction of horror to a treatment tells me nothing about whether that treatment is any good for me.  Luckily my kids don't seem to feel the same.  They're scared of shots, but when the shot is over, they like to think of their cells making antibodies to fight germs.  I'm glad they haven't got my hangups.  For me, it's all I can do to drag myself to the doctor more often than never.
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