Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Recognizing Intolerance, The Easy Way.

Chances are, this has happened to you too: You start feeling slightly uncomfortable while listening to somebody, like there's something wrong with something they've just said, but somehow you can't quite put your finger on it.

Take, for example, Pope Francis' recent remarks on Homosexuality:

"The problem is not having this orientation, it is lobbying," he said. "That's the most serious problem I think.

"If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?"

That's great news, right? The Pope promoting tolerance of Gay people - perhaps there is actual change happening in the catholic church! Except, I can't seem to get rid of that funny feeling. Am I just prejudiced after years of criticizing the Pope? Have I become so used to the role of condemning everything the Pope says that I now feel the need to find something wrong with every statement he makes, even good ones? Am I being queasy for no reason here?

Well luckily, there's an easy way to test this. It works like this: Most of us have extremely well trained alarm-bells with regards to racism - It's just one of those things most of us have very little trouble spotting. So, to exploit that fact, all we need to do is to take the above statement, and change its content from gay vs straight to black vs white. While otherwise keeping the wording intact. The result looks something like this:

"The problem is not having black skin, it is lobbying," he said. "That's the most serious problem I think.

"If someone is black and seeks to act white with good will, who am I to judge?"

Suddenly, the reason for my uneasy feeling becomes very clear.

I highly recommend doing this every time somebody makes a public statement regarding any minority. Especially when what they're saying is designed to make them seem open-minded and tolerant. Gays, atheists, women - whatever they're talking about, just write down the exact statement and then replace the minority with "black". I promise, you'll be shocked what kind of statements you almost let people get away with.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Moral Case for Vegetarianism

I have stated before that any sensible stand on ethics will inevitably lead to vegetarianism if consistently followed.
The shortest and simplest version of the argument I can think of is this:

Premise a): There is an ethical responsibility to avoid inflicting unnecessary suffering.
Premise b): In a western society, survival is not dependent on the consumption of animal products.
Conclusion/Premise c): All suffering that arises from the consumption of animal products is unnecessary suffering.

Conclusion: There is an ethical responsibility to avoid consuming animal products.

So far, so good. But I've had this discussion often enough to know that few people will leave it at that. By now I have a pretty good clue what's coming, so let me pre-empt a few of the obligatory defenses for meat-consumption that people will come up with:

 


The Naturalist's Argument:

Humans have been eating meat for thousands of years. Eating meat is our nature.
Humans are omnivores. We're able to digest just about anything, and that means our diet is our choice. And where there is choice, ethics applies. Also, you might wanna look up 'appeal to nature' - You'll find that it's a logical fallacy.

 


The Localist's Argument:

Factory-Farming's bad, but eating locally grown meat can't be wrong. (In other words: "How about we're just really nice to our cows before we slaughter them?")
You'd still kill them. Shockingly, that still qualifies as an infliction of unnecessary suffering. Of course it's better than steak from factory-farms, but it's still suffering that is inflicted on conscious beings for no other reason than that you enjoy the taste.
I'd further like to point out that by the same line of reasoning, a parent can justify eating their kid, as long as they loved him and treated him well until they decided to end his life because 12-year-olds taste just so damn good.

 


The Argument from Tigers:

But other animals eat meat, too! You wouldn't judge a tiger for eating meat!
That's right: I do not judge a tiger for its diet, for the same reason I don't judge a rock for falling on somebody's head. The tiger has no say in the matter. The key word here is choice, because only where there is choice there is the responsibility to choose wisely. A tiger can't help itself. You, on the other hand, you decide whether to buy a factory-farmed steak or rather eat a vegetable stew instead. Your infliction of suffering is a choice, and thus you're responsible for making it.

 


The Hypothetical-Plant-Suffering Argument:

You know, plants react to their surroundings, too! Not to mention all the insects and other tiny animals that are killed in the process of harvesting all those plants. As long as your diet isn't free from suffering, how dare you judge me for eating the flesh of dead baby cows?
Let's just ignore for a moment that most plant's fabled reactions to their surroundings are purely mechanical and/or chemical in nature, not unlike a flower-pot displaying the "reaction" of falling down after being pushed over an edge. Even if the claim that plants suffer is taken at face value, it overlooks the very basic fact that animals, too, require food.
So for each and every unit of vegetarian diet I consume, a meat-eater's food has eaten several times that amount of vegetarian diet prior to its killing. In the end, basic maths destroys the argument.
Eating meat is just a terribly inefficient way to process a plant diet: A cow consumes 6kg of grain to produce single kilogram of meat. So whatever amounts of plant matter I consume and whatever amount of suffering is entailed in its production, it takes at least six times that amount to feed the animal which will eventually end up as a steak on your plate. It is also worth noting that I used the words "at least" because a 6:1 grain-to-meat-conversion ratio is the most careful estimate I could find. Other estimates, taking into account the energy consumed by the transport, animal sheltering and other intermediate steps in the production of meat, run as high as 23:1.
So in order to debunk the argument I do not even need to engage the highly ridiculous notion that plants, despite their lack of nervous systems, are capable of "suffering" in any meaningful sense of the term. The question is moot, because whatever suffering there is entailed in a veggie diet, any meat diet entails that amount multiplied by six, plus the suffering of the animal itself.
To put it another way: If your argument is that both of us consume living organisms, my answer is that I consume living organisms, while you consume living organisms who consume six times as many living organisms as I do.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Where I've Been and What Happens Next

As you may have noticed, I've been gone for a while. Quite a few things have happened since last I posted here with anything resembling regularity, most notably my graduation as a certified technician for bio-labs and my subsequent enrollment as a student of molecular biomedicine at the University of Bonn, Germany. My introductory courses have just started, and so far everything is looking awesome.

The past two years have been a time of near-constant challanges both personal and professional. Besides having made the decision to pursue a career in biotech and taking the first steps towards that goal, a series of events in my private life have caused me to reconsider not just my definition of friendship, but of interpersonal relations in general. It hasn't been easy, but I like to think that I've grown considerably throughout this episode. Anyway, I won't bore you with the details of my private life.

Among the abundance of changes and adjustments, one of the decisions I've made is to return to the blogosphere. I've been far from idle during my absense, collecting ideas and taking notes, so I'm hoping to ramp up my level of productivity compared to my last episode of active blogging. Further and more importantly, I'm planning to take my activism to the real world. The status of being a student brings with it some quite interesting opportunities in this regard, most noticably the option of founding a student group, which would entail not just rent-free rooms for meetings, but also extremely low-rent lecture halls for events as well as the option of receiving University funding for larger cultural and/or political projects. This is an extremely exciting prospect, provided I'll be able to find a total of four other Humanist students for the founding of the group.

So, that's my situation at the moment: Excited freshman settling into uni life, with many an unoccuppied hour in between lectures that I will hopefully spend not only learning, but writing as well.

Monday, June 11, 2012

"Pastor in Houston Publicly Comes Out as Atheist" - News Coverage Displays a Amazing Lack of Empathy

I just read the story about the Houston Pastor who publicly came out as an atheist. If you haven't yet, the link can be found here. The story doesn't provide his reasons - neither for losing his faith, nor for making this public - but of course they interview plenty of churchy people who are, of course, all shocked and disgusted. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But around the 2:30 min. mark of the video they interview some Keith Jenkins, who is described as a "Former School of Theology President". And he gives us his opinion on those still-in-closet-atheists who still serve as Pastors:





"They need to move on. They don't need to stay within the church. And especially use their position to try to take others with them."

(emphasis mine)


I find this quite sickening, for what it reveals about the speaker. The moment these people were described as "atheists", they stopped being humans to him. They became evil things, dangers that every good christian needs to be protected against. His conclusion is clear: They need to leave the church. Now. He fails to make even the most basic connection, fails to see any implication of the situation at all. Somehow he jumped to his conclusion so quickly that he forgot that a pastor, every pastor, is somebody who has made a decision. He is somebody who based his entire life on his church. Clergy who lose their faith stand to lose it all: Not just their job (that part's for sure), but likely also both their friends and their family. Worse, they never learned anything that might be even remotely useful for a different job. What are you going to do with a degree in theology when no church will hire you? But this doesn't even enter good Keith's equation; it doesn't even cross his mind. To him, atheists are evil destructive elements, which need to be kept away from church. And of course the only reason an atheist might stay in the church at all is to "[ab]use his position to try and take others with him." For the sheer hell of it, supposedly. You know, simply because that's what we atheists do: Destroying other people's faith and eating babies.

I can think of no more obvious "no way out" scenario than a priest without faith. Such a person may pretty much write a book or go hungry - there is almost no imaginable employment. There is also an enormous loss of trust by friends and family who will all feel betrayed when he tells them that he's been living a lie for who knows how many years.
Again, the fact that they are literally no options for somebody faced with this scenario is glaringly obvious. But not to the likes of Keith Jenkins. He doesn't see the obvious - he only sees evil that needs to go away.

There are very few things in the world today that I find more scary than the fact that this kind of Person earns his money preaching "love thy neighbor" but is unable to see anything but evil when faced with personal tragedy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why I Regret My Last Post

So, it turns out that the last story I commented on was complete and utter bullshit. I failed to do some basic fact-checking before I eagerly pointed my finger, and for that I'd like to apologize.

To those who don't know what I'm talking about: There was a talk about income equality at the latest TED conference, which wasn't posted to the TED homepage. And I hastily jumped the bandwagon, adding my voice to the public outcry at this oh-so-unfair censorship.
Luckily for all of us, TED-Curator Chris Anderson has written a blog post at TED setting the record straight regarding this story. I suggest that anybody who reads this head over there now and read what he has to say, even if you were already doubting the story, or hadn't even heard about the whole deal.

Because there is a lesson here.

A lesson about PR, about public opinion, about uninformed outrage and demonization, about being quick to accuse, and most of all, about the importance of basic fact-checking before forming an opinion on any topic of controversy.

The truth is that in this case, I seized on a cheap opportunity. For once I was among the early ones hearing about a story, and since I felt bad for neglecting the blog these past few months, I took the shot at writing a quick and effortless post that had the potential to harvest some traffic from google.

The upside is, I learned something today. I realized that even though I'd like to post more often, and even though I don't do that for there exist more pressing matters in my private life that need my undivided attention at the moment, lowering the quality of my posts is not the way I want to choose for mending this situation. The situation I'm in won't change for a few more weeks - perhaps even months. I'll graduate as a Technical Assistant for Biolabs in a few days, and from there it's off to finding a place at uni, hopefully studying Molecular Biomedicine; with all the adjustments that entails. Perhaps bridging the time in between with another internship. Who knows?

So I will keep neglecting this blog a little longer. As much as I love writing, and even though my head is full to the brim with posts I'd like to write, this can't be my priority right now.

But rest assured, I will be back. As soon as the changes are done and I have some routine and security, I shall start publishing my stuff regularly again. Until then, there will be little - but at least the quality of content will not suffer for it. And if that decision will cost me what few subscribers I have, then so be it.