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Scout Perception

OK, one more Hugo Schwyzer-inspired post. I plead lack of time, which has led me to crop my daily blog-reading down to just Alas, Schwyzer, and Mouse Words some days. Hugo has taken a lot of flak for a post in which he pointed out the sexism of PETA's tactics but ultimately expressed support for the organization. He responded with a post pointing out that emphasizing ideological purity too much would leave him a member only of the Hugo Schwyzer Fan Club. In comments, I said:

To me, it's a matter of cost-benefit analysis. Does the organization I'm supporting do more good than harm? My (unposted) criticism of your previous post, which I think a number of other commenters share, is not that you're not pure enough. Of course we all have to compromise in order to join anything but the me fan club. My concern, though, is that you're focusing too much on the animal-rights benefits achieved by PETA and not considering that they're outweighed by the sexist, weight-ist, and anti-Semitic costs of PETA. Now, you may weigh the two sides against each other differently -- certainly my support for animal rights is much softer than yours (I'm not even fully vegetarian), so a unit of sexism goes farther in souring the deal for me -- but it's the tradeoffs, not the lack of purity, which lead me to disagree with your stance on PETA.

I also mentioned that my potentially controversial organization to support would be the Boy Scouts. I've made the rational argument for my continued support before (for example, here). In brief, I think the good that the Scouts do for straight religious boys and their communities outweighs the harms done by their anti-gay and anti-atheist policies.

I also think a couple of points from the risk perception literature shed some light on the issue (then again, since I'm so immersed in that literature right now, it seems to shed light on everything, or at least divert my attention from anything it can't explain*). The first issue is the "availability heuristic." People are more concerned about things that they can more easily bring to mind. Because the Scouts get so much news coverage when they kick out gays and atheists, those are the first things that come to a typical non-Scout's mind when they think of the organization. On the other hand, my six years as a Scout weigh more heavily in my mind, so my first thoughts are of service projects and camping trips, learning and character-building. My personal experience was of an organization that was formally religious yet tolerant of atheists, and that made nary a mention of sexuality.

The second issue is control. People are willing to accept far larger risks if they're voluntary and/or controllable. In part, this is due to an inflated sense of our own competence. So we'll happily drive a car or smoke a cigarette, but we'll scream bloody murder if someone wants to build a nuclear plant next to us, even though the nuclear plant has a far tinier chance of killing us. Yet we'll allow a hazardous facility like a nuclear plant if a citizen panel is given the authority to review plant records and shut the place down at any time if they don't like what they see. In the Boy Scout case, I am an Eagle Scout. So I feel like I have some (small) amount of control over the Scouts' policy. Thus the Scouts aren't Those People doing horrible things over there, they're people like me -- and I know that I, at least, am willing to listen to reason about sexuality and religion issues. So I'm more optimistic that the Scouts will grow more inclusive over time.

*This parenthetical remark is an application of the basic notions of Cultural Theory, proving that my immersion in the risk literature has gone meta.


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