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Dumbledore Beats St. Paul

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. ... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
-- St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15: 15 and 17

Of course it's all in your head, Harry, but why should that mean it isn't real?
-- Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The first quote above is one of the cornerstones of the prevailing modern approach to Christianity. This is the "authoritative truth" approach, in which what is essential in Christianity is to believe in the truth of certain doctrines about God and Jesus. Following St. Paul, the argument is that Christianity is meaningless if Jesus was not literally the son of God, did not actually get crucified around 33 CE in Judea, and did not really rise from the dead three days later. The emphasis of Christian work is then evangelizing this truth.

When the truth of the stories in the Bible becomes central to what Christianity is about, then a conflict between the authority of faith in (one interpretation of) the Bible and other sources of truth becomes inevitable. Christians are forced to take on evolutionary biology, either engaging in pathetic mental gymnastics to reconcile Genesis and Darwin or brazenly denying the legitimacy of science. And you get spectacles (which would be funny if so many people didn't sincerely agree) like apologist Josh McDowell decrying the internet for exposing young people to non-Christian ideas and tempting them to exercise skepticism about things they're told.

I juxtapose St. Paul's quote with Dumbledore's because some elements of Harry Potter fandom do a much better job of capturing what really ought to be important about religion. With the Harry Potter books, there's no question that the stories are fictional -- there is no Harry Potter, there is no Hogwarts, there is no real magic. And yet, as this great article describes, the fan community that has grown up around the books offers much of the same things that religion has traditionally offered. Harry Potter fandom brings fellowship, inspiration, personal guidance, and the organization to do good in the wider world. The article's descriptions of the fan community's activities, and particularly of the charity-oriented Harry Potter Alliance, match up with what I've heard from a good friend who was heavily involved in the fandom and HPA for many years (I myself have only read the first book). And yet Harry Potter fandom manages to do all that without asking you to believe the stories are true. The stories function as myths in the anthropological sense -- they give the community a common reference point and a language for talking about and exploring their values. The stories in the Christian Bible could and should function that way too (I know I find value in many of them despite being an atheist), but modern Christians are too hung up on the alleged vital importance of their literal truth. One of the things that drew me to Unitarian Universalism was the idea that we could choose the myths that were genuinely inspiring and useful, rather than worrying about whether they actually happened (I recall one service where our reading was from the Dead Marshes section of Tolkien's The Two Towers).

My point is not that truth doesn't matter or is relative -- without accurate information about the situation on the ground in Haiti and what aid strategies are effective, HPA's efforts to help really would be in vain. But the point is that communicating facts about the world is not the function of myths, be they found in ancient scriptures or contemporary young adult novels. Insisting that all religion (or things-serving-the-functions-of-religion) must follow the authoritative truth model prevents atheists from seeing the value in religion just as much as it locks religious people into a protective echo chamber.

Getting away from the authoritative truth model also allows a community to be evolving and self-critical. J.K. Rowling may be a brilliant and inspiring writer, but she's not God. So fans are free to criticize the cheesy heteronormative epilogue, or the treatment of the house elves, and reconstruct the story in their own way. This is much like the way folktalkes and mythologies in nonliterate societies work, and it allows people to rethink and readapt their belief systems. On the other hand, fixating on the authoritative truth of the Bible prevents you from altering one jot or tittle of the canonical version. Where Harry Potter fandom gains strength from embracing fanfic, Christians must brand their fanfic writers heretics. The ability to evolve, and to be honest about the fact that you're evolving, is vital.


Thoughts on Pseudonyms and Google+

I'll admit I don't get the hoopla over Google+. It has a few nifty tweaks (like an "other" category when you choose your gender*) but mostly seems to be Facebook except that not as many of my friends are on it. I'm not sure I'm ready to endorse Richard Chapman's extremely cynical take on Google+'s motives for, among other things, their crackdown on pseudonymity, but I'm not ready to entirely dismiss it either. On the general topic of online pseudonymity, I generally stand behind what I wrote several years ago. Following are a few additional thoughts:

1. If the standard is to use your "real name," how do we define "real name"? Most people assume this is defined by your legal name, so my real name is Stentor Danielson. But I doubt anyone who heard my parents calling me "Stenny" or my students calling me "Dr. Danielson" would protest that they're not using my real name (nor would anyone insist I use my middle name, even though it's on all of my official legal ID just like my first and last names). So what about my brother Zeke? You might say that Zeke is obviously not his real name since his birth certificate has the very different-sounding "Patrick," but in fact "Zeke" does derive ultimately from "Patrick" (via the babytalk mispronunciation "Patzeek").

2. The usual claim is that using one's real name forces you to "stand behind" what you say, because your words are linked to your identity. But in some cases, using your "real name" actually obscures the link to your identity if people commonly know you as someone else. I have a large number of friends from an internet message board, and when I talk to people from that board I refer to other board people by their board screen names. I've declined Facebook friend requests from board members because their FB account uses their real name but I only know them by their board name. (Indeed, I met Richard Chapman, who I linked to above, on said board under a very different name.) Perhaps this could be solved by an internet-wide "real names" policy, so that I would have gotten to know those people by their real names in the first place, but even Google is not in a position to enforce that (yet).

3. Insofar as real names provide "accountability" in the first place (am I going to go to someone's house and punch their offline face for something bad they did online?), the level of accountability provided by a name (real or otherwise) is directly proportional to the rarity of the name and the amount of corroborating details given by the person. As far as I know I'm the only Stentor Danielson on the planet (and by far the Stentor with the largest internet presence), so it's pretty easy to connect my personas in various forums based on my name alone. But I personally know two Matthew Campbells, and this site says there are over a million more in the US alone. Were I to be harassed online by a Matthew Campbell, I would have no way of knowing who it was unless he decided to also, say, include in his profile that he was a member of the Colgate University class of '02. Conversely, if a pseudonymous harasser dropped enough such personal details, I might be able to work out their identity even without the help of a name.

*It's not clear to me why services like this insist on knowing your gender as one of the fundamental pieces of information about you. On Facebook I assumed it was a legacy of the site's original use as a hookup-facilitator for college students.


Porn is Not a Bargaining Chip

Hugo Schwyzer recently got into a debate with Aaron Gouveia, later expanding his view on his own blog, over the question of whether one partner in a romantic relationship has the right to insist that the other stop looking at pornography. Schwyzer's view, which I more or less agree with, is that it's reasonable to request a porn-free relationship and reasonable to want a porn-allowed relationship. Most of his prominent antagonists, including Gouveia and Dan Savage, argue that the porn-hater is making an unreasonable request (though I'm sure there are also people whose reaction is that the porn-allower is making the unreasonable request).

But I think one reason this debate has become so stubborn is that it gets framed as a matter of bargaining. Schwyzer states the bargaining position framing forcefully, speaking of the sacrifices that we must make to balance our relationships. So "I want to look at porn" and "I don't want you looking at porn" get taken as elements in an negotiation offer, much like proposed tax cuts and service cuts in Congress's debate over raising the debt ceiling. These positions are staked out by the parties and then can be held to or compromised away in exchange for some other gain.

I would rather see partners' differing ideas about porn (as well as other relationship disagreements) as a starting point for exploring the type of relationship that each partner wants to build. Schwyzer writes of a hypothetical man whose "girlfriend, for any number of reasons, doesn't want him masturbating to images of other women." As I see it, the girlfriend's reasons are absolutely critical. To start from the fact that she simply doesn't like his porn habits forces us into the bargaining model, asking whether one party or the other can agree to give ground to make the relationship work.

Later in the post Schwyzer references two possible reasons that the girlfriend might want him to abstain from porn -- sexual exclusivity and radical feminism. It makes sense to me that someone being asked to refrain from looking at porn could react differently when faced with an anti-porn request depending on which rationale lies behind it.

Sexual exclusivity (the primary reason, as I understand it, why Schwyzer's marriage is porn-free) is based on the idea that the anti-porn girlfriend wants her boyfriend's sexual energy directed exclusively at her. That rationale then implies a lot more about how she wants the relationship to be structured than simply that it would be porn-free. The radical feminist request to eliminate porn from the relationship is based on an analysis of porn as inherently exploitative of women and encouraging of an objectifying approach to sex and to male-female interaction more generally. A boyfriend who began with a desire to continue looking at porn might be inclined to say "I see the value in the form of sexual exclusivity that you're looking for and I would like to join you in seeking it, and I'll give up porn as part of our journey. But the same boyfriend might be inclined to respond to the radical feminist request by saying "I disagree with the radfem analysis of porn, and I would not be comfortable being in a relationship which is based on the tenets of radical feminism." A different boyfriend might reject the sexual exclusivity model but be open to radical feminism. Either way, the right to use porn is no longer a bargaining chip that each partner must decide if they'd rather give it up or walk away from the relationship. It's a starting point for thinking about what kind of relationship you're building.

Treating "yes porn" and "no porn" as simply negotiating positions does a disservice to both partners in a relationship where there's a disagreement about porn. If porn use is simply a bargaining chip on the table, the pro-porn partner comes off as a pervert who would contemplate sacrificing love for a wank, rather than as someone who has a particular model of a desired relationship, of which permission to use porn is just one indicator. Meanwhile, the partner who just does want to prohibit porn use comes off as a controlling shrew who wants to nitpick their partner's personal business, rather than as someone who also has a particular model of a desired relationship, of which opposition to porn is one indicator.

Going beyond the specific question of porn, I wouldn't want to be in a relationship where I approached disagreements as forums in which to try to extract as many concessions as I could while conceding as little as possible from my side. Nor would I want to approach disagreements as times in which I will be forced to sacrifice. I want to approach disagreements as opportunities to reconsider the nature of the relationship we're building together. This is not to say that negotiation and bargaining never have a place in a relationship -- but they are a second-best approach, the use of which is an indicator that something has failed in the relationship.

A Weird Argument for "Happy Meat"

For people concerned about the abuses involved in factory farming meat, there are basically two alternatives that one might promote, by some combination of personal consumer choice and advocacy for policy change: veganism or "happy meat."

One argument in favor of the "happy meat" path that makes no sense to me is the idea that it creates direct market pressure on factory farms in a way that vegans do not. This argument is made here by Jenna Woginrich, who went from vegetarian to happy-meat farmer after making the realizations described in her article. She argues "Your fork is your ballot, and when you vote to eat a steak or leg of lamb purchased from a small farmer you are showing the industrial system you are actively opting out." So far, I'm with her. This is the basic boycott logic behind changing personal habits to change food systems. Yet Woginirich seems to think this logic doesn't count for vegans: "It's a hard reality for a vegetarian to swallow, but my veggie burgers did not rattle the industry cages at all. I was simply avoiding the battlefield, stepping aside as a pacifist."

This doesn't make sense. A vegan fork is taking one vote away from factory farmed meat and giving it to chickpea farmers. Vegans are participating in the "battle" just as much as "happy meat" consumers -- that doesn't change just because their alternative protein sources are different species than the factory farmers'. The scale of the factory farm industry is determined by the number of factory farmed burgers purchased, and people following both strategies are purchasing equally fewer factory farmed burgers. It's consumer behavior in buying X instead of Y that determines whether X and Y will be competitors in the market, not anything about the inherent similarity of X and Y.

Indeed, there's reason to be concerned that a focus on "happy meat" could ultimately be less successful at "getting cows out of feedlots." If "happy meat" becomes as popular as Woginrich hopes, there will be a big incentive for factory farms to get in on the trend. But they won't want to do it by actually changing their farming practices. They'll do it by slapping happy labels on their existing meat. You can misleadingly claim that a feedlot-raised pig is happy pork. But it's a lot tougher to claim a feedlot-raised pig is a falafel.


Why Not Polygamy?

The worry that making marriage gender neutral would lead to demands to make marriage number-neutral is one that I've rarely seen a good response to. It's widely taken for granted among liberals that, while same-sex marriage is obviously acceptable, polygamy is just as obviously not acceptable. Most proponents of same-sex marriage just wave away the concern with polygamy by (incorrectly) asserting that slippery slope arguments are always logical fallacies.

Rob Tisinai attempts to tackle the issue in the course of rebutting Robert George's laughably fallacy-ridden attempt to rationally justify heterosexual-only marriage. Tisinai is absolutely right that George fails utterly to show that his preferred conjugal view of marriage can justify monogamy. But I disagree that the alternative companionate model advocated by Tisinai gives any real justification for monogamy* either. And -- to lay my cards on the table early -- I infer from the failure of such pro-SSM-anti-polygamy arguments that reason compels us to give legal recognition to marriages on equal terms without regard to the number of people involved. Tisinai cites Jonathan Rauch as encapsulating his view of the justification for polygamy:

If marriage has any meaning at all, it is that when you collapse from a stroke, there will be another person whose "job" is to drop everything and come to your aid. ... No group could make such a commitment in quite the same way, because of a free-rider problem. If I were to marry three or four people, the pool of potential caregivers would be larger, but the situation would, perversely; make all of them less reliable ...

Concern over freeloading and proper distribution of responsibilities is certainly an issue that polygamous groups would need to consider. It may very well be a reason for someone to decide that they personally do not wish to have multiple partners. But I don't see how it's a reason to ban polygamy. Monogamous couples can encounter plenty of free riding too (what married couple has never fought over whose turn it is to do the dishes?).

Moreover, free riding is hardly the only possible threat to having a spouse there for you in a time of distress. I am my wife's only husband, but I might flake out on her because I'm busy with work, because I've become a jerk, or because I'm more concerned with helping a friend at that moment. All of these possible interferences are things that a smart person will weigh in deciding whether to marry someone. But that's their responsibility to mull over and their risk if they marry someone who, say, prioritizes their career over their spouse. The same seems to go for the free rider problem in polygamy.

This issue has been dealt with already in other areas of law where multiple people share a responsibility. It's called "joint and several liability." In a polygamous situation, each spouse is fully responsible for ensuring that the person in distress is taken care of, either by doing the care themselves or ensuring that someone else is doing it. (Note that the kind of outsourcing contemplated in that last clause is hardly alien to monogamy -- recently when I was in some distress while my wife was out of town, we both considered it the obvious best choice for me to seek comfort from some friends rather than for her to cancel the dream job interview she had the next morning in order to rush back to be by my side.)

Tisinai raises the issue of children as rivals for a spouse's primary responsibility, but I think it's even more instructive to look at the child-parent relationship on its own. After all, one of the reasons we work so hard to ensure that children are raised by parents, rather than dumping them into collective nurseries a la Brave New World, is that it's good for a child to have someone who has a special, primary responsibility for ensuring that child's welfare. A parent can be attentive to, and on call for, a child in a way that an orphanage supervisor can't. And yet we also take it as uncontroversial that giving a child two parents is, all else being equal, better than just one. We don't fear that having two moms will lead to each of them trying to free ride. We condemn deadbeat dads, but never infer from that that single parenthood is better for everyone.

From the way he talks about the advantages of monogamy, it's clear that the pragmatic concern with free riding is not the main thing that motivates Tisinai. Rather, he seems quite drawn to the comfort of knowing that he and another person are number one in each other's eyes. I can sympathize with that. I like knowing that my wife and I are each each other's primary responsibility, and even if it were legal I doubt I could accept another partner being on equal footing. But I also realize that that is not a universal feeling (after all, if it were, we wouldn't need a law against polygamy!). The real question is, if someone believes that they can make the deep commitment of marriage work with another person, what public policy good is served by forbidding them from trying? (Or rather, denying them any legal standing for their attempt, since we're not arresting people for living in de facto polygamous arrangements.)

Perhaps it's not strategic for the cause to admit this, but if someone tells me that same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to polygamy, my response is "great, we'll kill two birds with one stone then."

*In this post we're talking specifically about a defense of monogamy, that is, legal recognition of a single spouse. George conflates legal monogamy with total sexual exclusivity. Tisinai recognizes that there are other forms of non-exclusivity that would not be ruled out by his main argument -- you could have other sexual partners, or even "secondary" dating relationships, without running afoul of his argument for having a single "primary" spouse. Tisinai does attempt to rule out such other forms of non-exclusivity, but his argument on that count consists of denying that more casual sex is possible (or at least that the risk of failure is too high to make it acceptable). This argument is clearly contrary to the evidence, but I don't want to make this post more rambling by trying to address it in detail.


Michael Bay Is Not Postmodernist

Michael Trinklein attributes several glaring geographical errors in the latest Transformers movie to filmmaker Michael Bay's indoctrination into postmodernism at Crossroads School. I don't know anything about Crossroads, but I do know that the evidence Trinklein cites for their postmodern leanings, and therefore Bay's geographical ignorance, does not support his charge. Trinklein says we won't believe the following allegedly outrageous bullet points from Crossroads' website:

--We believe that the process of learning is more important than the product or "right answer"
--We view students as thinkers with emerging theories about the world rather than as recipients of knowledge from the teacher.
--We believe that students learn from one another and from the world around them rather than solely from the teacher.

Obviously the devil is in the details of how this philosophy is actually implemented at Crossroads. But I see nothing objectionable, and certainly nothing postmodern, in this philosophy. By postmodernism, Trinklein clearly means a form of factual relativism in which you can't say one person's claims about the world are more correct than someone else's -- "And if you think 2+2=5.... that's your right as an empowered person."

Crossroads' statements are an attempt to differentiate the school's approach from an older transfer-of-factual-information model. In the old days, reliable information sources were harder to come by. So it was important for students to memorize a whole bunch of basic factual information (such as which countries border on which others). Today, however, that kind of basic information is trivially easy to look up. Anyone can Google a map of the Middle East from their desk to see if there really is an Egyptian-Lebanese border. So the goal of education has shifted from teaching students information to teaching them how to acquire and use information.

So Crossroads' first point is not that the right answers don't matter, it's that the focus of education should be on teaching students how to look for answers rather than making them memorize a bunch of the answers that have already been determined. That's buttressed by the second point -- Crossroads wants students to think critically and examine their world, rather than just have their heads filled up with authoritative facts. And the final point helps us understand why we can't just upload the teacher's knowledge into a student's head. Students today will need a lot more information over the course of their lives than 12 years of schooling before age 18 can provide.

I think the real explanation of the geographical errors in the Transformers movie is not postmodernism. It's that Michael Bay didn't really care if his movie had factual inaccuracies in it. The movie was supposed to be a mindless few hours of explosions and CGI, not a deep geopolitical commentary. If you pointed out the errors to Bay, I think it's much more likely he'd reply "who cares, it's just an action movie," rather than "who are you and your phallogocentric atlases to impose your truths on me?" You can disagree with his placement of the "don't care" line, but that doesn't make him a postmodernist.