Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Slate doesn't understand what offensive speech is

Over at The New York Times, Jeremy Peters has an interesting article on the decline of the word 'homosexual' as self-description by those who identify as gay or lesbian. In the header of the article we are also told that "for many gays and lesbians, the term 'homosexual' is flinch-worthy."

In response, Slate's J. Bryan Lowder contested the thrust of Peters' piece. Most critically, Lowder writes of Peters' article, "let's not get in the habit of letting the overseers at GLAAD, on whose authority this article hinges, rescind access to words that really are innocuous." Unfortunately for Lowder's case, Peters does not at all hinge his authority on GLAAD.

GLAAD is brought up as an example of an advocacy group that finds "homosexual" to be an offensive term. Other reasons suggested for disfavoring the term include:

  • It contains the syllables "homo" (a common anti-gay slur) and "sex" (which puts more emphasis on the sexual aspects of gay life than might be desirable)
  • It invokes a period of time in which "homosexuality" was a mental illness
  • "Homosexual" is the term of choice for most anti-gay groups
To this last point, Lowder argues that we shouldn't let the Rush Limbaugh's of the world determine what words we use. But this objection gets to the heart of Lowder's confusion. The New York Times' article was not meant to forbid use of a word or declare it a slur. It was exploring a position taken by many gay advocates, and explaining the way words are used and the choices behind them.

Sometimes it is not immediately obvious why we choose the words we use, but these reasons can be revealed to us. When this happens, we discover that a word had connotations we did not expect. Peters uses this example: consider the phrases "homosexual activist", "homosexual community", and "homosexual marriage." Few gay advocates would ever use these phrases; I know I would not. There is a pejorative ring to each phrase, which disappears as soon as "homosexual" is replaced with "gay". This suggests that "homosexual" carries more negative connotations than we might have initially realized.

It's clear that Lowder does not appreciate that this is the level of analysis at which the NYT piece is working, because he writes, "As a member of The Community in Question, I’m willing to grant you...permission to use homosexual when the occasion calls for it." Even if this is meant as a joke, it shows that he misses the point. We don't avoid slurs because we lack permission from a particular community, we avoid using them because they carry connotations and implications that are damaging to the individuals in question. Words our powerful because the shape our shared understanding of the world, so we should choose the words we use wisely.

Making this about the author's identity, in this case, was unnecessary. It's fine if Lowder wants to share the fact that the word "homosexual" does not offend him--but this does not support his thesis. People of any community will have a variety of reactions to a word, but this is not the sole determinate of a word's status as a slur.

There are a few reasons to question Peters' analysis. One is that "homosexuality" serves as a useful term for which "gayness" is an awkward substitute.  And second, it seems "homosexual" is an appropriate word to keep around to describe the same-sex sexual behavior of non-human animals. (However, this second point might actually bolster the Peters' understanding, as in this context it would likely be exclusively used as an adjective, rather than as a noun.)

But I would not be surprised at all if "homosexual" went the way of the term "oriental." This, in my opinion, is likely a better parallel to draw than to analogize "homosexual" with a really hateful term like "fag". "Oriental" was never exclusively a hateful term, but it represented a very misguided and deficient understanding of a group of people. If it is heard these days, it is not necessarily perceived as an insult, but it is more likely seen as an outdated and inappropriate term for a group of people. So too, I believe, we can plausibly that "homosexual" will one day share a similar status.

How to stop corporations from breaking the law

Today, I was surprised to receive the above e-mail from Amazon.com. It seems the publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Macmillan agreed to pay nominal amounts of money to consumers who has purchased their ebooks within a certain period of time. Though they do not admit guilt, they are alleged to have broken antitrust laws and to have conspired to raise the prices of ebooks.

So I am now the proud owner of a $.73 credit to be used for the purchase of any book or ebook purchased through Amazon between now and March 31, 2015! (Amazon is not a party of the suit, but appears to be aiding in the delivery of the compensation. Apple Inc. also stands accused of violating antitrust laws, but that case is ongoing.)

A few things to note:

  • This credit is not likely to effect my future decisions to purchase books, it will just make me slightly less poor after doing so.
  • That said, settlements need not tangibly benefit the consumer or wronged party, as long as they effectively serve as a deterrent. 
  • That said, it's not clear that a $.73 payout per book purchased ($3.17 for NYT Bestsellers, and slightly higher amounts for MI residents) is a significant enough deterrent. 
  • Illegal trusts could easily raise prices greater than $.73 per book, and anyway, the refund should be higher than estimated price inflation. If corporations risk only breaking even, then there's little disincentive to attempting to break the law.
  • Amazon, it seems to me, is a big winner in all this; for people who get higher payouts, the credit may well serve as a de facto subsidy for purchasing more books.
Corporations will always try to break the law like this, if they think they can get away with it. The fact that the publishers settled certainly suggests that they have some guilt (or at least that there's a plausible case against them) but settling out of court very likely means a significantly lower payout. In the short run, this may save the government money (not having to pay for a trial), but in a world with lots of out-of-court settlements, corporations will see law-breaking as less risky. In the end, this means more charges to bring, and more government money spent, before we even consider costs to the consumer.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What we can learn from the acceptance of gay marriage

Image credit: Adam Jennings / AP

The acceptance of gay marriage seems to be almost a forgone conclusion in the United States. Many of its proponents argue it's just a matter of time before gay marriages are recognized across the union,  and decades of polling on the matter certainly support this view. Still, the US is but one (albeit influential) country, and there are many places in which this trend is not apparent. Rehearsing the arguments, then, is still of use. Even more importantly, as I will argue, understanding structure of the argument for gay marriage (and in general, equal treatment of individuals regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity) sheds light on broader moral principles.

Dialogues about gay marriage often take this form (A and B are two interlocutors):

(1) A: Gay couples deserve all the benefits and protections that straight couples get from having their marriage recognized by the state. There is no morally significant difference between gay couples and straight couples that justify the recognition of one kind of relationship but not the other.

(2) B: In fact, there is a morally significant difference between gay couples and straight couples. Straight partnerships are the only kind of union that can produce children, and the state has a special interest in protecting that union.

(3) A: It might be true that in some sense only "straight couples" can produce children, but gay people do have and produce children as well, albeit in somewhat different ways. And even more importantly, many straight couples are allowed to get married, but do not or cannot have children. If they can still enter into marriages, why can't gay couples?

(4) B: You misunderstand. It's not the "having" of children that marriage protects, but the special form of human relationship that is protected, which has the potential for procreative activity.

(5) A: But this is just begging the question. You're saying that this form of relationship is special and should be protected, but you're not showing any reason why this "special" kind of relationship merits these particular protections. The benefits of marriage are not solely designed for the protection of relationships that produce children, and even less so for the protection of the "form of relationship" that produces children. Since these protections would surely benefit gay couples, and it is incumbent that you show some good reason why denying them to gay people is justified. You have failed to do so.

I've never heard a good response to (5). Obviously people make some other claims to oppose gay marriage, most of them empirical or religious, but there's no reason to take these claims seriously. (One other argument worth taking seriously, though I don't have the space for it here, is a reductio ad absurdum that is usually mistaken for a slippery slope argument.)

I imagine most proponents of gay marriage would be happy with the dialogue as I've laid it out. If it's accurate and correct, it explains a lot. Obviously, it's a much simpler dialogue than nearly anyone will ever have on such an issue, but I think it somewhat represents the way the zeitgeist has moved on the issue.

What it shows is that the restriction of marriage rights to straight couples is the result of a bias against gays. This is why the only arguments against gay marriage that B can come up with beg the question. B assumes that only straight people deserve marriage rights, and tries to argue this point, but all their points just show that this is their base premise. And since this premise isn't obvious or shared, it cannot be defended.

Image credit: Sequoia Hughes / Flickr

Similarly, dialogues about animal rights often take this form:

(6) C: Sentient non-human animals deserve all the basic rights (right not to be killed, right not to be treated as property, etc.) that humans are afforded. There is no morally significant difference between animals and humans that justify recognizing the basic rights of humans but not the rights of the other animals.

(7) D: In fact, there is a morally significant difference between humans and the other animals. Only humans make laws, are self-aware, are creative, listen to opera, engage in moral behavior, and have all the capacities that make humans unique. It's these capacities that make us deserving of basic rights.

(8) C: It might be true that in some sense only humans can have all these capacities, but other animals have these and other capacities in a variety of degrees and to different extents. And even more importantly, many humans, such as babies and the mentally disabled, lack any or all of these capacities to certain extents. If we still protect the basic rights of these humans, why shouldn't we protect the basic rights of the other animals?

(9) D: You misunderstand. It's not the "having" of these capacities that warrants basic rights, but the special form of life that is humanity that is protected, which has the potential for these capacities.

(10) C: But this is just begging the question. You're saying that the human form of life is special and should be protected, but you're not showing any reason why this "special" kind of life merits these particular protections. The benefits of basic rights are not solely designed for the protection of human life, and even less so for the protection of the potential for the capacities of human life. Since these rights could surely protect animals, it is incumbent that you show some good reason why denying them to animals is justified. You have failed to do so.

I have never heard any good responses to (10). It might seem I crafted this parallel on my own for my own nefarious purposes, but I assure you the discovery was quite by accident. Obviously, I have emphasized the similarities here for effect. But part of my being convinced of (10) was the fact that I already accepted (5).

Just as before, the reason D cannot defend their position is that D is assuming from the outset that animals can't have rights. But this assumption belies an internal prejudice, which is not itself justified.

If we want to believe that the spread of gay marriage across the country is a good thing, and that it is moral progress in the right direction, we have reason to pause. To accept this means that there are better and worse ways of constructing society, ways that we ought to be treating others. And if the conclusions of (5) are correct and warranted, we should accept the power of reasoned argument to reach moral conclusions. If we don't accept in turn accept (10), we need a very good explanation of why these dialogues are disanalogous.

I have looked and I have never discovered such an explanation.