A Philosopher's Blog

Beer & Race

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2009

While Obama, Gates and Crowley were sitting down to some foreign owned beers, the Gates incident continued to grow.

The latest additions to the incident are the email sent by Officer Justin Barrett in which he refers to Gates as a “banana-eating jungle monkey”, and the fact that Sergeant Leon Lashley has been called an Uncle Tom for defending Crowley.

Barrett is, as to be expected, claiming that he is not a racist and that he is sorry for sending the email. As is also to be expected, he has been placed on leave and might be fired.

Obviously, his monkey remark can be seen as racist because of the long history of blacks being compared to monkeys in racial slurs. If Barrett had instead used a phrase such as “latte sipping, book reading, tricycle riding, ivory tower dwelling liberal”, then there would have been no incident or media coverage, since race was not involved. Making slurs like that are not considered nice, but are seen as quite tolerable, even though they might be motivated by as much hate as a racist comment. Somehow, the racial aspect makes a remark far, far worse.

While his remark seems racist, perhaps he is not a racist. If using a phrase that seems racist makes a person a racist, then I suspect everyone would be racist. This, of course, makes the term almost meaningless. It would be like saying that anyone who has every lied is a liar. While technically true, it certainly takes the force out of calling someone a liar. After all, when someone is accused of being a liar, we mean something more than that they lie at a “normal” level. We mean that they are a serious liar. Clearly, the officer showed bad judgment in using that phrase in an email.

To address the question of whether he is a racist or not, his past behavior would need to be examined. Going back to the liar analogy, while a person who has lied could be called a liar, we normally accuse people of being liars when that something they are inclined to do beyond what is normal. While it would be nice if people did not lie and if people never said racial slurs, that expectation is unrealistic.

It might be the case that the officer was angry and simply used a derogatory phrase that popped into his head. While this might be seen as expressing a deep seated racism, it might also simply reflect the fact that when people are angry, they tend to think poorly and use phrases that are rather insulting. For example, if a couple are having a fight, the man might call his girlfriend a bitch or the “c word.” This does not mean that he is a misogynist. Rather, when people are angry they tend to reach for the meanest words they have on hand. So, before the officer is cast as a racist, more investigation is needed.

As far as the Uncle Tom charge, the sergeant did what was right: he spoke out in defense of  colleague who had done nothing wrong. To insist that the sergeant must stick with Gates because they are both black and Crowley is white would certainly seem to be a rather biased view. This charge is the same as attacking a white cop simply because he stands up for a black officer who has been involved in an incident involving a white person. People should do what is right and what is right cannot be determined by looking at the color of the folks involved.

Quick Rambling on Racism

Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2009

Thanks to paper grading, I don’t have the time to do a proper essay. So, I’ll do a quick ramble.  Yesterday I was talking to a friend about the latest addition to the Gates incident-the cop’s racial slur.

My friend made an interesting point. He noted that when people want to insult someone, they tend to go for obvious, visble qualities. Race is, obviously enough, one of those qualities. He also made the point that a person who makes a racist remark would seem to be (with some notable exceptions) acting the same way that people do when they launch an attack based on appearance.

For example, like most blonds I have had to deal with stupid blond jokes (trust me, having a PhD does not grant immunity). When I was a kid, I was skinny and people would attack me by comparing me to a beanpole. While these do not compare to vile expressions of hate, these examples do support my friend’s claim: people are often full of dislikes and they express these most often by going after some obvious physical feature.

In the case of race, people have all sorts of established stereotypes to use in their attacks. So, if they dislike a person, they might simply use a racial slur. It is easy and will get a response.  But, does this make the person a racist? That is, of course a good question. When someone makes a stupid blond joke to try to annoy me, are they a hairist? Or are they just expressing their jerkness using a tool they hope will work? Or perhaps they don’t even reflect on it-they simply put words on their dislike and spew them out.

My friend also made another good point. While he does not condone racial slurs, he thinks that people should have freedom of thought and expression. He noted that saying mean things about someone should not be labeled as racism, they should be seen as being mean and perhaps as an ass. As for racism, he thought that the term should be used for more than just saying mean stuff. It should apply to things such as discrimation, genocide, and so forth.

So, what should we call folks who throw around racial slurs? “Asshole”, perhaps?

Everything isn’t About Race. Really.

Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2009

As the Gates incident starts to drift away from center stage, it is still quite reasonable to discuss the incident and the issues it raises.

Race, of course, was a major factor in the incident. Gates seems to have over-reacted because the cop was white. The incident got the coverage it did, in part, because of concerns about race. However, it is important to keep in mind that everything isn’t about race.

As a friend of mine often points out, white people can treat each other badly. The same for people of all the other colors. After all, it is not like whites are universally saints with other whites or that blacks are eternally sweet angels with each other. People can do mean or hateful things for reasons that have nothing to do at all with race. For example, I’ve had white folks throw things at me from moving cars when I was running. I’ve also had white folks try to start fights with me, for no apparent reason. Some people, as my friend says, are just assholes.

On a more moderate level, people get upset and angry with each other for reasons that have nothing at all to do with race. After all, we can do all sorts of things to annoy each other.

Going back to the Gates incident, it has been suggested that Crowley arrested Gates because Gates is black. Now, even if it is assumed that Crowley did not have adequate legal grounds to arrest Gates, to assume that Crowley arrested him because of racism would be quite a leap. The way Gates acted was no doubt very annoying to Crowley and this probably contributed to the officer choosing to make the arrest. However, this would hardly be racism.  After all, white cops sometimes arrest (and sometimes taser) white people that sufficiently annoy them. Of course, cops should only arrest people when it is warranted, but sometimes what annoys the cop also warrants arrest. In the case of Gates, he seems to have acted in a way that would rather annoy Crowley and also in a way that warranted his arrest. If Gates had stayed calm and discussed the matter with Crowley, there would have been no incident. While there are racist cops, Crowley certainly does not seem to be one. In fact, he seems quite the opposite.

Like most folks, I have had a few encounters with the police. In some cases, I was stopped for what seemed to be no good reason. For example, while on a training run for the Columbus, Ohio Marathon, a friend and I were stopped by an officer. We were doing nothing illegal nor acting in any way that was suspicious. Well, other than running. Of course, my friend was black, and he later suggested that he was stopped for RWB (running while black). However, I have also been stopped while running alone by white cops, so perhaps race was not the main factor-maybe it was a bias against runners.

While I could have gone off the handle and accused the cop of harassing us and even of being a racist, I instead stayed calm (running helps with that) and answered his questions politely. I talked a bit more with him, made a few jokes about running, and we parted with smiles. In fact, he wished us luck in the marathon. Perhaps he did have  a legitimate reason to stop us, perhaps not. However, I knew that being confrontational would only lead to needless escalation, so I avoided that.

Of course, people should not be expected to simply back down and let it slide if the police act improperly. However, it should be remembered that a cop is also a person and interacting with him or her in a calm and polite way has the same effect it has on anyone else-it lowers the chance that things will go down badly. Likewise, starting a conflict and being needlessly confrontational will elicit the opposite response.

Yes, race can play a factor in how people react to each other. But it isn’t everything. How we act is also a major factor in how people respond to us.

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The Return of Vick

Posted in Ethics, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2009
National Football League
Image via Wikipedia

After serving his sentence, Michael Vick has been allowed back into the NFL. However, at this point he does not have a team and is still under some limitations. Naturally, the question arises as to whether he should be allowed to play again.

Since I have a dog, I am a bit biased against him. From an emotional standpoint, I feel that he got off too easy and shoul not be allowed to return to playing football. But, how a person feels is hardly a good indication of what is morally correct.

From a moral standpoint, Vick should be allowed to return to the game provided that he has, in fact, paid his debt to society (that is, he has been properly punished for his misdeeds). After all, to deny him a return to his job would be to punish him more and if he has been justly punished, then this additional punishment would be unjust.

It might be argued that he should not be allowed to return to football because his misdeeds show him to be a bad person. In reply, people should not be punished merely for being bad, but for what they have done. Of course, bad people do bad things-and that is what they should be punished for.

Of course, people who have done their time are often subject to being denied certain liberties. For example, someone who did time for being a child molester would (one would presume) not be allowed to work at a day care. After all, someone with such a record most likely can still not be trusted around children. However, as bad as Vick’s behavior was, it does not seem to disqualify him from being a football player. After all, there seems to be no special character requirement to be a football player that Vick would fail to meet at this point. After all, football players are neither expected nor required to be good people (over and above what is expected of anyone).

It could even be argued that Vick’s return would be a good thing. After all, he has been working hard to “buy” a good reputation and there seem to be plans for him doing public service by speaking out against dog fighting and such. If he were to return to the NFL, his words would be more influential-after all, many people listen to celebrities.

If Vick has been justly punished for his crime and there are no special moral requirements for being an NFL player, then he should be allowed to return. Of course, he could be something of a PR problem for any team that decided to pick him up. Then again, may people do find redemption stories very appealing-so a reformed Vick might do just fine.

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Race, Again.

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2009

While the media spotlight is swinging away from the Gates incident, it is still catching some light. The latest focus in on Lucia Whalen, the woman who called the police “on” Gates.

When she called the police, she said that she saw “two larger men, one looked kind of Hispanic, but I’m not really sure, and the other one entered, and I didn’t see what he looked like at all. Interestingly, she now has a lawyer speaking on her behalf. Her attorney claims that Whalen never spoke with Crowley and that Whalen never used the word “black.”  Although the police report apparently includes an alleged conversation with Whalen and allegedly asserts that she uses the word “black”, her attorney says, “I’m not sure what the police explanation will be. Frankly, I don’t care. Her only goal is to make it clear she never described them as black. She never saw their race. … All she reported was behavior, not skin color.”

Oddly enough, the tape of Whalen’s call does include reference to one of the men looking Hispanic, but perhaps being Hispanic is a behavior. However, she does not seem to describe the men as black in her call, so that part seems true. At least in regards to the phone call.

This latest turn shows, once again, that race does matter a great deal. After all, Whalen seems to be extremely concerned to claim that she never mentioned “black” in her call or her alleged conversation. The fact that she has a lawyer handling her statements also seems to show how important race is. Normally, Whalen’s involvement would be over-she just called in what she thought was a break in attempt and she seems to have made a perfectly honest mistake. After all, it is a fact that Gates and his driver tried to force the door-and that certainly would look like a break in attempt.  Perhaps Whalen is worried that she will be accused of being a racist. She might even be afraid of being subject to a lawsuit.

Another interesting fact is that Whalen’s lawyer seems to be trying to get her client classified as not being “a white woman in the traditional sense.” In a statement that might strike some as a bit racist, the lawyer said, “The fact is, she’s olive-skinned and of Portuguese descent. You wouldn’t look at her and say, necessarily, ‘Oh, there’s a white woman.’ You might think she was Hispanic.”

Imagine if someone said something like that to assert that Obama was not a black man in the traditional sense. Would that not sound a bit racist? In any case, the attempt to re-classify Whalen might be an attempt to preempt any charges of racism. After all, one popular assumption is that a member of a minority cannot be racist. So, if Whalen is re-classified as someone we might think of as Hispanic, then surely she cannot be a racist. Naturally, this whole sort of maneuver seems to be rather racist-assuming that is what is going on. The fact that it is being brought up does, in any case, say a great deal about race in America.

Since I do not know Whalen, I have no idea if she is racist or not. However, there is nothing in her call or her alleged conversation with Crowley that seems to be racist. She reported what looked like a break in because, it seems, it looked like a break in. Even if she did see Gates and his driver and describe them as black, that hardly indicates racism. If Gates had entered his home normally and someone called in saying something like “I saw a black man go into a nice home, so he must be breaking in!”, then that would be racism. But, that is not the sort of thing that happened.

In response to the incident, Cambridge is setting up a special panel on race. I certainly hope they also address the racism against whites (and perhaps Hispanics) that has been made evident in this incident. This incident certainly has been an educational one and has shown that racism is not just a matter of whites being racist against blacks. Racism in America also involves racism against whites and that also needs to be dealt with before we can claim to be even close to being post racial.

Women & Porn

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on July 26, 2009

On the CNN website I found a link to an article reporting how more women are viewing porn (both online and via DVD).

I did not find this particularly surprising. After all, I already knew about the studies that have shown that women react, at least physiologically, to porn in about the same way men do (that is, they become biologically aroused). I also have been aware of the various feminist theories that women have been subject to sexual repression and have been told that they should not like porn. However, as social norms have changed and women are less oppressed, they have a greater freedom to be driven by their biology more than their social conditioning less-hence, the increase in women viewing porn.

Of course, this creates something of a problem for feminists. On the one hand, women should have the freedom to explore their sexuality. On the other hand, feminists have long argued that pornography is degrading and oppressive.

In response to this concern, some have argued that women can create oppression free pornography. Some have even argued that porn created by women for women would be thus free of such oppression.

Of course, unless there is some magic at work here, the mere fact that a woman created a porno for women would not seem to make it automatically non-degrading or non-oppressive. After all, how would anyone watching a porno know for sure whether a man or a woman created it? It seems odd that you would need to know who created the porn to know whether it was degrading or not-that should be evident in what is seen.

Perhaps women might be more inclined than men to create non-oppressive porn, but if the content of the porno is what makes it degrading or oppressive, then a man could also create the same sort of thing.

There is, of course, also the moral question of whether anyone should be viewing porn or not. After all, even if the porn is non-oppressive, there are good arguments that watching it will have detrimental effects. For example, it can create unrealistic expectations about sexual behavior and, one might argue, there really is no such thing as non-degrading porn.

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Obama & The Left

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2009

Obama is being attacked from both the right and the left. The right is attacking because they think he is going to transform America into a liberal land of socialism, government health care, expanded abortion rights, and gay marriage. The left is attacking him because they think he won’t transform America into a liberal land of socialism, government health care, expanded abortion rights, and gay marriage.

Because Obama is taking a fairly moderate approach, the left wing folks are rather upset by his failure to be the liberal savior they envisioned. While some of their criticism is well founded, the folks on the extreme left need to keep in mind that Obama is not their President, but the President of the United States. He has to govern the whole country and has to be aware of the legitimate needs and concerns of all the people, not just the folks on the far left.

As an analogy, I’ll use my own experience as a professor. I teach at a state university and my classes do not have any pre-requisites. As such, a class might have a student who has just been accepted to Harvard law school and a student who barely passed high school and who is now taking remedial math and english to get up to speed. While I could teach the class in a way that is aimed entirely at the future Harvard student, that would not take into account the legitimate needs of the other students. Likewise, making my class into a remedial high school class would help the other student, but would hardly be good for everyone else in the class.  Since I am the professor for the whole class and not just the two extreme students, I have to teach to the middle. The price for this is that the class will be somewhat disappointing for the future Harvard student while being rather tough for the remedial student. But, I have to do what is best for the class as a whole.

Likewise, Obama cannot give the left everything they crave. After all, it is not just their country. While the folks on the left think they are right and that justice requires that they get their way, the reality is that all the other people cannot be ignored. They have concerns and rights as well. And, of course, there is the practical matter of getting people to go along-and this often requires compromise.

Naturally, there are matters on which there should not be compromise. But, most of politics is open to such compromise and, in fact, requires it. While the folks on the left should argue for what they value (as the folks on the right should), they should also temper their complaints and criticisms.

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Gates, Crowley & Race

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2009

Obama said, of the Gates incident,  that it shows “how race remains a factor in this society.” This remark is quite correct, but perhaps not in the way that most people might think.

Some people see the incident as yet another example of the racism of white police and how blacks are mistreated by law enforcement. To be fair, there are good grounds for people to be concerned about racism in the context of the police. However, to assume that the incident must involve racism on the part of the officer simply because he is white and Gates is black would itself be racist. Interestingly, the incident does seem to involve racism-but it seems to be racism about whites rather than blacks.

The situation began with a neighbor calling the police because someone was seen breaking into Gates’ house. When Crowley arrived and asked Gates to step outside, Gates apparently said “”Why, because I’m a black man in America?” While Gates might have been honestly upset, the officer was following standard police procedures and acting, as far as it is known, in a reasonable way. The officer’s job was to determine the nature of the situation and to ensure public safety. He seems to have done that job properly.

Gates, in contrast, seems to have needlessly over-reacted to the officer and thus created an incident out of nothing. While Gates does have good grounds to be worried about racist police, Crowley does not seem to have done anything to merit Gates’ reaction. If so, then it would seem that it was Gates who was being a racist-he assumed that Crowley was doing what he did simply because Crowley is white and he, Gates, is black. Likewise, the people who are assuming that Crowley must have acted on racist motivations because he is white are also falling victim to racism.

At this time, there seems to be no evidence of racism on the part of Crowley. As noted above, he followed standard procedures and acted within the law. In short, Gates seems to have been treated like anyone who did the same thing he did would be treated. Crowley also has no history of racism and has, interestingly enough, taught a class on racial profiling for five years.

Despite the lack of evidence of racism or improper actions on the part of Crowley, Gates has said that “This is not about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America.”

Gates is quite right to be concerned about how black men are treated by the police and America has a long history of racism that provides rational grounds for worry. But, Gates’ arrest does not seem to be a case in which a vulnerable black man was needlessly hassled by a white cop. I do suspect that Gates honestly believes that he was hassled because he is black and the officer is white. Gates did not see a cop doing his job and following proper procedure. Gates saw a white cop who was there to hassle him. He then acted in accord with this perception, thus getting arrested. Obama also saw (or seems to have seen) a white cop hassling a black friend of his, and he acted in accord with his perception of the situation.  Thus, Gates and Obama both serve as examples of how race is still a factor in how people perceive the world.

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Obama & the Professor’s Arrest

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2009

The arrest of Professor Gates and Obama’s comment on the event have stirred up quite a media storm. On national TV, Obama stated that although he was unware of the facts, he believed that the police had acted stupidly and implied that race was a factor in the event.

I was a bit surprised when Obama made these remarks. After all, he began by stating that he was unware of the facts. At that point, he should have simply said something on par with what he knew and expressed general support for his friend. Leaping to condemn the police without being aware of the facts seems to be, if one wants to toss around charges of racism, a bit racist. After all, he certainly seemed to assume that the officer was acting on racist motivations despite his admission that he lacked the facts.

Obama was, of course, quite correct in his assertion that blacks and hispanics are treated unfairly by the police at a rate higher than that faced by others. That is, of course, a point of great concern. However, as his reaction showed, there is also a problem of racism on the part of minorities. After all, to assume that the police must be acting unfairly or on racist motivations is itself a racist view. Sure, there are racist police officers. There are also many officers who are not.

The evidence seems to be that the officer who arrested Gates acted correctly in his initial actions. The officer arrived in response to a call of a possible break in and acted to determine what was going. Gates seems to have over-reacted to the officer’s questions, which seem to have been the sort of questions that he should have asked. After all, he needed to be sure that Gates was, in fact, who he claimed to be. Even after identifying Gates, the officer also had to be sure that Gates had not come home to a house that was being robbed. Imagine the outcry if the officer had simply left and Gates house was really being robbed.

Whether or not the officer should have arrested Gates is, of course, a matter of controversy. If Gates broke the law, then he should have been arrested. If Gates was arrested simply because he had annoyed the officer, then the officer acted wrongly. However, Obama also acted wrongly in leaping to condemn the police without even knowing the relevant facts of the situation.

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Health Care Rhetoric II

Posted in Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 22, 2009

As CNN pointed out in a recent online article, Bill Clinton tried his hand at health care reform and failed in this attempt. Now that Obama is pushing his own health care reform, certain folks are hoping to make sure that he suffers the same fate as Bill Clinton.

One tactic that is being employed is the use of advertisements calculated to make people fear government based health care. One such ad claims that the health care plan will put a government bureaucrat between the patient and the doctor. The ad includes the nice visual touch of a bureaucratic geek menacing the doctor and patient in a dire nerdly manner. This nicely taps into the fear of some folks of geeks and, of course, bow ties.

It is, of course, reasonable to be concerned that the government will act in ways that would interfere with health care. As Thoreau argued, governments have a tendency to get in the way of things and sometimes it is best to have a government that governs less.

The approach of the ad does, however, have some serious flaws. The first is that it is unsupported rhetoric (hyperbole), scare tactics and most likely a straw man attack. After all, no plan has been formalized and hence the ad is attacking a plan that does not even exist yet.

One concern about the ad is that it presumably is intended to imply that the current system does not put a bureaucrat between the patient and the doctor. This is hardly the case. Insurance companies are bureaucratic entities and they obviously decide what will and will not be covered. This clearly impacts the sort of care that a patient is able to receive. For example, when I had my quadriceps tendon repair, I was informed that my insurance (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) stopped covering adjustable leg braces shortly before I had my surgery. So, I had two choices: I could do without something essential to my treatment and recovery or I could pay for it out of my own pocket. While no geek came to menace my doctor, a bureaucrat did try to come between me and my treatment. I was clearly told that the brace was essential to my recovery-it was not an optional thing. Yet, my insurance company had effectively told my doctor that it was optional and not worthy of coverage.

This is, of course, just one example. Unfortunately, a little research will easily turn up many cases of insurance companies decisions affecting treatment (or lack thereof).  Insurance companies decide what they will cover and how they will cover it. As such, to imply that the government presents a special menace in this area is hardly accurate. True, the government might stick in a government bureaucrat to screw things up, but this would merely be replacing an insurance company bureaucrat. Whether the government bureaucrats would do a worse job or not is something that is worth considering, of course.

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