A Philosopher's Blog

Protests & Riots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2016

While Trump’s election has been greeted by some with joy, others have responded by protesting. In Portland, Oregon a protest took a destructive turn and was classified as a riot by the police. This resulted in property damage, the use of less-than-lethal force by the police and arrests. Protests and riots are certainly philosophically interesting and I will begin by considering some basic definitions.

Put simply, a protest is an expression of disapproval. A political protest, of the sort that have been occurring, are obviously aimed at expression an objection to some political matter, in this case the election of Donald Trump. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to peaceful assembly, although this is not an absolute right. Almost by definition, peaceful assembly seems morally acceptable. As with other rights, there are certainly cases in which peaceful assembly can be justly restricted, but this would need to be warranted because the assembly would result in meaningful and unwarranted harms. For example, if people wanted to assemble on the runways of the Atlanta airport to protest the low wages for fast food workers, then it would be reasonable to prevent that. The protest does not require the use of a runway to make its point and it would create both danger and considerable inconvenience to travelers and cargo shipments. As might be imagined, whether a particular peaceful protest should be allowed can be a matter of great debate, but that is an issue for another time.

While a riot can be a protest, not all protests are riots and not all riots are protests. For example, the 1992 riot that did $10 million in damage arose from a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers does not seem to qualify as a protest.  A riot is characterized by violent civil disorder involving a group. While the violence is most commonly directed against property, it can involve violence against people. Since attacks on people or property are both generally illegal, riots are generally regarded as criminal by their very nature.

For a protest to be a riot (and vice versa), there must be a group of people engaging in a violent civil disorder with the intent of expressing their disapproval. Since riots are generally illegal, a protest riot would probably also be illegal. However, there is an important distinction between law and morality, so a riot that is illegal could be morally justified.

In general terms, a riot could be morally justified in various ways. One obvious justification would be that the riot was in response to a terrible wrong that warrants such violence. For example, Americans often like to point to certain riots that took place in the run up to our revolutionary war as morally warranted because of British tyranny. The violence of such riots would presumably be directed at those who deserve such violence. As such, wrongs that do not warrant a violent response and violence against those not responsible would be unwarranted.

To use an analogy, if Sally did a terrible wrong to Jane and Jane could get no redress any other way, then she could be morally justified in using violence against Sally or her property. But, if Jane went after Bob, who has no connection to Sally, then this would be unjustified. Assuming those engaged in the “riot” in Portland were protesting (and not just opportunists) against Trump, their attacks on property in Portland would obviously be wrong. For example, wrecking cars in a Portland dealership does not strike a blow against Trump—even if Trump did something warranting a riot against him.

It could be argued that since so many voted for Trump, there is a chance that a Trump supporter will be impacted by a riot, thus “paying them back” for their misdeed. The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of riot roulette is morally unacceptable because it is more likely to harm someone who did not support Trump than someone who did. There is also the fact that it is morally unacceptable to regard voting for Trump as grounds for being the target of violence.

Another approach is to justify a riot on utilitarian grounds—if the riot results in more good than harm (and more good than not rioting), then it would be morally acceptable. Once again, Americans often regard their revolutionary riots as falling into this category.

While some people, assuming they are actually protesting Trump, might feel better venting their rage in a riot, it seems unlikely that this “good” will outweigh the harm done to those whose property they destroy or damage. Even if it assumed that Trump is evil and will be doing more evil as president, breaking other peoples’ stuff is not going to counter that evil. It could, of course, be countered that the destruction will show Trump that people are very serious and this will influence him. This, however, seems rather unlikely. One feature of utilitarian justifications is that the action must have actual results; ineffectual expressions of protest do not count in the calculation.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order that enabled Trump to become president. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done to the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus, such violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

The protests against Trump might decline as people work out their disappointment and anger; but they might surge again when Trump takes office and starts doing presidential things. One analogy worth considering is the Tea Party that was spawned in response to Obama. Trump might inspire a similar response by dedicated opponents on the left. If so, protests against President Trump could be routine and there will be something of a role reversal among the people, pundits, politicians and news media. For example, while Fox News was typically favorably inclined towards the Tea Party and almost all attacks on Obama, one would expect them to take a rather different approach to analogous behavior by Trump’s opponents.


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Argument for the Bathroom Bills

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2016

American news is awash with tales of the battle of the bathroom bills. In response to a growing general acceptance of LGBT rights, some states have passed laws requiring a person to use the bathroom (and similar facilities, such as locker rooms) for the sex on their birth certificate. These laws have been met with a negative response from much of the business community, making for a rare conflict between Republicans and business interests. The federal government has also taken a stance on this matter, asserting that states that have such laws are in violation of federal law. The Obama administration has warned these states that their violation could cost them federal funds.

Being a veteran runner, I am generally fine with people using whatever bathroom they wish to use, provided that they do not otherwise engage in immoral or criminal activity. Almost anyone who has been at a major race probably has a similar view out of pure practicality. Also, like any mature adult, I go to the bathroom to do my business and as long as everyone else is minding their business, I could care less who is in the next stall. Or urinal. Obviously, I do hold that assault, rape, harassment, stalking, and so on should not be allowed: but all these misdeeds are covered by existing law.

Being a philosopher does require that I give fair consideration to opposing arguments and that that be given the merit they earn through the quality of the reasoning and the plausibility of the premises. As such, I will consider a few arguments in favor of bathroom bills.

One of the most compelling arguments is the one from harm. The gist of the argument is that allowing people to use facilities based on their gender identity will allow rapists, molesters, pedophiles and peepers easy access to women and girls, thus putting them in danger. The bathroom bills, it is claimed, will protect women and girls from this danger.

Since I also accept the principle of harm, I accept the basic reasoning conditionally: if the law did protect women and girls from harm (and did not inflict a greater harm), then it would be a sensible law. The main problem with the argument lies in the claim that the bills will protect women and girls from harm. Many states and localities have prohibited discrimination in public facilities and there has not been an increase in sexual assault or rape. As such, the claim that the bills are needed to protect the public seems to be untrue. The imposition of law should, as a matter of principle, be aimed at addressing a significant harm.

This is not to deny that a person could pretend to be transgender so as to engage in an attack. However, such a determined attacker would presumably attack elsewhere (it is not as if attacks can only occur in public facilities) or could disguise himself as a woman (the law does not magically prevent that). There seems to be an unwarranted fear that bathrooms are ideal places for attacks, which does not seem true. That said, if it turns out that allowing people to use facilities based on their gender identity does lead to a significant harm in regards to increasing sexual assaults and other harms, then the bathroom bills would need to be reconsidered.

A second argument that has been advanced is the privacy argument. The gist of it is that allowing people in facilities based on their gender identification would violate the privacy of other people. One common example of this is the concern expressed on the behalf of school girls in locker rooms: the fear that a transgender classmate might be in the locker room with them.

While our culture does endeavor to condition people to be ashamed of their nakedness and to be terrified that someone of the opposite sex might see them naked, the matter of privacy needs to be discussed a bit here.

On the face of it, gender restricted locker rooms are not actually private. While I am not familiar with the locker room for girls and women, the men’s locker room in my high school had a group shower and an open area for lockers. So, every guy in the locker room could see every other guy while they were naked. I recall many of my fellows (who professed to be straight) checking out the penis sizes of everyone else. Some boys found this lack of privacy too much to take and would simply put their normal clothes on over their gym clothes without showering. Or they would try to cover up as much as possible. As such, the concern about privacy is not about privacy in the general sense. In space, everyone can hear your scream. In the locker room, everyone can see your junk.

As such, the concern about privacy in locker rooms in regards to the bathroom bills must be about something other than privacy in the usual sense. The most reasonable interpretation is privacy from members of the opposite sex: that is, girls not being seen by boys and vice versa. This could, I suppose, be called “gender privacy.”

Those favoring transgender rights would point out that allowing people to use facilities based on gender identity would not result in boys seeing girls or vice versa. It would just be the usual girls seeing girls and boys seeing boys. Since the main worry is transgender girls in girls’ locker rooms, I will focus on that. However, the same discussion could be made for transgender boys.

The obvious reply to this would be to assert that gender identification is not a real thing: a person’s gender is set by biological sex. So, a transgender girl would, in fact, be a boy and hence should not be allowed in the girls’ locker room. This is presumably, based on the assumption that a transgender girl is still sexually attracted to girls because he is really still a boy. There seem to be three possibilities here.

The first is that transgender girls really are boys and are sexually attracted to girls (that is, they are just faking) and this grounds the claim that a transgender girl would violate the privacy of biological girls. This would seem to entail that lesbian girls would also violate the privacy of biological girls and since about 10% of the population is gay, then any locker room with ten or more girls probably has some privacy violation occurring. As such, those concerned with privacy would presumably need to address this as well. The worry that a “hidden homosexual” might be violating privacy could be addressed by having private changing rooms and closed shower stalls—however, this would be quite costly and most public schools and facilities would not have the budget for this. As such, a more economical solution might be needed: no nakedness in locker rooms at all to ensure that privacy is not being violated. People could wear bathing suits while showering and then wear them under their clothes the rest of the day. Sure, it would be uncomfortable—but that is a small price to pay for privacy.

The second is that transgender girls are not sexually attracted to girls and hence do not violate their privacy: they are just girls like other girls. It could be objected that what matters is the biology: a biological boy seeing a biological girl in the locker room violates her privacy. Arguing for this requires showing how the biology matters in terms of privacy—that being seen non-sexually by biological girls is no privacy violation but being seen non-sexually by a biological boy who is just going about their business is a privacy violation. That is, if the person looking does not care about what is being seen, then how is it a privacy violation? The answer would need to differentiate based on biology, which could perhaps be done.

The third is that transgender girls are just girls. In which case, there is no privacy violation since it is just girls seeing girls.

While the harm and privacy arguments do have some appeal, they do not seem to stand up well under scrutiny. However, they might be other arguments for the bathroom bills worth considering.


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North Carolina’s Anti-Antidiscrimination Law

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 13, 2016

Apparently eager to do some serious damage to North Carolina’s reputation and economy, the state’s Republican controlled legislature passed “the bathroom bill” and the Republican governor signed it immediately. This law seems to have been in response to Charlotte, North Carolina passing a city ordinance extending legal protection for LGBT people and allowing transgender folks to use bathrooms based on their gender identity.

The “bathroom bill” makes it so that local governments cannot pass their own antidiscrimination laws—the state law, which is more restrictive than the Charlotte ordinance, trumps all local laws. The reason it is called the “bathroom bill” is that it has the effect of forbidding transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Instead, they must use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate. Interestingly enough, the law also precludes any local government from passing its own minimum wage laws—the minimum wage falls under the antidiscrimination law.

While the most plausible explanation for the law is prejudice against people who differ from the heterosexual norm, the proponents of the law obviously cannot make that the public reason for their support. Rather, there are two main reasons presented in defense of the law. The first is that the imposition of state control over local governments was an attempt to rein in “governmental overreach” on the part of Charlotte and other local governments.

There is a certain irony in Republicans passing a law that restricts the liberty of local governments—this is because the importance of local government and assertions about getting big government off the back of the people are stock talking points. However, many Republicans seem to be fine with local government only to the degree that the locals do what they want.

To be fair, there are legitimate issues here about the extent of the authority of local governments and the extent to which the state has the right to impose on local authorities. One approach is practical: having a hodgepodge of inconsistent laws across a state would be difficult for citizens and businesses—there are advantages to uniform, statewide laws. Another approach is a matter of ethics—the restrictions and liberties of laws should be the same across the state based on the principle of fairness. Of course, using a moral foundation for uniformity would require a moral assessment of the laws being imposed: having an unjust law imposed uniformly would be worse than a just law that was imposed in limited locations.

My own view is that antidiscrimination laws should be uniform but also just. As such, I do agree that the state (and federal government) should be setting these laws. But, these laws must be just. In the case of the North Carolina law, my view is that it is unjust because it codifies discrimination while forbidding local authorities from passing just laws. Hence, the state is in the wrong here. I now turn to the second justification for the law.

Proponents of the law contend that they do not support it from prejudice and that it does not discriminate. They claim that the law is needed in order to protect people, especially children, from being assaulted in bathrooms and locker rooms by transgender people.

On the face of it, the law does aim at meeting what I consider a basic justification of a restrictive law: it has the professed intent of protecting people from harm. This is an excellent justification for limiting liberty and is the principle that justifies, for example, forbidding companies from knowingly selling dangerous or defective products.

While the professed intent does matter, the proper assessment of a restrictive law aimed at preventing harm requires considering whether the harm in question justifies the restrictions being imposed.  In the case of the bathroom bill, the easy and obvious answer is that it does not. The reason is that there seems to be an exceptional lack of evidence that transgender people will present a danger to others if they are permitted to use bathrooms based on their gender identity.

While it is certainly not impossible for a transgender person to engage in such an attack, the statistical evidence is that there have been no attacks. There are currently numerous states and many cities that allow people to use facilities based on their gender identity—so there have been many opportunities for such attacks.

The obvious reply is to point to claims that such attacks (or at least sexual misconduct) have occurred, thus refuting the claim that transgender people are not a threat. The counter to this is to point to the fact that such claims tend to be mere urban myths and that the evidence shows that the myth of the transgender bathroom assault is just that, a myth.

It could be countered that while there is currently no evidence that allowing transgender people to use bathrooms based on their gender identity, an attack could happen and this possibility, however remote, justifies the law.

The easy and obvious response to this counter is that basing restrictive laws on the mere possibility that something bad might happen would be absurd. This principle would warrant incredibly restrictive laws across the board and would also warrant violating most, if not all, rights. For example, men might attack women on hiking trails, so trails must be restricted to one gender to avoid the possibility of attack. As another example, a car might be used in vehicular homicide, therefore people should be forbidden from owning cars. Naturally, if it could be shown that transgender people pose a serious risk to the safety of others, then restriction would be justified. However, the threat would need to match the restrictions imposed by the law.

As a final response, a proponent of the law could say that when a case of a transgender person attacking someone in a bathroom is confirmed, that will show the law is justified. The counter to this is to point out that this principle is absurd—if a car ban were proposed, it would not be justified by pointing to a case or even a few cases of vehicular homicide. As noted above, what would be needed is evidence of a threat that warrants the restriction.

In light of the above discussion, the “bathroom bill” fails the basic test of restrictive laws: it imposes restrictions without the justification of preventing a sufficient harm. This should come as no surprise—the law is not about protecting people but about prejudice.


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Gender Nominalism & Competition

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 12, 2015

In the previous essay I discussed gender nominalism—the idea that gender is not a feature of reality, but a social (or individual) construct. As such, a person falling within a gender class is a matter of naming rather than a matter of having objective features. In this essay I will not argue for (or against) gender nominalism. Rather, I will be discussing gender nominalism within the context of competition.

Being a runner, I will start with competitive sports. As anyone who has run competitively knows, males and females generally compete within their own sexes. So, for example, a typical road race will (at least) have awards for the top three males and also for the top three females. While individual males and females vary greatly in their abilities, males have a general physical advantage over females when it comes to running: the best male runner is significantly better than the best female runner and average male runners are also better than average female runners.

Given that males generally have an advantage over females in regards to running (and many other physical sports), it would certainly be advantageous for a male runner if the division was based on gender (rather than biological sex) and people could simply declare their genders. That is, a male could declare himself a woman and thus be more likely to do better relative to the competition. While there are those who do accept that people have the right to gender declare at will and that others are obligated to accept this, it seems clear that this would not be morally acceptable in sports.

The intent of dividing athletes by sex is to allow for a fairer completion. This same principle, that of fairer competition, is also used to justify age groups—as older runner knows, few things slow a person down like dragging many years.  Because of this, a runner could, in general, gain an advantage by making a declaration of age identity (typically older). Perhaps the person could claim that he has always been old on the inside and that to refuse to accept his age identification would be oppression. However, this would be absurd: declaring an age does not change the person’s ability to compete and would thus grant an unfair advantage. Likewise, allowing a male to compete as a woman (or girl) in virtue of gender identification would be unfair. The declaration would not, obviously, change the person’s anatomy and physiology.

There are, however, cases that are much more controversial and challenging. These include cases in which a person has undergone a change in anatomy. While these cases are important, they go beyond the intended scope of this essay, which is gender nominalism.

Some competitions do not divide the competitors by sex. These are typically competitions where the physical differences between males and females do not impact the outcome. Some examples include debate, chess, spelling bees and NASCAR. In these cases, males and females compete equally and hence the principle of fairness justifies the lack of sex divisions. Some of these competitions do have other divisions. For example, spelling bees do not normally pit elementary school students against high school students. In such competitions, gender identification would seem to be irrelevant. As such, competitors should be free to gender identify as they wish within the context of the competition.

Interestingly, there are competitions where there appear to be no sex-based advantages (in terms of physical abilities), yet there are gender divisions. There are competitions in literature, music, and acting that are divided by gender (and some are open only to one gender). There are also scholarships, fellowships and other academic awards that are open only to one gender (in the United States, these are often limited to woman).

Since being a biological male would seem to yield no advantage in such cases, the principle of fairness would not seem to apply. For example, the fact that males are generally larger and stronger would yield no advantage when it came to writing a novel, acting in a play, or playing a guitar. As such, it would seem that if people should be able to set their own gender identity, they should be able to do so for such competitions, thus enabling them to compete where they wish.

It could be argued that the principle of fairness would still apply—that biological males would still have an advantage even if they elected to identify as women for the competition. This advantage, it might be claimed, would be based in the socially constructed advantages that males possess. Naturally, it would need to be shown that a male that gender identifies as a woman for such competitions, such as getting a woman’s only scholarship, would still retain the (alleged) male advantage.

It could also be argued that the divisions are not based on a principle of fairness regarding advantages or disadvantages. Rather, the divisions are to given more people a chance of winning. This could be justified on the same grounds that justify having many categories. For example, there are awards for being the best actor in a supporting role, which exists to create another chance for an actor to win something. If a person could just gender declare and be eligible, then that would create an “imbalance”, much as allowing non-supporting actors to declare themselves supporting actors to get a shot at that award would be unfair.

Of course, this seems to assume that there is a justified distinction between the genders that would ground the claims of unfairness. That is, it would be as wrong for a male to win best actress as it would be for a female screenwriter who never acted to win best actress for her screenplay.  Or that it would be as bad for a male to get a scholarship intended for a woman as it would be for a football player who cannot do math to get a math scholarship. This approach, which would involve rejecting one form of gender nominalism (the version in which the individual gets to declare gender) is certainly an option. This would not, however, require accepting that gender is not a social construct—one could still be a gender nominalist of the sort that believes that gender classification is both a matter of individual declaration and acceptance by the “relevant community.” As such, the relevant communities could police their competitions. For example, those who dole out scholarships for woman can define what it is to be a woman, so as to prevent non-woman from getting those awards. This would, of course, seem to justify similar gender policing by society as a whole, which leads to some interesting problems about who gets to define gender identity. The usual answer people give is, of course, themselves.


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Darth VaPaula: Gender & Video Games

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 26, 2012
Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I play Star Wars the  Old Republic. I live in Florida. As such, I was somewhat interested when the Florida Family Association decided to launch an email campaign against Bioware regarding the plans to allow LGBT relationship options in the game.

Lest anyone think that the game is some sort of sex-fest, the relationships between a player character (PC) and a non-player character (NPC) is rather limited. Essentially you get to engage in fairly tame flirting via selecting tame response options and there is some dialog that involves mild sexual themes. For those looking for racy action, you will find much much more on prime time  shows than you will see in SWTOR. While Bioware does an excellent job crafting the personas of the NPCs that the players interact with, I have never been particularly interested in game romance myself. After all, I can do that in real life and I prefer to spend my game time killing bad guys with a light saber, something I cannot do in real life (yet).

However, I know that some players really get into the romance options in Bioware games and it is a rich part of the narrative experience for these folks. As such, I can see why the folks at Florida Family Association are a bit worried. I, too, have been worried when I heard friends speak endlessly of their intimate relationships with NPCs. Of course, my worry is rather different than that of the FFA.

The FFA seems to have two main concerns regarding the possible inclusion of LGBT options in SWTOR:

• Children and teens, who never thought anyway but heterosexual, are now given a choice to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their game player.

• Children and teens, who choose non-social agenda characters, would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.

In regards to the first problem, if these children and teens (although the game is rated T and hence is intended only for teens) have “never thought anyway but heterosexual”, then they would presumably not chose any of the LGBT options in the conversations with NPCs. Unless Bioware radically changes the game by adding an orientation button, a PC’s sexual orientation is shaped by making choices in various conversations (such as picking a flirt option). As such, kids and teens who are purely heterosexual prior to playing SWTOR would presumably not select the LGBT options. After all, if their minds are devoid of any sexual thoughts other than heterosexual, why would they pick anything else? To use the obvious analogy, if I only think about playing a Jedi, the fact that I have the option to play a trooper would not compel me to play a trooper. That is, if I lack trooper tendencies, I won’t play a trooper in the game. Or real life.

It might be countered that the mere option for such in game behavior could lead the heterosexuals away from their heterosexuality. After all, Plato argued at length in the Republic regarding the corrupting potential of art. As such, perhaps SWTOR could turn kids and teens away from the “hetero side” to the “gay side”. This, of course, assumes that any orientation other than heterosexual is morally wrong-which is an issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

One obvious response to this line of reasoning is that the kids and teens in question will also face the same options in real life. That is, when encountering actual people in the real world they will sometimes have LGBT options for real. As such, this worry about SWTOR seems rather pointless: if the kids and teens are not going to go to the “gay side” in real life, they surely will not do so in SWTOR. Likewise, if they would go to the “gay side” in SWTOR, then perhaps they would do the same in real life anyway. The game merely allows them the chance to select from options that are available in real life already and there seems to be no reason to think that the game would make straight kids gay.

It might be argued that while straight kids and teens can resist the “gay side” in real life, SWTOR would lure them to the “gay side”, perhaps with cookies. As noted above, Plato did argue that art can have corrupting influences that bypass our normal defenses against such things. For example, Plato noted that while a manly man will not give in to sorrow when faced with tragedy in real life, he can easily be seduced to giving into such unseemly feelings via the nefarious influence of the arts. By analogy, kids and teens who are heterosexual in real life could thus be seduced to the “gay side” by the nefarious influence of the video game. This sort of reasoning is, of course, analogous to that used to argue that video games and art corrupt the youth into being more violent or sexual. After all, when not corrupted by art humans have no interest in either sex or violence.

One obvious reply is that if video games have such a powerful impact on the sexual orientation of the youth, then the lack of LGBT options in SWTOR should have converted LGBT players straight. After all, if the availability of LGBT options is a threat to heterosexuality, then the availability of heterosexual options should be an equal threat to LGBT players. The presence of both options could, presumably, cause players to oscillate in their orientation as they are lured from the “straight side” to the “gay side” and then back again. One would thus assume that the person’s sexual orientation would be set by their last interaction in the game. This, of course, seems rather absurd.

It might be claimed that LGBT options are just so appealing that a heterosexual kid exposed to such options will be lured into picking them, contrary to his/her true sexual orientation. The same, it would need to be argued, is not true of heterosexuality.

One obvious reply is that if the LGBT options were that seductive, then most people would be LGBT.  But this is not the case. Another obvious reply is that if LGBT options are so appealing, then perhaps people should chose them. After all, it generally makes sense to pick what is most appealing. To use an analogy, when I pick my dessert I go with the option that appeals to me the most and take that to the be best option. Likewise, if LGBT is such an awesomely appealing choice over heterosexuality, then perhaps people should be picking that rather than struggling to resist it. Of course, if LGBT options lack this special appeal to people who are nominally straight, then these options present no “threat” in the game or in life.

The second problem, as the FFA sees it, is that kids and teens “would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.”

My first reply is that the way the game works, players are not forced to deal with the relationships between other PCs and NPCs. That is, the substantial conversation interactions that involve romance take place without other players being involved. As such, if the folks at the FFA are worried that players will be forced to see LGBT sex or even substantial LGBT conversations, then they are worried about nothing. All they will see is the usual killing and looting that form the majority of the game play. As such, they are worried about something that will not really happen.

Of course, it can be countered that players will encounter some LGBT comments or remarks in the course of play and this takes me to my second reply.

Second, kids and teens are already “forced to deal with” LGBT in real life. They might not realize it, but unless they are kept in isolation they are no doubt regularly encountering and interacting with LGBT people. After all, people do not have “straight” or “LGBT” nameplates over their heads in real life. As such, the worry about encountering LGBT characters in the game seems rather absurd.

Third, there is the obvious moral reply. Imagine if someone said that they were worried that their Christian kids and teens would be forced to deal with Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Or that their white kids would have to deal with Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. Such views would be regarded as nothing more than the expression of hate and prejudice. The same certainly seems true of the FFA’s view here. After all, if the KKK does not have the right to demand a racially pure SWTOR, then the FFA would seem to lack the right to demand a gender pure SWTOR.

The FFA does offer an additional argument against the inclusion of LGBT options in STWOR. The FFA contends that because the Star Wars movies did not have any LGBT characters, they should not be in SWTOR.

On the one hand, this does have some small appeal. After all, a game based on a movie universe should reflect that universe. So, for example, since the Star Wars universe lacked Vulcans and Daleks in the movies, they should not be in the game.

On the other hand, this argument is easy to counter.

While the Star Wars movies did not show LGBT characters (as far as we know), there is nothing to indicate that the Star Wars reality is devoid of LGBT. After all, the movies only follow a limited number of characters and there are only a few relationships (Han and Leia, Anikan and Padme, R2 and C3P0). As such, to infer that because there were no open LGBT relationships in the Star Wars movise, then the Star Wars universe is devoid of LGBT relationships would be an odd inference. This would be  on par with inferring that because the movie did not show any dentists, the Star Wars universe lacks dentists.

Another obvious reply is this: suppose the Star Wars movies did not show any female Smugglers (Han Solo’s class), would it follow that the Smuggler class should be restricted to male characters? It would seem not. After all, there is no universe defining reason why a female cannot be a smuggler. Likewise, it is not inherent to the Star Wars universe that it be LGBT free. After all, the opening does not say “In a totally straight galaxy devoid of LGBT…”. As such, Bioware can add these options and still be within the known canon of Star Wars.

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Aristotle, Halo &ThinkB4YouSpeak.com

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2009

The goal of ThinkB4YouSpeak.com is to attempt to counter the homophobic remarks (such as “that’s so gay”) that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers face. The main motivation for this campaign is that the casual use of such phrases, it is claimed, can lead to more overt hostility against LGBT.

As a college professor, I do deal with some teenagers (mainly 18-19 year old students). However, students tend to feel some small degree of reluctance to throw slurs around in front of professors (but less so than in the past). My main dealings with teenagers “in the wild” has been in the context of online gaming, mainly Halo 3 and other such shooters.

I  used to play Halo 3 online on Xbox live quite often. While I enjoy the actual game, the post game banter can be rather horrific. If my team wins, the vanquished all too often throw out a chorus of vulgarities and insults. In the rare event that my team loses, we are regularly treated to shouted obscenities. If I am playing a “pickup game” with random people, woe to the player who has a bad game-his performance is critiqued with such phrases as “fag” , “that was so gay”, and “you c**k sucking, a** f***ing fag!” While this does not happen all the time, I am always surprised when I hear a calm voice saying “good game” or “wow, that was close…you guys played well.” So, if my own experience is any indication of how teens (and adults) behave, the folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have their work cut out for them.

One question that arises is the matter of whether the use of such phrases and terms should be a matter of concern. On the one hand, kids just use whatever words happen to be in vogue as insults at the time. As such, I suspect that most kids who use “gay” or “fag” as an insult do not really harbor deep hatred of homosexuals and the use of such terms does not cause them to act against LGBT. They use such phrases reflexively and without much thought. In fact, the terms are most often applied to straight people in response to things that have no connection to sexual orientation at all. For example, if someone says “that was gay how that guy sniped me like that” in a Halo game, he is just expressing his displeasure at being sniped and not expressing any hostility towards LGBTs. Of course, LGBTs will feel upset if they here such terms being used, but we all have to face things that upset and annoy us.

On the other hand, some people who use the phrases and terms do harbor hostility towards LGBTs and the repeated use of such terms no doubt adds to their views. After all, as Aristotle argued, we are what we do. Someone who regularly uses such phrases and terms will be affected by them and it will shape his character. In the Republic Plato also argues about how what we observe can corrupt us. While he was discussing poetry and the arts, his arguments would seem to apply here as well. If someone hears such phrases being used as insults, they can be corrupted into using those terms and also corrupted into the mindset behind such views. While it is a long distance between saying “that is so gay” and attacking homosexuals with a baseball bat, the first step towards that swing begins with the language.

Further, there is the harm done to the LGBTs. While I am straight, I can imagine what it would be like for a LGBT to hear those things. After all, I was called “nerd” and “track hack”(an insult against people who run track)  in school and did not like that. Even if it never escalated into more overt hostility, it would still be needlessly unpleasant.

Granting that it is harmful for such phrases to be used, the next matter is what is to be done about it.

The folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have launched a campaign to attempt to curb the use of such phrases. Their current campaign works like this: they have various advertisements that replace the “gay” in the phrase “that’s so gay” with the target of the ad (that is, the type of folks who tend to use the “that’s so gay” phrase). One example is “that’s so jock who can complete a pass but not a sentence” and another is “that’s so gamer guy who has more video games than friends.” They even have on targeted at cheerleaders that says “that’s so cheerleader who like can’t like say smart stuff.”

Like the fine folks at Penny Arcade I have my doubts about the effectiveness of such an approach.

First, there is the point made by Aristotle in his writings on moral education. Aristotle argues that most people cannot be made good (or at least less bad) by mere words. As he argues, most people are ruled by fear rather than shame and are only deterred by punishments. The main reason he gives as to why mere words will not work is that “dislodging by arguments long embedded habit is difficult if not impossible.”

Having faced off against the target audience for these advertisements online, I am quite confident that they will not work. I will admit that there are some people who use “that’s so gay” in a state of naive ignorance and can be corrected by being made aware of the serious implication of their usage. However, the sort of folks who scream “fag” and “that is gay” as they play Halo 3 are most likely not amenable to reason. They are folks of this sort and are largely immune to attempts to get them to reflect. The folks that are most likely to be more overtly hostile towards LGBTs are of this sort or even worse and clearly will not be lead into the light so easily.

Second, the specific approach taken is a poor one. The ads seem to be an attempt to get the target into a “reversing the situation” mode. That is, the target is supposed to feel the cruel sting of the insult and thus be made the feel the pain the LGBTs feel when they hear “that’s so gay.” There are numerous problems with this.

The main problem is, as noted above, the target audience most in need of enlightenment is the most resistant to such an approach. A secondary problem is that trying to be a jerk (even in a weak and lame way) to counter jerks is not an effective strategy. This is like trying to counter stupidity by acting stupid or hatred by hating. Another problem is that the ads lack sting. While the “that’s so gay” probably really hurts some LGBT folks, I suspect that almost no one will feel the cruel sting of oppression from these lame attacks. To use a game analogy, the ThinkB4 folks have entered the battleground wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and cut-off jeans. They are armed with bouquets of flowers. Their opposition is wearing battle armor and armed with big guns. Did I mention that the guns have chain saws on them? They are, as was pointed out at Penny Arcade, woefully under armed for the opposition.

Thus, while the campaign has noble motives and goals, their methodology is lacking.

Because of the moral right to free expression, it would be wrong to compel people not to use such language. Naturally, the overtly hostile behavior can be checked and stopped, but merely saying nasty things is not adequate grounds for the application of compulsive means.

So, what should be done? Well, it does make sense to try to correct people. That can, in some cases, work. While it won’t change how people think in a direct way, it can deter people from saying obnoxious things in public.

Another option, the one I have used when really annoyed, is to forgo slapping folks with a bouquet of flowers and rip at them with a real verbal weapon. While this is probably morally dubious, it is quite satisfying. For example, here is an incident from when I was playing Halo 3:

Player: “You fag! You f@cking suck! You f@cking suck! You f@cking suck!”

Me: “That is not very sportsman like.”

Player: “You’re a fag! You F@cking suck! You F@cking suck!”

Me: “Is that all you’ve got? Don’t you have anything original in the way of insults?”

Player: “What?”

Me: “You just keep saying the same thing over. What about some originality, buddy?”

Player: “You’re a fag!”

Me: “That is not original. You just keep saying that.”

Player: “F@ck you, you fag!”

Me: “It is my considered opinion that you f@ck dogs.”

Player: “What!? What did you say, you fag?”

Me: “You heard me just fine, you poodle f@cker.”

While I probably should not advocate this approach, if you want to make someone feel the cruel sting of language, you need to use something with the right sort of caliber. The lame approach of ThinkB4 lacks that sort of firepower, but my approach worked quite well.

Naturally, I think that a more rational approach would be preferable. But, to paraphrase Aristotle, some people listen to reason, but you have to put the f@cking boot to others.

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Obama, Granderson & Gays

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2009

In his article, “Gay is not the New Black”, by LZ Granderson replies to criticism of Obama from the gay and lesbian community.

While Obama is painted by the right as an extreme liberal, he has apparently not paid attention to their claims. After all, some gays and lesbians have been very critical of his lack of action in regards to issues like “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. Granderson presents his take on the matter, which I will address here.

As the title of his article implies, one of his main concerns is making it clear that gay is not the new black. Presumably he is not happy with the comparison between the plight of gays and the plight of blacks.

He begins his discussion by noting that black gays do not see themselves as part of the general gay movement. In support of this he notes that at a popular Washington bar, “all of the white patrons tend to stay upstairs and the black patrons are on the first floor.” He also notes that  at the last Human Rights Campaign national fundraiser “the only black person to make it on stage was the entertainment.”

Granderson is no doubt quite right about this. After all, that sort of segregation is common practice with heterosexuals and there is no real reason to think that it homosexuals would be any different. While it is tempting to think that those who are victims of discrimination would be more sensitive to discrimination against others, this is very rarely the case. People are very sensitive to discrimination against themselves and far less so to that against others. In fact, those who are discriminated against can sometimes be among the worst discriminators against others.

Granderson also points out the fact that “When Proposition 8 passed in California, white gays were quick to blame the black community despite blacks making up less than 10 percent of total voters and whites being close to 60 percent.”

It should be noted that folks in the media seem to have played up this perception by “reporting” that blacks had been important in that result. As such, this contributed to this blame game. This, of course, does help indicate that while white gays sometimes see themselves as being apart from the white heterosexual mainstream, they clearly do fit into that community when it comes to matters of race. This is not to say that the white community is generally racist-just to say that the white homosexuals do not generally seem more racially enlightened than straight whites. As noted above, this is hardly a shock. Put crudely, a white gay is still white and gayness does not magically cure any racial bias a person might possess.

Granderson take a somewhat unfortunate turn: he plays the comparison game. In this case, he compares the suffering of gays in America with that of blacks. To be specific, he juxtaposes the 4oth anniversary of Stonewall with the 400 years of suffering that blacks have experience in America. As he notes, the people at Stonewall were afraid of being arrested, while 40 years ago blacks had to be afraid of “of dying at the hands of police and not having their bodies found or murder investigated.”

Granderson is correct in that blacks have, in general, suffered longer and more than gays in America. His point seems to be that gay is not the new black, because blacks suffered far more and far longer than gay Americans.

On one hand, this is a legitimate point. Blacks have suffered more and longer and hence it makes sense that Obama would be more concerned with black problems rather than with gay problems. It is, one might say, an application of the standard principle of triage and also based on notions of justice.

On the other hand, this sort of approach is subject to a stock criticism of the politics of identity and victimhood. While Granderson makes a point of saying that he does not dismiss the problems faced by gays in America, blacks have had it far worse. This sort of approach has the unfortunate effect of making it appear that he is saying that blacks are greater victims than gays. Since a group’s status in this sort of politics depends on their victimhood, this seems to say that blacks are more important than gays. Naturally, right wing critics have long pointed out this tendency in such an approach to politics-groups bickering to claim the title of biggest victim and the political capital that somehow goes along with this. While one group can gain an advantage over another group by claiming the mantle of the greater victim, this sort of politics is fraught with problems. As Obama himself pointed out in his speech before the NAACP, focusing on what one cannot do and taking the standpoint of a victim is counterproductive. This is not to say that injustices should not be pointed out, but that one way to stay a victim is to think of oneself that way.

Granderson continues by making another comparison and he notes that there is an 80 year gap between the 13th Amendment (1865) and when Truman desegregated the armed forces (1948). In contrast, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is younger than (as he says) Miley Cyrus.

Apparently his point is that gay people should not see themselves as the new blacks because they have yet to suffer as much. Of course, this could also be seen as him telling gays not to whine about this matter because blacks had to wait 80 years to serve in a desegregated military. This sort of assertion seems, ironically enough, somewhat like what people said in reply to calls for a quick end to slavery or, latter, a rapid passing of civil rights laws: wait your time. While I do not think that this is what he is saying, it can create that impression.

Of course, gay folks could play the game as well by pointing out that blacks got to openly serve in the military during the Civil War and gays cannot openly serve even now.

Granderson makes his view quite clear when says that to “call this month’s first-ever White House reception for GLBT leaders ‘too little too late’ is akin to a petulant child throwing a tantrum because he wants to eat his dessert before dinner.” His view is that the reason why blacks are upset by the claim that “gay is the new black” is that “everybody wants to sing the blues, nobody wants to live them.”

While I am not quite sure what he means, I infer that he means that blacks are upset at the comparison because white gays are unwilling to accept that blacks have had it worse and that the gays will have to wait their turn.

While it is reasonable to urge gays to be realistic about when they can expect something to be done, this approach can also be seen as dismissing the conerns of gays. As noted above, this seems like telling gay folks that they will just have to wait because black folks had to wait. While this is realistic, the right thing to do is to say that blacks should not have had to wait so long and that we should make an effort to make sure that we do not repeat that dragging out of injustice.

Granderson finishes with what might be seen as a bit of racism. He says  “the parade of gay people calling Obama a “disappointment” on television is counterproductive in gaining acceptance, to say the least. And the fact that the loudest critics are mostly white doesn’t help matters either.”

From a practical standpoint, he is quite right. Just as blacks were urged to go slow and not to push sympathetic white leaders too much during the anti-slavery movement and during the civil rights movement, he is urging the same of gay folks. After all, if they push too much, they risk backlash.

From a moral standpoint, he is as right as the folks who told the blacks to slow down. That is, not at all.

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