Hamlet, Sex, and Drugs

I was reading earlier tonight of a new, scientific study published just two days ago that analyzed the hospital medical records of 20 million people in the United States and found those folks who used cannabis had a 26 per cent higher chance of suffering a stroke than those who did not, and a 10 per cent higher chance of having a heart attack.  The study of course concluded that cannabis use could endanger the health of one’s heart.

Now, there seems to be an excellent, detailed write up about the study here.  I would urge you to check it out if you use cannabis, know someone who uses cannabis, or are planning to vote on whether to legalize cannabis.  But please understand that I’m not suggesting what you should do about the study.  That’s up to you to decide.

No, the reason I began this post by mentioning the study is certainly not because I intend to go on from there to advocating that you and everyone else should give up cannabis now because there seems to be some risk to using it.  Instead, I have what I myself believe is something fully more important — and perhaps even more interesting — to talk with you about at three o’clock in the morning, my time.

But I wonder now what is the best way to introduce this new subject?  Were we speaking in person, I would naturally signal my excitement at the prospect of discussing the new subject with you by of course vigorously flapping my arms while squawking at you like a chicken: A move I have learned through repeated experience is an excellent and virtually guaranteed way to get someone’s attention. I use it all the time.

Alas!  We are not speaking in person.  So, I’ll just blurt out the subject I wish to discuss with you just like a thirteen or fourteen year old schoolboy is apt to spontaneously blurt out the very first words that come to his mind the very first time in his life he asks a girl to hang out alone with him.  Ready?  Here goes: “Why does our noble species of supersized chimpanzees so very often refuse to acknowledge there can be good points on both sides of an issue?”

It was the cannabis study, you see, that brought that question to mind for me.

I like most of us, I have more than enough  experience in life to know the release of such a study is not only going to cause thousands of debates around the world within the next few days, but that many of the people debating the various issues that the study raises will be absolutely and immovably convince that their side, and only their side, has all the good points on it.

For instance, there will surely be people who favor cannabis use that will be simply unable to entertain the thought — even for a brief moment — that the study could be reliable and that cannabis use could endanger one’s heart.  And just like them, there will surely be people on the other side unable to acknowledge that the risks might not be great enough to some people to deter them from using cannabis.

But why is that so?  Put differently, don’t you find it a little strange we humans are so often unable to accept complexity, and seemingly feel compelled to deny any complexity actually exists?  After all, we’ve got the sharpest brains of all the animals on the planet.  Even our esteemed political leaders are second only to most plants and some minerals in terms of the processing power of their brains.   Why can’t we — at least why can’t so many of us — cope with complexity?

I wish to propose an answer to those questions.  An answer that, as it happens, is to be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As you might recall, there is very little action in the play.  There are many great soliloquies and speeches, but nothing much actually happens until a brief, climatic moment at the very end.  (Indeed, the play is uncannily reminiscent of  my two wedding nights.)  The cause of the lack of action is that the character of Hamlet spends nearly the entire play dithering.

Why doth he dither?  I believe it was the philosopher Walter Kaufmann who pointed out that Hamlet wavers because he has too many choices, and to my recollection, there’s some science that backs up Kaufmann.  The phenomenon is called, “overchoice“:

The phenomenon of overchoice occurs when many equivalent choices are available.  Making a decision becomes overwhelming due to the many potential outcomes and risks that may result from making the wrong choice. Having too many approximately equally good options is mentally draining because each option must be weighed against alternatives to select the best one.

But what has overchoice to do with acknowledging that there can be good points on both sides of an issue?

I believe the relationship is fairly straightforward.  When faced with complexity — such as a situation in which there are good points on both sides of an issue — many of us adopt a strategy of reducing the complexity to manageable proportions by going into denial that there are good points on the other side of the issue.  At least, that’s my guess.

Furthermore, by seeing things in a less than realistic way — that is, by seeing them as one-sided — we crush the wavering doubt we feel and thus open ourselves to taking unhesitant action.

You see that reductive strategy employed nearly everywhere by folks.  Not just in the debates over cannabis that are sure now to flood us for a few days if the reports of the new study go viral, but also in nearly everything else.  Take the issue of abortion.  Few issues seem to bring out one-sided views so decisively as abortion.  I would suggest here that the reason for that might be — not that the issue is simple — but that it is so overwhelmingly complex.  For precisely which reason so many of us adamantly reduce it to black and white.

That’s pretty much all I want to say on this topic for now.  But I can’t resist finishing up this post by offering a practical tip any pastors in the audience.  If you’re a pastor and your sermons have been putting people to sleep, I would suggest to you, based on my singular research into such matters, that you should dress up in a chicken suit when it’s time to man the pulpit.  Trust me!  I have years of experience in this, and flapping around and squawking like a chicken is the best practical way I’ve ever found of seizing people’s attention.  Folks loves them a good chicken act.  And, so far as I can see, there’s absolutely no downside to it at all!

Why are Some Religious Groups Sexually Oppressive?

Planning to have sex on your wedding night?  Not if you’re a member of The Word of Faith Fellowship, a protestant, non-denominational church headed by Pastor Jane Whaley, and located in Spindale, North Carolina.

According to a recent news report, members of the church, even on their wedding night, are permitted no more than a “godly peck on the cheek” before they are required to roll over and go to sleep.  And don’t expect the next night to be any better:  Whaley and the other pastors of the church can take months, even a year, to grant a couple permission to have sex.

When permission is at last granted, it’s still no party: “Love-making is limited to 30 minutes, no foreplay is allowed, the lights must be turned off and only the missionary position is sanctioned.”

Well, at least you get to have kids, right?  Sure you do — just as soon as the church leadership grants you permission.

And that’s just some of the draconian rules.  The Word of Faith Fellowship has others too, and the punishments for disobeying any of them are reported by former members to be severe and include harsh beatings.

Reading about The Word of Faith Fellowship in the news, my mind made the jump from that particular church to religions in general, and I began to wonder why they are so often sexually oppressive?

Of course, that question is far too general.  For one thing, religions are not always sexually oppressive.  Shinto, Taoism, most of the species of Paganism that I’ve come across, traditional Chinese folk religions, and many others are to my admittedly limited knowledge not sexually oppressive.  Even Confucianism, which I believe to oppress women, does not oppress sex itself.

Then again, even in those religions with a reputation of being sexually oppressive, there are widely varying degrees of it depending on the branch, sect, denomination, or the congregation one looks at.  So making generalizations is a bit hazardous.  Perhaps the best we can say is that some religious groups are in various ways, and to various extents, oppressive.

That is enough, however, to prompt the question of “Why?”

At first, I thought that was a fairly easy question.  After all, doesn’t the leadership benefit from sexual oppression by using it to further and consolidate their control over people?  But how exactly does that work?

In one way, it’s easy enough to see how it works.  All you need do is watch Pat Robinson (1) rile people up about “the threat to Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness” posed by some one or another sexual issue — abortion, transgendered people using the “wrong” public restroom, etc — and then (2) solicit monetary donations from his now frightened and angry audience.

The more I think about that, however, the more I suspect there might be something deeper afoot.   What Robinson and so many other religious leaders do does indeed work, but why?

Put differently, what is it about human sexuality that makes it easy for so many of us to believe it can, in some ways, pose a genuine threat to “Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness”?   To my ear, saying there is something about our sexuality that can make it a threat to those things is like saying there’s something about popcorn that can make it a threat to those things.  I don’t get frightened and angry.  I smile and shake my head.

But apparently to a certain kind of person it does make sense to say that human sexuality can threaten those things.   He or she is not only quite willing to get out their checkbook or credit card and sacrifice a portion of their wealth to oppose what they imagine to be the evils of our sexuality, but they are also willing to seek out and follow — often enough blindly follow — any leader who sees things as they do.

It’s all too easy and misleading to dismiss such people as “stupid”.  I have known many such people in my life, and enough of them are smart to give the lie to that dismissal.  So what is it about them that makes it plausible to them that our sexuality can topple worlds?

I think a possible answer to our question might be found in Moral Foundations Theory.  The theory was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, and its gist is that we humans are born equipped with at least six psychological foundations for making moral judgments.  These foundations can be to some extent thought of as spontaneous moral feelings, or quick moral intuitions.

For instance, how would it make you feel to witness a friend being cheated at cards by an out-of-town professional gambler? Moral Foundations Theory would suggest that the fact witnessing someone being cheated might cause a negative reaction in you is the product of an inherent psychological module.  Furthermore, the fact that you might be even more outraged because the person being cheated was your friend is also the product of an inherent psychological module, a second one.  All together, there are six modules, and they are the foundations of our moral judgments, or moralities.

Of the six foundations, one is of particular importance here.  That’s the foundation referred to as “sanctity” or “purity”.   It comes into play when you judge something, such as a food, idea, or action, to be disgusting or abhorrent, perhaps because it is impure or degraded in your eyes.

Now I would suggest that our natural tendency to sometimes make moral judgments based on whether we perceive something to lack sanctity or purity can under certain conditions predispose us to seeing human sexuality as a grave moral threat.  Those conditions are met if we have been taught to view sex as shameful, impure, degrading, and so forth.  And if and when we see human sexuality as a grave moral threat, then it can become plausible to us that human sexuality — or at least the wrong kind of human sexuality — can lead to the downfall of “Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness”.

Put differently, it is not simply that someone is taught “the wrong kind of sexuality can destroy religion, etc.”  There’s more to it than that.  Everyone of us has heard that message through-out our lives, but most of us find it quite implausible.  Ridiculous even.  Only with some of us does it fall on fertile ground.  And I think the reason for that is that those of us who find the message plausible are more sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation of moral judgments than the rest of us.

Indeed, when Haidt studied whether political progressives and conservatives had differing sensitivities to his six foundations of morality he found precisely that: Conservatives are more sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation than are progressives.

So, why are some religious groups so sexually oppressive?  Well, as I noted before, not all religious groups are.  I would like now to suggest that the sexually oppressive ones are likely to have significantly more people who are especially sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation of our moral judgments than are the less oppressive groups.

Yet, I do not wish to give the impression that I think I’ve hit upon the only reason some religious groups are sexually oppressive.  I think there’s more to it than what I’ve written about here.  What’s your opinion?  Why is it that some religious groups are sexually oppressive?  Your thoughts, please.

The Three Key Sex Acts that Cause Female Orgasms According to Science

When I was in my teens, perhaps the most controversial sexual topic among my peers was whether or not to perform oral sex on a woman.

It was pretty much settled by that time in my small, rural Midwestern town that oral sex was an excellent thing for a woman to give a man.  The only controversy was whether men should reciprocate.

Today, it might surprise you that much of the resistance to oral sex came from the women.  Near as I knew, about half of my female peers were opposed to it, mostly I think from embarrassment at the mere thought that their boyfriends might be repelled by getting up close and personal with “down there”.  It was worse with the men though.  Among my male peers, perhaps two-thirds were opposed.

But I think nowadays the one fact that might by itself tell you the most about the attitudes of that time and place is that, even among those of us who thought giving oral sex to a woman was ok, almost no one — male or female — thought it was just about mandatory.  It was considered as optional as nibbling on someone’s ear, icing on the cake at best, even something exotic that you did for no better reason than to break the routine.

The days when oral sex was almost universally seen as an exotic option are long gone now, but I was reminded of those days this evening when I came across a new study, published in mid-February in the Archives of Sexual Behavior journal, with the alarmingly suggestive title of,  Differences in Orgasm Frequency Among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Heterosexual Men and Women in a U.S. National Sample. Robin Andrews, writing for the blog, IFLScience, nicely sums up one of the conclusions of the study:

A group of researchers from Indiana University and Chapman University surveyed over 52,000 people  – which included a range of straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women aged between the ages of 18 and 65 – and concluded that there is a “golden trio” of actions that will all-but-ensure female orgasm occurs. That, ladies and gentlemen, is deep kissing, genital stimulation, and oral sex.

The whole article is well worth reading, and can be found here.

The Regressive Left and the Suppression of Free Speech

Are there proper limits to free speech?  If so, what should they be?  In Western history, the first, and perhaps still the most popular, attempt to establish liberal limits to free speech was made by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty, which was published in 1859.

Mill brings up the British corn merchants in making his case for liberal limits to free speech.  In the mid-1800s, the corn merchants were hated and feared by the poor.  Radicals stirred up the poor by accusing the merchants of hording grain in order to drive the price of it up and force the masses to choose between paying inflated prices and starvation.  Conservatives feared the radicals would succeed in politically mobilizing the poor, and wanted to protect the social order by silencing the radicals, using the powers of the government to do so.

In turn, Mill argued that the government did not have unlimited rights to silence people, but could do so only if they were in violation of “one very simple principle,” which is now usually called the harm principle, and which states, “…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

But what did Mill mean by “harm”?  That question is the subject of debate, but I think Mill intended to narrowly limit what constitutes harm in these circumstances to actions that harm or violate another person’s rights, or threaten to do so.

For instance, a corn merchant could be harmed by someone publishing information that resulted in the boycott of his business with a resulting loss of profits.  But this sort of harm does not appear to be what Mill had in mind  because it does not violate the rights of the corn merchant.  In other words, the merchant has no right to force people to patronize his business in order to guarantee his profits.

On the other hand, a merchant could be harmed by someone denouncing him to an angry mob gathered in front of his house for hording grain in order to drive the price up.  If someone did that, it could incite the mob to violate the merchant’s property rights (e.g. by burning his house down), or even to violate his right to life.  Consequently, the speech of the person denouncing the merchant could in this case be legitimately suppressed.

As I said, what Mill meant by “harm” is debatable, but I think it can at least be argued that he wished to narrowly limit what constitutes harm.  Whatever the precise meaning of it, Mill’s harm principle became for generations the traditional liberal ideal for imposing limits on speech.

In the 1980s, Mill’s harm principle came under attack from the American philosopher, Joel Feinberg.  Feinberg asked, “whether there are any human experiences that are harmless in themselves yet so unpleasant that we can rightly demand legal protection from them even at the cost of other persons’ liberties.”  That is, do we have a right to be protected, not merely from harm, but from offense, as well?  His answer to the question was to argue that at least some forms of harmless but profoundly offensive conduct can properly be criminalized, and he urged that Mill’s harm principle be replaced with his offense principle.

Feinberg’s offense principle provided the initial philosophical justification for the infamous attacks on free speech by the Regressive Left that are in the news today.  The Regressive Left — as distinct from the Progressive Left, which still strongly supports free speech — has now built on Feinberg’s work to go further than him.  For instance, Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford professor, suggests these days that speech that merely attacks the dignity of others should be banned.  “We have gone from the principle that only speech that incites crime can be banned to the principle that speech that incites gross offence can be banned to the principle that speech that provokes discomfort can be banned.”

What most strikes me about the theorists of the Regressive Left is that they do not seem to notice — or perhaps they notice, but do not fully grasp — that they are putting themselves at grave risk of having the tables turned on them.  As Nick Cohen writes:

Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive?

If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private institutions, they will decide that whistleblowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services they will say that leaks about illegal surveillance must be stopped because they might harm national security, just as pornography might harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?

Yet, they are not only putting themselves at risk of having the tables turned on them, but everyone else as well.  A society that embraces the notion rights can be abridged simply because their exercise causes someone, somewhere profound offense, much less mere discomfort, is a society ripe for dictatorship.  Were such a notion to prevail here in America, our notably thin-skinned president would have legal standing to shut down any criticism of himself whatsoever.

I think perhaps the best thing that can be said about Feinberg’s position is that, to see the truth of his notion that offenses can be profound, one only has to recall some instance when one suffered grievous hurt from a mere slight.  “Only sticks and stones” can harm us is a lie: The emotional fallout from words alone can at times outlast the pain of a broken arm.  That’s to say, his position is well grounded in human psychology.  Yet, to recognize that fact is not necessarily to endorse his views that certain behavior should be criminalized simply because it causes profound offense.

Whether we like it or not, all societies require of their citizens some sacrifices in order to preserve the society itself.  It seems to me that liberal democracies, especially, require their citizens to accept that they will at times be disgusted, repulsed, shocked, shamed, or embarrassed by the opinions and behaviors of their fellow citizens and yet, they will be unable to suppress those opinions and behaviors, least their society descend into tyranny.   For the real choice here is not between being offended and not being offended, but rather between freedom and oppression.

Bernie Sanders Tells the Truth, But Does it Give You Hope?

Perhaps like most members of our species of incredibly sophisticated poo-flinging super-apes, I am fully capable of taking pleasure in imagining  things that happen not, in fact, to be true.

Often enough, my imaginings are clearly fantastic: For instance, the extraordinarily pleasant fantasy that I have been elected Emperor of the Planet, and have managed to end war, involuntary poverty, disease, crime, and vicious paper cuts while at the same time justly employing my imperial powers to at last wreak final revenge on that hideous Brian T. Jurgens, who unfairly and outrageously gave me a black eye in third grade before I could unfairly and outrageously give him a black eye.

Not that the memory of losing a distant childhood battle to a person of no consequence such as Brian could possibly still rankle even in full adulthood a man of my dignity and advanced wisdom: In truth, I’m only dispassionately interested in doing justice, you see, and the uncontrollable cackling you might now hear if you were nearby has nothing at all to do with obsessed glee at the merest fleeting mental image of sauteing Brian in a man-size pan of boiling dragon’s pee.

In addition to all my other noble accomplishments as Emperor, I also once tried fantasizing that I got imperially laid without, however, inflicting insufferable boredom on the lady who laid me, but even in fantasies there are limits to what a person is able to consider imaginable.

Or are there limits?  I was reminded just yesterday morning of how flimsy is the notion of limits to what we can think conceivable when an old priest approvingly quoted a statement once made by Pope John Paul II on the topic of homosexual marriage:

 “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this [gay marriage] is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.”

Now, I think the Pope’s statement is fantastic.  That is, it seems to me right up there on the same level of fantasy as my imagining I am the Emperor of the Planet.  For, so far as I can see, the two claims have in common that there is not one single bit of sound evidence in support of either one of them.    But the fact the Pope’s statement is bunk isn’t what really struck me about it.

What really struck me was how the statement is just one small drop in a daily flood of nonsense. Some long time ago, I stumbled across a beautiful book of Native American poetry.  One of the poems spoke powerfully of someone who was a pathological liar: “And your words when you speak are like a wind from four quarters that carries the dust to my eyes no matter which way I turn.”  It can seem like that — seem like there’s no direction you can turn, nor place you can go in society today, that you are not being told nonsense.

Nonsense such as the Theory of Evolution is scientifically unsound, there is little or no climate change brought about by our burning fossil fuels, abstinence-only sex education works as advertised, cutting taxes on the rich will bring jobs and prosperity for all, and even that there is a War on Christmas — among many, many other such things.

And that, in a rather round about way, brings me now to Bernie Sanders.

Sanders seems to me usually honest, especially for a politician.   And — apparently by telling the truth (!) about such things as the nature, causes, and consequences of income inequality — he has become quite popular.

When the old priest quoted John Paul II yesterday morning, I at first reacted like I usually do when told a lie:  I internally sighed because I thought of how so many of us  believe such lies.  For perhaps what is most overwhelming about the daily flood is not so much the lies themselves but that so many of us swallow those lies.  How can one view with optimism the long term fate of our noble species of advanced spear-chuckers if we are basically such fools, such simple-minded fools?

But then along has come Sanders who both tells the truth  and, apparently, has struck a chord with folks by telling the truth.  He not only draws people to his speeches in record numbers, but he is also surging in many polls.

In a way, whether Sanders wins the nomination or the presidency matters less than the extraordinary response he’s gotten to speaking truth:  Speaking it — not to the powerful — but to common people.  To people that so many of our powerful elites these days seem to contemptuously think of as easily manipulated and exploited dolts.  Yet I think people’s response to Sanders permits us cautious hope for a better future, for it possibly bodes that sooner or later the truth will prevail among us despite the daily flood of lies.  However, another part of me worries that I am once again only fantasizing, and that the people’s response to Sanders means no such thing.  I suppose time will tell which part of me is correct.

The Indefinite Detention of American Citizens

It seems US Senators John McCain (R-Arizona), Carl Levin (D-Michigan), and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have prepared an early Christmas gift for Americans.  If various accounts are true, their gift is more than a little unsettling.

Apparently, in the name of fighting terrorism, the three have conspired to write into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act provisions that would require the military to indefinitely imprison without a civilian trial any American citizen determined to be a member of al Qaeda or it’s affiliates.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is usually a routine piece of legislation passed each year to specify the budget and expenditures of the U.S. Department of Defense.  Normally, it is not considered a threat to freedom and liberty.   But this year, the three senators have added language to it that is causing grave concern on both the Right and the Left.

In defense of their bill, the senators insist the group of people who could be indefinitely detained without civilian trial only include  “al-Qaeda terrorists who participate in planning or conducting attacks against us.” They also say the president would be able to waive military imprisonment if s/he believes civilian custody would better serve national security.

Yet, according to Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), a citizen would get only one hearing during which the military could assert the person was a suspected terrorist.  He or she would then be locked up for life without ever having been formally charged.

Furthermore, Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) has stated, “The provisions would dramatically change broad counterterrorism efforts by requiring law enforcement officials to step aside and ask the Department of Defense to take on a new role they are not fully equipped for and do not want.”  And he adds that the legislation would make the military “police, judge and jailer.”

The provisions are also opposed by numerous others, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and President Obama.

It seems to me a law such as the three Senators want is ripe for abuse. The indefinite detention of American citizens without a fair trial runs counter to American values.  This appears to be yet another attempt to deprive us of our liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.  At least that’s how I see it.  What do you think?

Glenn Greenwald on the Coordinated Police Crackdown of the Occupy Movement

It was only a matter of time before a coordinated police crackdown was imposed to end the Occupy encampments. Law enforcement officials and policy-makers in America know full well that serious protests — and more — are inevitable given the economic tumult and suffering the U.S. has seen over the last three years (and will continue to see for the foreseeable future). A country cannot radically reduce quality-of-life expectations, devote itself to the interests of its super-rich, and all but eliminate its middle class without triggering sustained citizen fury.

— Glenn Greenwald, from OWS Inspired Activism, in Salon.com.

I think Greenwald is right — the Occupy Movement isn’t going away so long as the economic injustices underlying it exist and are fueling it.

The other thing I’m wondering about this morning is who coordinated the raids on the Occupy sites in several cities.   An interesting take on that can be found here.