Friday, June 12, 2015

Towards True Marriage Equality

Like most progressive people, I'm in favour of a legal redefinition of marriage to make it fairer and more equal for as many people as possible. If for no other reason than the various legal perks and advantages that are given to married people in many countries, I think this is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

What I want to talk about here is what a fair definition of marriage should be, and ask whether we as a society are actually ready to accept the repercussions of that definition. I see a lot of pro-gay-marriage people happily insult non-progressives as bigoted and homophobic, which is often quite justified, but I also see these same people displaying the bigoted behavior they condemn to other underrepresented minorities, without even appearing to realize that they're being the exact same kind of bigot that they rail against. Let me explain, and you can then decide if I'm full of crap or not!


The traditional definition of marriage is generally something of the form:

The legally or formally recognized union of a man and a woman as partners in a relationship.

The progressive definition I would argue for is something like this:

The legally or formally recognized union of consenting adults as partners in a relationship.

Think about this and decide if you agree that this is a reasonable definition. In arguments about marriage equality, progressives will typically focus on limiting marriage to being between a man and a woman as being unreasonably restrictive, and argue that any consenting adults should be able to form a legal union if they wish. I agree with this general principle, but it's important that we look at the cases that it does and doesn't cover, and see if we agree that we're on the right track.

What Marriage Wouldn't Cover

Opponents of gay marriage often bring up various cases and argue that redefining marriage will result in some kind of ridiculous slippery slope to absurdity, so let's look at those cases and see how they are handled by our progressive definition:

Marrying children.

Requiring marriage to be between consenting adults is important in order to exclude claims that someone would be able to marry a child. A child isn't sufficiently mentally developed to enter into a union of this kind, so this seems to be a reasonable restriction. And obviously marrying children isn't possible with our progressive definition, so this argument is invalid.

Marrying animals.

Another popular claim is that redefining marriage will result in bestiality and people wanting to marry their pets or other animals. Now, we can be explicit and say consenting adult humans if we really want to be pedantic, since that is our intention here, but the fact that animals do not have the ability to consent to marriage should already cover this.

Marrying inanimate objects.

Following on from the previous one, no one would be able to marry their car or their favourite sex doll or any other object, since like with animals, inanimate objects cannot consent to anything. 

What Marriage Would Cover

This is where things will get interesting for progressives. Remember again that if you want to argue that marriage should be between consenting adults in order to argue in favour of gay marriage, you need to accept the implications of this redefinition, or be guilty of hypocrisy.

Incestuous marriages.

If two consenting adults want to marry and they happen to be related to each other, what reasonable objection can we give to this? Whether it's two brothers, a brother and sister, a father and daughter, two cousins, or any other combination, they're consenting adults, and what justification do we have for stopping them?

Some people will just jump straight to the "incest is gross" line of reasoning and not even go any further than that. And this is understandable, since there is a strong inbuilt aversion in most humans to avoid sexual attraction to relatives, for good evolutionary reasons. But we're not talking about forcing anyone to do anything. The question is, if for whatever reason two related people are sexually attracted to each other and want to get married, do we have a reasonable objection to it?

We really need to keep in mind the principle that "just because I don't like something isn't good enough reason to stop others from doing that thing". This is one of the exact arguments that homophobic people use against gay marriage. Because they think homosexuality is disgusting, that should be enforced on everyone.

One argument that usually comes up with incestuous marriage is the one about higher risk of deformed children. This is undoubtedly a reality, but consider why this isn't an effective argument:
  • Related couples can have children without being married. Marriage isn't some kind of license that people require before they can procreate, so limiting it in this case makes no sense.
  • Marriage does not necessarily involve children. This is an argument that is often leveled against gay marriage, and the same answer applies. A couple can marry without having children, or they can adopt children if they want. It's important that an incestuous couple is aware of the risks, but that's not a reason to forbid marriage.

Polygamy and polyandry.

Do we have a good reason for limiting marriage to being specifically between two people? This is certainly what most people want, but just like gay or incestuous marriage, if multiple consenting adults want to have this kind of union, is there any good reason not to allow it?

I think the biggest legitimate concern would be if people abused this kind of marriage as a legal loophole, say by some cult having all members marry to take advantage of spousal property ownership transfer laws, or the board of directors of a corporation all marrying to take advantage of laws that protect a person from having speak against their spouse in a criminal case (where these laws exist).

But assuming we can deal with those legal issues, is there any reasonable moral objection that we can give? I can't see a good reason to limit marriage in this way, just like I can't see good reason to limit it to being between a man and a woman.

We should also be aware that there are two different cases here: A group of more than two people all being married to each other; and a person being married multiple times simultaneously, but those partners not being married to each other. I think both are legitimate cases.

Again, we need to remember the point that just because we don't like something or want to do something, that's not a good enough reason to deny it to others who do want that thing. There might be other reasons that could apply, but this isn't one in itself.


It's easy to think that laws should be based around what the majority wants, and ignore minorities. To some degree this is fair, since it's unlikely that you can make laws that will satisfy every member of society, so when you have to choose, going with what the majority wants is often the best trade off. Hell, that's what elections are!

But we do need to reconsider laws when we find that some minority is being unfairly treated and we don't have a sufficient justification for it. This has been the case for LGBT rights. Minorities generally can't get enough political will behind their agendas without some of the majority getting on board, and so as more people have decided that we can accommodate LGBT people in various ways without unreasonably affecting the majority, the momentum has gathered enough to bring about change.

As that change happens, we need to stay aware of other minorities that we can help in the process, and not treat them the exact same way the majority has treated the minority group we are focused on. It's far too easy for most people to dismiss people who are in incestuous or polygamous relationships as 'weirdos' or 'freaks' or 'abominations in the eyes of god' or other uncharitable things, but it's important to remember that they are consenting adults who aren't hurting anyone, and these are the exact labels that LGBT people have been fighting for years. We shouldn't just push the intolerance down onto the next minority group and consider it a victory.

If we really do care about marriage equality, and really do think that consenting adults should be free to marry, then we need to also accept all of the people that this redefinition affects, or we're just as bigoted as the homophobes and other non-progressives.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

In (Partial) Defense of the Death Penalty

With the recent sentence of the death penalty being given to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss some of the issues surrounding the death penalty.

To get started, let me state where I stand on the issue. I generally support the death penalty in theory, but oppose it in practice. My opposition mainly is due to two issues:
  • Trusting the legal system to not sentence innocent people to death
  • Humane methods of imposing the death penalty
To be clear, I don't support the death penalty as a method of retributive justice. I am generally against forms of justice that involve making people suffer. This is a big reason why I support the death penalty in the first place. I think it is far crueler to lock a person up for life with no hope of freedom in an environment that forces them to develop the worst aspects of themselves in order to survive, than to humanely put them down.

I understand that when people do bad things, there is often a very strong desire by the victims, families of the victims, and often the public in general to see that person suffer as part of justice, but I don't think this is an impulse we should embrace, but rather this is the ugly part of us that makes us more like the person we are trying to punish, and the one we should work to move away from.

I see our system of imprisoning and punishing people to serve three useful purposes:
  • Stopping dangerous people from having the opportunity to offend again
  • Providing a deterrent to those who might be considering committing a crime
  • Rehabilitating the offender if possible
Making the offender suffer should not be on that list, no matter how good it might make other people feel. I'm sure you've heard when some rapist or child molester is sent to prison, people say things like, "Good, now I hope he gets raped in prison". Maybe you've even said and thought this yourself. Stop and think about what a horrible thing this is to wish on any human being. And also stop and think about how often innocent people get sent to prison. So you're ultimately hoping for a system that subjects innocent people to that kind of suffering on top of falsely imprisoning them. Everyone should wish for a safe prison environment where offenders can serve their time without fear of being raped or killed, if for no other reason than for the sake of all the innocent people who end up in there. You can't pick and choose, hoping that only the actually guilty people are made to suffer.


So let's talk about some of the common objections to the death penalty, and why I don't think they're sufficient.

Putting someone to death is cruel.

Certainly, it can be cruel if done in a cruel way. I don't at all advocate for barbaric execution methods like the electric chair. But given the existence of drugs used for peaceful euthanasia in countries like the Netherlands, if you can't put someone to death humanely by lethal injection then you're simply doing it wrong.

Putting someone to death is not cruel enough.

The flipside of the previous objection, this is where people feel like the death penalty lets an offender off easy, essentially by not forcing them to stew for years and think about what they've done. There are a few issues here.

One, if the offender is a psychopath, they will probably never end up feeling remorse for what they did, no matter how long they're imprisoned. At best, they'll feel bad that they got caught.

Two, this argument really doesn't make sense to me coming from any religious person who believes in an afterlife. Surely, you feel that he's going to get adequately punished by your god after he dies, right?

Three, as I've stated above, I don't think the desire to make an offender suffer is one we should be promoting. If an offender is unlikely to be able to be rehabilitated into a trustworthy member of society, then putting them down is, in my opinion, the most humane thing you can do. And everyone else will have to accept that making the offender suffer is not going to undo the damage, and they're going to have to find more constructive ways to work through their grief and loss. Enjoying the suffering of others is never a path to long term psychological wellbeing.

Putting someone to death makes us just as bad as them.

Obviously, putting someone to death as punishment is not at all the same thing as, say, a murderer killing a bunch of innocent people. Equating these things makes as much sense as equating killing in self defense and murder. Just because a death is involved does not make them morally the same thing.

Consider a different example: have you ever heard anyone say that we shouldn't put kidnappers in prison because that would make us just as bad as them? We imprison a kidnapper against his will even though that's what he did to someone else, because it's not at all the same thing. Similarities between the crime and the punishment are just that, similarities, and they don't necessarily equate the two things morally.

Death is what he wants, and so we shouldn't give it to him.

This is one of the arguments that has come up in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case. The idea that he wants to be a martyr, that he wants to go to heaven and get his 72 virgins or whatever, so we shouldn't give it to him.

Firstly, if you're not a Muslim yourself, this argument makes no sense, since you, by definition, do not believe he has the reward waiting for him that he thinks he has, so what better punishment than giving him the rude awakening? The longer he lives, the longer he gets to enjoy the thought of all the rewards that he thinks are waiting for him.

But probably more importantly, who cares what he wants? Again, the object isn't retribution and suffering. You keep him from harming others, you send a deterrence message to other would-be criminals, and if you can't reasonably expect to ever rehabilitate and release him, you humanely put him down. But fucking with him based on what he wants shouldn't be part of the program, because we should strive to be better than that.

My Objections

So, as I mentioned at the beginning, I have my own objections to the death penalty in practice. There have been far too many innocent people put on death row in the US to be able to support the death penalty with the justice system as it currently is there (and I'm sure the same is true in other countries), except in the rare cases where the guilt of the person is really not up for debate. This is the case with someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, where no one, as far as I'm aware, has ever argued that he is innocent. If this was the kind of certainty bar that was used in all death penalty cases then I would be willing to reconsider that stance.

And the other one is the apparent difficulty in humanely putting criminals to death. I don't know if this is due to incompetence, or a secret desire to actually make these people suffer, but it seems ridiculous that this should be an issue. And yet it is, and so I wouldn't support the death penalty unless that was sorted out.

My Reasons for Support

So why do I support the death penalty in theory? Well, in general I think our criminal justice system should be more focused on rehabilitation, and I think society would be a far better place if that was taken more seriously. In practice, it seems that going to prison tends to do the opposite of rehabilitate, and when combined with limiting a person's options for getting law abiding employment after they are released, tends to send people down a negative life spiral rather than give them a genuine chance to make amends and start again, even if they really do feel remorse and want to do that.

But for some people, even with a perfect system of rehabilitation, this will simply never work for them. Whether due to mental illness like psychopathy; a mental state that is so damaged by bad life experience that it really can't be repaired; the need for a strong enough deterrent for some crimes so it is understood that if you commit them you will never be set free; or due to crimes so heinous that the general public would simply never feel safe if they were set free; humanely putting that person down is not an act of vengeance or cruelty, but the opposite: a pragmatic choice and an act of decency when a perfect solution doesn't exist.

Is Western Culture Oversensitive to Hitler?

Hitler Chic In Thailand - Photo credit: Tibor Krausz / CNNGO
"Hang on", I hear you saying. "Are you about to defend Hitler?"

No, rest assured that this is not a post defending Hitler or the Nazis, or any kind of anti-Semitic statement. What I do want to discuss though, is how much we should expect other cultures to share our own sensitivities, how much we can be unaware of our own insensitivities to other cultures, and how we can deal with cultural offense in an increasingly globally connected world.

So, a recent episode of the excellent Last Week Tonight with John Oliver had a segment on the growing trend in Thailand of 'Hitler Chic', the use of Hitler and Nazi imagery for humour:

For once, this is something that I kind of disagree with John Oliver about, so I thought it would be worth discussing.


So, the obvious issue is that many people in western culture feel that using Hitler imagery for humour or fun trivializes the horrible things that he was responsible for. There is likely some truth to this, but we also need to recognize the massive degree to which Hitler and the Nazis have become the go-to example of evil in our culture. So many discussions involving politics, slippery slopes, and in fact just about anything, end up with someone playing the Hitler or Nazi card at some point. Now, this can be totally fair, as often a discussion can be clarified by taking it to an extreme to show where a line of reasoning may lead, but with Hitler this has become so overdone, so much the only reference most people seem to share, that we have even coined a term for it, Godwin's Law:

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1"

Basically, western culture seems to have so few common references to draw on where people can be confident that others will get what they mean, that we've practically turned Hitler into a caricature of evil, and we're on the verge (if not already crossed over) of no longer being able to reasonably include a reference to him in a serious discussion.

No Paucity of Examples

Now of course, a persuasive leader who started a world war and committed arguably the largest act of genocide in human history is not someone to take lightly, but it's not as if we're lacking in other examples. What is problematic with western culture is how little most people (and I include myself here) are aware of other examples, when there is no shortage.

One of the examples of genocide I tend to use is the horrific genocide in Rwanda of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Here is a genocide of up to 1 million people that took place only 20 years ago, yet most westerners probably know next to nothing about it. It's a fantastic example of how normal people can literally turn against their neighbours and kill them, and it even includes the church and religion playing a big part in provoking it.

Or take Holodomor, the "hunger extermination" of Ukranians in 1932-3 that killed between 2.5 and 7.5 million people, on the same scale as the Holocaust.

If you want horrible dictators, how about Pol Pot, responsible for millions of deaths in Cambodia, as just one of many, many examples.

Or what about Hirohito or Tojo and all of the horrible deaths they were responsible for before and during World War 2? There is no Godwin's Law for them.


If our view of Hitler and Nazis was kept in perspective, we would use them as examples and be sensitive to them in roughly relative proportion to other events and people in recent history. But we don't do that, and that should be a sign to us that maybe we're oversensitive to one thing and far too ignorant on many, many others.

And so, we find other cultures that, for whatever reason, don't hold the same level of sensitivity about something as we do, and we insist that they should change? Like it or not, Hitler and the Nazis generated some very striking imagery, and so it shouldn't be surprising that it would get appropriated in places that aren't as sensitive to it, such as Thailand. Why not?

We do it ourselves all the time too. How familiar and iconic is this Che Guevara image?

Photo credit: Alberto Korda - Museo Che Guevara, Havana Cuba
It has appeared on t-shirts, in art, and in so many locations with most people not even knowing or caring if anyone would be offended by its use. It's striking and not offensive to the people using it, so they use it.

Or, since we're talking about Thailand, consider the use of Yantra tattoos, which many westerners get because they look cool, despite that it's often offensive to Thai people for religious reasons.

Sak Yant Tattoo performed in thailand.jpg
Sak Yant Tattoo performed in Thailand - Photo credit: Ryaninuk

The Past, the Future

Different cultures are sensitive to different things and to different degrees, that's normal. Generally, over time, that sensitivity diminishes and what was once offensive or taboo becomes a piece of pop culture. In Thailand, a Hitler Teletubby shirt is funny, but for most westerners, it's not. But we should remember, that in the west we can open a Viking themed restaurant, for example, with no one being offended in the least, but this wasn't always the case either.

We live in an increasingly globally connected world where there is much common ground, but we're going to keep coming across differences between cultures. Some of those will be considered interesting and welcomed by other cultures. Some of them will be a sensitivity that won't be shared. I would never argue that being sensitive to another culture is likely to be a bad thing, but ironically, that also means being sensitive to the fact that they might not feel the same way about something that you're sensitive to, and not requiring them to share your point of view.

We can only shield ourselves from these cultural differences to a limited degree, and that is going to keep reducing over time. So we need to accept that either we push everyone in the world towards a lowest common denominator where no one does or says anything that could offend any other culture, or we accept that these differences are going to exist and that it's okay. The past tells us that historical things that we're sensitive to now, we won't be at some point in the future, it's just a question of how soon. So we shouldn't hold it against other cultures because they got there sooner than we did.