Shades of Gray

themonkeesFor those of you under 50, The Monkees were a band that was big in the 1960’s. Though they started out as a marketing contrivance by record producers hoping to compete with the Beatles, they quickly asserted their independence and sang out with their own unique voice to help define the times we lived in. For many pre-teens like me growing up then, The Monkees were incredibly influential in shaping our worldview.

It is difficult to analyze what made them so influential for so many. Attempts to do so only diminish their uniqueness, like describing a frog by dissecting it. Perhaps it was partly the innocent seriousness of their music and lyrics. Perhaps it was partly their counterculture attitude and their defiant questioning of establishment norms. But it was also the damned catchy way they did it, with unfailing musicality and uplifting positivity underpinning their protest messages, so pop and so unlike the relatively somber dirges of Dylan and many other folk era voices.

Their influence manifested in little ways like a Daydream Believer posing the question “how much baby do we really need?” It inhabited their observations about suburban life in Pleasant Valley Sunday. And it was reflected in the angry backlash of mainstream culture shouted out in Randy Souce Git.

Why don’t you be like me?
Why don’t you stop and see?
Why don’t you hate who I hate,
Kill who I kill to be free?
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Why don’t you live up there?
Why don’t you do what I do,
See what I feel when I care?

No where was their magic more deeply felt by me than in the music and lyrics of a song called “Shades of Gray.” Like the soft murmurs of a siren song, this unassuming little ballad draws the listener deep into heart of the human condition. This magical spell permanently transformed many of us kids from the dogmatic, religious worldview of black and white morality into a generation cursed evermore to perceive a world revealed as an ever shifting kaleidoscope of greys.

When the world and I were young
Just yesterday
Life was such a simple game
A child could play
It was easy then to tell right from wrong
Easy then to tell weak from strong
When a man should stand and fight
Or just go along
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of gray
I remember when the answers seemed so clear
We had never lived with doubt or tasted fear
It was easy then to tell truth from lies
Selling out from compromise
Who to love and who to hate
The foolish from the wise
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of gray
[Instrumental interlude]
It was easy then to know what was fair
When to keep and when to share
How much to protect your heart
And how much to care
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of gray
Only shades of gray


Those lyrics were immensely powerful in 1966, and they are just as relevant and meaningful today, 50 years later- especially so after our last election.

But please don’t just read the lyrics. The music and the harmonies are so gorgeous, you really have to just listen… really listen.


The Trump Zone Shocker Ending

For those of you who are too young to have grown up on it, The Twilight Zone was a science fiction show that featured a shocker ending, typically in the form of a sudden reversal of perspective. There was one episode, for example, when an astronaut to Mars is welcomed by aliens who greet him warmly and offer him a comfortable Earth-like room with all the amenities. Everything seems wonderful until he notices a sign that says “Earthling in its natural habitat.” Then the wall drops open and he is stunned by the realization that he is actually in a zoo (see here).

Last night was a real life Twilight Zone shocker ending. There we were. My wife and I and all our friends were in an uptown Manhattan apartment expecting to watch Hillary declared the winner within the first hour – or two at most – before popping our champagne. As the first states went to Trump, many reassured us that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Hillary did not need that state to win. As each subsequent state fell to Trump, we kept clinging to the next certain path to victory. When it finally became undeniably apparent that Hillary was out of paths to 270, the utterly stunned looks of shock and disbelief were every bit as profound as if we suddenly discovered we were actually exhibits in a Martian zoo.

This is the Twilight Zone ending of this long election cycle. All of us who opposed Trump lived under a delusion of absolute certainty that all those crazy Trump people were living in some artificial bubble created by Fox News. But suddenly we had to accept that is we who have been living in the bubble, not them. It is we who thoroughly denied the reality of a disillusioned, hurting, and profoundly desperate majority in America. It is we, including those in the media, whose bubble of relative affluence did not allow us appreciate or even imagine that too many of our fellow Americans are so fundamentally damaged by our system that disqualifiers like misogyny and all the rest are merely frivolous preoccupations of the privileged classes.

Those with all the power are always shocked and surprised when the “masses” rise up. Many slave-owners in the South were probably mystified to learn that there was so much discontent amongst their slaves. In every country when there is a popular revolution, the leaders and those who are well off live in their own bubble that only gets penetrated when the workers rise up in some form of Marxian revolt. They are always stunned and shocked.

That may be exactly what we have seen here. In recent decades SO much wealth has gone to the upper classes, siphoned by the rich like vampires directly from the life blood of the working class, that Karl Marx would be nodding his head saying “I told you so.” He would probably only be surprised that it took so long for reality to burst through our happy little bubble.


Leaving Men Behind

I recently read an interesting article in the New York Times called “The Men Feminists Left Behind” by Jill Filipovic (see here). You should read it in entirety, but here is a synopsis:

Women have evolved, men have not. While women have soared, men have remained stuck in the past. Donald Trump is representative of far too many men, and they are a threat to our country. Women cannot reach their full potential unless men change. If men feel left behind, disrespected, and ignored, they need to follow the example of women and move forward into a new and more flexible gender role.

womanvsmanA lot of what is says is well-taken tough love, but it does generalize too much. It paints all men as Dodo Birds, and all women by implication as enlightened beings. Certainly there are far too many men, largely Trump voters, who absolutely need to go extinct as quickly as possible for the good of all humanity. But huge numbers of men vehemently reject Trump and all he stands for.

Conversely, the author seems blind to the fact that far, far too many women support Trump the candidate and the hateful rhetoric he spews. Kellyanne Conway, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin and his army of female surrogates are not anomalies, but are examples of a disturbingly large number of female Trump supporters. These are hardly luminous beings of exemplary wisdom. Their support is particularly inexplicable and disturbing given how much of his rhetoric ought to be especially horrifying to women.

Here’s another thing. The author is correct that men do need to adjust. We had been driving in our station wagon together as families for many generations. The man driving, the woman knitting while occasionally checking the map for directions. Recently, the woman has demanded to drive and the man has had to relinquish the steering wheel. But he loved driving, doesn’t know how to knit, and is constitutionally and philosophically opposed to maps. So what does he do now? Maybe he sits in his passenger seat and reminisces about the good old days when he got to drive as he drinks lots of beer.

Back when I was in the Peace Corps, I used to walk by construction sites in my village. Each one was “manned” exclusively by female construction workers doing heavy labor. I knew full well that the corner bar was filled with men sitting around drinking. I was infuriated by this. It offended my sensibilities in every possible way. What was the matter with these lazy, good-for-nothing men? Unfortunately, my ire couldn’t have been more myopic. It turned out that, in a well-intentioned effort to encourage equal opportunity, the government provided generous incentives for these companies to hire women. Almost over night, that put men out of work with absolutely nothing to do, no prospects, no opportunities, and no self-respect.

I tell you this story to suggest to you that situations are seldom simple. Yes, women have made great strides and that is good. In fact, to the extent it is a competition, they have clearly won. Jill’s article could only be written by someone that has internalized the fact that women have won. They are on top now, if not in every measure, in every measure that portends future trends and prospects. She knows women are driving the train moving forward, and feels confident enough to warn men that they need to get on-board or get left behind.

Let’s be clear, there has been a strong element of competition here for a largely fixed pie. Women flocked into previously male jobs and these well-paying jobs have not doubled over this period, rather the number of these jobs has shrunk dramatically over this same period. So you do the math. To tell men in America that they simply need to “get with the program” is as naïve as my thinking that those African men simply need to “get out there and work.” It is as short-sighted and callous and indifferent as it is when we tell impoverished Blacks to simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or immigrants to stop just complaining and get to work, or displaced coal workers to just evolve.

These social upheavals, while good and necessary, do cause real pain. Major social transitions to create greater equity do cause localized inequity and in this case men have been the losers. When feminists like Jill ignore this and chide men into “just get over it,” they ignore the systemic and emotional challenges involved. It is not that simple or easy. Necessary, yes of course. Easy? No way. Men are not Neanderthals. They are actual people with feelings who are trying their best to adjust to real loss and change. Sometimes part of that adjustment includes clinging to the past or getting belligerent. But these things are normal stages of adjustment. Women have had generations to adapt and grow. Men need and deserve some time.

Despite the fact that men have been hit hard, they have adjusted a great deal. You seldom hear sexist language in most workplaces. Many men find that they are suddenly a minority in largely female workplaces and many report to women. Lots of men are thriving house-moms today.

So women, you deserve to celebrate but try not to gloat. Refrain from telling men they are Neanderthals or treating them that way. Try not to discount the unprecedented social barriers and challenges that men have been adapting to. Maybe try to give them some support and encouragement rather than getting impatient with them, demeaning them, and issuing Conservative-sounding “get on the train or get left behind” ultimatums.

And as you give your men the time and understanding they need to adjust, maybe you can work on evolving the many women who have adopted all the worst traits associated with the old school males you deride as Neanderthals. I, as do many males, desperately want to see female compassion and sensibilities provide real leadership to help to save this planet, not merely share equally with men in exploiting and plundering it.

Aborting the Lies

Is it any surprise that there are many more fake pro-life “abortion clinics” than there are actual abortion clinics? Is it any surprise that if you try to Google anything related to abortion services, you will get many, many more hits for fake pro-life Trojan-Horse sites than actual legitimate abortion service sites?

Frankly this should come as no surprise to anyone. This is what these fanatical pro-life activists do. As documented in the excellent HBO film “12th and Delaware” (see here) and others, Christians set up fake abortion clinics to lure in distressed, vulnerable pregnant women under false pretenses. Like any good confidence operation, they are warm and welcoming and sprinkle in as many facts as they can so that they can manipulate these women.

However, once lured into these “abortion counseling services,” the women find that the pressure on them will build and build, becoming more manipulative as these pro-life fanatics try to persuade or coerce or even trick the woman into delivering her baby. This manipulation is not merely limited to appeals to emotion, but includes many outright distortions and lies. One such tactic is to intentionally under-report the gestational age of the baby to make the client believe she has much more time than she actually has to perform the abortion. They outright lie to trick the women into delaying their abortion until it is too late. In fact, they feel justified to lie about anything and everything necessary to “save” the baby.

Clinics and web sites make the women watch “informational videos” to help in this coercion. Many are produced by an infamous anti-abortion doctor named Dr. Anthony Levitano. He has one such propaganda video on medical abortion (see here), which is an extremely safe and effective procedure. I encourage you to watch this because it provides a great crash course in how to manipulate others and what to watch for to avoid being manipulated. It starts out for the first minute or so as a fairly straight-forward description of medical abortion. The manipulation kicks in by pointing out that the medical abortion can be “reversed.” This is factually inaccurate, but pro-life advocates like to say it anyway to plant the seed of doubt – the doubt that many women “come to their senses” too late to save their baby.

At about a 90 seconds in, the video starts to turn palpably darker, emphasizing ominous words like “severe” and “heavy” and introducing phrases intended to appeal to emotion like “force the dead baby out.” Notice that they intentionally call it a baby, not a fetus or embryo, because they use every possible ploy to make the mother feel emotionally connected. After that, Levitano proceeds to up the temperature by warning that the process can be “very intense and painful.” From there it gets quickly worse, gratuitously pointing out that the woman could “loose her baby” at any time, then following up with images of a woman on a toilet “expelling her baby down the toilet which she will then flush.” The repulsive imagery that Levitano fully intends to invoke is masked under a transparently thin veil of clinical detachment.

And this is only half-way through the thing! The video goes on to repulse the viewer with increasingly horrific and increasingly blatant appeals to fear, guilt, and revulsion. He points out, for example, how [if the woman were to sift through the tissue in the toilet] she might be able to detect fingers and toes. Levitano claims that 1% of women require hospitalization after a medical abortion, but this is at least a hundred-fold exaggeration and in the extremely rare case when there is hospitalization, it is rarely serious or even the result of the abortion drug. Levitano closes his manipulation by sharing his own personal realization that “all abortions are wrong.”

Let me be perfectly clear. This is factual and emotional manipulation with no tactic too subtle or too blatant. Whatever true facts are presented are only included to establish enough credibility to sell the big lies and manipulations to come. It is sad that so many women fall prey to this kind of hateful and harmful manipulation dressed up and rationalized as Christian morality and charity. Whether they are in front of abortion clinics or hosting their Trojan-Horse web sites, in their minds no tactic is out of bounds, no lie is a lie to them if it advances their cause.

liesBut this should come as no surprise. After all, all of religion is nothing but selling lies. It can be nothing else because it has nothing but lies to offer. Scriptures, angels, salvation, afterlife, god, devils… its all lies and Christians spend all their energy believing or convincing others to believe these lies. Is it any wonder then that Christians should have no trouble believing and spreading lies about abortion as well? Religion is not benign. Becoming comfortable rationalizing religious nonsense directly impacts our capacity to rationalize equally crazy thinking in consequential matters like abortion.

And as with religious fantasy, it is immaterial whether they sincerely, devoutly, fervently believe the nonsense they spread about abortion or how selfless their intentions might be. Their lies, deceits, manipulations, misinformation, and misguided efforts do great harm to a great many people regardless of their motivation – harm to the women directly affected as well as to the men and families in their lives.

If you are seeking an abortion, ask the clinic early and directly if they provide abortions on their premises. If you do not receive a clear and unambiguous yes, hang up. Ask again the minute you walk in the door. If they begin to use any of these tactics on you, leave immediately because their only goal is to do whatever it takes to prevent you from obtaining a legal and safe abortion.


The Rise of the Nevers

If our American Presidential campaigns were envisioned as a Star Wars style movie series, the 2016 episode would be entitled The Rise of the Nevers. In this episode, the electorate has been divided as never before and we see the emergence of an ominous new movement.  The Republic becomes divided not by their sincere support for their respective candidates, but by their entrenched intransigent hatred for their opponents. They no longer care about their own candidate, they merely oppose the other side. They are The Nevers.

The rise of these Nevers is frightening. The movement both reflects and reinforces a level of divisiveness that can only bring strife and ruin. Many are SO hell-bent on wining that they gin up exaggerated reasons to take an extreme Never Clinton position. Their opposition to her is so vitriolic that they turn to the most deplorable candidate possible to carry their message. The opposition find this candidate so abhorrent that they can only respond with a Never Trump position.

As long as we have people electing or forced to take a Never stance, we are in such a hyperbolic state of rabid partisanship that democracy cannot function in a healthy fashion. We are proud of our system of government with its checks and balances. But that is a fragile thing. As we have seen, it is far too easy for that system to slip from gracious debate, advice, and consent, to win-at-all-costs internecine warfare that serves no other purpose than to crush and destroy the other party.

Think of our nation like an airplane. The wise founders of the airline put in place a system of check and balances, including a pilot and a copilot, to ensure that the planes will carry all passengers to their destinations safely and on-time. In most normal situations, the two pilots are expected to work as a team, cooperating for the good of all. But they are also there to watch each other and ensure that one of them does not become unhinged and choose to fly the plane into a mountainside. However, imagine the dysfunction if they were to say “I’ll never allow the other to fly this plane!” The pilot tries to fly one direction, but the copilot insists on flying a different route and they start fighting for control of the cockpit. It would be lucky if the plane did not crash in a spectacular fireball of metal and bodies.

duelAs long as we are reduced and diminished to a Nevers attitude of elections and leadership in this country, we are pilot and copilot struggling for control of the cockpit as the plane races into a mountainside. We are Darth and Luke fighting each other when only united can they hope to oppose the truly evil Emperor. Only when the Nevers fade away and we once again express affirmative support for civil, respectful candidates who commit to work together to solve problems, rather than working merely to destroy each other, can we thrive and survive as a people and as a nation.

The true Emperor that cackles as his grand scheme unfolds while we fight senselessly against each other has a name. He is Climate Change.


Ethical Fallacies

A fallacy is a mistaken belief, particularly those based on invalid arguments. There are many general forms that fallacious arguments take, and they are almost always an indicator of faulty reasoning, incorrect conclusions, and even outright manipulation. Familiar examples of these include the Straw Man, Appeal to Authority, Ad Hominem, Circular Reasoning, and False Choice. If you learn to recognize the general patterns of fallacious logic, you can see through disingenuous or manipulative arguments far more quickly and clearly. I discuss these and many other logical fallacies in my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here).

But in addition to logical fallacies, I’d like to suggest that there is also such a thing as ethical fallacies that we encounter just as often. In fact, in this 2016 election cycle we have been ceaselessly deluged by ethical fallacies. Note that it is with deliberate intent that I speak of ethical fallacies and not moral fallacies. Morality is itself a form of ethical fallacy. For a discussion of the difference, see here.

The reason I make that distinction is because moral thinking is typically based on ethical fallacies including “Appeal to the Bible.” Note that a related and no less dogmatic form of ethical fallacy is “Appeal to the Constitution.” In fact, many of the same people who would like to bind us to their interpretation of the Bible would also like to turn the Constitution into another Bible, binding even secular individuals to their particular religiously-based interpretation of yet another literal and unassailable scripture.

Two related ethical fallacies are “Appeal to the Majority” and “Appeal to Individual Rights.” Sometimes these are valid arguments, but often they are not. When some argue that “a majority of Americans support the death penalty,” that does not constitute a valid ethical argument. Likewise when some argue that we should not restrict any gun sales because it is an individual right, clearly this is insufficient ethical justification. Politicians and advocates often similarly appeal to Federal versus State Rights inconsistently and arbitrarily when it serves their narrow interests.

Another set of ethical arguments that are often invoked are fallacies of “Time and Space.” Just because something may have been accepted or considered ethical in Biblical times or even in Revolutionary War days, does not mean it is ethical today. And just because something may be ethical in one place, does not ensure that it is ethical in another. Note that religious people have great trouble with this concept. It is too complicated and messy for them. It requires too much thought. They disparagingly call this kind of ethical thinking “situational” and therefore immoral. They prefer immutable dogma.

Note that just because something is lawful does not make it ethical either. “Invoking the Law” is therefore another possible fallacy. Of course we do our best to create ethical laws, but just because something is law does not make it ethical in all situations. Laws should be fluid enough to ensure fairness in individual situations. This concept is antithetical to some religious thinkers who have trouble with anything beyond simple dogmatic thinking. Ironically, they are most likely to insist the law be adhered to by others, but allow themselves to override the law when they can rationalize that it is in contradiction to their faith.

There are other fallacies related to belief. Many of the same people are most likely to invoke the “Fallacy of Sincerity.” Just because a belief is “sincere or heartfelt” does not make it any more or less ethical. Similarly, there is sometimes an “Appeal to Intent or Ignorance.” These may be extenuating factors, but neither of them make an action any more or less ethical.

In my last article I talked about two other ethical fallacies (see here). The first is the “Ethical Proximity” fallacy. This is the fallacy used grab all benefits for those in closest proximity to us while shifting all blame away to those farthest from ourselves or our group. The second is the “Personal Responsibility” fallacy. This version of ethical proximity is used to argue that those farthest away or least powerful must take personal responsibility for their actions while those closest to us or in the most powerful positions in our society are merely victims of “the system.”

And then there is the “Character versus Issues” fallacy. When we are talking about the flaws in an opposing politician, pundits focus on their basic character failings. But when forced to respond to character flaws in their own candidate, advocates insist that we should instead focus exclusively on “the issues.”

Another ethical fallacy that is constantly used, particularly during elections or during the aftermath of a ginned up march to war, is the “Water Under the Bridge” fallacy. This is frequently invoked by those guilty of past failures or even crimes, to insist that all of that is simply water under the bridge, that we must instead look forward. However, when an opponent has similar past failures, they insist that we must never, ever forget.

shieldoffaithProbably the most hypocritical ethical fallacy that incenses my sensibilities is the “Forgiveness Fallacy.” This is typically invoked by Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians, to serve as both a shield and a sword. Whenever one of their own is guilty of wrongdoing, they insist that we must forgive and that only God can judge. However, when the guilty party is not one of them, they insist that only God can forgive and that we must never forget nor forgive. Seems to me that it is those who most need forgiveness are the ones to advocate for it most strongly, but only when it benefits them.

There is a theme here. We tend to selectively use one set of ethical arguments to rationalize away problems with those in closest proximity to us, and a different and entirely contradictory set of ethical arguments to attack those we disagree with, often for completely unrelated reasons. This is called spin by some, advocacy or good debate tactics by others, and bald-faced hypocrisy by most objective observers. Yet we see and hear these and other fallacious ethical argument all the time.

But this is the thing. Just because almost every line of rhetorical attack or defense in our public discourse is some manifestation of these basic tactics, doesn’t mean we should just tune out. That is simply not an option. However, just as with logical fallacies, by learning to quickly recognize the general forms of ethical fallacies, we can quickly “tune past” all the nonsense intended to obscure and deflect and see through to the heart of contentious issues that are critically important to all of us.

Can you think of any other ethical fallacies? If so, add to this list through your comments!


The Personal Responsibility Con

In a previous article I discussed the impact of proximity on ethical responsibility (see here). In it, I pointed out that while proximity should impact ethical decisions, we must be careful that we do not assign too much priority for benefits to groups or individuals nearest to us and push blame and responsibility for problems off to those farthest away from us. In it I said:

The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.

We see this pulling in benefits and pushing off blame around us every day, and no where is it as stark as in Presidential politics. We have some candidates who perpetuate a self-serving inversion of proximity ethics by claiming that people “like us” deserve all benefits while those “not like us” deserve all blame. These politicians present a very self-serving set of ethical arguments.

Other politicians emphasize that “it takes a village” and present a far less self-serving vision of a society with a broad and wide view of balanced benefits and responsibility. For a society, and I would argue for individuals as well, this is far more healthy and sustainable.

But there is another spectrum by which ethics are selectively applied. We all experience a continual friction between personal and systemic blame. Is it nature or nurture? Is the individual solely responsible for his or her actions, is society to blame, or is it a combination? And even if we acknowledge that responsibility is a combination of the two, how much emphasis do we necessarily attribute to personal responsibility for purposes of punishment? Do we focus on changing the system that drove the individual to crime, on punishing the individual, or both? How do we balance these?

It is my observation that we tend to unduly blame the individual when they are “not like us“, poor, and underprivileged. However, when the individuals are rich and powerful, we tend to blame the system. When talking about poor Black teens, we tend to emphasize that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, tow the line, and take responsibility. However when we are talking about corrupt Wall Street billionaires who selfishly destroy countless lives and fortunes, we tend to shift blame to the system.

This kind of selective assignment of personal responsibility serves those with all the power. Corporate executives are never irresponsible, it is always the system that is to blame and must be changed. Donald Trump deserves no blame for tax avoidance, the tax system is to blame. However, when poor immigrants do their best to give their families some kind of basic standard of living, they are criminals who are fully responsible for their actions and must be punished for violating the system.

This extremely unbalanced assignment of personal and systemic blame  serves and is perpetuated by those with all the power.  When wealthy, powerful people commit terrible large scale crimes, they indict “the system.” But when poor, powerless individuals step over the line of systems designed to favor the wealthy, they must be held personally responsible for their actions. In our society, insulation from blame and punishment is a perk of power. Selfishness is a virtue reserved only for the most wealthy.

My ethics say that is backwards. I believe that with great power comes great responsibility.