Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ideology Trumps Reality

Wait...no, I got that title wrong. It's the other way around, I think. Reality surely trumps ideology. The real world isn't obliged to conform to our ideas about what it will do or should do. That seems obvious, but it's amazing how many people act as though I got the title right the first time, and reality will always turn out to match our ideology. It almost never works that way. Reality is messier than that.

What's gotten me thinking about this are the tragic events surrounding the Michael Brown shooting.* As soon as the story hit the news, people started talking as though they knew EXACTLY what had happened in that 90-second encounter. I heard conservatives who were positive Brown was an unredeemable thug who went for Wilson's gun, and Wilson acted purely out of justifiable self-defense. Then I heard liberals who were equally sure that Wilson is a murderous racist who gunned Brown down in cold blood. These armchair verdicts emerged before almost any real information had come out. People heard one version or the other, found that it matched their worldview, and believed it.

The problem is, as I mentioned, reality doesn't have to conform with our worldviews. It's bigger, messier, and more REAL than our puny little preconceptions of it. I've read through some of the conflicting testimonies, and the most honest thing I can say is that I don't know what happened. I'm not sure anybody does, except Darren Wilson and some eyewitnesses, and any psychologist can tell you that their memories will be faulty, too. We live in a world where--despite what conservatives want to admit--a cop might be a murderous thug in a racist department, capable of shooting someone in cold blood. There are cops and departments like that out there. I've met some very good cops and some very nasty ones, and I'm a clean-cut white guy who isn't likely to see the worst nastiness. The people of Ferguson probably have, and if I grew up black there I'm guessing I would take it for granted that racist, killer cops are out there.

On the other hand, we also live in a world where--despite what liberals want to admit--a young black man might have been in a violent frame of mind and gone for a cop's gun after robbing a store. There are young men who do that kind of thing. Some of them are black and some of them are white. Whether the store video should have been released or not, it's out there, and it suggests pretty strongly that Michael Brown was not in a benign frame of mind.

Does that mean he deserved to die? No. Does it means Wilson shot Brown in justifiable self-defense? I don't know. I tend to to doubt it, but I wasn't there, and I honestly don't know what I might have done in Wilson's place--I've been surprised at myself before, and in much less intense situations. Most of the people pronouncing their verdicts on this weren't there either. I dare say they don't know what they would do in the same position either. So why do people think they know what happened? Why are people acting as though facts will obediently bend themselves to their ideology--whatever that ideology is? They won't. Facts are, as John Adams said, stubborn things. Whatever your ideology, even if it's well-aligned with the real world, things will happen that run counter to it. Reality trumps ideology, and it doesn't always do what we want or expect it to do. If we want to learn what's actually true, instead of what we want to be true, then it's vital that we remember that. After all, what good is an ideology that blinds us to the real world?


* Please believe me when I say I only want to focus on this one topic--people acting as though their ideology can dictate reality. I'm not defending or denouncing Wilson, Brown, the Ferguson Police Department, or the rioters. I'm not saying whether Wilson should have been indicted, or making any other points beside the ideology thing. I have opinions on those things, but expressing them would be a distraction from my point here. My opinions aren't important anyway.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Every Jot and Tittle: Nobody Obeys Everything in the Bible, and that's a Good Thing

I'm going to try to make this a short one, because it's a sunny day in Colorado, and I want to get into the mountains, and nobody wants to read long blog posts anyway. So here's today's topic: people who claim they follow everything in the Bible without picking and choosing. I hear people say this all the time, and it is clearly, obviously, and abundantly false. Everybody picks and chooses, and as I'll argue here, that's a very good thing. It's not that people who say this are consciously lying--I don't think they are. They just seem to be ignoring vast swaths of the Bible that they no longer follow.

Folks who claim not to pick and choose often quote the King James translation of Jesus in Matthew 5:18: "For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." Now, I find the words "jot" and "tittle" rather pleasing, and I wouldn't mind seeing them brought back into use. But I would hate to see people really follow every jot and tittle, and I'm glad they don't, whether they say they do or not.

First, very few Christians really follow all the dietary and ritual laws in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc. (very few Jews do either, except the ultra-orthodox.) Most Christians I know happily eat shrimp and pork, trim the hair on the sides of their heads, wear mixed fabrics, and generally violate Torah in a hundred different ways. That's fine--I don't expect Christians to start living like Orthodox Jews. But I do expect them not to say they follow rules when they clearly don't. Is that really too much to ask?

Of course, not all Christians claim to follow every rule in the Bible, and there's a long history of debate within Christianity about the extent to which Christians should follow Old Testament Jewish law. This goes all the way back to the beginning, to arguments between Paul and the more orthodox former associates of Jesus. It even goes back to the words of Jesus himself. While Jesus did say that not one jot or tittle would be changed, he also cast doubt on whether dietary laws should be followed, when he said in Matthew 15.11, "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them." The tension between this verse and the "jot and tittle" verse has, understandably, led to a lot of tension within Christianity over the centuries.

It seems that many conservative Christians today still haven't decided for sure where they stand on the issue. Whenever I hear someone quoting Leviticus to denounce homosexuality, I ask them why the hair on the side of their head is trimmed, and whether they eat shrimp. Then, generally, they'll say that's part of the Old Covenant, and Christians follow the New Covenant. To which I reply, "Fine, but stop quoting Leviticus if you no longer follow it. And stop saying you don't pick and choose what parts of the Bible to follow. Because you do."

Another episode in the New Testament that suggests Jesus was more a "spirit of the law" than "letter of the law" kind of guy is the beautiful story of the woman caught in adultery (though the story isn't actually in the oldest manuscripts, and may have been written long after Jesus' death). The Mosaic law in this case was clear--she was to be put to death (actually, so was the guy she slept with, but for some reason, he doesn't appear.) The Jewish authorities tried to trap Jesus by asking him what should be done, but he outsmarted them. He didn't contradict the law, as they hoped. He just said that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. After a while, the crowd dispersed and the woman lived.

You don't have to be a Christian to be appreciate the wisdom and mercy shown here (wherever the story really comes from). Thankfully, the story helped form a basis for Christians to move away from the brutality of the Old Testament laws (Jews also moved away from the harsher laws, of course). But here again, the fact is that Christians have stopped doing some of the things the Bible clearly prescribes. Even Jesus, if the story in John really happened, was picking and choosing--choosing not to see the law carried out. He was choosing mercy over the law.

Anybody today who really did stone adulterers* and disobedient children, kill homosexuals, burn promiscuous preacher's daughters, or slay entire villages of unbelievers--men, women, children, and livestock--would justly be regarded as a psychopathic barbarian and locked up. Sadly, there are people in the world who do put similarly harsh and archaic laws into practice; people like ISIS and the Taliban. They really do beat people to death with rocks for suspected adultery and for not believing what they believe. And they are rightly denounced around the world as atavistic barbarians.

So, if today's Christians really did follow every jot and tittle of the Old Testament law, they would eat and dress like Orthodox Jews, but carry out violent death sentences reminiscent of ISIS. They don't. In the case of the violent punishments, that's a very good thing. In either case, it's simply false to claim they follow everything in the Bible without picking and choosing. They DO pick and choose, and that is ALSO a good thing, because lots of what's in the Bible was written by people who lived in a violent, superstitious time; a time when people thought the sky was a solid dome and demons caused disease. Let's finally go ahead and face it--some of what the Bible prescribes (especially the Old Testament) is simply archaic barbarism. It's not a matter of how it should be interpreted; it's just wrong, plain and simple. Modern, decent Christians do pick and choose, and they choose not to follow the old, violent laws. That's a wonderful thing, and it shows that this rough old world actually has grown a little more humane, at least in some places.


* Actually, the verse in Deuteronomy classifies female rape victims in the city as adulterers. Also barbaric.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What Accent Snobs Don't Git

I have a nephew and a father named Ben. But that's not what I call either of them. I'm from Arkansas, so I say "Bin". Once my sister-in-law (nephew Ben's mom), said, "You know, his name's "Ben", not "Bin." I told her it couldn't be helped--I simply can't make myself say it that way, because it feels weird and phony when I do. Besides, I like my accent. It marks me as being from somewhere that's a little different. I don't sound like I'm from Anywheresville, USA.

Of course, there are people who hear me say things like "Git Bin an ink pin" and conclude that it means I'm dumb, or that I'm speaking a sort of degraded, simplified version of English. That's OK, because the joke's on them, not me. I know of two Rhodes Scholars (Bill Clinton being one) who talk a lot like I do, so it's clearly a mistake to conclude that anybody who speaks this way is dumb. As for the "degraded English" notion, that idea in itself is what's dumb. It shows an ignorance about how languages change and evolve. They do change, of course, but as they get simpler in some ways, they get more complex in others.

Take the way I say "Ben", "pen", and "them." Anybody who speaks this way is unconsciously applying an extremely complicated grammatical rule. I first realized this when I thought, "If I say 'Ben' like 'Bin', and 'ten' like 'tin', why don't I say 'peg' like 'pig, or 'let' like 'lit'? When I looked up the answer, I was amazed at the complexity of the rule I had been applying without knowing it. Linguists call this way of talking the "Pin-Pen Merger". It shows up in most parts of the south and in the area around Bakersfield, California, which was settled in large part by hillbillies like me. The reason somebody who asks for an ink "pin" doesn't also say "lit the dog out" is that the "e" sound only becomes an "i" in words that end in a "nasal stop", like an "m" or "n".* Try saying "Ben" and then "sit", and pay attention to what's going on in your mouth (seriously, try this--it's kind of amazing). When you say the "n" in Ben, your soft palate connects with your tongue, forcing air through your nose. Your nasal cavity resonates, giving the "n" part of its distinctive sound. When you say "sit", your soft palate never descends, and your nose doesn't resonate.

Of course, before I read all this I had no idea what a nasal stop was, or that my nose resonated like an elephant seal's. Yet I still apply this complicated linguistic rule without even knowing it, and so does the most backwoods hillbilly. We may be speaking a socially-maligned form of English, but we aren't speaking a simplified form. Yes, we've ditched the distinction between the sounds in "pin" and "pen", but we've added a complex (albeit unconscious) rule about when to do so.

That "dumb" version of English turns out to have pretty sophisticated rules. I git a pretty big kick out of that.


Actually, as I wrote this, I realized I do say "get" as "git", and that word doesn't end with a nasal stop. So the rules are actually even more complicated that I'm discussing here, but I don't know what the extra rules are (even though I "know" how to use them--the human mind is weird, isn't it?) Wonder if the linguists have worked out that one, too?