Thursday, May 19, 2011

Funeral Planning

My great grandmother passed away recently (unsurprisingly, and in a very peaceful manner) and the task of preparing an obituary of sorts to be distributed at the funeral service has fallen on my younger sister. This has been difficult for her for several reasons, and I have been trying to help her sort it out.

First it's a bit challenging to write a celebration of someone's life when they've been struggling with age and Alzheimer's for a majority of the time you've been alive. This can be solved relatively easily though, by speaking to friends and other family members and learning about the things that mattered to that person in life. What my sister has really been struggling with is trying to please everyone in regards to the religious content of what she is making.

The majority of this branch of the family views themselves as Christian. In general, they don't attend church or adhere to most of the behavioral or philosophical guidelines of Christianity. Regardless, they have been known to take their beliefs quite seriously if the subject comes up. My sister is non-religious, but unsure of her beliefs. She would prefer to leave religion out entirely and focus the attention on the woman in question, but she is concerned that a lack of religious trappings will create something of a shit storm amongst the nominal-yet-extremely-passionate-Christian relatives.

Now it would not be difficult to paint whatever she writes with the glossy coat of religious observance. Add the Lord's Prayer or maybe a few psalms, toss in a few references to angels bringing her home and her being with her loved ones up in the clouds and you're good. My sister considered these things, and felt that the Bible passages had nothing to do with her great-grandma, and religious platitudes would just be condescending.

Those are her conclusions, by the way. When she said she didn't want to say anything like 'the angels called her home', I was trying to be very diplomatic and not let my atheism take over the conversation. I just asked her what about it made her uncomfortable, and she fired right back with 'It's so condescending. That's the kind of stuff you tell little kids.' I was practically beaming with pride.

Anyway, what I'm really getting at is that it would be easy to throw in some mouth service to please the people who feel like a funeral ought to be about God and Heaven and all that but she doesn't want to. I daresay she feels that it would compromise her integrity and take the focus away from the dearly departed. For the most part, I agree completely. It's not like there wont be religious observance at the funeral, but the piece that she is making to honor our grandmother's memory will be about our grandmother.

There is something to be said for the fact that this is a funeral, and for many of our relatives it is about mourning. If religious wording and psalms makes them feel more at ease or helps them deal with loss, then why not just include them anyway? It's harmless, after all.

Aside from the philosophical argument about how helpful it really is to be given false hope and comfort that isn't terribly relevant here, I still feel like my sister is making the right call. This is her thing. She is creating it to honor someone she loves, and she should be free to do that in the way she feels is most appropriate. Yes, other people will read it and might be upset that it isn't religious enough. They can get as religious as they want in their personal observances. If anyone seriously gives my sister shit over not being God-oriented when she makes this thing, they're a total wanker.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The most universally sexist decision possible

Recently, Barnes & Noble made the decision to require the magazine Dossier to conceal its newest issue in opaque plastic because of the potentially offensive nature of the cover. A cover which featured the bare chest of an androgynous male who had been stylized rather femininely. Now I can see how such an image might make some especially sheltered or hetero-normative individuals uncomfortable, but it hardly seems to warrant being treated like an R or X-rated image. Especially when it is displayed alongside other shirtless, more muscular men and women wearing bikinis.

Jezebel first reported the story, complaining that the decision was sexist against slender, less muscular men with atypical builds. Skepchick followed up, complaining that it was instead targeting female or feminized individuals. I tried to find a neutral report of this story, but there doesn't seem to be one out there. You'll have to look at the two opposing viewpoints and decide for yourself what motivated Barnes & Noble's decision.

To me, though? It's pretty clearly a discriminatory decision. I'm actually impressed with the scope involved. I mean, is there anyone they managed to avoid offending?

Men? Well, you better have a traditionally masculine build with lots of glistening muscles! Otherwise you might be mistaken for a woman or a queer, and we can't have that! Might upset the ladies.

Women? We can't have anything even resembling the female body being displayed uncovered. What do you think this is, a porn store? Cover them titties up! Preferably with some tight-fitting spandex, because that will sell lots of magazines.

Androgynous? Trans? That's just fucked up. If we can't tell whether you're a boy or a girl, we don't want to have to look at you.

This kind of business decision is just a slap in the face to anyone trying to promote the idea that non-traditional bodies are still beautiful. Though I suppose we don't have to worry too much...Barnes & Noble isn't exactly a relevant company nowadays. Still, it's remarkably ridiculous that images as tame as this one are treated so controversially because the subject matter is unfamiliar.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Parasites Infest Science Fiction

Originally published over at SiMF.

Literally. Parasites hijack our bodies, manipulate our thoughts and emotions, and even use us as incubation chambers for cute little baby parasites. And it terrifies us! The very idea of some outside entity invading us…not just our world, but you and me specifically…gets inside of our heads and makes our skin crawl. Which is why they make such great Sci-Fi monsters! They’re everywhere! Movies, television, literature…we can’t get enough of the creepy little guys. The Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise are arguably one of the most iconic parasitic organisms ever, with a complex life-cycle that requires a human host. Stargate SG-1 has the Goa’uld, parasites that integrate with their human hosts rather than bursting out of their chests. Even in children’s literature you have the Yeerks; evil space slugs from the Animorphs novels who tried to enslave humanity via the ear canal.

Noticing a bit of a trend? If you look at AMC’s list of the Top Ten Parasite Movies, more than half of them feature an alien parasite. Even though parasites are common right here on Earth, their life cycle is so radically different from ours it feels alien. Especially to those of us living in developed countries with treated water and clean food, where parasitic infections have been largely eliminated. In many parts of the world however, especially in areas with poor sewage treatment, parasites are still a day-to-day problem.

What most people imagine when they think of the term ‘parasite’ are intestinal parasites. Hookworms, roundworms, pinworms and the like colonize the intestinal tract as adults, laying eggs that are shed in feces. The eggs and larvae then spread via contaminated water to other animals, including humans. Gross. They don’t reach full maturity until they find a host though, so their life cycle actually depends on obtaining this ideal host environment. Different species of parasites have adapted a wide variety of techniques for improving their odds of finding the host they need.

For example, Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic germ whose primary host is cats. It can infect other animals, but is only capable of sexual reproduction in cats. When T. gondii infects rats it actually alters their brain chemistry to make them attracted to the scent of cat urine, thereby increasing the likelihood that the parasite will end up inside of a cat, along with its current host. It’s a very subtle manipulation of the intermediate host to get the parasite where it wants to be. Kind of like mind control.

Opiocordyceps unilateralis, known as the zombie-ant fungun, functions in a way that is entirely like mind control. When this parasitic fungus infects a carpenter ant, it manipulates the host into leaving the colony and attaching itself to the underside of a leaf. The fungus prefers to grow in this environment. When the ant dies, the fungal stalk erupts from its body and produces spores…which drift down to the forest floor and infect other ants.

Most parasites try to avoid killing their hosts. Why mess with a free ride, after all? But that is certainly not always the case. Certain species of wasp, known as parasitoid wasps because they ultimately destroy the host, lay their eggs inside other insects. When the eggs hatch, the juvenile wasps eat their way out of the living host without so much as a ‘thank you’. Parasitoid wasps are often cited as the inspiration for the Xenomorph life cycle.

So you see, we don’t need to look to outer space or science fiction to be creeped out by parasites. There’s plenty of creepiness to go around here at home.

Religious people aren't stupid, but religion is another story...

I have often been told that my tone when discussing religion is derogatory. That I am deliberately condescending or inflammatory towards religious people. By nature, my vitriolic attitude puts religious people on the defensive.

This is something of a misunderstanding, that is largely due to a critical difference in perspective. First let me say plainly that religious people are not inherently stupid or bigoted or sexist or any of the things that I often accuse religion itself of being. Sure, you've got your Fred Phelps and your Zach Chesser and all sorts of religious crazies out there demanding that the world change to suit their extremist views...but for the most part people like that represent an especially crazy and vocal minority. Most religious followers are average people that are predominantly rational and usually try to do the right thing.

The thing is, many religious people feel like because they believe in something that somehow makes it 'special'. It becomes traditional. Accepted. Protected. Those beliefs become part of their identity, in otherwise intelligent and rational people, to the point that someone criticizing those beliefs feels very personal. It feels like they are criticizing you as opposed to some of the ideas you have or some of the things you happen to believe.

As a skeptic, I put a lot of effort into critically analyzing my own values and beliefs. I'm not personally attached to them in such a way that criticism of my stance on gay rights or evolution feels like a personal attack. When I encounter other beliefs and ideas, I apply the same critical analysis to them. For example, when I read about the Hasidic newspaper that edited Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason out of the Situation Room photo, I was upset. I found the deliberate act of removing the images of these women to be sexist and intellectually dishonest. The justification for doing so, that publishing images of women violated modesty laws, was insulting to both men and women (I'm sure you all know how I feel about modesty).

You see, all of the tradition and spiritual context doesn't mean anything to me....and that's the root of the misunderstanding I mentioned. I treat people's beliefs like any other idea. In the case of the edited newspaper photo, I am evaluating the idea on its own, under its own merit, and find it severely lacking. Frankly, if an idea can't support itself than I don't see why it's worth anyone's time. Just because an idea has persisted through the ages or is culturally acceptable does not mean it's a good idea.

Again, I'm talking about ideas. Not people. Ideas should be questioned and criticized and refined, because that is how they become stronger. And we become better thinkers by participating in the process. The tolerance of bad ideas because of political correctness or cultural sensitivity, or the dismissal of superstitious beliefs as silly and therefore harmless, are all things I feel strongly about because these bad ideas affect people.

So if you tell me that you're Christian or Jewish or Muslim or whatever, I'm not going to think that you are stupid. Honestly it wont affect my opinion of you much in any way, because I don't think that the religion you follow has much of anything to do with who you are as a person. However...

If you tell me you believe in the idea that the Earth was created in seven days about 6000 years ago? I'm going to seriously question your critical thinking skills and scientific awareness.

If you tell me you believe in the idea that women should be removed from photos or held to certain standards of dress or behavior for the sake of modesty? I'm going to think you are sexist for enforcing a double standard and ignoring the importance and contributions of half the population.

If you tell me you believe in the idea that the world is going to end on May 21st? I'm going to roll my eyes and resist the urge to call you on May 22nd to see how you're doing.

These are bad ideas. I wont pretend that they are good ideas because some people believe them, or affirm them in any way by tacitly accepting or accommodating them. They don't get a pass because they stem from religious or cultural traditions.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Not My Delicious Chicken!!!

While discussing lunch plans recently with a politically like-minded friend, my suggestion of Chick-Fil-A was met with incredulity. It went something like this:

Me: 'Howsabout some Chick-Fil-A?'
Him: 'You're kidding me. Chick-Fil-A is totally an anti-gay, fundamentalist organization that employs discriminatory hiring policies.'
Me: 'Buh-wha?'s nommy...'

And thus the seed of cognitive dissonance was sown. I've dealt with issues like this before on my blog, such as when I agonized over whether or not it was morally acceptable for me to support the Boy Scouts of America, and it remains a challenging issue. How does one determine when or if the immediate benefits of an organization, in this case delicious fried chicken, outweigh the broader, less tangible issues that organization represents? That chicken is pretty damn good. I needed to be better informed.

Now I knew that Chick-Fil-A was a Christian company, but aside from not being able to give them my money in exchange for deliciousness on Sundays I never felt like it was a big deal. I may be an atheist, but just because something is Christian doesn't make it automatically bad. I've never felt proselytized at or discriminated against at their restaurants. As far as I was concerned if they wanted to lose money by being closed on Sundays, that was their prerogative as a privately owned business. Still, an investigation was in order.

The first article I came across seemingly put some of my concerns to rest. Yes, there had been some controversy over Chick-Fil-A supporting a Pro-marriage group by providing food to a rally of some sort. Not such a big deal, really. The wording in the title struck me as odd, though...controversy over Pro-Marriage policies? Not Anti-Gay policies? Oh, this article is from Catholic Online. They may be a bit biased, perhaps I should continue my investigations.

Then I found an article from an online student newspaper covering student protests over the on-campus branch of Chick-Fil-A. The students wanted the restaurant gone because its 'discriminatory hiring and business practices' and 'conservative-Christian policies' were at opposition to the message of inclusion the campus wanted to send. Dang, this isn't looking good for me. But hey, this is just a student newspaper, right? No references, no documentation...they could be just as biased as the Catholic site, for all I know. But the seed had taken root.

Next up was an article from the Forbes magazine archives looking into Chick-Fil-A's hiring practices. Apparently the company has been sued 'at least 12 times since 1988 on charges of employment discrimination'. The screening process potential employees go through is rigorous, invasive, and designed to select exceptionally loyal employees that 'belong' with the company. Seriously, read that article. This is some downright creepy shit. Even so, it's a privately owned company. Its franchises are independent contractors, not subject to federal employment discrimination laws. It's creepy and cult-like, but not necessarily wrong.

You can tell I'm grasping at straws at this point. I really wanted to be able to enjoy my fried chicken without the guilt of supporting a company so strongly at odds with my own values. Alas, it was not to be so. This investigation into Chick-Fil-A's charitable investments and partnerships, collected by EqualityMatters, really put the nail in the coffin. Over $1.1 million given to anti-gay groups?!? That's what they're doing with the money I spend on chicken?!? Well that's just a bucket of crispy-fried crap.

Now there is certainly an argument to be made against boycotting a franchise, seeing as how they don't actually make the policies I disagree with...but honestly, that's mostly rationalization. They are still enforcing those policies, and the parent company still profits. They aren't doing anything technically illegal, so not supporting the company with my patronage is about the only reasonable recourse left for me that doesn't conflict with my own ideology. Dang. Caring about stuff sucks sometimes.