On bias and its effect on interpretation

It’s election season, which means that presidential debates are happening and everyone is getting all fired up. Also, Rachel Held Evans just released a new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which is making all sorts of waves in segments of American Christianity.

It is utterly fascinating to see what people say about the *exact same* debate and the *exact same* book. Many times during the presidential debates, I saw statuses/Tweets of conservative Republicans and ardent Democrats juxtaposed on my news/Twitter feed. These updates were talking about the same part of the debate…and coming to completely opposite conclusions, every. single. time.

Certain conservative evangelical complementarian Christians have a huge problem with Rachel Held Evans’ book – they feel that her salvation is in doubt and that her book is mocking Christianity. Meanwhile, other less-conservative possibly-egalitarian still-evangelical Christians love the book and appreciate what it is trying to say.

In both of these situations, the bias is crystal clear. The conservative Christians I mentioned earlier cannot see the good in Rachel Held Evans’ book, because their paradigm makes them so biased that it is *impossible* for them to see it. In order to see the good, they would have to accept the possibility that she had something good to say – but their paradigm tells them that isn’t possible. For the Republicans and Democrats, it can be the same thing. The conservative Republican paradigm does not allow for good Democratic policies, or for Obama to want good for the US. For the more extreme Democrats, the idea that the Republican policies could be good for the country is an impossible thought.

We are all biased, of course – it’s impossible to avoid. But sometimes, bias takes on the character of absolute truth. When we use our “absolute truth” as an excuse to treat people with disdain and even hate instead of kindness and compassion, we create a horrible mess. But in too many cases, that’s exactly what happens. I think it’s time to stop the crazy and start thinking the best of others again, when at all possible.

What’s wrong with this picture: Food Stamps

I’ve been seeing this picture around Facebook a lot lately, unfortunately. The picture is of a piece of newsprint which states that the Food Stamp Program has the most enrollees ever and they are proud of it, while the Department of the Interior asks people to not feed the animals so they won’t become dependent on handouts.

There are so many things wrong with this that I’m not sure where to start.

The comparison itself is a truly awful one. Wild animals most likely have plenty of their own food sources available to them, all for the price of a hunt. If they don’t, then they may very well be endangered and people will be worried about their prospects. Also, notice that no one complains about the zoo animals’ unhealthy dependence on humans; there, you’re not supposed to feed the animals because it screws up their diet. There’s more to this than just “animals will grow dependent on handouts”. Human beings in the United States, on the other hand, need money to pay for food, and in order to have money they need to have a job. They also have to worry about transportation, and housing, and utilities. Jobs can be difficult to get, even when you are qualified or over-qualified. When a person has a job, it may be one that pays poorly. Or it could be that the person recently experienced an unexpected reduction in income, and their financial commitments are now too large for the income but may be hard or impossible to escape. Whatever the reason, money is tight. The person is most likely perfectly capable of working, shopping, and cooking; it’s a question of how much opportunity there is to do those things. Yet somehow, a lot of other people don’t care a whit about these situations, unlike in the animals’ cases. To compare a poor person to a lazy animal is insulting and inaccurate. It’s a bumper-sticker “explanation”, and the only thing it does is harm.

Poverty is a complex issue. It can hit even the most well-educated, hard-working, upright people and leave them applying for food stamps and welfare. Poverty is not a respecter of persons. It is a grating experience, and once you’re in the cycle it can be incredibly difficult to escape. This is doubly true for those who grew up in poverty, especially if the poverty is accompanied by low levels of education. These combined can make it hard to get a job, as this blog post explains. Poverty is losing your job because your car broke down, you couldn’t afford to fix it, you couldn’t get to work, and you got fired. Poverty is working multiple minimum wage jobs and having a large portion of your wages go to subpar daycare. Poverty is having no recourse to credit cards in an emergency and having to resort to loan sharks. (For more, see Nickel and Dimed.) And guess what? It could happen to you. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably better equipped to get out of it than a lot of people.

I’m sure there are “welfare queens” – but I’m equally sure that the vast majority of people on government aid have it because they need it, or because they qualify and they’re taking advantage of it because it makes life easier. Yes, they may be spending their money poorly. The answer to that is not to take away their money, or to make a burdensome list of requirements to get aid, or to automatically disqualify anyone with anything remotely nice (computers, iPods, etc.). The answer is to educate people on money management, and why they want to change their spending habits.

The most important thing, though, is to listen to people’s stories. Understand where they’re coming from. Don’t distance yourself and be satisfied with leaving the poor to be the “other” – the lazy welfare queens of your imagination. Treat other people as *people*, not stereotypes. Maybe then things could be changed, a person at a time. And when you see a person with an iPhone pulling out her food stamp card in the checkout line, think about it: maybe it’s an iPod that someone gave her. Maybe she’s bound into the contract, doesn’t have another non-smart-phone to switch to, and buying that non-smart-phone would cost more than she can afford, so she’s stuck paying that extra $20 a month. You don’t know, so perhaps you should stop judging.

A plea for decency

Recently, a retweeted tweet crossed my Twitter feed. It contained some witty slogan against Santorum. In some of the replies to that tweet, people said they thought Santorum’s head should be separated from his body. Really?! Then there’s this recent deal with Rush Limbaugh talking about Sandra Fluke. Really?! Sadly, there are so many more examples of this type of thing, on ALL sides of politics and religion.

Just because someone thinks or believes differently than you does not make them less human. People can be intelligent, thoughtful, caring, passionate, good people and come to different conclusions about hot-button political issues, religion…everything. The fact that someone disagrees with you does not legitimate calling them names, wishing evil on their children, or worse. When you do that, you demean yourself and them. Also, the fact that someone disagrees with you does not automatically make them a stupid, thoughtless person.

So, can we agree on one thing? Can we agree to engage others on the issues calmly, with respect, as we wish to be treated? Can we agree to give those we disagree with the same goodwill that we give to those who agree with us? Can we wish them well and seek to understand? We’ll probably still end up disagreeing – but when we see the other person as human, we can actually have a conversation instead of talking past each other.

I’d rather have a conversation. What about you?

Of course Prop 8 is unconstitutional…

And here is why. Court decisions are always so much clearer than the media interpretations of the court decisions.

According to the document linked above, California had already given same-sex couples legal benefits identical to those given to married couples. The only difference was the name of the legal relationship. Therefore, California courts decided that it was unconstitutional to deny the name of “marriage” to domestic partnerships.

Then Prop 8 came along. From the court opinion: “According to the official voter information guide, Proposition 8 ‘[c]hanges the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.'” This was a right which was already recognized by the courts and the California Constitution. The question was not whether to *allow* same-sex couples to marry – that had already been decided, and the answer was yes. The question was, instead, can we take away a right which has already been recognized? The arguments of Prop 8’s supporters failed to give any good reasons why this right should be taken away. For example, some of the things they mentioned were invalidated because California same-sex couples had the same status as opposite-sex couples under the law regardless of what happened with Prop 8.

So, it stands that the California Constitution recognizes the right of same-sex couples to marry, and Prop 8 is unconstitutional. To which I say, of course! Regardless of anyone’s personal beliefs (thoughts, opinions) on the matter, legally there is no reason to take the already-recognized right away.

Now, whether it is unconstitutional under the US Constitution when considered alone, or any other state’s constitution, is another matter entirely, and will probably be decided in the courts later on. But in California…it’s decided.

Texas Law, CPS, and Medicine

A friend of mine recently shared this blog post on Facebook. It shares the story of a family who found themselves dealing with CPS and the FDA, after they told the first doctor they wanted a second opinion about their son’s cancer. It’s definitely a chilling account. I was inspired by this post to Google CPS, and this is what I found concerning CPS in Texas. Unless otherwise noted, all of the quotes below come from Section 261 of the Texas Family Code. All emphases are mine. I was specifically looking for parts of the law which talked about medicine, doctors, etc. – in other words, parts which would have affected the family in the blog post.

The law code begins with definitions of abuse and neglect, including:

(4)  “Neglect” includes: …(B)  the following acts or omissions by a person: …(ii)  failing to seek, obtain, or follow through with medical care for a child, with the failure resulting in or presenting a substantial risk of death, disfigurement, or bodily injury or with the failure resulting in an observable and material impairment to the growth, development, or functioning of the child;”

Yes, it is possible to get CPS called on you for medical reasons. I can easily see how refusing traditional medical treatment in favor of alternative treatments could cause the doctor to call CPS on you.

Why would the doctor call CPS on you? Doctors, along with quite a few other people, are required by law to report any suspected abuse or neglect:

Sec. 261.101.  PERSONS REQUIRED TO REPORT; TIME TO REPORT.

(a) A person having cause to believe that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been adversely affected by abuse or neglect by any person shall immediately make a report as provided by this subchapter.

(b)  If a professional has cause to believe that a child has been abused or neglected or may be abused or neglected, or that a child is a victim of an offense under Section 21.11, Penal Code, and the professional has cause to believe that the child has been abused as defined by Section 261.001 or 261.401, the professional shall make a report not later than the 48th hour after the hour the professional first suspects that the child has been or may be abused or neglected or is a victim of an offense under Section 21.11, Penal Code.  A professional may not delegate to or rely on another person to make the report.  In this subsection, “professional” means an individual who is licensed or certified by the state or who is an employee of a facility licensed, certified, or operated by the state and who, in the normal course of official duties or duties for which a license or certification is required, has direct contact with children.  The term includes teachers, nurses, doctors, day-care employees, employees of a clinic or health care facility that provides reproductive services, juvenile probation officers, and juvenile detention or correctional officers.

(c)  The requirement to report under this section applies without exception to an individual whose personal communications may otherwise be privileged, including an attorney, a member of the clergy, a medical practitioner, a social worker, a mental health professional, and an employee of a clinic or health care facility that provides reproductive services.

If the doctor does not report possible abuse, he or she is susceptible to criminal penalties:

Sec. 261.109.  FAILURE TO REPORT; PENALTY. (a) A person commits an offense if the person has cause to believe that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be adversely affected by abuse or neglect and knowingly fails to report as provided in this chapter.

(b)  An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor, except that the offense is a state jail felony if it is shown on the trial of the offense that the child was a person with mental retardation who resided in a state supported living center, the ICF-MR component of the Rio Grande State Center, or a facility licensed under Chapter 252, Health and Safety Code, and the actor knew that the child had suffered serious bodily injury as a result of the abuse or neglect.

There are some protections for parents, however. This code specifically allows parents to refuse mental health treatment, in some situations:

Sec. 261.111.  REFUSAL OF PSYCHIATRIC OR PSYCHOLOGICAL TREATMENT OF CHILD. (a) In this section, “psychotropic drug” means a substance that is:

(1)  used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a disease or as a component of a medication; and

(2)  intended to have an altering effect on perception, emotion, or behavior.

(b)  The refusal of a parent, guardian, or managing or possessory conservator of a child to administer or consent to the administration of a psychotropic drug to the child, or to consent to any other psychiatric or psychological treatment of the child, does not by itself constitute neglect of the child unless the refusal to consent:

(1)  presents a substantial risk of death, disfigurement, or bodily injury to the child; or

(2)  has resulted in an observable and material impairment to the growth, development, or functioning of the child.

That second clause worries me – I could see parents who have refused ADHD treatment, for example, being told that their refusal has caused such consequences in their child, when in reality it’s in the eye of the beholder. But still, in general, parents can decide to forego mental health treatment and medicines for their children as minors. This is a good thing, as I believe there are still a lot of questions about whether or not such treatments are good for children. Of course, they can be, but all children are different.

Also, parents are allowed to refuse vaccinations:

Sec. 38.001.  IMMUNIZATION; REQUIREMENTS; EXCEPTIONS. (a) Each student shall be fully immunized against diphtheria, rubeola, rubella, mumps, tetanus, and poliomyelitis, except as provided by Subsection (c).

(c)  Immunization is not required for a person’s admission to any elementary or secondary school if the person applying for admission:

(1)  submits to the admitting official:

(A)  an affidavit or a certificate signed by a physician who is duly registered and licensed to practice medicine in the United States, in which it is stated that, in the physician’s opinion, the immunization required poses a significant risk to the health and well-being of the applicant or any member of the applicant’s family or household; or

(B)  an affidavit signed by the applicant or, if a minor, by the applicant’s parent or guardian stating that the applicant declines immunization for reasons of conscience, including a religious belief;

(source: Texas Education Code, Sec. 38.001)

This exemption also applies to college students in regards to the bacterial meningitis requirement:

(d)  A student to whom this section applies or a parent or guardian of the student is not required to comply with Subsection (c) if the student or a parent or guardian of the student submits to the institution:

(1)  an affidavit or a certificate signed by a physician who is duly registered and licensed to practice medicine in the United States in which it is stated that, in the physician’s opinion, the vaccination required would be injurious to the health and well-being of the student; or

(2)  an affidavit signed by the student stating that the student declines the vaccination for bacterial meningitis for reasons of conscience, including a religious belief, except that the exemption provided by this subdivision does not apply during a disaster or public health emergency, terrorist attack, hostile military or paramilitary action, or extraordinary law enforcement emergency declared by an appropriate official or other authority and in effect for the location of the institution the student attends.

(source: Sec. 51.9192 of the Texas Higher Education Code)

There may also be other protections in the law for parents to refuse treatment, etc., but I’ve run out of time to do research right now – so I’ll do it later, and write another post about what I find.

What the Michigan bullying law REALLY says

The blogosphere has erupted with outrage over the new Michigan bullying law. Nearly all the posts say that the Michigan bullying law allows bullying if it comes from a strongly held religious or moral belief. Very few of these posts, however, actually link to or quote the text of the law as it currently stands. So I went looking for it.

I found the actual text of the law on the Michigan legislature’s website. I have quoted the parts of the bill which are most pertinent to the above allegation. The law itself is a set of requirements that individual school districts must satisfy as they develop their bullying policies.

First of all, the definition of bullying. It seems to me extremely vague and far-reaching – in other words, I think it would be easy to make all sorts of things which aren’t really bullying be construed as bullying.

(B) “BULLYING” MEANS ANY WRITTEN, VERBAL, OR PHYSICAL ACT, OR

ANY ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION, BY A PUPIL DIRECTED AT 1 OR MORE

OTHER PUPILS THAT IS INTENDED OR THAT A REASONABLE PERSON WOULD

KNOW IS LIKELY TO HARM 1 OR MORE PUPILS EITHER DIRECTLY OR

INDIRECTLY BY DOING ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:

(i) SUBSTANTIALLY INTERFERING WITH EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES,

BENEFITS, OR PROGRAMS OF 1 OR MORE PUPILS.

(ii) SUBSTANTIALLY AND ADVERSELY AFFECTING THE ABILITY OF A

PUPIL TO PARTICIPATE IN OR BENEFIT FROM THE SCHOOL DISTRICT’S OR

PUBLIC SCHOOL’S EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS OR ACTIVITIES BY PLACING THE

PUPIL IN REASONABLE FEAR OF PHYSICAL HARM.

(iii) HAVING AN ACTUAL AND SUBSTANTIAL DETRIMENTAL EFFECT ON A

PUPIL’S PHYSICAL OR MENTAL HEALTH OR CAUSING SUBSTANTIAL EMOTIONAL

DISTRESS.

(iv) CAUSING SUBSTANTIAL DISRUPTION IN, OR SUBSTANTIAL

INTERFERENCE WITH, THE ORDERLY OPERATION OF THE SCHOOL.

Now, the clause that is causing so much fuss:

(8) THIS SECTION DOES NOT ABRIDGE THE RIGHTS UNDER THE FIRST

AMENDMENT OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OR UNDER ARTICLE

I OF THE STATE CONSTITUTION OF 1963 OF A SCHOOL EMPLOYEE, SCHOOL

VOLUNTEER, PUPIL, OR A PUPIL’S PARENT OR GUARDIAN. THIS SECTION

DOES NOT PROHIBIT A STATEMENT OF A SINCERELY HELD RELIGIOUS BELIEF

OR MORAL CONVICTION OF A SCHOOL EMPLOYEE, SCHOOL VOLUNTEER, PUPIL,

OR A PUPIL’S PARENT OR GUARDIAN.

But what exactly do they mean by “section”? They mean the whole thing, of course, but this is the very first thing you read about the section:

SEC. 1310B. (1) NOT LATER THAN 6 MONTHS AFTER THE EFFECTIVE

DATE OF THIS SECTION, THE BOARD OF A SCHOOL DISTRICT OR

INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL DISTRICT OR BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF A PUBLIC

SCHOOL ACADEMY SHALL ADOPT AND IMPLEMENT A POLICY PROHIBITING

BULLYING BY PUPILS AT SCHOOL, AS DEFINED IN THIS SECTION.

It seems to me that the oh-so-awful Michigan clause is nowhere NEAR as bad as people have been making it out to be. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. If the law works as intended, people who try to use (8) to actually get away with name-calling, or beating people up – or, in other words, BULLYING – will fail miserably, and rightly so. On the other hand, if Sally is accused of bullying Billy because Sally told Billy that she believes Billy’s behavior is wrong based on her religious belief, even though the world believes Billy’s behavior is absolutely fine, this clause SHOULD prevent Sally from getting in trouble. Also, please note the people mentioned in (8). (8) protects parents’ freedom of speech and religion, as well as teachers, volunteers, and students. Yet, based on the definition of bullying, only STUDENTS can bully. Why even mention the other people, then? Well, as I mentioned earlier, this law is a list of requirements for the bullying policies which will be created by individual school districts. Because of that religious/moral clause, the school district will not be able to say that stating a religious or moral belief is automatically bullying. Parents can still teach their children according to their religious and moral beliefs. Teachers will not get in trouble for telling students what a religious/moral belief system teaches. Etc, etc. This clause is NOT a bad thing. Actually, I think it is probably necessary in our current climate.