My Invisible Friend: Ethical Theism Using Atheist Rhetoric

December 12, 2011 1 comment

[Relevant text: For example, if I tell you that a full-grown adult I know speaks to an invisible man named Jerry and asks Jerry to grant him wishes, you might rightly assume this man has a psychotic disorder, such as Schizophrenia. On the other hand, if I replace “Jerry” with “Jesus,” my friend is suddenly a perfectly normal Christian.”]

(To avoid confusion, I should note that the above is actually an excerpt  from a psychology textbook, not an Atheist tract. It still illustrates my point.)

When Atheists talk about deities in terms of invisible friends and psychotic disorders, they are usually being condescending. However, when I actually consider my views about mental health and “delusion,” the invisible friend is a useful metaphor.

Holly over at The Pervocracy once said the following about mental illness:

It’s important to never lose sight of the magic phrases “significant distress or impairment” and “danger to self and others.” Because these are the things we treat in mental health–when someone is suffering, when they’re unable to do their daily tasks of living, or when they are harming or likely to harm themselves or someone else. What we don’t treat is being wrong. Someone can be wrong all day long–can think they have five arms and the CIA has put a chip up their butt–and as long as they’re okay with their life and getting enough to eat and not hurting anyone, it’s really none of our business. The point of mental health care is to promote wellness, not enforce the correct reality. Nobody has the job title Clinical Philosopher.

Let’s get my affiliations out of the way: I am an agnostic theist, which means that I believe in God, but I acknowledge that I cannot know for sure that God exists. I acknowledge that I cannot and do not know for certain that my personal religious beliefs are “correct.” I also have Unitarian philosophical leanings, which means that I’m not super invested in the question of “which religion is correct,” because I think most of them are valuable in their own right.

Despite being a Theist – that is, despite being one of the people who is being talked down to when Atheists talk about imaginary friends – I actually think this metaphor can be used to make a very positive, useful point about religion.

You see, some people who are very dear to me have what you might call “invisible friends.” Some of them are role-playing characters who have crossed over from their original games and storylines into the person’s everyday life, roles that they play to express certain facets of their personalities. As long as the person isn’t dissociating when playing those characters – as long as the identities are co-conscious – this isn’t a problem, because the existence of these personas does not cause significant distress or impairment, or endanger anybody. In fact, these “imaginary friends” are extremely beneficial to my friends’ health and well-being, and have enriched their lives.

I would argue this can actually be a very positive metaphor for religion.

In my opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an adult talking to an invisible man named Jerry and asking him to grant wishes. In all seriousness, if Jerry enriches my friend’s life, I’m all about that. To repeat again what Holly said, there is no one with the job title “clinical philosopher.” My friend may believe that after he dies, he will go to live with Jerry on another plane where Jerry is visible, and you know what? He could be right. I don’t know. It’s really none of my business.

There is, however, a problem if my friend relies on Jerry to grant his wishes to the exclusion of taking other steps to get what he wants and needs in life – for example, if my friend gets sick and asks Jerry to make him better instead of, rather than concurrently with, seeking medical care. There is an even BIGGER problem if my friend’s CHILD gets sick and my friend asks Jerry for healing instead of seeking treatment.

There is a problem if my friend believes that Jerry is telling him to harm or threaten people, or if my friend tries to harm or threaten people for not believing in or having an appropriate relationship with Jerry. There is a problem if my friend believes Jerry is telling him to hurt himself. There is a problem if my friend uses Jerry to terrify his children (for example, by teaching them to value their relationships with Jerry very strongly, and then telling them that Jerry will hate and shun them if they do something that goes against my friend’s wishes. This is a form of emotional abuse, in my opinion.) or if he uses Jerry as a justification for beating or raping his wife, or for mutilating his children’s genitals.

There is a problem when people are discriminated against for not believing in Jerry, or for following the teachings of Allen, or Buddy, or Yorrick (do you see what I did there???) instead. There is especially a problem when people are tortured and killed for following the teachings of Allen instead of the teachings of Jerry. Or vice-versa.

When I hear Atheists that I know complain that talking to religious people is like trying to reason with an adult who has an “invisible friend,” I tend to roll my eyes because I know totally reasonable people with invisible friends, some of whom are Atheists themselves. Sanity, to the extent that sanity is something we should aspire to, lies in knowing where your invisible friend fits into your life, and making sure that your relationship with your invisible friend (notice that I am continuing to say “invisible” instead of “imaginary”) is ultimately a force for good in your life and in the world.

I have a perfectly functional relationship with my, yes, completely and totally invisible friend Jesus. You can be his friend too, if you feel like it! Just don’t use him as an excuse to treat people like shit, because he hates that and I had a dream last night where he told me that if I catch somebody doing that I have to make sure that they are punished.

(I’m kidding, guys. Guys…?)

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“Control Tonight” Date Rape Ad Is A Sloppy Mess

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Background: I wrote this for my Women’s Law Project internship, before the ad was picked up by Feministing, Jezebel, or any other major feminist blog. But the WLP blog admins can be a bit slow about posting things, so the ad became old news before we got the final edits, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board actually pulled the ad (that’s a quote from our Women’s Law Project senior staff attorney in that there link!) before the blog was posted.

However, I still thought that my original version, without the tone edits, was worth posting on my personal blog because it was a bit more in-depth than some of the other blogs I’ve seen written about this ad, and also because I worked hard on it!

So without further ado (except a TRIGGER WARNING for lurid and insensitive handling of sexual assault in an ad campaign, including a photo, after the cut. If you’re triggerable and want to read the post without seeing the photo, please email me or leave me a comment!)

Read more…

Quick Hit: Fat Acceptance in the Pitt News

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Trigger warning for nonsense, I guess. Nonsense of the body shame variety. But mostly just nonsense.

This is my column in the Pitt News from a couple weeks ago, which basically argues the radical point that being mean to fat people isn’t beneficial to their health.

This is the offended letter to the editor that I got today.

Best things about this letter:

1. The first paragraph: “We can choose our religion, political beliefs and, recently, we’ve even been allowed to change our sex.
Yikes.

2. “To suggest that weight and race are similar is an insult to the various minorities who have been mistreated for something that they cannot control, i.e. the color of their skin or the deity they worship,”
when juxtaposed with my statement:
“In 2006, the Guardian ran a feature with the headline, “Is weight the new race?” Now obviously, weight is not the new race — different forms of discrimination are unique and not interchangeable, and racism is alive and well and has not been replaced by anything.

3a. “the various minorities who have been mistreated for something that they cannot control, i.e. the color of their skin or the deity they worship.”
What? I can so choose the deity I worship!
I’m not saying that religious shifts are easy or that people usually make them lightly. I was nineteen when I stopped considering myself Catholic, despite the fact that I was like fifteen when I stopped believing in basically anything the Catholic Church stood for. Only a couple months ago I decided I couldn’t consider myself Christian anymore, and it was HARD! But it was not as hard as gaining 25 pounds would be, considering that I am naturally thin (“underweight,” in fact, though the people who demonize fat people based on their BMI always accept without question my claim that being underweight is beyond my control) and would have to overeat by probably 1000 calories every single day in order to gain that much weight and keep it on. For many people who are “overweight,” losing weight is just as hard.
I don’t agree with the underlying assumption that anything that’s not 100% beyond your control makes you a fair target for harassment and shame, but let’s at least not pretend that being one body size or another is more of a choice than which deity (if any) to worship.

3b. “We can choose our religion, political beliefs and, recently, we’ve even been allowed to change our sex.”
Oops.

4. “Getting a subtle tattoo, just like eating dessert in moderation, is fine. Covering yourself with tattoos, though, invites people to draw unpleasant conclusions about your character. Obesity does the same.”
Being fat invites people to assume that you suck, just like… having visible tattoos??!?
Oh dear. At least he’s consistent…

Jokes aside, I’m pretty excited because this is the second Letter to the Editor I’ve gotten this year, the first one being (predictably) about my column on abortion regulations. I wish I got a staff bio so it could say “I ❤ Abortion And Fat People.” And Rick Perry thinks his opinions are unpopular…

I expect the next time I get angry letters will be after winter break, when I run the column I’ve been researching for a while, entitled “Affirmative Action Doesn’t Hurt White Students.” I will have failed MISERABLY if nobody gets angry about that.

The Rejected Police Brutality Column

November 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Sometimes in the course of human events, I work my ass off on a column that turns out to be libel, and the Pitt News cannot run it. I am not criticizing this decision; by Pitt News standards, it was absolutely libelous, and I get why a newspaper can’t take chances with shit like that. But some of you wanted to see it anyway, and even though there’s nothing in it that most of y’all don’t know, I’m obliging. Here ya go.

* * *

When Jordan Miles, a senior and honors student at Pittsburgh’s Creative And Performing Arts (CAPA) High School, was jumped by a gang of three men while walking to his grandmother’s house, he thought he was being mugged. The men – burly white men who all had at least fifty pounds on Miles – jumped out of an unmarked vehicle and descended upon him asking, “Where’s your money? Where’s the drugs? Where’s the gun?”

Miles booked it – but this was January 2010, an icy winter, and he slipped and fell on the sidewalk. His assailants beat him unrecognizable, ripping dreadlocks out of his head, and threw him into their car. Only then was the scared high school student informed that these thugs were actually police officers – and he was under arrest.

When Miles’ case went to court, the officers claimed that a neighbor had called the police and reported him, which the neighbor in question refuted on the stand. Then they claimed they mistook a Mountain Dew bottle in his jacket pocket for a gun – but Miles contested this claim, and the police failed to produce the bottle in question.

Charges against Miles were thrown out of court – but the District Attorney has NOT brought charges against Officers Ewing, Sisak, and Saldutte for assault, wrongful arrest, racial profiling, or even perjury – although the latter is on record as the reason that Judge Petite threw out the criminal case against Miles. The officers were suspended for a while with pay, and are now back on duty.

Jordan Miles and I have a couple of things in common. You see, I’m a G-20 arrestee. I was nabbed by riot cops on the patio of the Litchfield Towers on September 24th, 2009, while holding open the door to let some other students into the building.

Like Jordan Miles, I was eighteen when I was arrested. Like Miles, I was arrested with excessive force; though I was fortunate not to be subjected to the same caliber of violence, I was thrown to the ground and earned two skinned knees and a bruise on my head. Neither of us was told, “Stop, you’re under arrest.” Neither was given the option of being taken peacefully.

Unlike Jordan Miles, I had the luxury of knowing my assailant was a police officer. Unlike Jordan, I was not charged with a serious offense, and I was offered a community service deal that I reluctantly accepted to spare my family the burden of extensive legal fees. Unlike Jordan, I can say with certainty that my arrest had nothing to do with my race – something that looks unlikely in the case of three white police officers beating up a lone black teenager in a predominantly black neighborhood, on drug and weapons pretenses.

Like Jordan Miles, at the time of my arrest I’d had no previous run-ins with the police. We had both done well in school and stayed out of trouble. We were Good Kids, kids who respected our elders and kept our noses clean.

Toeing the line for eighteen years and then finding yourself handcuffed, scared, bleeding and humiliated in overnight police custody, unsure when they’ll let you out, if you’ll get a phone call, how you’ll explain to your parents and what this means for your future, is a rare and uncanny experience. But it’s one that Jordan and I share.

It’s hard to pin police brutality – “brutality,” a word I consider a bit too strong for my own case, being used here because it’s so very appropriate to what happened to Jordan Miles – on a single cause. Institutionalized racism; the dangers of the job; the presence of “a few bad apples” on the force; inadequate training; the limitations of fast, high-stakes decision making; power trips; internal corruption – all have been cited as contributing factors. But there’s only one cause of police brutality that civilians like you and me can fight directly.

I’m talking about accountability – the stunning lack of consequences when cops make a “mistake” that puts somebody in the hospital. The Jordan Miles case is cut and dry: he didn’t do anything wrong, and they beat him senseless. If there was no malice – if Officers Ewing, Sisak and Saldutte truly thought it necessary both to arrest Miles and to use that much force – then they all should be fired regardless, for being so astonishingly bad at their jobs that they put someone’s life in danger.

When the best case scenario is incompetence and the worst case scenario is a hate crime, the officers in question should not receive commendations, as these three did on March 19th of that year. They should not receive a “suspension” that amounts to a paid vacation. And they absolutely should not return a year later to continue policing the streets that they themselves made unsafe.

Last May, Officers Ewing, Sisak and Saldutte were released back into the community where we live and work, with guns, badges and the message that there are no consequences to harming civilians. If that doesn’t make you feel safe, call District Attorney Zappala at 412-350-4400 and tell him you feel that way. If it happens to you – and it could – you’ll want others to do the same.

#OccupyPittsburgh

October 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m going to Occupy Pittsburgh this Saturday.

For those of you (that is: none of you) who haven’t heard the story of my arrest during the G-20 during my freshman year, suffice to say that attending Occupy Pittsburgh either makes me a total badass (“she doesn’t afraid of anything!”) or an idiot who deserves whatever happens to her.

I won’t be occupying full-time, because, you know, I’m paying to go to school and all. I also won’t be attending any events that don’t have permits, because my dad will stone me to death if I get arrested again and I wouldn’t even blame him.

I’m not going to make any bones about it. I’m kind of excited but I’m mostly scared as hell. Two years after my arrest, I still get antsy sometimes when I see police on the sidewalk, and photos and videos of police violence are still triggering for me. Shit, scenes in V for Vendetta are triggering for me. I don’t know how I’m going to react if I see riot gear in person again. I’ll have people around that I trust to take care of me if I have a panic attack. But really… I would just so rather not.

I could reduce my risk by being a legal observer, but at least for the time being, I don’t want to be a neutral observer. I want to carry a sign and yell. Of course, if shit starts to get real and they have an observer shortage, I’ll put my orange hat on, because I care. But Saturday, I’m just a protester.

Some people reading this (if anybody’s reading this) might be planning on going out and protesting too. I don’t know what the police response is going to be like, but because I believe in preparing for the worst, here’s my veteran’s advice to you (note – these are tips for people who are not willing to take arrest. If you want to go the civil disobedience route and knowingly risk arrest, more power to you, but I’m not in that camp. Some of these things will still apply to you but some of them won’t.)

1. Wear comfy clothes. Running shoes are a must. Wear something durable that covers your knees in case you get thrown to the ground. Nothing constricting, flimsy, or likely to fall askance if you get roughed up.

2. Don’t carry valuables or anything heavy.

3. Have IDs in your pockets.

4. Folks in orange baseball caps are ACLU legal observers. They’re your friends. Stay where they can see you if possible. If you can memorize at least one phone number that you could shout to a legal observer if you needed to, even better.

5. If you want to take pictures, buy a disposable camera. Police are notorious for breaking photographers’ equipment.

6. If the police order you to disperse, walk don’t run. A lot of people think running makes you “look suspicious,” but at that point, police usually don’t care. The difference they perceive between walkers and runners is that walkers are slow targets.

7. A vinegar-soaked bandanna will keep block out tear gas, but wearing one over your face the whole time could make you a target. Wear one around your neck, put it over your face if you see tear gas.

8. If you have asthma or another serious lung condition, stay away unless you have and are willing to wear a gas mask. Tear gas will fuck your shit up, and your shit will continue to be fucked up for MONTHS. If you’re going the gas mask route, I’d recommend a sandwich board explaining your lung condition, because a gas mask can make you a target.

9. If you’re black, brown or visibly queer, you’re already a target. Be careful. Just be careful.

10. If you’re trans, also be careful, but for different reasons. If you “pass” well, you might not be at higher risk for arrest, but if you DO get arrested you will probably be mistreated in custody. Be careful.

11. If you’re female-bodied and on your period, wear a pad instead of a tampon. You may not be able to use the bathroom in custody. Some riot cops don’t know about Toxic Shock Syndrome and the rest don’t care.

12. Defending yourself from assault by a cop (even blocking your face when they hit you) can get you charged with resisting arrest. Any contact with an officer that you initiate (i.e. grabbing an officer to stop him from beating up an old woman) can be assaulting an officer, which is an aggravated assault. Don’t be a hero.

13. If you have thick gloves or wristbands, they might be a really good idea. Plastic zip ties are a motherfucker and they dig into your wrists. They can bruise you or cause nerve damage.

14. If you’re arrested, get badge numbers if you can. Try to pick up, either by asking or listening closely, as much information about your arresting officer as possible.

15. Water poured on tear gas makes the burning worse. If you’re in custody and covered in tear gas and police ask if you’d like them to pour some water on you to relieve it, say no. They know perfectly well that it makes it worse. (This was a thing that happened during the G-20.)

16. Use the buddy system. Know your friends’ risk factors and look out for them. Exchange numbers to call in case of an emergency. Have at least one person with you who, if you are arrested, can call your emergency contact, and will also call the ACLU with your name, situation, and any health conditions you may have (asthma, anxiety disorders, etc.)

I’ll post more when I think of them later.

None of this should have to be said.

I’m terrified and that’s BULLSHIT.