Friday, January 29, 2010

Gay Marriage Doesn't Hurt Children

Here's a question for my conservative friends and family: if scientific research and evidence suggested that children did equally well in heterosexual and homosexual households, would you support gay marriage?

Today posted this article, which reports on a recent study that basically makes that argument. What's more, this study makes up just a small part of the growing body of research that suggests children do fine in same-sex households. (Click here and look at page four, or here, or here.)

Of course, one study doesn't necessarily prove anything. And even if (or when?) virtually all studies say the same thing (that moment is arriving now, actually) people won't necessarily believe them (just look at all the denialism regarding global warming).

Yet one of the principle arguments against gay marriage is that children will suffer if it's legalized. What if it turns out that that excuse is patently false? Will gay marriage opponents who are generally rational in other regards retreat into mysticism? Will people be willing to base their opinions on evidence? Or will they base "evidence" on opinion?

Honestly, I doubt that most people will change their minds about gay marriage, no matter how compelling the scientific evidence becomes. I think that most same-sex marriage opponents are prompted to act based on religious grounds at best (and bigoted grounds at worst), but won't admit that (probably because the obvious rebuttal to an openly religious argument is that it's inherently un-American because it favors on religious belief system at the expense of another). In the end all the legal, scientific, and rational posturing from the anti-same-sex marriage crowd mostly comes off as a disingenuous veneer concealing the argument "God said this is the way things should be, and no matter the consequences that's what we're for."

Which, I suppose, is a fine argument if that's what people believe. I just wish same-sex opponents would quit lying to themselves (and everyone else) by saying that their position saves society from some great collapse. There is mounting scientific evidence that society doesn't suffer as a result of same-sex marriage. There is virtually no evidence that children suffer as a result of being raised in a homosexual household.

Ultimately, in my own case, this research (and my studying it over the years) has been one of the primary factors in convincing me to support same-sex marriage. I think that if something has a prejudicial effect on society at large, that thing should be restricted. Yet, if something turns out to be relatively harmless and allows people to live and believe as they choose, I think that thing should be allowed. Despite the fact that my religion, most of my family, and a fair number of my friends disagree, I'm yet to find a compelling and convincing argument against gay marriage that relies on a socially shared set of values (such as the need to protect children).

This issue is far from settled of course. But I think it's worth asking ourselves what happens if our arguments turn out to be wrong. What if they are disproved?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What Gets Reported

For the last few weeks I've been workig as a feature reporter for the Daily Herald. As I may have mentioned in earlier posts, I'm an intern and I write two articles per week. Because I'm highlighting various arts and cultural events around northern Utah, the stakes are relatively low. However, the experience continues to emphasize to me the incredible power that the press has in determining what information gets out into the public sphere.

For example, I've been writing on some local music events and as I work through the story I have to make countless decisions about what gets included in the story and what gets cut. On virtually every story, a lot more gets left out than what gets included. And though the fact that reporters decide what to include in their stories is fairly common knowledge, I'm not sure everyone knows just how much freedom they have. At least with my stories, I can pretty much write whatever I want as long as it meets basic length, format, and style requirements. That meanst that I can choose to highlight a band's new CD, for example, or on the other hand I could completely disregard their CD (say, if I didn't like it) and chose to focus on something else. I could make the main focus of the article how that band innovates, or I could reverse it and focus on how they're a rip off. In the end, it's really just up to me.

As I mentioned, most people are probably aware that this sort of thing goes on all the time. However, what facinates me even more is the fact that a whole slew of other biases impact my reporting without my even thinking about it. For example, as a result of my playing in bands I tend to want to highlight certain things. In all of my bands I've tried to think very specifically about what kind of experience an audience will have and how to specifically shape that experience. It's one of my personal interests and other musicians don't nessecarily place as much importance on it as I do (and others don't think about it in the same way). Yet whenever I've interviewed musicians (or just performers generally), I always ask a lot of questions about audience. Those people who can answer those questions intelligently come off sounding better. Those who can't either don't sound as good or get left out entirely.

I think this is a really good example of my personal biases shaping my reporting without it being a overt decision. Though I recognize it, it wouldn't occur to me to not ask about audience interaction, even if that's the last thing that matters to a band. (What's more, my interest in audience interaction is probably at least partially influenced by my work as a graduate student and teacher of English, which has nothing to do with the bands I'm interviewing).

Of course, this isn't a big deal for my stories. Some bands sound cooler than others, but ultimately I'm spotlighting them not trying to expose their flaws. However, I think it is illuminative because reporters covering health, politics, crime, war, etc. also have to make these same decisions. Plus, they're also bound by their pre-acquired biases and, whether they recognize that or not (many probably do), there's little they can do to escape it. Again, I know these observations aren't revolutionary, but that doesn't make the power of the press any less amazing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reading Books Discourages Reading

For the last six months I've been reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I began it right around the time I graduated last year under the assumption that I would need to try extra hard to read once I was no longer a student.

I read the first 100 pages of the book quickly. They were interesting and entertaining and I was surprised at how funny James could be. However, since that time I have slowed down considerably. As of today I'm just over halfway through the book, which unfortunately is 300 pages in. I'm to the point where I've invested enough time to not want to quit, but I've also pretty much lost all interest in continuing.

The result of this situation is that I rarely read. And when I say that, I don't simply mean that I rarely read The Portrait, I mean I rarely read anything at all (other than massive amounts of news). Despite having two degrees in English, my literary consumption has dwindled to almost nothing. Since I began teaching at Salt Lake Community College this month I usually have an hour or so between classes, so sometimes I read then. That means that on a good week I'll read for maybe three hours.

I think that this is one of the great problems with literature and one of the reasons many people today never read at all. The "good" books that people are told they should read just seem insufferably boring. Though The Portrait is a classic and a relatively entertaining book, it drags on for over 600 pages without ever doing much. It describes settings, attitudes, and lifestyles that modern readers not only can't relate to but that they can't even visualize or comprehend. It's so utterly foreign in its sensibilities that it hardly even makes sense and whatever "meaning" an average reader might glean from its pages becomes lost.

Consequently, reading classic literature is a discouraging activity. Every time I think about reading I think about what a chore it is and how it brings me no pleasure. And eventually, I just watch videos on Hulu instead. Of course, I do enjoy reading (even some classic books), but having to slog through The Portrait has forced that interest into dormancy.

A similar situation happened to me last summer. I had just finished my master's thesis and decided I need to read something. I picked up Willa Cather's The Professor's House and almost the exact same thing happened: I started off strong, lost interest, didn't want to give up, and thus barely read anything at all for a couple of months while I tried to finish the book. Sure I could have picked up a second book to read simultaneously, but when the first book had already got me so down on reading I couldn't find the motivation to do that.

I can only assume that this is the sort of thing that happens to the masses of people that don't ever read literature. They try to read something (or are forced to do it in high school), find that they hate the experience, and never try it again. The problem, then, isn't TV or "the media" or whatever else is the fashionable thing to accuse of corrupting society. The problem are the books themselves. Luckily in my case I read Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick in between Cather and James, which book reminded me that there is in fact some literature that is both entertaining and edifying.

This post is, of course, diagnostic and not prognostic or proscriptive. I have no solution, (other than to encourage people to stop forcing others to read things like Shakespeare that will turn them off to reading, which is hardly a solution). However, I think that those who are interested in literature need to acknowledge the fact that reading can be a tremendous pleasure for some, but a tremendous pain for a lot of others. Simply saying otherwise isn't going to change that fact.


Well, I'm doing a terrible job with this blog this month. By Jan. 11 I had three jobs which has subsequently prevented me from writing anything new here. However, I am writing now for the Daily Herald, which means that my life has become a simulacrum of that of a journalist. And lest that sound like a condemnation of anything, I am thoroughly enjoying being a simulated journalist. (This post is related to these observations).

Friday, January 8, 2010


Hands down my favorite activity in the world is debating. In reality, it doesn’t matter what I’m debating, as long as it’s relatively interesting and can be approached from a few different angles. However, I’ve found that the more time goes by, the less inclined I am to actually engage people in a rousing debate. Why is that?

Probably part of it has to do with the fact that for the last four months I’ve basically been sitting in a room by myself. I was writing, applying to grad schools, editing video, and sometimes just wasting time. However, do that long enough and your social skills are bound to suffer.

Yet, if deteriorating social skills can partially explain my waning motivation to debate, a bigger reason might be my writing itself. In the last six months or so I’ve started this blog, begun writing for Rhombus Magazine, and (as of a few days ago), become a features writer as the Daily Herald.

All this writing takes a lot of time, but it has also changed the way I think about issues. Whereas in the past I’ve been content to debate an issue with someone, each side making logical points that emerge from pre-existing knowledge, I’ve come to see that approach as frustratingly uninformed. As a result of all the writing I’ve been doing (and just because I’m a news junkie) I spend hours and hours reading different websites, newspapers, and commentary. Consequently, when I casually debating something I can usually recall specific articles that I’m drawing from. I typically want to “cite my sources” as a way to prove that my points are valid (which, admittedly, might be a rhetorical cop-out).

For example, Laura and I frequently go to dinner at my parents’ house on Sunday evenings. On one of our recent visits someone mentioned that the “United States was the country with the most opportunity in the world and the highest standard of living.” Debate often ensues at these dinners, and my dad and I found ourselves taking up opposing positions on this topic; he supporting it, and I opposing.

After a few minutes however, I began to be frustrated because all the supporting evidence seemed to be abstract ideas about patriotism (i.e. opinion with no supporting evidence). On the other hand, I could recall dozens of articles discussing how the U.S. has lower life expectancy than most the world, lower happiness, worse health, high unemployment, no health care system to speak of, etc., etc., etc. In the following days I actually posted a whole bunch of links to news articles and Wikipedia entries supporting my position on my dad’s Facebook page. My point: if the U.S. has fallen behind in every quantifiable way, it doesn’t make sense to keep saying it’s the best. (And by extension, we need to make changes.)

Similarly, last time Laura and I went to dinner global warming can up and the point was made that because the recently stolen emails revealed fudged numbers global warming was a myth. Now to me this simply seemed absurd; it’s like saying that if we found out Newton was a phony there is no gravity. Regardless of Newton’s honesty, someone only has to look around to realize that gravity does indeed exist. However, more to the point I’ve read extensively about global warming and despite the stolen emails there is still scientific consensus on it.

I bring up both of these issues not because I’m trying to debate them here, but to demonstrate that a casual debate simply isn’t going to work in these instances. My family members are good debaters, but without any hard evidence their points simply seemed like uniformed opinion (as mine probably did to them). What's more, in a conversation around a dinner table its really hard to actually have any hard evidence. I could certainly be swayed on either issue, but for that to happen I’d have to see some clear evidence that I’m wrong. Simply insisting that global warming is a myth, or that American is a land of opportunity, isn’t enough. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table and is wholly inadequate in the face of so much readily available information.

My conclusion is that verbal debate among friends and family is typically a fruitless endeavor because it so often fails to incorporate evidence into the argument. In the end, it’s just people’s opinions and both sides can always question the reliability of “facts” recalled from memory. Unlike a scientific study or even a newspaper article (which should cite studies), the evidence available to people in a casual debate is pretty shaky. On the other hand, if people actually want to understand an issue (or persuade others about it), it is important to “cite sources,” which is easier done online where it’s possible to link to actual evidence.

I still love debate for the sake of debate (and for the sake of sharpening my rhetorical skills). However, I think that the Internet (and in my case my writing/research) has emphasized to me the importance of debate supported by mutually accepted “facts.” Hopefully that means that as our lives become increasingly digital, our debates become more intellectually rigorous.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Airport Security

In the wake of the recent attempted terrorist attack, security is no doubt going to get “stronger” at airports. Hopefully that’ll mean increased safety, but if the past is any indicator, it’ll also mean longer lines and greater inconvenience. And though I want to preserve life as much as possible, I believe that making air travel more miserable simply isn’t worth the added safety. In fact, I’d gladly accept a slightly higher risk of death if it meant an easier time getting to my plane.

Back before 9/11 flying was kind of fun. Family and friends could go all the way to the gate and travelers didn’t have to take off a bunch of clothes to get through the lines. Things moved more quickly and, at least in my case, it was an all around better experience.

Of course we’ll never go back to those free wheelin’ days, but adding more and more security doesn’t always make sense. Flying today has become a kind of ritualized humiliation, and adding to that isn’t going to make anyone excited about traveling. This is particularly true of the naked body scanners that will probably be deployed soon; not only will you have to take off your belt, shoes, etc., you’ll also have to submit to being seen in the nude by some TSA person.

The result of this increasingly humiliating experience is that revenue will go down, prices will go up, and unpleasantness will proliferate. The added time that yet another machine introduces to the process will further drive flying toward pointlessness. For example, it already takes five hours or more (including driving time getting to airports) for me to fly from my home in Provo, Utah, to Southern California where I grew up. If I have a lay-over, it’s much longer. Conversely, I can drive to the same place in about 9.5 hours, so flying doesn’t even cut that in half. The longer it takes to fly, the more likely I am to drive.

Besides the inconvenience of added security, it’s also questionable just how effective it is. Does confiscating my shampoo really make the world safer? I would argue it doesn’t and that most of the current measures are simply in place to give frightened travelers a (sometimes false) sense of security about their trips. After all, an apparently inept terrorist thwarted the security we currently have; I’m sure that a professional from Al Queda could figure out a way to slip past the naked-scanner.

All this is to say that rolling out more delays just isn’t worth it. The chance of dying in a terrorist attack is still small, even without added security. In fact, it’s much smaller getting in a car wreak or dying in countless other ways. What’s more, people seem to believe that flying should be risk-free, even though that’s an impossible goal. Everything involves risk flying remains one of the lowest risk ways to travel. If naked scanners or other measures actually sped up the process or made it more streamlined, I’d be interested in seeing them used. However, so far no new security measure has ever made things faster. Ultimately, then, it’d be better to simply accept the risk of dying in an attack. If not, we’ll have eventually made airplanes so safe that we never actually let anyone get on them.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Resolutions are for Suckers

The idea of making New Year’s resolutions has always baffled me. It seems that if a person didn’t have the fortitude to make changes before New Year’s Day, they probably wouldn’t after as well. Of course, I’m sure that many people make and keep New Year’s resolutions. However, my experience suggests that far more people make and subsequently break their resolutions. Accordingly, I propose that making New Year’s resolutions is ineffective and an activity that should be discouraged.

Surprisingly, there is research suggesting that publicly stating goals can actually contribute to a lack of follow through. In this Newsweek article New York University psychologist Peter Gollowitzer found that people who publicly state their goals are actually less likely to achieve them. Though (as the article points out) this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, it makes sense: once a goal has been stated people feel like they’ve made progress, even though they haven’t. That feeling of progress then supplants actual progress and people stop working toward their goal.

Obviously not everyone publicly states their New Year’s resolutions, but publicity does seem to be a common part of the equation. I know some families get together and make resolutions together. In Sunday school I’ve been encouraged on multiple occasions to write down my New Year’s goals and share them either with the class or with someone close to me. I’d even argue that many people who make private resolutions share them with God or their particular deity, which act makes them public inasmuch as the goal-maker feels that the resolution has been shared. And of course, that feeling is one of the primary reasons that resolutions fail.

New Year’s resolutions are also ineffective because New Year’s Day is really just an arbitrary point in time. The multitude of other calendars that are either currently in use or have been used in the past (Julian, Chinese, etc.) suggests that New Year’s Day could just as easily have been any day of the year. By extension, if goal making is going to happen, it could also take place on any day of the year. Why not have Valentine’s Day resolutions? Or May Day goals? My point here is that the logic behind making resolutions specifically on New Year’s Day quickly falls apart.

Ultimately, I don’t know many people who have made significant life changes on New Year’s Day. I’m sure there are some out there, but in any case it’s better to simply see a problem and address it immediately, regardless of when in the year it is. In reality, New Year’s resolutions seem to serve as a kind of crutch and procrastination strategy: if someone’s goal is to lose weight, for example, they can recognize the need to be healthier in October but still act like a glutton for three months. Unfortunately, however, when the New Year rolls around their procrastination is only going to make things more difficult and the fact that it’s suddenly a different year isn’t likely to offset that added difficulty.

As I mentioned above, the best strategy for making changes is to simply make them without all the hoopla of New Year’s resolutions. If you want to read more, pick up a book. If you want to exercise more, go running. Get out and do things, don’t waste time writing them down or fantasizing about accomplishment. New Year’s resolutions are for suckers because they rarely lead to anything.