Monday, July 25, 2016

Moral Solipsism: A Fugitive and Cloistered Virtue

My mother has often said that, given how she and my father raised me, I’m at a peculiar disadvantage. Both of them raised me to challenge and question preconceptions; in particular, not to merely accept that something is ethically right or wrong, but to ask why with an almost ruthless impartiality. The disadvantage here is that it’s not the way most folks engage in ethical conversation – and indeed, there are far too many who are simply not used to such engagement to begin with.

This seems a major reason why we’re presently seeing such polarized views. One group will assert that some version of divine law should be the basis for guiding our decisions and actions; others point to more general core values, and a desire to reduce suffering and expand happiness. Of course, there are those who equate the latter with the former, and who heed the prophetic call to “come let us reason together” for common solutions.

And then, there are the moral solipsists.

These are the folks who make their ethical views through the limited filter of their own life experience and internal dialogue. Their logic tends to run along the following:
  1. My experience and/or emotional response to a given issue X is value Y.
    • Positive example: My experience of Christianity has been wonderful.
    • Negative example: The idea of eating raw fish disgusts me.
  2. The value of X must therefore be Y.
    • Christianity must be wonderful.
    • Eating raw fish must be disgusting
  3. Universal moral action towards X must therefore conform with Y.
    • Everyone should become a Christian.
    • No one should eat raw fish, or serve it to other people.
  4. The fact that others view X is Y confirms this; any divergent opinion regarding X is erroneous and to be discounted.
    • I’m surrounded by other people who also love Christ and the Church, so it is wonderful; all of these naysayers have simply been led astray by Satan, or not willing to open their hearts.
    • I know plenty of people who tried raw fish and hated it, so it is disgusting; those people who say otherwise are either liars, ignorant, or just weird sickos.
Moral solipsism thus goes beyond listening to one’s experience and emotions, and universalizes them to the near-automatic exclusion of other views. It is egoism and subjectivism taken to extremes. This is not to say that personal experience and emotional response ought not to guide us. It’s certainly valid for helping to determine personal preferences. But before we universalize them or make them permanent, they need to be compared to the experiences of others, and tested by reason and evidence.

The problem is that, once someone falls into the trap of moral solipsism, it’s very hard to get out. Thus we observe Americans of European descent who, because they universalize their experience of white privilege, angrily reject the ugly realities being exposed by Black Lives Matter and other groups. We may witness folks who embrace the atheist label purely because of their painful upbringing in one religious group, and never move beyond that. We may know of people who find the idea of providing erotic services for money so personally repellant that they refuse to listen to anyone who has found fulfilment doing so, and surround themselves only with those who share their views, crusading without question to “rescue” sex workers whether they want it or not.

We see the seeds of this in much of how we engage in ethical and political discourse, particularly the emphasis on personal experience and narrative. These are persuasive tools, but by relying too much on them, we risk confusing them with broader examinations of reality – and may even open ourselves up to being deceiving by another Somaly Mam or Chong Kim. We must always remember that one individual’s story is but a glimpse of the larger picture, and even several similar stories may only allow us to see but a pale reflection, when we must endeavor to see the whole more clearly.

The real danger in moral solipsism is its refusal to be tested. At best, it leads to fragmentation and paralysis, with claimants competing for followers. At worst, when one such claimant rises to authority, it leads to tyranny and suffering, all for the sake of an illusion of purity. But as John Milton pointed out centuries ago, purity is never obtained by closing oneself off to questions and challenges:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

SWERFs and Other True Believers

Benjamin L. Corey commented in a recent post how the growing movement against human trafficking had morphed into an "anti-sex-industry" movement. My own observation is that it has become hijacked by a longstanding "sexual purity" movement, with roots going to Anthony Comstock and the more conservative elements of first-wave feminism. And like any mass movement, as Eric Hoffer observed, its members are willing to sacrifice critical thought in the name of a holy cause.

This movement's basic approach follows that of the religious revivalists from which it originally emerged. First, there is the diagnosis of some great world-disease preventing all of us from achieving some beatific or utopian state. From this, we deduce its presence in each person in the form of an individual infection, requiring radical treatment and cure. But it doesn't stop there, for now the convalescing individual must be recruited into expansion of the cure, continuing the cycle until the world itself is rid of the disease. This was also the logic behind the temperance movement, which diagnosed alcohol as the world-disease and prohibition as its ultimate cure.

The contemporary "purity" movement is sustained by conservative evangelical Christians and sex-worker-excluding radical feminists (SWERFs), both of whom exhibit their own variations on this foundational template. The evangelical will see Satan, sin, salvation and evangelism as the pillars of their mission; the SWERF will point to patriarchy, false consciousness, politicization and action; but both essentially crave the same goals, use similar techniques, and see symptoms of sickness in various forms of sexual nonconformity.

This purity movement also exhibits three paradoxical approaches to achieve its goals. Its leaders present moral absolutes, yet are willing to resort to intellectual dishonesty by twisting the facts to suit their purposes. Both religionist and SWERFs often denigrate science and reason as antithetical to their views, while also attempting to present elements of their message in the guise of science and reason. Lastly, their desire to impose a radical cure, such as eradicating prostitution, leads to methods that cause even greater harm than the supposed sickness, in this case robbing women of both agency and self-sufficiency.

As Hoffer observed, it is no surprise that such "true believers" come mainly from privileged backgrounds. While the poor and marginalized struggled to survive, the privileged struggle with boredom and lack of purpose. The current anti-prostitution movement has given many well-to-do white women the promise of helping others by eradicating what they perceive as a great evil. But that promise is an overly simplistic emotional appeal that ignores evidence and complex realities, and rejects practical means for reducing harm and respecting women's choices. It is indeed not only paternalistic, but anti-feminist, precisely because it leads privileged women to "other" marginalized ones. It is a faulty diagnosis, and a reckless course of treatment.

I would contend that the real disease to which we should devote our energies is the pervasive inequity made manifest in our economic, political, social, cultural and erotic realities. Instead of depriving sex workers of both income and safety, let's give them the space to unleash their power and help transform the world. Liberation is not to be imposed, nor is it achieved by ignoring the voices and experiences of those who seek it. Often the best way for the privileged to aid in the liberation of others is to get out of their way and let them take the lead. That, I believe, is the case here.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Case for Decriminalizing Pimping

Recently, the UK Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee issued a recommendation to decriminalize certain aspects of prostitution. While some sex worker rights organizations and activists hailed the move, others have expressed caution. Too often, those who have advocated the so-called "Swedish Model" claim that it "decriminalizes sex workers" while supposedly tackling "exploitation"; in reality, this regime is best described as asymmetrical criminalization, with its real-world results being disastrous for the very people supposedly being "helped" by this approach. Is it any wonder that Norway's government actually stated in a report that the hardships meted upon sex workers in that country was considered a sign of success?

It thus bears repeating that what the vast majority of sex workers want is full decriminalization of their work, including their relationships with third parties. In response, those who wish to keep or expand criminal prohibitions drag out the tired trope of the "abusive pimp" – now labeled a "sex trafficker" – using manipulation and coercion to "lure" and "enslave" young girls into the trade. Even so-called moderates who support half-way measures for making prostitution legal wind up swallowing this blue pill; yes, they say, let people sell sex if they want, but let's keep the ban on those evil pimps.

There are two major problems with this, rooted in the dichotomous definitions given to the word pimp. The first is that the best research actually shows that the villainous stereotype is such an anomaly that some sex workers consider it a myth. A goodly percentage of escorts are "independents" who operate as sole proprietors; in fact, many of these independent escorts are employers themselves, retaining the assistance of others for everything from website design to office administration to transportation and security.

This leads into the second problem with regard to anti-pimping laws. While the public has been given a narrow and loaded stereotypical definition, the law defines the act more broadly as deriving financial benefit from the prostitution of another. As a result, those employed by independent escorts are deemed to be "exploiting" them, simply because of the way the law is worded. Indeed, this overly sweeping definition may also be applied to anyone who receives any significant funds from sex workers, from those who rent or sublet apartments, to their children or other relatives. If we really wanted to take this to the extreme, we could consider any and all transactions done with "the profits of prostitution" to make just about everyone a pimp – newsstands, coffee shops, dry cleaners, even the neighbor holding a yard sale.

I'm sure those seeking a comfortable middle ground would advocate for a "reformed" anti-pimping law, where the focus is on abuse rather than mere financial gain. This raises the question of what constitutes abuse, and why new laws need to be created when current laws already address such problems. Using violence? We have laws against assault and battery. Taking money from someone who works for you? Laws against theft, and labor protection laws, also provide for that. Turf wars between pimps? Assuming this part of the myth is also true, that would fall under existing racketeering and anti-trust laws. Et cetera, et cetera. If the existence of these laws proves anything, it is that just about every business has some history of exploitative outliers. If the sex industry has more than its fair share, it seems more because of the stigma and lack of transparency which comes from continued criminalization.

Like any group of service providers, prostitutes don't always work in isolation, even when they do so as sole proprietors. They depend upon various support services, as well as supporting both biological and chosen family members. Decriminalizing sex workers while criminalizing those connected to them in this way is just as asymmetrically unworkable as the criminalization of their clientele. And before we attach the stigmatized label of "pimp" to those so connected, let's remember how deep those connections may run – even to ourselves.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Guest Post: "Not All ... "

Last year, during my recovery from surgery, I met an insightful fellow named Carl, and mentioned him in this blog post. Now, in response to my most recent post, he engaged me in an intriguing conversation, leading to his reflection below.

I thank Desmond for providing me the space to print this essay, with the hopes that it helps in all of our efforts to bring to reality the Dream that Martin Luther King shared with America so many years ago. At times, I have felt that we may never get there, not just because of the persistence of racism and bigotry, and the robbery of dignity and justice which they bring. No, it is the polarization into combative camps, and the cycle of wounding and scarring by all kinds of folk, even when there is good intention.

When I was growing up, in the wake of the era of Civil Rights, people of all backgrounds were cautioned to avoid stereotypes of each other, even good ones. We were to be seen as human beings instead of as categories, and while this did not mean we were to ignore skin color or gender or other differences, we were not to link them prejudicially. Not all Blacks are lazy, not all women are bad with math and science, not all gays are flamboyant, and so on and so forth. Human beings, individuals, embracing differences both between and within our diverse communities.

Now we're seeing this reversed, and it upsets me, not least of which because I've been guilty myself of this change. I heard other Black folk talk in generalizations about Whites, or other GLBTQ folk talking negatively about straights as a group, and I've found myself nodding and responding to the call, even when I know plenty of whites and straights who don't fit what they're saying. Meanwhile, as a man, I am tempted to respond to negative categorizations of men by women, yet trying my best to understand what is being said in those messages, just as those similar messages about whites and straights have resonated within me as someone proudly Black and gay.

"Not all men … "

"Not all Whites … "

"Not all heterosexuals … "

My thoughts here, however, are as much about the responses to these responses, and the assumptions behind them. Those who voice a "Not all … " find themselves accused of "taking it personally," or of "derailing the conversation," and silenced just as women, Blacks, GLBTQ folk and others were often silenced. But is it always about that? Could it be about what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, where progressive-minded folk who have learned not to stereotype and categorize then hear what seems like sweeping stereotyping and categorizing of them, and, just as they would argue against it for anyone else, feel compelled to do so for the group to which they identify? I do not mean to deride the impact of sexism, racism, homophobia and other oppressions on our collective soul, but to question the language that is used in trying to bring those truths to light, language which seems as a proud sister once cautioned to be "using the master's tools to dismantle the master’s house."

As a counselor and educator, working for conflict resolution, I have thusly endeavored in my own choice of words to avoid attaching traits to distinct groups, not so much to avoid offending, but to better speak truth to power, to illuminate that oppression entraps us all, and to encourage all of us to finds ways to escape that trap towards more justice. Our culture and social structure teaches those in privileged groups to talk about, think about, and act towards those "outside" in certain ways, and even those with good intentions will repeat unconsciously those patterns. How do we break the cycle, instead of merely reflecting it back on one another?

I am sure there are folk who will argue that we must "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." By the same token, I would argue that each of us are all afflicted to some degree, and enjoy some degree of comfort. As a gay person of color, I am daily afflicted by racism and homophobia; as a cisgender man, I am comforted by the privilege of my gender in relation to women and transfolk. Shall we sit and compare notes to see who is more oppressed than whom? Or shall we work together to remove those shackles, however long it takes?

Thank you, Carl.