The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You don't have to be...

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician, a significant contributor to Allied efforts to break German codes during WWII, an early innovator in computer science, and the originator of the Turing Test for evaluating artificial intelligence. He was also gay, and was arrested for this in 1952 (remember, it wasn't long back that being homosexual was forbidden by law in most western countries). After undergoing dubious treatments in lieu of prison time, he committed suicide in 1954.

Now, a group of scientists led by John Graham Cumming have successfully advocated for an official apology from the British government for their treatment of a man who was of tremendous important in both the war effort and the development of 20th century technology.

What's interesting to me about this is that, because he has taken on the cause of a man who was persecuted for his sexual orientation, many members of the British public have assumed that John Graham Cumming is gay. He isn't, he's just an honest man who sought to address and injustice.

It gets me thinking, though, of the rhetorical ruse used by many people who wish to discredit their opponents: "well, of course he/she/they would say that, they're a member/members of Despised Group X."

The success of this line is due not to its truth, but to its intuitive nature. Those who would benefit from a change in attitudes or policy would advocate for those changes, so it seems safe to assume that anyone who does advocate for it is doing so for that very reason. Also, if the group benefiting is unpopular for some reason, then those who use this argument can tap into existing wells of distrust and prejudice, making it even more effective.

Leaving aside the illogic of this (just because they might benefit from something doesn't automatically render their arguments incorrect), there is another huge problem with such arguments - very often the people advocating for change are in fact not members of the group that will directly benefit.

For myself, I am fully in support of gay rights, though I am not gay. The reason for my support is simple - I have yet to hear a good, rational reason for the denial of these rights, and the support for such denial comes directly from arbitrary and typically factually incorrect assumptions. In other words, real people are being hurt for absolutely no good reason, and as a decent person who has not turned off my empathy in favor of arbitrary supernatural notions, I believe that this must stop. I don't have to be gay to have a sense of justice.

I also believe that religious parents must be allowed to raise their children with religious indoctrination. Not because I agree with the indoctrination - anyone who has read this blog knows that I absolutely do not - but because the broader impact of prohibiting this aspect of religious parenting is to allow authorities a way to interfere with the family lives of all of us, not just those who I personally disagree with. So, I am in favor of the legality of something that I actually disagree with.

Likewise, I fully believe that marijuana, and at least a few other drugs, should be legalized. The reasons being that our laws are laughably inconsistent in our treatment of intoxicating substances, and prone to arbitrary (and frankly cruel) laws and penalties. If legality was based on the actual properties of a substance, I might be able to get behind such laws, but as is there are no real standards and this creates absurdities (marijuana is illegal, but alcohol isn't? We're worried about the addictive properties of opiates but not of nicotine?). However, I have never used an illegal drug, I have no interest in doing so, and I actually find most of them uninteresting if not distasteful. But, nonetheless, I can not honestly find fault with them without finding fault with legal drugs.

I am not alone. Members of the Libertarian Party, for example, typically advocate for the freedom to do things that they themselves have little interest in. Likewise, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, far from being an evil-atheist organization is headed by a Baptist Minister who recognizes the necessity for religious freedom. And there are many, many other examples that could be cited, but I think my point has been made. The rhetorical claim that someone will advocate a position only out of self-interest is wrong, and those who use it should be ashamed (though the fact that they are using it does seem to indicate no sense of shame on their part).

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