Wednesday, 8 July 2009

HSU Ethics Presentation

Here is a powerpoint presentation by Loren Cannon of Humboldt University, on the subject of Ethics, and those who don't fit into society's arbitrary categories.
The Story of Sandra Laing

* Born in Apartheid South Africa of White Parents.
* Was designated white at birth, but was reclassified as “coloured” just after being expelled from her all white elementary school
Which led to some interesting legal problems...
* “…If Sandra remains ‘Coloured’ does it mean she will have to be registered as a servant in order to live with us?” [Mr. Laing] added. “Or must she move away into a location? Will we be breaking the law if we take Sandra into a tearoom or a cinema, or take her on a train journey with us? And who would Sandra be allowed to marry?”
As well as some real Junk Science trying to coerce reality into fitting a socially constructed model:
These tests included measurements of the nose, nostrils, and cheekbones, and an expert analysis of hair texture. The latter often included the ‘pencil test.’ It was thought that a white person’s hair is not so curly to hold a pencil, whereas a coloured person’s hair could. There were gradations of skin color to be measured in various places of the body including the fingernails and the eyelids; earlobes were squeezed to determine their degree of softness. (It was thought that Black person’s earlobes were softer than others.) Individuals challenging their racial classification before the board would also be asked what they had for breakfast (it was thought only blacks would eat mealie or cornmeal porridge), how they slept on a bed, and what sport they enjoyed (blacks were thought to favor soccer while coloured favored rugby).
Of course such a ridiculous, not to say inhuman, situation could never happen again. Or could it? How about these tests, described in Brain, Child :
The tests--many still used today--strike Burke as Orwellian. In one, a child being tested is asked to draw the figure of a person. Girls who draw boys first, predominately, or in positions of power and strength, are suspect, as are boys who draw princesses or mommies. The Barlow Gender-Specific Motor Behavior test examines such things as how far from the back of a chair a seated child's buttocks are--farther is "masculine," closer is "feminine." All the precision of science was applied in developing these tests to measure such things as the angle between the wrist and the hand, how often a child touched his or her hands together in front of his or her body, and how far the hips swayed as the child walked across the room. Especially damning for boys was a lack of hand-eye coordination.
Any resemblance between the two situations is strictly coincidental of course.

I'm a Software Engineer, so I'm reminded of some of the problems I come across in trying to fit a complicated reality into a necessarily over-simplified model. Things which may seem Bizarre are OK, as long as they work. From Description Is Our Business Keynote Address at the VDM Conference on Formal Development Methods 1991:
What counts as a dog?

A cartoon from Punch, printed in 1869, expounds the essence of the solution to this last question at least. A railway passenger, intending to travel with a collection of pet animals, has enquired about the fares to be charged for her pets. The porter is explaining to her how the formalism of the railway company's fare rules is to be applied in this case.

"Station master say, Mum, as Cats is Dogs, and Rabbits is Dogs, and so's Parrots; but this 'ere Tortoise is an Insect, so there ain't no charge for it!"
Whether Parrots are counted as Dogs or not (solely for the purposes of rail travel) is one thing. It's when the absurdities are used to justify cruelty that we get real problems. We often get such issues when the practicalities get ignored in favour of some irrational ideal. When philosophical correctness is valued more highly than whether something works or not. For example, my UK passport says F for female. My UK Birth Certificate says "boy", so it's not even consistent in the same jurisdiction. Others in similar situations face a knotty tangle of inconsistent and often cruel and inhuman laws with equally ridiculous outcomes.

Getting back to the Cannon powerpoint presentation:
“Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Texas, is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Texas, and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.”
Trying to determine "race" based on softness or otherwise of earlobes makes exactly as much sense as trying to determine sex on the basis of chromosomes.
* Between the years of 1950 and 1966 there were 267,541 individuals who could not be adequately categorized by the apartheid system of racial categorization.
* Estimates for Transgender persons in US
o 97,142 – 301,140 persons.
* Estimates of those with intersex condition
o 150,570 – 200,760 persons
Actually, I'd put the latter figure much higher: from 300,000 to 5 million, depending on the exact definition, and whether obviously symptomatic or not. But the principle's correct.

When faced with a reality that doesn't match the model, the key is to be kind. Not to allow a philosophical ideal to get in the way of common human decency.


Hazumu Osaragi said...


I've suspected for quite a while that there are those in society who don't wish to be kind, or rather wish to have a designated group of people which it is okay to be unkind to.

When we were kids on the playground, we learned that there were groups that were off-limits to aggression.

Boys couldn't hit 50% of the playground inhabitants 'because they're girls' (unless the girls' behaviour fell into some category in which the aggressor could claim "She MADE me hit her!")

Also, kids wearing glasses could not be hit, prompting the aggressor's request, "Take off your glasses!"

Teachers would not let the developmentally disabled be hit, no matter how nasty the DDs behaviour. (There was a DD classmate who figured that out and used it to his advantage, starting fights and then getting his opponents in trouble with the teachers.)

But there were some classifications that were unprotected -- male-bodied kids who presented feminine behaviour being one we are all too aware of.

I have this hunch that aggressors in society are, at some deep, inchoate level, worried about the loss of a group they could formerly aggress at will to protected status.

And then they'd have to suffer 'being mouthed off to' without any (easy, condoned) recourse -- just like they have to suffer the smart-mouthings (and mere existence, in some cases,) of epileptics. And glasses-wearers. And girls...


Emelye Waldherr said...

Kindness matters to too few people if it means they might have to admit they aren't "right." We know that there are many who will defend their beliefs (the more irrational the belief the more this is true, it seems) to their very deaths, even knowing that these beliefs cause very real harm to others. They justify it, of course, by blaming the others for their own misery. The blame allows them to remain "right."

When someone learns that being wrong will not threaten their survival, that changes. It's a difficult lesson, however, and one that is rarely applied.

Laserlight said...

Terminology quibble. Depending on what you define "irrational" to mean, an "irrational" belief may not be incorrect, just unprovable. Belief in reincarnation, for instance, or most religions, or for that matter, the value of being kind. Certainly there are plenty of people who feel that "being kind" only has value when applied to their family or other in-group; if you're the "pink monkey", you'd better be able to defend yourself. As my buddy Nick Machiavelli always says, "Before all else, be armed."

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