Fake News IV: The Role of the State

While there has been considerable speculation about the impact of fake news on the election, the recent incident at Comet Ping Pong Pizza shows that fake news can cause real harm. Since one duty of the state is to protect citizens from harm, this leads to the matter of the proper role of the state in regards to fake news.

While people typically base their beliefs about a policy on how they feel, such matters need to be approached based on the consistent application of a principle about what the state should or should not do. “The state should do what I want and not do what I do not want” is no more adequate as a principle of policy than it would be as a principle of law. As such, a proper principle is needed.

Starting with the assumption that the state has a responsibility to protect citizens from harm, it follows that a key part of the principle would be based on this responsibility. The challenge is sorting out whether the harms inflicted by fake news fall under this responsibility.

One reasonable way to approach this is to consider the significance of the harms. As a practical matter, the state cannot afford to expend its resources protecting citizens from all the minor harms. As such, the harms caused by fake news would need to be significant enough to cross this practical threshold. There are two clear points of dispute here. One is the threshold for state involvement in protecting citizens. The other is whether fake news meets that threshold.

As noted above, some claim the fake news impacted the election, perhaps causing Trump’s victory. The manipulation of voters through lies does seem like a significant harm to the citizens who were robbed of an honest decision. The easy counter to this is that politicians often win by lying and these lies are not regarded as falling under the compulsive power of the state. This could be objected to by saying that such lies should be forbidden, but this goes beyond the scope of this short essay.

The Comet Ping Pong Pizza incident does serve as single example of the harm fake news can do—a person who believes a fake story might decide to engage in criminal activity based on that fake news. The easy counter to this is that one incident, even if it is vivid, does not suffice to show that there is a threat of significant harm. It could be countered that even one incident is too many and that the state must step in to protect the citizens.

The response to this is that the incident does not seem serious enough to warrant general state action against fake news and there is the obvious concern about whether there will even be other incidents. The state should only use its coercive power to the degree the harms are significant and likely to occur.

The fact that this matter involves the freedom of expression also complicates things. If the state were to create the machinery to control fake news, this would set a precedent for the gradual expansion of this power. After all, the state tends to expand its powers rather than curtail them. It is easy enough to imagine the control of fake news expanding outward from factual untruths to include matters of ideology. While this slide is not guaranteed, such expansions of power into the realm of basic liberty need to be regarded with due concern. While I am worried about fake news, I do not think it is yet significant enough to justify using the coercive power of the state. There are some obvious exceptions, such as when fake news breaks existing laws (such as libel or slander laws).

But, suppose that the harms of fake news are significant enough to warrant the attention of the state even in the face of the freedom of expression. While this would be a step towards justifying the use of the coercive power of the state, there is still another point of consideration. This is the matter of whether citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to effectively address the problem. If citizens can adequately address the harms without the state using its coercive power, then it is preferable to have the state remain uninvolved. For example, a couple that is involved in an emotional disaster of a relationship can be suffering considerable harm, but that should be handled by the couple or other people whose help they request (if it does not escalate to actual violence).

Fake news, I contend, can be adequately handled by citizens and non-government organizations. Individuals can take some basic efforts to be more critical of the news, thus protecting themselves from the harms without the state getting involved. Fake news is not like a foreign invader or deadly disease that is beyond the power of the citizens to defend themselves—it is well within their power to do so, if only they would take a little effort to be informed and critical.

Non-government organizations can also counter fake news (and are already doing so).  For example, the real news companies and the fact checkers have been fighting fake news. Companies like Facebook and Google that enable the monetization of fake news can also do a great deal to combat it. While there are clearly concerns about such control of the news, policing of the news is something that the existing networks do. As such, expecting Facebook to accept some basic responsibility for what it profits from is not unreasonable and is already standard practice in traditional news media. This is not to say that concerns about the policies of media companies are irrelevant, just that the fake news does not really create a new situation—all media companies already have policies regarding the news.

In light of the above discussion, the state should not use its coercive power to control fake news. My position is contingent on the facts—should fake news prove to be a significant harm that citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to counter, then the state could be justified in stepping in.

 

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Fake News III: Pizzagate

While fake news is often bizarre, one of the stranger fake claims is that the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria was part of a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton. This fake story made the real news when Edgar M. Welch allegedly armed himself and went to the pizzeria to investigate the story. This  investigation led to gunfire, although no one was injured. Mr. Welch surrendered peacefully to the police after finding no evidence of the sex ring.

Given that the story had been debunked by the New York Times, Snopes, and the Washington Post, it might be wondered why someone would believe such a claim. Laying aside the debunking, it might also be wondered why anyone would believe such a seemingly absurd claim: for all her flaws, Hillary Clinton does not seem to be a person who would run a child sex ring.

Some might be tempted to dismiss people who believe fake news as fools or stupid, most likely while congratulating themselves on their own intellectual prowess. While there is no shortage of fools and everyone is stupid at least some of the time, the “people are stupid” explanation does not suffice. After all, intelligent people of all political stripes are fooled by fake news.

One reason why fake news of this sort convinces people is that it makes use of the influence of repetition. While people will tend to be skeptical of odd or implausible claims when they first encounter them, there is a psychological tendency to believe claims that are heard multiple times, especially from multiple sources. While the Nazis did not invent this technique, they did show its effectiveness as a rhetorical tool. The technique of repetition is used more benignly by teachers trying to get people to memorize things. Not surprisingly, politicians and pundits also use this method under the label of “talking points.”

This psychological tendency presumably has some value—when people are honest, things that are repeated and come from multiple sources would generally be true (or at least not deceits). The repetition method also exploits a standard method of reasoning: checking with multiple sources for confirmation. However, such confirmation requires using reliable sources that do not share the same agenda. Getting multiple fake news sites reporting the same fake story creates pseudo-confirmation which can create the illusion of plausibility. The defense against this is, of course, to have diverse sources of news and preferably at least some with very little ideological slant.  It is also useful to ask yourself this question: “although I have heard this many times, is there actual evidence it is true?”

Another reason fake news can be very convincing is that the fake news sites often engage in an active defense of their fake news. This includes using other fake sources to “confirm” their stories, attacks on the credibility of real news sources, and direct attacks on articles by real news sources that expose a fake news story. This defense creates the illusion that the fake news stories are real and that the real news stories are fake.

Some of this works through psychology: one might think that such a defense would only be mounted if there was truth there worthy of the effort. Some appeals to reason: if the real news story exposing fake news is systematically torn down step by step, this creates the illusion of a reasoned argument disproving the claim that the fake story is fake. Attempts to discredit the sources also misuses legitimate critical assessment methods—the fake news sites accuse the real sources of news of being biased, bought and so on. These are legitimate concerns when assessing a source; the problem is not the method but the fact that the claims about the real sources are also typically untrue.

Those who do not want to be duped can counter this fake news defense by the usual method of checking multiple, diverse and reliable sources. This is becoming increasingly difficult as fake news sites proliferate and grow more sophisticated.

A third reason that fake news can seem accurate is that it has supporters who use social media to defend the fake stories and attack the real news. Some of these people are honest—they believe they are saying true things. Others are aware the news is fake. Some even create fake identities to make themselves appear credible. For example, one defender of Pizzagate identified himself as “Representative Steven Smith of the 15th District of Georgia.” Georgia has only 14 districts; but most people would not know this. All these supporters create the illusion of credibility, making it difficult for people to ferret out the truth. After all, most people expect other people to be honest and get basic facts right most of the time—that is a basic social agreement and a foundation of civilization. Fake news, among its other harms, is eroding this foundation.

The defense against this is to research the sources defending a news story. If the defenders are mostly fake themselves, this would indicate that the news story might be fake. However, fake defenders do not prove the story is fake and it is easy to imagine the tactic of using fake defenders to make people feel that the real news is fake. For example, a made up radical liberal source “defending” a story might be used to try to make conservatives feel that a real news story is fake.

A fourth reason that fake news can seem accurate is that the real news has been subject to sustained attacks, mostly from the political right in the United States. Republicans have made the claim that the media is liberally biased a stock talking point, which has no doubt influenced people. Trump took it even further, accusing the news of being terrible people and liars (ironically for reporting that his lies are lies). Given the sustained attack on news, it is no wonder that many people do not regard the real news as reliable. As such, the stories that debunk the fake news are typically rejected because they are the result of liberal bias. This does, of course, make use of a legitimate method of assessing sources: if a source is biased, then it loses credibility. The problem is that rather than being merely skeptical about the mainstream media, many people reject its claims uncritically because of the alleged bias. This is not a proper application of the method—the doubt needs to be proportional to the evidence of bias.

In regards to people believing in seemingly absurd claims, there are both good and bad reasons for this. One good reason is that there are enough cases of the seemingly absurd turning out to be true. In the case of Pizzagate, people hearing about it probably had stories about Jared Fogle and Bill Cosby in mind. They probably heard stories about cases of real sex rings. Give this background, the idea that Hillary Clinton was tied to a sex-ring might seem to have some plausibility. However, the use of such background information should also be tempered by other background information, such as information about how unlikely it is that Hillary Clinton was running sex-ring out of the basement of a pizza place.

The bad reason is that people have a psychological tendency to believe what matches their ideology and existing opinions. So, people who already disliked Hillary Clinton would tend to find such stories appealing—they would feel true. Such psychological bias is hard to fight against; people take strong feelings as proof and often double down in the face of facts to the contrary. Defending against bias is probably the hardest method—it requires training and practice in being aware of how feelings are impacting the assessment of a claim and developing the ability to go into a “neutral” assessment mode.

Given that fake news is spreading like a plague, it is wise to develop defenses against it to avoid being duped, perhaps to the point where one is led to commit crimes because of lies.

 

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Fake News II: Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

While a thorough analysis of the impact of fake news on the 2016 election will be an ongoing project, there are excellent reasons to believe that it was a real factor. For example, BuzzFeed’s analysis showed how the fake news stories outperformed real news stories. When confronted with the claim that fake news on Facebook influenced the election results, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction was denial. However, as critics have pointed out, to say that Facebook does not influence people is to tell advertisers that they are wasting their money on Facebook. While this might be the case, Zuckerberg cannot consistently pitch the influence of Facebook to his customers while denying that it has such influence. One of these claims must be mistaken.

While my own observations do not constitute a proper study, I routinely observed people on Facebook treating fake news stories as if they were real.  In some cases, these errors were humorous—people had mistaken satire for real news. In other cases, they were not so funny—people were enraged over things that had not actually happened. There is also the fact that public figures (such as Trump) and pundits repeat fake news stories acquired from Facebook (and other sources). As such, fake news does seem to be a real problem on Facebook.

It could be claimed that the surge in fake news is an anomaly, that it was the result of a combination of factors that will probably not align again. One factor would be having presidential candidates so disliked that people would find even fake stories plausible. A second factor would be Trump’s relentless spewing of untruths, thus creating an environment friendly to fake news. A third factor would be Trump ratcheting the Republican attack on the mainstream news media to 11, thus pushing people towards other news sources and undercutting fact checking and critical reporting. Provided that these and similar factors change, fake news could decline significantly.

While this could happen, it seems that some of these factors will continue. As president elect, Trump has continued to spew untruths and the attacks on the mainstream media continue. The ecosystem thus seems ideal for fake news to thrive. As such, it seems likely that while the fake news will decline to some degree, it will remain a factor as long as it is influential or profitable. This is where Facebook comes in—while fake news sites can always have their own web pages, Facebook serves up the fake news to a huge customer base and thus drives the click based profits (thanks to things like Google advertising) of these sites. This powerful role of Facebook gives rise to moral concerns about its accountability.

One obvious approach is to claim that Facebook has no moral responsibility in regards to policing fake news. This could be argued by drawing an analogy between Facebook and a delivery company like UPS or Fedex. Rather than delivering physical packages, Facebook is delivering news.

A delivery company is responsible for delivering a package intact and within the specified time. However, it does not have a moral responsibility regarding what is shipped. Suppose, for example, that businesses arose selling “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” and purport that it is real pudding. But, in fact, it is a blend of sugar and shit that looks like pudding. Some customers fail to recognize it for what it is and happily shovel it into their pudding port; probably getting sick—but still loving the taste. If the delivery company were criticized for delivering the pudding, they would be right to say that they are not responsible for the “pudding”—they merely deliver packages. The responsibility lies with the “pudding” companies. And the customers for not recognizing sugary shit as shit. If the analogy holds, then Facebook is just delivering fake news as the delivery company delivers “Macedonian Pudding” and is not morally responsible for the contents of the packages.

A possible counter to this is that once Facebook knows that a site is a fake news site, then they are morally responsible for continuing to deliver the fake news. Going with the delivery analogy, once the delivery company is aware that “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” is sugar and shit, they have a moral obligation to cease their business with those making this dangerous product. This could be countered by arguing that as long as the customer wants the package of “pudding”, then it is morally fine for the delivery company to provide it. However, this would seem to require that the customer knows they are getting sugar and shit—otherwise the delivery company is knowingly participating in a deceit and the distribution of a harmful product. This would seem to be morally wrong.

Another approach to countering this argument is to use a different analogy: Facebook is not like a delivery company, it is like a restaurant selling the product. Going back to the “pudding”, a restaurant that knowingly purchased and served sugar and shit as pudding would be morally accountable for this misdeed. By this analogy, once Facebook knows they are profiting from selling fake news, they are morally accountable and in the wrong if they fail to address this. A possible response to this is to contend that Facebook is not selling the fake news; but this leads to the question of what Facebook is doing.

One way to look at Facebook is that the fake news is just like advertising in any other media. In this case, the company selling the ad is not morally accountable for the content of the ad of the quality of the product. Going back to the “pudding”, if one company is selling sugar and shit as pudding, the company running the advertising is not morally responsible. The easy counter to this is that once the company selling the ads knows that the “pudding” is sugar and shit, then they would be morally wrong to be a party to this harmful deception. Likewise for Facebook treating fake news as advertising.

Another way to look at Facebook is that it is serving as a news media company and is in the business of providing the news.  Going back to the pudding analogy, Facebook would be in the pudding business as a re-seller, selling sugar and shit as real pudding. This would seem to obligate Facebook to ensure that the news it provides is accurate and to not distribute news it knows it is fake. This assumes a view of journalistic ethics that is obviously not universally accepted, but a commitment to the truth seems to be a necessary bedrock of any worthwhile media ethics.

 

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Fake News I: Critical Thinking

While fake news presumably dates to the origin of news, the 2016 United States presidential election saw a huge surge in the volume of fakery. While some of it arose from partisan maneuvering, the majority seems to have been driven by the profit motive: fake news drives revenue generating clicks. While the motive might have been money, there has been serious speculation that the fake news (especially on Facebook) helped Trump win the election. While those who backed Trump would presumably be pleased by this outcome, the plague of fake news should be worrisome to anyone who values the truth, regardless of their political ideology. After all, fake news could presumably be just as helpful to the left as the right. In any case, fake news is clearly damaging in regards to the truth and is worth combating.

While it is often claimed that most people simply do not have the time to be informed about the world, if someone has the time to read fake news, then they have the time to think critically about it. This critical thinking should, of course, go beyond just fake news and should extend to all important information. Fortunately, thinking critically about claims is surprisingly quick and easy.

I have been teaching students to be critical about claims in general and the news in particular for over two decades and what follows is based on what I teach in class (drawn, in part, from the text I have used: Critical Thinking by Moore & Parker). I would recommend this book for general readers if it was not, like most text books, absurdly expensive. But, to the critical thinking process that should be applied to claims in general and news in particular.

While many claims are not worth the bother of checking, others are important enough to subject to scrutiny. When applying critical thinking to a claim, the goal is to determine whether you should rationally accept it as true, reject it as false or suspend judgment. There can be varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, so it is also worth considering how confident you should be in your judgment.

The first step in assessing a claim is to match it against your own observations, should you have relevant observations. While observations are not infallible, if a claim goes against what you have directly observed, then that is a strike against accepting the claim. This standard is not commonly used in the case of fake news because most of what is reported is not something that would be observed directly by the typical person. That said, sometimes this does apply. For example, if a news story claims that a major riot occurred near where you live and you saw nothing happen there, then that would indicate the story is in error.

The second step in assessment is to judge the claim against your background information—this is all your relevant beliefs and knowledge about the matter. The application is fairly straightforward and just involves asking yourself if the claim seems plausible when you give it some thought. For example, if a news story claims that Hillary Clinton plans to start an armed rebellion against Trump, then this should be regarded as wildly implausible by anyone with true background knowledge about Clinton.

There are, of course, some obvious problems with using background information as a test. One is that the quality of background information varies greatly and depends on the person’s experiences and education (this is not limited to formal education). Roughly put, being a good judge of claims requires already having a great deal of accurate information stored away in your mind. All of us have many beliefs that are false; the problem is that we generally do not know they are false. If we did, then we would no longer believe them.

A second point of concern is the influence of wishful thinking. This is a fallacy (an error in reasoning) in which a person concludes that a claim is true because they really want it to be true. Alternatively, a person can fallaciously infer that a claim is false because they really want it to be false. This is poor reasoning because wanting a claim to be true or false does not make it so. Psychologically, people tend to disengage their critical faculties when they really want something to be true (or false).

For example, someone who really hates Hillary Clinton would want to believe that negative claims about her are true, so they would tend to accept them. As another example, someone who really likes Hillary would want positive claims about her to be true, so they would accept them.

The defense against wishful thinking of this sort is to be on guard against yourself by being aware of your biases. If you really want something to be true (or false), ask yourself if you have any reason to believe it beyond just wanting it to be true (or false). For example, I am not a fan of Trump and thus would tend to want negative claims about him to be true—so I must consider that when assessing such claims.

A third point of concern is related to wishful thinking and could be called the fallacy of fearful/hateful thinking. While people tend to believe what they want to believe, they also tend to believe claims that match their hates and fears. That is, they believe what they do not want to believe. Fear and hate impact people in a very predictable way: they make people stupid when it comes to assessing claims.

For example, there are Americans who hate the idea of Sharia law and are terrified it will be imposed on America. While they would presumably wish that claims about it being imposed were false, they will often believe such claims because it corresponds with their hate and fear. Ironically, their great desire that it not be true motivates them to feel that it is true, even when it is not.

The defense against this is to consider how a claim makes you feel—if you feel hatred or fear, you should be very careful in assessing the claim. If a news claims seems tailored to push your buttons, then there is a decent chance that it is fake news. This is not to say that it must be fake, just that it is important to be extra vigilant about claims that are extremely appealing to your hates and fears. This is a very hard thing to do since it is easy to be ruled by hate and fear.

The third step involves assessing the source of the claim. While the source of a claim does not guarantee the claim is true (or false), reliable sources are obviously more likely to get things right than unreliable sources. When you believe a claim based on its source, you are making use of what philosophers call an argument from authority. The gist of this reasoning is that the claim being made is true because the source is a legitimate authority on the matter. While people tend to regard as credible sources those that match their own ideology, the rational way to assess a source involves considering the following factors.

First, the source needs to have sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question. One rather obvious challenge here is being able to judge that the specific author or news source has sufficient expertise. In general, the question is whether a person (or the organization in general) has the relevant qualities and these are assessed in terms of such factors as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments and positions. In general, professional news agencies have such experts. While people tend to dismiss Fox, CNN, and MSNBC depending on their own ideology, their actual news (as opposed to editorial pieces or opinion masquerading as news) tends to be factually accurate. Unknown sources tend to be lacking in these areas. It is also wise to be on guard against fake news sources pretending to be real sources—this can be countered by checking the site address against the official and confirmed address of professional news sources.

Second, the claim made needs to be within the source’s area(s) of expertise. While a person might be very capable in one area, expertise is not universal. So, for example, a businessman talking about her business would be an expert, but if she is regarded as a reliable source for political or scientific claims, then that would be an error (unless she also has expertise in these areas).

Third, the claim should be consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field. In the case of news, using this standard involves checking multiple reliable sources to confirm the claim. While people tend to pick their news sources based on their ideology, the basic facts of major and significant events would be quickly picked up and reported by all professional news agencies such as Fox News, NPR and CNN. If a seemingly major story does not show up in the professional news sources, there is a good chance it is fake news.

It is also useful to check with the fact checkers and debunkers, such as Politifact and Snopes. While no source is perfect, they do a good job assessing claims—something that does not make liars very happy. If a claim is flagged by these reliable sources, there is an excellent chance it is not true.

Fourth, the source must not be significantly biased. Bias can include such factors as having a very strong ideological slant (such as MSNBC and Fox News) as well as having a financial interest in the matter. Fake news is typically crafted to feed into ideological biases, so if an alleged news story seems to fit an ideology too well, there is a decent chance that it is fake. However, this is not a guarantee that a story is fake—reality sometimes matches ideological slants. This sort of bias can lead real news sources to present fake news; you should be critical even of professional sources-especially when they match your ideology.

While these methods are not flawless, they are very useful in sorting out the fake from the true. While I have said this before, it is worth repeating that we should be even more critical of news that matches our views—this is because when we want to believe, we tend to do so too easily.

 

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Philosophy & My Old Husky V: Goodbye Good Girl

isis-2016Isis, my husky, joined the pack in 2004. She was a year old and her soul was filled with a wildness and a love of destruction. I channeled that wildness into running and that (mostly) took care of her love of destruction as well. We ran together for years, until she could no longer run. Then we walked on our adventures—a stately saunter rather than a mad dash. One day in March, 2016 she collapsed and I thought that was the end. But steroids granted her a reprieve and our adventures continued. But, time ends all things.

As the months went by, she hit a plateau of recovery and then began a decline. She could not walk as far, she had to be supported while doing her business and she was sometimes confused about where she was. This worsened as November progressed—she required ever more support, walked ever less distance, and had trouble distinguishing between the outside and inside of the house. Since she was my dog and I was her human, I accepted all this. I stocked up on carpet cleaner and ran the steam cleaner regularly. Since she could not handle the smooth floors, I put down yoga mats for her—I had tried carpet runners, but they drink up the urine. Yoga mats can be hosed off, dried and put back in place.

Though she suffered a physical and mental decline, her will remained unimpaired. When she decided that she wanted to walk someplace, she would struggle with her weakened legs and force her way through vegetation and up hills. If she could not make it up a hill on her own, she would turn her head to look at me and would not move again until I supported her and allowed her to power up that hill. She had the spirit of a true runner; never giving up in the face of a challenge. In the face of time, however, will and love are not enough.

She suffered a sudden decline and completely lost her ability to walk. I would carry her to do her business, but even with my support she had great difficulty. On November 22, things got even worse and neither of us slept that night. I wanted her to make it through Thanksgiving (she loved turkey), but on the morning of the 23rd I saw the pain in her eyes and knew what had to be done. Courtney, a friend of mine from Maine, had sent us some Christmas dog bones and a dog toy. I unwrapped those and hand fed her, placing the toy between her paws. After we had our early Christmas, I carried her to the truck and drove to Oakwood Animal Hospital. While no one really knows what is in the heart of another, I could tell that she had absolute trust in me as I carried her into the office. She knew that I would, as I have always done, do the right thing for her.

Her regular vet was on duty and, after we talked, Isis was put on an IV. As the vet, vet tech and I comforted her and cried, she passed away gently and peacefully. This was the hardest decision of my life, choosing the death of my friend.

Since I teach ethics, I have thought a great deal about this sort of decision. But, the theoretical context of the classroom is rather different from the harsh reality of deciding whether your friend should keep living. While some doubt the use of philosophy, thinking about this matter proved to be very helpful and even comforting in making the decision.

While people are said to own dogs, I never saw our relationship as matter of owning property. Rather, we had reached a mutual understanding and formed a team. Huskies are supervillains when it comes to escape, so they can (and do) end their relationships with humans when they wish. By accepting her, I took on many moral responsibilities. Some of these are analogous to those to my human friends, others are more analogous to those of a parent to a child. These included the usual obligations of keeping her healthy and safe; but they also included the obligation to ensure her wellbeing and happiness.

When she collapsed in March, I had to make the decision whether to try treatment or let her go then. While she was suffering, the medical evidence indicated that she had a chance to recover. Knowing her stubborn will, I believed that she would want to take that chance and power through the pain. I could not be certain of what she wanted; but I went with what I thought she would want. It turned out it was the right call; she recovered and returned to enjoying life.

As I got to know her, I learned that she had a look that meant “I need you to do something for me.” In the past, this usually meant playing with her, getting her a snack or letting her into the backyard to menace the lesser creatures (to a husky, almost all other creatures are lesser).  These things made her happy, and I was pleased to oblige—after all, I had a moral responsibility to her wellbeing because she was my dog and I was her human.

When she had declined to her worst, she stared at me intently with that look. Since she could not talk, she could not say what she wanted. She, I believed, wanted an end to her pain. I might just think that to feel better about my decision—perhaps she was doing nothing of the sort. But, I knew that to keep her alive and suffering would not be to act for her wellbeing or happiness. Medicine is quite good these days, I probably could have kept her going a few months more with painkillers and other medications. But that would be a dull and drugged life, not a life suitable for a soul so full of wildness and a love of destruction. I wanted her to end as my beloved wolf and not dissipate to nothing in a sea of pharmaceuticals. So, I said goodbye to my good girl.

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White Nationalism II: The BLM Argument

While there are some varieties of white nationalism, it is an ideology committed to the creation and preservation of a nation comprised entirely of whites (or at least white dominance of the nation). While some white nationalists honestly embrace their racism, others prefer to present white nationalism in a more pleasant guise. Some advance arguments to show that it should be accepted as both good and desirable.

While it is not limited to using Black Lives Matter, I will dub one of the justifying arguments “the BLM argument” and use BLM as my main example when discussing it. The argument typically begins by pointing out the existence of “race-based” identity groups such as Black Lives Matters, Hispanic groups, black student unions and so on. The next step is to note that these groups are accepted, even lauded, by many (especially on the left). From this it is concluded that, by analogy, white identity groups should also be accepted, if not lauded.

If analogies are not one’s cup of tea, white identity groups can be defended on the grounds of consistency: if the existence of non-white identity groups is accepted, then consistency requires accepting white identity groups.

From a logical standpoint, both arguments have considerable appeal because they involve effective methods of argumentation. However, consistency and analogical arguments can both be challenged and this challenge can often be made on the same basis, that of the principle of relevant difference.

The principle of relevant difference is the principle that similar things must be treated in similar ways, but that relevantly different things can be justly treated differently. For example, if someone claimed that it was fine to pay a woman less than a man simply because she is a woman, then that would violate the principle of relevant difference. If it was claimed that a male worker deserves more pay because he differs from a female co-worker in that he works more hours, then this would fit the principle. In the case of the analogical argument, a strong enough relevant difference would break the analogy and show that the conclusion is not adequately supported. In the case of the consistency argument, showing a strong enough relevant difference would justify treating two things differently because sufficiently different things can justly be treated differently.

A white nationalist deploying the BLM argument would contend that although there are obviously differences between BLM and a white nationalist group, these differences are not sufficient to allow condemnation of white nationalism while accepting BLM. Put bluntly, it could be said that if black groups are morally okay, then so are white groups. On the face of it, this generally reasoning is solid enough. It would be unprincipled to regard non-white groups as acceptable while condemning white groups merely because they are white groups.

One way to respond to this would be to argue that all such groups are unacceptable; perhaps because they would be fundamentally racist in character. This would be a consistent approach and has some appeal—accepting these sorts of identity groups is to accept race identification as valid; which seems problematic.

Another approach is to make relevant difference arguments that establish strong enough differences between white nationalist groups and groups like BLM and Hispanic student unions. There are many options and I will consider a few.

One option is to argue that such an identity group is justified when the members of that group are identified by others and targeted on this basis for mistreatment or oppression. In this case, the group identity would be imposed and acknowledged as a matter of organizing a defense against the mistreatment or oppression.  BLM members can make the argument that black people are identified as blacks and mistreated on this basis by some police. As such, BLM is justified as a defensive measure against this mistreatment. Roughly put, blacks can justly form black groups because they are targeted as blacks. The same reasoning would apply to other groups aimed at protection from mistreatment aimed at specific identity groups.

Consistency would require extending this same principle to whites. As such, if whites are being targeted for mistreatment or oppression because they are white, then the formation of defensive white identity groups would be warranted. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the argument that white groups often advance: they allege they are victims and are acting to protect themselves.

While white groups have a vast and varied list of the crimes they believe are being committed against them as whites, they are fundamentally mistaken. While crimes are committed against white people and there are white folks who are suffering from things like unemployment and opioid addiction, these are not occurring because they are white. They are occurring for other reasons. While it is true that the special status of whites is being challenged, and has eroded over the years, the loss of such unfair and unwarranted advantages in favor of greater fairness is not a moral crime. The belief in white victimhood is the result of willful delusion and intentional deceit and is not grounded in facts.

This line of argument does, however, remain open to empirical research. If it can be shown with objective evidence that whites are subject to general mistreatment and oppression because they are whites, then defensive white groups would be justified on these grounds. While I am aware that people can find various videos on YouTube purporting to establish the abuse of whites as whites, one must distinguish between anecdotal evidence and adequate statistical support. For example, if fatal DWW (Driving While White) incidents started occurring at a statistically significant level, then it would be worth considering the creation of WLM (White Lives Matter).

A second option is to consider the actions and goals of the group in question. If a group has a morally acceptable goal and acts in ethical ways, then the group would be morally fine. However, a group that had morally problematic goals or acted in immoral ways would be relevantly different from groups with better goals and methods.

While BLM does have its detractors, its avowed goal is “is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” This seems to be a morally commendable goal. While BLM is often condemned by the likes of Fox News for their protests, the organization certainly seems to be operating in accord with a non-violent approach to protesting. As such, its general methodology is at least morally acceptable. This is, of course, subject to debate and empirical investigation. If, for example, it was found that BLM were organizing the murder of police officers, then that would make the group morally wrong.

White groups could, of course, have morally acceptable goals and methods. For example, if a white group was created in response to the surge in white people dying from opioids and they focused on supporting treatment of white addicts, then such a group would seem to be morally fine.

However, there are obviously white groups that have evil goals and use immoral methods. White supremacy groups, such as the KKK, are the usual examples of such groups. The white nationals also seem to be an immoral group. The goal of white dominance and the goal of establishing a white nation are both to be condemned, albeit not always for the same reasons. While the newly “mainstreamed” white nationalists are not explicitly engaged in violence, they do make use of a systematic campaign of untruths and encourage hatred. The connections of some to Nazi ideology is also extremely problematic.

In closing, while it is certainly possible to have white identity groups that are morally acceptable, the white nationalists are not among them. It is also worth noting that all identity groups might be morally problematic.

 

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White Nationalism I: The Family Argument

While more mainstream supporters of Trump insist he is not a racist, white nationalists and their ilk have rejoiced in his victory. Regardless of what Trump believes, his rhetoric has carved out a safe space for what has been dubbed the “alt-right.” While this term is both broad and, perhaps, misused, it does serve to bundle together various groups that are perceived as racist and even neo-Nazi. I will not endeavor to break down the fine distinctions between these various groups, but will focus on the white nationalists. As the name indicates, they have an ideological commitment to creating a nation consisting solely of whites.

Since Nazis and other hate groups have advocated the same goal, it seems reasonable to regard white nationalists as racists and as a group based on hate. Not surprisingly, they often claim they are not racists and are not a hate group. They even advance some arguments in support of these claims. In this essay, I will consider the family argument.

While specific presentations of the family argument take various forms, the gist of the reasoning is that it is natural for people to prefer the company of their family members and that it is right to give precedence to one’s family. In their family analogy, the white nationalists take whites to be a family. This, as they see it, warrants having a white nation or, failing that, giving precedence to whites. Some white nationalists extend the family argument to other races, arguing that each race should act in the same way. Ideally, each race would have its own nation. This helps explain the apparently inconsistent claims advanced about Jews by white nationalists: they want the Jews to leave America for the whites, but they support Israel becoming a pure Jewish state.

The family analogy gains much of its appeal from human psychology: as a matter of fact, humans do generally prefer and give precedence to their own family members over others. This approach is also commonly used in solving ethical problems, such as who to save and how to distribute resources. For example, if a mother is given the choice between saving a stranger or her daughter from drowning, the intuitively right choice is her daughter. While the family approach has considerable appeal, there are some obvious concerns. One is whether whites constitute a family. Another is the extent to which being family morally warrants preference and precedence.

In the biological sense, a human family is made up of humans who are closely genetically related to each other. This is something that can be objectively tested; such as with a paternity test. In this regard, family identity is a matter of the genetic similarity (and origin) of the members. There is also the matter of distinguishing the family members from outsiders—this is done by focusing on the differences between the family members and others.

To argue that whites are a biological family requires establishing that whites are genetically related to each other. This is easy enough to do; all humans are genetically related because they are humans. But, the white nationalist wants whites to be an exclusive family. One obvious problem with this, especially in the United States, is that most whites are closely related to non-whites. To use one well known example, Thomas Jefferson has many descendants and they thus constitute a family. However, many of them are supposed to descended from him and Sally Hemings—thus would presumably not be regarded as white by white nationalists. While one might quibble about whether Heming and Jefferson had children, it is well-established that the genetic background of most “white” Americans will not be “pure white.” There is also the fact that the genetic background of many “non-white” Americans will include white ancestors. This will mean that the “white family” will include people who the white nationalists would regard as non-white. For example, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are related and are thus family. As such, the biological family analogy breaks down in terms of the white nationalists’ approach.

A possible counter to this is to focus on specific white genes and argue that these are what define being white. One obvious point of focus is skin color; white skin is apparently the result of a single letter DNA mutation in the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome. As such, white nationalists could rally around this one letter and use that to define what it is to be white. This would certainly seem like an absurd foundation for preference and precedence; but perhaps the absurd would suffice for the white nationalists.

While families are often defined biologically, there are also family members that are adopted and, of course, people marry into families they are (hopefully not) closely related to. As such, a family need not be genetically defined. This provides an alternative way to try to make whites into a family.

White nationalists could argue that the white family is not defined by white genes, but by a set of values or interests that constitute being white. That is, being white is a social construct analogous to a political party, religion, or club. While there is the obvious challenge of working out what would be the values and interests one must have to be part of the white club, this could in theory be worked out. After all, the white nationalists have set up their own little white club and they presumably have ways of deciding who gets to join. The obvious problem with this approach is that it does not seem to capture what the white nationalists want in terms of being white. After all, anyone could have those values and interests and thus be white. Also, there are many people who have white skin who do not share the interests or values of the white nationalists and would thus not be white on this approach.

The white nationalists could always go with the traditional approach of regarding as white anyone who looks white. Potential whites would presumably need to provide some proof that they do not have any non-whiteness in their background—there is, after all, a long history of people passing as whites in the United States. Since white nationalists tend to regard Jews as non-white, they would also need to sort that out in some way; after all, Jews can have very white skin. Presumably they can look to the Nazis for how to work this all out. There is also the concern about using technology to allow people to appear white, such as genetic modification. Presumably white nationalists would really need to worry about such things. After all, they would not want non-whites in their white paradise.

One obvious problem with this approach is that it is like accepting as family anyone who looks like you in some specified way. For example, embracing someone as a relative because they have a similar nose. This seems like a rather odd way to set a foundation for preference and precedence, but white nationalists presumably think in odd ways.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be no foundation for regarding whites as a family. As such, the white nationalist family analogy fails. As should be expected. I will close by saying that I am horrified by having to engage in arguments about white nationalism; such a morally abhorrent view should be recognized as such by anyone familiar with history and moral decency.

 

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Why did the Democrats Lose?

While asserting “Trump won” or “Hillary lost” might seem to say the same thing, they actual differ in meaningful ways. The view that Trump won is the stance that he achieved victory by overcoming Hillary, presumably by doing the right things. To use a running analogy, this would be like a runner beating another by being able to outkick her at the end.

The view that Hillary lost is the perception that she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by doing the wrong thing and thus she lost. Using a running analogy, this would be like a runner showing off and tripping because he was not paying attention, thus losing the race that he would have otherwise won.

A pragmatic person might say that there is no real difference between winning by winning and winning by the other person losing—the winner still wins. While this pragmatic approach does have appeal, the difference does matter when it comes to sorting out what went wrong, what went right and what needs to be done next time. It could also be contended that both approaches are right and wrong: Trump did win by winning but also won by Hillary losing.

Regardless of which view is taken, there is the assumption that there are broad reasons for the results that can be determined and used in planning the next race. While this assumption is probably correct, it is worth considering that elections might be analogous to fads, such as the hottest toy for Christmas or the latest fashion. Trying to find the cause and reproduce it is likely to be a fool’s errand; if this could be done then producing the next fad would be a science rather than a matter of luck. It is also well worth considering that there are a vast number of contributing factors that influenced various voters and that efforts to provide a broad causal explanation must fail because there is no broad causal explanation—just an abundance of individual explanations. Having made these points, I will sweep them aside and speculate about some likely broad causes.

Pundits and experts have already put forth various hypotheses as to why Hillary lost and Trump won. One consistent narrative is that many voters were looking for someone from outside Washington to bring about change. This narrative is supported by the claim that some who had voted for Obama last time switched to Trump this time—these could be regarded as change voters. Another consistent narrative is that Hillary could never stake the email server vampire in the heart; it kept rising from the grave to drain the blood from her campaign.

There are also explanations that rest on the assumption that voters are bad fact-checkers, poor at reasoning and do not operate based on consistent application of principles for decision making. For example, Hillary was condemned as crooked and dishonest by people who praised Trump for telling it like it is, despite the objective fact that Trump was relentless in his untruths and is scheduled to go on trial for Trump University. As another example, Hillary was also attacked for being an elite insider by people who praised Trump for being a man who cares about the working class, despite Trump being part of the elite economic class who has routinely been sued for not sticking to contracts. On this view, Trump won because he is a better deceiver than Hillary. So, the lesson for the next time would be to run the best deceiver that can be found.

There are also explanations that Trump won because of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Even members of his own party condemned many of his remarks as racist and sexist. He has also won the hearts of the Klan, white nationalists and American Nazis. After the 2012 Republican defeat, some of the analysis indicated that the Republicans would need to either expand their appeal to minorities or double down on getting the white vote. Some speculated it would not be possible to win without a broader appeal. Trump, by accident or design, embraced doubling down on the white vote and won. To be fair, he also did surprisingly well beyond the white vote. The question is, of course, how long that strategy will work—the United States is on course to becoming a majority minority nation. I suspect that active voter suppression of minorities and inspired gerrymandering can extend white dominance, but eventually these methods will be overcome by demographic change. That said, white voters will be a critical demographic for a long time and failing to capture the white vote would not bode well for a candidate. There are, of course, alternative explanations to why Trump did so well with white voters (or why Hillary did so poorly).

While some find the racism and xenophobia hypothesis appealing, it can be argued that many white voters were not motivated by race. Pundits like to point out that Obama won many of the same voters that went over to Trump. While it might be naïve of me, I certainly believe most of my fellow Americans are not racist xenophobes, additional explanations are needed.

One reasonable explanation is that the Democrats have made matters of race and gender, such as police treatment of minorities and same-sex marriage, flagship issues. This is not to say that the Democrats have completely ignored issues that are especially important to white voters, just that there is a public perception that the party elites are more interested in bathroom access for transgender people than with the economic woes of white workers or the drug epidemic impacting whites.

It could be objected that people who take the above view are misguided: whatever problems whites have (especially straight white males) pale in comparison to the woes of non-whites (especially non-straight non-whites). Hence, paying special attention to these groups is justified. In accord with this view, whites, males and straight people are often told to “check their privilege” and called to task for daring to complain about their lot.

This reply does have some appeal. In general, white people are better off than non-white people, men are generally better off than women, and straight folks typically face less woes than non-straight folks. However, there two main concerns here. The first is that while it is true that those in the advantage groups (white, straight, male) do generally have things better, they still face very real problems. As citizens, they have every right to expect these real problems to be taken seriously and addressed. There is also the purely practical matter—it would be irrational for voters to vote for candidates who they think will not act to address their problems.

To use an analogy in medicine, a person with a broken arm could stand in for the problems of white people while a person with multiple serious injuries could stand in for the disadvantaged groups. While it is true that the person with the serious injuries would take precedence under triage and merit more attention, it would be wrong to dismiss the person with the broken arm and fail to give the injury due attention.

It could be objected that the analogy is not accurate and that a better one would be to replace the person with the broken arm with a hypochondriac who thinks he is suffering terribly, but is not really suffering at all. Moving away from the analogy, the idea would be that the advantaged groups are complaining about a loss of unjust advantages and wailing over imagined harms; they are complaining about nothing.

The reasonable reply is that this is true is some cases—many of the most vehement complaints are about the “cruel injustices” of not being able to discriminate or retain unfair advantages. However, even those in the advantaged groups face real problems such as unemployment, drug abuse, depression and so on. As such, perhaps a new analogy is in order involving the person with the broken arm standing in for those with real problems and the hypochondriac standing in for those whining about losing their unfair advantages and license to discriminate.

The second overall concern here is that telling people to “check their privilege” and attacking them in other ways can do more harm than good. For example, such attacks can turn off potential allies. While it is certainly legitimate to call out people who fail to recognize their privilege and to criticize people for discriminating, it is wise to consider the context and consequences of such approaches.  I will use an anecdote to illustrate the problem.

When I was in graduate school, I was living on my meager TA stipend and surviving on a diet of ramen noodles and rice puff cereal. I also got good at sewing my clothes to make them last longer. I was on my own financially, which is something I accepted as part of being an adult. I recall a friend and I being lectured about male privilege by two female students from upper-class families. I vaguely recall that one had been vacationing on the family yacht recently.

As a philosopher, I know that rejecting arguments about male privilege because very privileged women were making them to very unprivileged men would be to fall into an ad hominem fallacy (to reject a claim or argument because of irrelevant qualities of the person making the claim or argument). However, I certainly resented being lectured in this way. I did, of course, recognize that women in general face more obstacles and injustices than men generally face. However, this did nothing to address my worries about scraping together enough money to pay rent and buy food—there were many times I went hungry so I could pay my other bills. While I did go on to become a professor with a steady income, I remember those times and I am aware that there are many white males who are currently financially insecure. Lecturing them in male privilege or white privilege will not win them over. I suspect that some feel they are being lectured by the elite of the Democratic party and they resent this. Not because they are racist or sexist, but because such lectures are insulting and insensitive. While the Democrats should stay involved with the causes of their preferred disadvantaged groups, they also need to sincerely address the concerns of those in the advantaged groups—especially since many in these groups are extremely disadvantaged relative to the liberal elites.

 

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Religious Liberty

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

The authors of the United States Constitution were aware of the dangers presented by state infringement on religious liberty. The First Amendment provides two key protections for citizens. The first is the prohibition against making “law respecting the establishment of religion.” This protects citizens from the tyrannical imposition of a state-backed religion. The second is that congress is forbidden from making any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion.

I support both prohibitions. While many believe it would be a great if their religion was the one being established and imposed via the coercive power of the state, they would not want someone else’s religion imposed upon them. For example, Americans who want to use Christianity as foundation for laws express horror at the prospect of Sharia law being imposed on them. As always, it is wise to consider the actions of the state in accord with the spirit of the Golden Rule: impose laws on others as you would have them impose laws on you. So, just as I would not want to have Sharia law imposed on me, I should not impose faith based law on others.

While I am not particularly active in my exercise of religion (although I am religious in my exercise), I also support the freedom to exercise religion. On the extreme side, imposition on religious liberties are often the starting point of efforts to oppress religious minorities. This can, and has, lead to attempts at extermination. As such, it is wise to make it difficult to get the ball of hate rolling. On the less extreme side, the free exercise of religion is part of the broader moral rights of liberty of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of belief (which I also support). The American experience has shown that the acceptance of religious freedom, as imperfect as it may be, has helped maintain the stability of the United States. While we have many sects and religions, we do not have sectarian or religious violence at any significant level. While there are, of course, other factors that contribute to this, the freedom of religion has contributed significantly.

In recent years, there have been claims that religious liberty is under attack in the United States. As a holiday tradition, Fox News runs its yearly absurd stories about an alleged war on Christmas. While rampant, soulless consumerism has largely defeated Christmas, there is obviously no war against it. There are also claims that Christians are persecuted in the United States. To support this, people point to the legality of abortion, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. These are taken by some as attacks on religious liberty. In response, several states have endeavored to roll back these alleged intrusions on liberty, although this has resulted in backlash from the public in some cases.

To appeal to certain evangelical voters (who are not a monolithic bloc) Trump claimed that he would act in accord with their view of religious liberty. As they see it, Trump will enforce the second prohibition and protect citizens in their free exercise of the religion. However, critics can argue that this would violate the first prohibition by imposing religion on others via the law. Since I have argued these issues in other essays, I will not undertake this battle here. Rather, I will hold the supporters of religious liberty to their rhetoric about freedom. To be specific, let it be assumed that religious freedom is something they think should be protected by the state—even when doing so can impose harms on others. To illustrate the harms, consider the impact of not protecting LGBT people from discrimination based on faith as well as the impact of the anti-abortion efforts on women’s health and freedom of choice.

While Trump made a great rhetorical effort to win evangelical voters, he also engaged in sustained attacks on Muslims. He proposed a complete ban on allowing Muslims into the United States, he has called for a registry of Muslims, and has consistently used anti-Muslim rhetoric. While the ban and registry can be taken to violate the prohibition against interfering with the free exercise of religion, this can be countered. It could be argued that banning Muslims from the United States does not prevent them from freely exercising their religion in the United States—they would simply be excluded from coming here because of their religion. It could also be argued that a registry would also not be a violation of this prohibition. While some Muslims might elect to keep their faith private to avoid being put on that list, the registry itself would not forbid the free exercise of religion. Those willing to identify themselves to the government and have their information in a database conveniently available for hate-group hacking would be free to exercise their religion.

Not surprisingly, some Christians dedicated to their own religious liberty support the registry and ban. However, they should consider the matter not just in terms of their own perceived self-interest, but in terms of their professed support for religious liberty as a principle. They should consider reversing the situation: what would be their view of a country that banned Christians and had a registry of Christians? They would presumably be rather critical of such a country and would most likely consider those acts persecution. This reflection should help suggest what is wrong with the ban and registry.

The principle of religious liberty would seem to prohibit the registry and ban—they seem to be clear impositions on the freedom of religion, broadly construed. This can be countered by defining religious freedom more narrowly—limiting it to, for example, the freedom to worship within a religious edifice. This narrow interpretation would, however, preclude using the religious liberty argument in regards to such matters as abortion, contraception and LGBT rights.

Another possible counter is based on the fact that rights do have limits. One basis for limiting rights is the principle of harm: liberty can be restricted to protect others from harm. Using the stock example, the freedom of expression does not grant the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. In the case of the Muslim registry and ban, it can be argued that the religious liberty of Muslims can be limited to protect others from harm. This would presumably be developed in terms of terrorism. However, if possible harms to others is used to warrant the Muslim ban and registry, then the same argument can be used in response to the religious liberty arguments about abortion, contraception, and LGBT rights based on the harms they will impose on others. This then becomes a matter of weighing the harms imposed by restricting or allowing religious liberties. Regardless of the specific evaluation, this involves recognizing that the ban and registry violate religious liberty and that religious liberty can be constrained on the grounds of harms.

 

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Gender Identification & Races

At a recent race, a runner entered with a sex of “other” which caused a bit of a problem with the race results. After all, in such competitions people are divided between male and female. They are also divided by age. Because of this, experienced runners tend to check out the competition before the start of the race, looking to see who is present and mentally gauging their chances of being “a have” (runner slang for getting an award).

Since awards tend to be divided into categories of sex and age, runners also try to estimate the age of those they do not recognize. While it is far less common, runners sometimes do need to estimate the sex of the competition. While some people advocate avoiding all concerns about age and sex by only having awards for overall top finishers, there are good reasons to have such categories.

One obvious reason is that awards are intended to increase attendance at the race—people are more inclined to participate when they know they have more chances of winning. If awards were limited to top overall finishers, there would be some decline in participation since people who were not the very top runners would know they had no chance of winning anything.

Another reason is to provide people with a chance to compete in ways that offset advantages. Naturally, almost every race allows people to compete in the overall results, so there is still a very broad competition.

Age has a dramatic negative impact on performance. One major factor is that older athletes do not recover as fast, hence it becomes harder to maintain rigorous training while avoiding injury and being well-rested for the competition. People also get weaker as they age, though diligent maintenance can slow this setting of the sun. Because of this, most races have 5 or 10-year age groups for awards to provide runners with a chance to compete against people with comparable temporal challenges. There are, of course, many older runners can still beat many younger runners, but the general advantage lies with the youth. For most races, runners are on the honor system—they provide their age when they sign up. Some races do, however, require proof of age to avoid people cheating by lying.

While there are female runners who can easily defeat almost any male on the planet in a race, males have various biological advantages when it comes to running, such as greater strength. As such, dividing the awards by sex is a way to account for this difference. There are, of course, some races that do not take this approach, but these are very rare and tend to be small races put on by people not familiar with the usual practices of awards.

As with age, runners are on the honor system in regards to providing their biological sex when they sign up. While a male would generally have an advantage if he could pass a female, this could be challenging given the nature of running attire and various other factors. There are, however, some controversial cases. Perhaps the most famous is that of runner Caster Semenya. Semenya is believed to have an intersex condition which causes the production of high levels of testosterone. High testosterone levels are believed to provide an athletic advantage. It must be noted that while testosterone is associated most with males, females also produce testosterone. In the past, some sporting authorities tested female athletes for high testosterone levels, but this practice has largely changed because female athletes, like male athletes, naturally vary a great deal in their testosterone levels.

While sex-changes are not common, they do occur often enough that the matter has been addressed in sports. Because the division of the sexes in sports is justified on the grounds of relative advantages, females who transition to male can generally compete without restrictions. The easy and obvious justification for this is that such a male would not have any advantage over other males. In fact, they would probably tend to have some disadvantage relative to people who were born male. A male who transitions to female would potentially have an advantage. Because of this, a transitioned athlete need not have surgery, but she is typically required to have undergone at least a year of hormone therapy. This prevents male athletes from simply claiming to be female and competing with an advantage.

There are also people who want to change their gender identification but do not want to undergo surgery or hormone therapy. Some might wonder what would prevent unscrupulous male athletes from gender identifying as females to win races. The easy and obvious answer is that sex divisions in sports are not gender divisions. They are a matter of physical factors and not a matter of social construction. As such, a male athlete who gender identified as a female would still compete against males. They are still a male in regards to the factors that matter in competition.

It could be objected that a person who gender identifies as a man or a woman should be able to compete in accord with their preferred identity. That person might, for example, want their race medal or trophy to reflect this identity—being second female in the 20-24 age group, for example. An easy counter to this is to use an analogy to age—a person might identify as “young at heart” or “and old soul”, but this does not impact their actual chronological age. In the case of athletic competition, this is what matters. If people could pick their age identity for races, this would presumably be used to gain an unfair advantage. So, a 26-year-old person who identified as a 40-year-old would not thus be eligible to win the master’s award (for people 40+).

The next to the last matter to be considered is that which started this discussion; a person who wants to identify as “other.” Resolving this would require determining the basis of the claim of otherness. If the person has a biological identity that falls within established rules for competition (being intersex, for example) then those rules would be applied. If the person has a biological identity that falls outside of the existing rules, then there would seem to be two likely approaches. One would be to match the person with the closest biological sex. The other would be to create a new category for sports and establish standards for being in that category. If the person is electing to select other as a gender identity while having a biological sex, then the person would compete in the category of that biological sex, for the reasons given above.

In closing, there is also a practical matter regarding possible legal troubles. Years ago, I would often see race entry forms with “gender” instead of “sex” because the terms were used interchangeably. These days, “sex” is the standard. If an entry form has “gender” rather than “sex”, then a person could presumably use whatever gender they wish to identify with. This would be rather problematic for the awards budget, since Facebook recognizes over fifty genders. As such, race entry forms should go with “sex.” The form might need to include a brief explanation of the difference between sex and gender to help avoid misunderstandings.

 

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