Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thinking Critically on Beliefs

I'm in the middle of reading Caleb's Crossing right now, the second book I've read by Geraldine Brooks, who I find to be a very gifted writer.  The book is historical fiction, focusing on the first Native American student at Harvard.  Thus far, its been an interesting read for many reasons.

Early in the book there are some decent theological conversations that take place between Caleb, the Native American, and the narrator, who is the daughter of a minister on this small island off of present day Massachusetts.  This is before any "conversion" of Caleb takes place (and Caleb is her name for him, not his own name), and he poses very serious and thoughtful questions to her that result from her insistence that the text of the Bible be taken literally.  These discussions are obviously interesting to me to anyone who has read parts of this blog, and even though this is a work of fiction, I find it almost surreal to read the thoughts of faith and doubt that the narrator/character experiences as a result of these conversations.

What makes these conversations even more fascinating is how forbidden they are to the narrator, as a woman, who is told that it is not her place to engage in such conversations or education; who is, in fact, instructed to not listen to the sessions involving her father and her older brother, as it is not the place that God has designated for women; it is not their place to learn these things; rather, they are supposed to only make a good home and serve their husband.  In this fictional story, the rigid sexism is more apparent as the narrator has a very sharp mind and wit, and her older brother does not possess anything close to her intelligence.

These ideas seem so foreign to many of us in our modern society and an affront to the very notions of equality.  As the book brings out, and what is historically true, is that religion, and this particular instance Christianity, has been used to belittle the capabilities of women, to place them in a role solely as a result of their gender, and not because of their abilities or talents.  Our society clearly views such a stance as prejudicial and unfounded, bordering on sexism.  But I think we do well to remember that the overwhelming majority of folks during this time did not view their beliefs and actions as wrong in any fashion; they believed, as so often noted in this book for this context, to be God's plan or will for them.

Thus, we would do well to remember, that assuming we believe such beliefs to be very prejudicial, that religion has been misused in the past to support and strengthen such beliefs and positions.  I would think it appropriate to therefore be wary of placing too much faith in something "touched" or influenced by man as divine law.  Moreover, we would do well to critically examine our beliefs and positions of our society and religions, to see where we might be misusing religious faith today to engage in unwarranted prejudice and discrimination.

Do we believe, accept, and act on certain ideas because that's what we have been told by those in authority? Because we believe a higher power commands it? Because it corresponds with some innate sense of fairness?  Because it's "reasonable?"  And, in the process of critical examination, what steps do we take to resolve conflicts between our ideas, and the foundation for those ideas?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cell Research and Ethics

Earlier this week I finished reading Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that details research that was conducted with HeLa cells, which were taken from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge and consent, and proved instrumental for the last half century of scientific and medical research.

The book originally came into my awareness as I have always had an interest in Ethics, my favorite branch of philosophy, and the ethics of advancing certain medical technologies and certain scientific research has long been an interest (I actually wrote my Ethics seminar paper in college on the ethics of human cloning).  So, upon hearing about this book, I knew I had to read it.  Coincidentally, our local library book club selected it for its fall program, so I was able to not only read it, but discuss it with others, which I always enjoy (as someone at the group said, its like getting to re-read the book multiple times from someone else's perspective).

As I hope my Goodreads review linked above will at least indicate, this is a book that can yield hours upon hours of great discussion on a variety of topics.  But the ethics continues to be what interests me the most, and continues to be what I intellectually chew on in response to the book.

When my cells leave my body, do I have ownership of them, is the great legal question that arises out of this book (in part, because there's not really any relevant law, cases, statutory, or otherwise to cell-based, or even genetic research, yet).  And as interesting as that is (and it truly is from a legal standpoint - had a good 30 minute conversation with a colleague solely on that question), there are still more interesting ones.  When cells and/or tissues are removed from an individual's body, it is acceptable for a doctor/scientist to preserve such to use for research? Do they need to inform the individual that such cells/tissues may be used for research? Does the individual still have a say so once they leave, i.e. can they prevent the research from taking place?  What would informed consent look like - I mean, even very educated and intelligent people will have very little idea about what the research would constitute.  If someone conducts research on human cells and tissues, is it research on humans? Do my cells and tissues constitute part of my humanness, my identity?

Like so many things in my life, I really have very little idea on what the answers to these questions are, or if concrete answers even exist for such dilemmas.  But I do firmly believe that having discussions about such questions are important for our society and world.  There's a great line from Jurassic Park (at least I consider it a great line) where a character states, in response to the groundbreaking work of scientists to create the dinosaurs through captured DNA, "but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."  Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in the modern world and what we may be capable of that we should take the time to have the discussions about whether these "things" we may be capable of are worth achieving.  Humanity is capable of both great good and great evil.

Being conscientious of that reality as we pursue our future, and having dialogue to caution our pursuit as necessary, certainly seems like a reasonable and good idea to me.

Friday, October 14, 2011

On Watching Sports

Those that know me well know that I am a sports fan. Love watching it, love reading about it, love discussing it.  And this past week has afforded me the opportunity to watch one of my favorite teams, the Detroit Tigers, play playoff baseball, and it has been a rare and enjoyable treat.  But as I was watching the games this past week, a couple recurring thoughts, well, occurred to me.

First, I think that watching two teams play a sport you like (or individuals as the case may be) that you have no direct rooting interest for or against, can be a more enjoyable experience than watching a team play that you are passionate about.  With the Tigers this past week, I have been riding high and low multiple times each night depending on swings of the game.  As a fan, you get so wrapped up into the events of the game that you actually feel exhausted after watching.  As opposed to simply watching a game with no rooting interest, you avoid all those swings, you never feel like you have so much riding on an outcome, a play, a player, etc.  You simply sit back and enjoy watching a sport that you like.  I noticed this first a while back when I started watching Colts games with Jackie, and how I was having much more fun, regardless of the outcome, then she was - she was riding high or low depending on how her team was doing, and I was just enjoying watching a football game.

This ties into a second thought.  Sports, for me, are so much more fun (a simple word, but very applicable here) when watching and sharing with others.  Jackie's not much of a baseball fan, and really can't stand to watch it on television.  I don't blame her, baseball is a harder sport to get at times, it has a slower pace, and to understand the tense moments at time one has to get the nuance and cerebral part of the game.  One comes to that understanding through being involved with baseball for many years.  I have, she hasn't.  It's pretty simple.  I mention this because we usually watch games together - its one of the things we share.  We watch football together, sometimes regardless of teams; we watch Michigan State and Purdue basketball.  We enjoy going to sporting events.  But I was watching the Tigers alone.  And while I enjoyed it (primarily because I so rarely get to watch baseball as we have no cable/satellite), it just wasn't quite as good as watching a game with her, my family, or any friend would have been.  For me, I have learned that watching sports is great fun, watching sports as a social event is significantly better.

The third recurring thought I had may be considered somewhat odd in light of the other two, but I think it is related.  I kept thinking to myself with all the hours I was spending this week watching the Tigers, there is something better to be doing with my time.  I quickly remedied this, to some extent, to reading a lot during the games (which is a great advantage of the pace of baseball, and football to some extent, as opposed to basketball, in that it allows for better multi-tasking).  But it was a nagging thought throughout.  Part of this is an old battle I fight with myself.  Almost two years ago, I decided I was spending too much of my time watching college football and that I should be more conscientious of how I spend my time.  I was essentially dedicating every Saturday during the Fall to a chair and football.  And I enjoyed it, but I wanted to do something that would be both enjoyable and productive; which, with my personality, would make me enjoy it more.  Without digressing too much here, the point of that decision, and of the constant battle, is that while I like sports, I want to make sure that I am utilizing my time accomplishing things I feel are important - reading and becoming more knowledgeable about certain disciplines, spending time with friends and family, being involved in the community.  If watching sports can compliment and enhance those objectives at times, awesome.  If not, then I need to realize that there will always be another game, there may not be another opportunity to "better" myself, so to speak.

This has led me to attempt to make sure that I never forsake an opportunity because I want to watch a sporting event (there may be exceptions, World Series for one, NCAA championship for another, and of course if the Lions ever made a Super Bowl).  When watching sports can become something Jackie and I do together, it reinforces parts of our relationship and friendship.  When its something that can be done with friends, it reinforces community.  When it something that can be done with family, it can create and reinforce bonds.  Those are the goals.  It is also a goal to avoid watching sports when it becomes isolating.

I find it is a delicate balance that I continue to try and manage.  I really do enjoy watching sports, it's kind of like an immediate high.  I just have to pause and remind myself that in reality, watching in isolation is simply okay, making it a share-able event with others is exponentially better, and ultimately more fulfilling.  So, while I hope the Tigers keep playing and make a full comeback in the series against the Rangers, and while I hope Michigan State beats Michigan again this weekend, I will be waging that little battle in myself, doing my best to ensure certain opportunities are not missed. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Literary Insight

I recently finished reading Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, which is a re-imagining of Tocqueville's Democracy in America.  Carey is a gifted writer, and the book is superb for anyone interested in historical fiction.


But one passage near the end of my book caught my attention and I have been digesting it for a few days.  It is from Olivier, who is the French aristocrat in the novel, sharing his most expansive and reflective thoughts about the American experiment in democracy with Parrot, who is bustling with enthusiasm.  In light of current politics, I found the passage interesting and insightful to some extent. So, without further comment and in the sole interest of sharing a fine literary passage ....


“Yes, and you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theater gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class of bankers, men of no moral character, half-bourgeois and half-criminal, who will affect the tastes of an aristocracy but will compete with each other like wrestlers at a fair, wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist. Do not laugh, sir. Listen. I have traveled widely. I have seen this country in its infancy. I tell you what it will become. The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare.”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Keeping Stories in Context

So, at some point in the last week Hank Williams, Jr. made a reference that compared Obama to Hitler. Regardless of context, it is usually a pretty bad idea to compare any modern politician, particularly in a democratic society, to Hitler. It usually isn't a particularly helpful analogy, and it usually is inflammatory. However, what interests me the most is the response.

ESPN decided to sever ties with Williams and his song that would be a intro for their Monday Night Football program.  Initial reaction from commenters on the news story were mostly lamenting the violation of First Amendment rights. Eventually, self correction occurred, and enough commenters chimed in how the First Amendment only applies to government actions, not the actions between two private entities. It still amazes me that in a country where there is so much rhetoric regarding constitutional rights, Founding Fathers principles, and the like, that there is a consistent, if not pervasive, ignorance about what those rights and principles are. I'm digressing, but I find that sad and unfortunate, because these are important things to know and understand, so we are better citizens and advocates.

Anyway, the conversation of the commenters then devolved into a left-right political argument about how Williams is being unfairly demeaned in a way that someone wouldn't be if the analogy involved a right based politician as opposed to a left based politician.

I think this provides a microcosm of the extremely charged political culture we have right now. What begins as a story about a private employer ending a promotional relationship with an individual person due to bad publicity (and bad PR in the promotion business generally isn't good, contrary to some cliches), ends as a heated and often irrational "discussion" about politics and government.

I am beginning to believe that if we are ever going to make true progress towards creating a better society, a better government, a better culture, we are going to have to the appropriate discussions in the proper context, and stop dragging emotionally and politically charged ideas into every conversation.