Monday, November 19, 2012

A right to refuse to cooperate?

There has been some conflict in recently times over how much people in society should have a right to refuse to cooperate with any health care or social service they disagree with.  For example whether insurance companies or employers can refuse to provide medical insurance for contraception or whether pharmacists can refuse to dispense the "morning after pill."  In a perfect world everyone would have so many options for their employment, doctors, and pharmacies that it would be easy to only form relationships with people you already agree with.  But its not a perfect world.  Sometimes because of work constraints there many only be one or two options in insurance companies you can deal with, only so many employers you can work for, and pharmacies you can visit.  So a right to refuse to cooperate can easily translate into a right to make it nearly impossible for someone else to receive what they believe is desirable for themselves.  For example, while a pharmacist who believes the morning after bill is infanticide might feel very uncomfortable or conflicted about dispensing it, a rape victim may only have a short period of time to find someone who will give it to them before the drugs effectiveness starts to fail.

So where does my perspective fall on all of this?  Its hard to talk about this much in detail because at my job its considered that they can fire you if you mention online all the details of your employment.  But lets just say I provide customer service and technical support for a company that is a household name, someplace that normal everyday people do business with because they have to in order to function in our modern society.  And occasionally my job involves helping people purchase or troubleshoot their ability to access pornography.

First off some might question whether this is awkward for me.  And the answer is it can be at many levels.  Including:
  • It can be heartbreaking to take a call for a mother or a wife who is desperately trying to find out if their spouse is secretly using porn when we were the company that is selling the stuff to their son or husband.  
  • Its a fine line to walk when they are certain their family members couldn't possibly have betrayed them that way and I have to break it to them that even if I don't know who was at the controls we have proof that it was ordered and I can't credit back the hundreds of dollars that were ran up.
  • Occasionally customers ask that I give recommendations on which porn they might enjoy or if I have any suggestions on what they should purchase.
  • I've had to explain to people that just because I'm here to help doesn't mean that I can help them figure out which titles will include lesbian vs heterosexual sex acts or possibly be produced by one porn company compared to another.  Other than reading through large numbers of titles (which is time prohibitive) and making educated guesses, I honestly don't even have that sort of information most of the time.
  • I even had an illiterate man call in once who explained that because he could not read he needed me to read him all the porn titles I had one by one until he found one that he liked so that I could place his order for him.
  • I seem to recall once even having a customer ask me something along the lines of whether we had any sex videos involving Asians and then proceed to ask me if I was Asian.  Just because I'm tolerating talking to you about your pornographic preferences doesn't mean I moonlight as a professional porn actor, thanks for asking.  Lets not even get into how they misjudged my accent and possibly my gender (somehow a male tenor voice comes across the phone call sounding like as female a good part of the time no matter how many times I tell them my name).
There are also some ways that this is not uncomfortable which might not occur to people imagining this situation for the first time, so I'll list those as well.
  • I am almost never exposed to the actual content other than in the title of the item in question.
  • Most customers are willing to make their purchase and move on without expecting me to have an extended conversation with them about it (couldn't say if my female coworkers have the same experience).
  • Many callers express that they are perfectly ok with their adult sons visiting them ordering this stuff as long as the son coughs up a contribution to the bill to make up for it.
  • Very few of my customer interactions center around this
  • Most people are o.k. with me not reading every porn title on their bill to them.  They don't mind just me mentioning what kind of movie it is if the title didn't make it obvious enough.
  • Most people self service their own purchases and often only need me to troubleshoot their ability to complete such purchases.
So how do I handle it?  Mostly by just doing whatever the customers ask me to do and doing it promptly and with courtesy.  When customers call for customer service they want a representative of a company to answer the phone, not a representative of a specific church or belief system.  And the company who pays my bills expects me to represent them, not my God, my priesthood leaders, or my own personal tastes or preferences.  Being a representative of the company and not myself actually answers most of the questions involved in handling the issues I described above.  It doesn't matter if I'm helping a customer watch Finding Nemo or the latest X rated video claiming to show teenagers doing who knows what, there are certain policies and expectations involved.  Since I represent the company and not myself I'm not obligated to express any opinion good or bad on the shows they ask about.  Since the security rules for accessing accounts controls whether the wife can find out I don't have to make a judgement call on which spouse I'll hold allegiance to.  Since the company only provides a bare minimum of information about the different shows and with almost no useful ability to sort them by anything beyond what is strictly needed to place an order (title, price, where to find it), I can reasonably refuse to assist people in finding the show that fits their fetish best.  Truthfully, trying to assist people any further would involve unauthorized internet browsing to porn provider websites that would quickly get me fired.  I'm just as prepared to assist a family in setting up parental controls as to help someone find out why an error message is showing on the screen instead of their favorite porn show.

So what do I think about a purported right to refuse to cooperate?  I don't think it would make my job any easier.  Even if it was technically legal for me to refuse to help people watch porn or R rated movies that I thought were too risque, I'd have to deal with a lot of angry customers whose lives would be made more difficult by having to call in that many more times just to get a customer service representative who would offer service instead of a sermon.  Can you imagine having to call through an automated system that asked you "to ensure the fewest transfers as possible, please take this survey so we can match your customer service need to an agent who is ideologically affiliated with you"?  Logistically it would blow up so fast that I probably wouldn't even be able to get the job unless I was willing to sign a document agreeing to service anyone no matter what they needed, just like many employers won't hire employees who refuse to work on Sundays.

Many might argue that medical professionals are more morally culpable for their involvement with a patients body than I am involved with what my customers do in their spare time.  And perhaps that isn't unfair in some cases, but that is why doctors and professionals are expected to select services they are willing to perform.  You can't be a pharmacist without the possibility of dispensing many different drugs.  A OB/GYN occasionally might have to perform an emergency abortion to save the life of the mother but normally has the option to avoid specializing in abortion procedures.  An insurance company can hardly expect to be able to only service people whose ideals match their CEO (anybody want an insurance company executive who belongs to Scientology or Seventh Day Adventist dictating what gets covered?).  And while employers might offer health insurance subsidization to attract employees, they shouldn't expect to be able to exercise financial leverage over their employees religious or medical choices.  As I said earlier, in a perfect world everything would be so flexible that you could immediately be perfectly served only by people who agreed with you.  That kind of perfection doesn't exist.  We live in a world where people are free to make up their own minds and part of dealing with that is not always agreeing.  Sure there is room for compromise and flexibility in how we all live together, but not much absolutism.

I am reminded of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. where he said, “Whatever your life's work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.”  When I go to a hospital I shouldn't have to worry if the nurse is worried about being fired if she puts my wife's life ahead of a pregnancy.  When I go to the pharmacy I should expect the pharmacist to represent that role, not his opinions about whether birth control is against the will of God.  If I have to constantly worry about which service provider might have which opinions so that I can be free to exercise my privilege to live as I choose in a free land, I'm not free, and the service providers aren't doing their job well.  Meantime, I'll keep processing orders for my customers porn with a polite smile on my face.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Exploring the conflict between Science and Religion

As an introduction to this post, most of what follows I actually wrote as a response to a discussion prompt for a class two semesters ago, as have several other blog posts I've done.  So if this seems kind of out of the blue it is.  I just really like what I wrote up so I figured I'd re use it.

The real point of incompatibility between science and religion is the type of logic used by each.  Since 1620 when Francis Bacon wrote Novum Organum science was reoriented to be based on inductive logic where (simply put) you take observations, make tentative assumptions based on observation, and then test the assumptions by more observations.  Previous scientists had made observations but the scientific method didn't really start to be worked out till Bacon.
Religion, on the other hand, is based more essentially on deductive logic as developed by Aristotle.  A series of spiritual experiences or beliefs are taken as assumptions and then conclusions are made based on those assumptions.  Occasionally the assumptions might be revised by a new spiritual experience or from some other cultural source of information but generally speaking the foundational assumptions are not supposed to change.  If anything is encountered which seems to contradict the assumptions then the typical doctrinal response is to ignore it as invalid on its face because it contradicts the assumptions, contradict it by interpreting the assumptions in a more complicated way, or to make more and more complicated interpretations of the assumptions to allow the apparent contradiction to disappear.
Science using inductive logic never assumes it has a completely true and exact assumption but by testing and revising the assumptions a lot over time they become useful or probably mostly true.  Religion using a more deductive style of logic assumes it has achieved at least some things that are completely true and exactly correct.  It is more or less assumed that given time that other truths can be discovered by exploring the complexities and consequences of those original assumptions.
At least as far as traditional biblical interpretation is concerned we have many cases where there is apparent contradiction between science and religion.  How individuals handle that can vary a lot.  I don't have any easy answers.  Over my life I've had a lot of people who tried to reassure me of my faith by telling me a folklore version of science that was easier to disbelieve or where the contradictions didn't exist.  Like claiming neanderthals and humans didn't overlap in time and that humans don't appear in the fossil record till the time that the bible says they should.  I think that's a practice that we should try to avoid.  It seems almost unavoidable that such folklore sciences will show up because as long as normal people try to figure out science they are bound to make mistakes or make stuff up to fill the gaps in their memory or understanding.  But as much as we can I think we should avoid putting words in scientists mouths to reassure ourselves.
There's no easy way to tell science and religion to make nice and stop fighting because a typical religious doctrine system has no inherent logical path to rapidly reform itself when new evidence shows up.  Science has no inherent logical mechanism to adapt to new religious ideas nor any way to judge which religion's ideas should be incorporated.  They are based on two completely different logic systems so it wouldn't really make sense for them to immediately cross fertilize each other.  If you aren't supposed to contradict the assumptions it takes a lot of time for the assumptions to disappear before you can ignore them.  It wasn't until 1822 (per wikipedia ) that the Catholic Church stopped the ban of printing "heliocentric books in Rome".  That's a grand delay of nearly 300 years after Copernicus published in 1543.  Granted its not always that slow, I think when I read one of Stephen Hawking's books (sorry I can't say which I read several) that he said the Catholic church almost immediately gave doctrinal support to his work on the Big Bang because they thought it was easy to reconcile the big bang with the idea of God having created the Universe.  Having already dismissed biblical literalism from their astronomy they were open to further change.  On other subjects literalism is still more or less the official interpretation (depending on which religion you adhere to).  Its always possible that science on any given subject will turn out to be partially or extremely wrong.  Science isn't supposed to give us absolute truth so we can never rule that out.  Its always possible that the range of subjects on which religions will judge their traditional beliefs to be unsupportable will expand and that in 100 years our descendents will look back on us and laugh with scorn about how crazy we were and how we just didn't realize that a few more parts of our belief systems were obviously expendable.  I think the best thing to do would be for each side to be tolerant of each other and pick their fights as respectfully and as humbly as possible.  Science is most certainly not representing absolute truth because its not meant to do so.  On the other hand, there is probably no belief system with a long history where we couldn't look at the early history and find beliefs contradicted by their later history.  Just take the Old Testament statements about what to do with people with contradictory beliefs and behavior and compare that to the time immediately following the Reformation (lots of religious wars-kill the heretic and force them to believe) and then again with modern practice of Christians.  Or look at New Testament statements about the spirituality and worth of women (1 Timothy 2:12-15 for example) and compare it with recent statements by LDS church leaders (I won't bother linking any, the statements that women are spiritually superior is so frequently repeated it doesn't bear citing).  No matter whether you think its good or bad, no true contradiction, or happened for valid reasons and that both were right in their times, some doctrines change.

"Family Life" education

A while back there was a bill proposed in Utah  that would have allowed school districts to opt out of teaching any sexual education and prohibit (if I recall) any mention of contraception.  After a great deal of controversy, it became clear via polls and public outcry that the plan did not have public support.  It was passed by the legislature, vetoed by the governor, and in the following election the man who introduced the bill lost his re election bid.

To put context on this, Utah law already bans encouraging contraception use (though not mentioning that it exists) and parents are allowed to opt their children out of sexual education as it exists.  The sexual education as it exists will depend on the school district, I believe my wife stated that the only sexual education done in her school district was a quick meeting where they told you to anticipate the development of secondary sex characteristics.  And that was it.  Not much to opt out of.

The debates on the subject of how much sexual education to put in school often seem to come back to the idea that we are afraid of "giving kids ideas."  The thing is, kids have dumb ideas all the time without any adult having to tell them about anything.  It reminds me of a job I had doing customer service for a cell phone company.  There were countless parents who called in shocked that there was an enormous charge on their bill showing that their child had been using text messaging.  They often tried to claim that their child didn't know how to text message because they hadn't taught them how.    My coworkers and I used to jokingly tell these parents that if their kids are in school, have friends, and have a phone they know how to text.  Nobody has to show them how for them to figure it out.  Similarly, teenagers have all the relevant anatomy, the correct hormones, and coed environments.  Even if nobody tells them "how" to go about getting pregnant reliably, teenagers inherently have all the ingredients necessary to have lots of clueless sexual interaction.  On top of that we live in a rather sexually obsessed and saturated culture.  Not talking about sex only makes it so that the doors of communication between the school or parents and the child on the subject are shut, it doesn't actually keep the child from receiving lots of sexual communication, much of it unhealthy and attached to negative social stereotypes and roles.

Certainly sex ed is awkward.  Even though I never attended it in public school myself (parental opt out), I had to deal with classmates who were trying to find a way to relate to all the new information that was dumped on them and in a poorly disciplined classroom this led to several awkward moments where students sat around discussing whether their bodies were mature enough to achieve ejaculation or drew pictures of penises (with smiley faces) on the blackboard.  The solution to awkwardness isn't to run away though, and in the situations in which I grew up, better discipline in the classroom could have solved most of the problems.

I tend to view sex ed for teenagers like drivers ed.  We expect children to grow up and probably use a car daily in navigating their world.  Learning to drive isn't automatic like learning to breathe, so we have drivers ed requirements where society does something to help make sure everybody knows the basics to help keep them safe.  Similarly we hope that children will grow up, form relationships, and have families (or shall we say it, we hope they will have sex) as part of a normal emotionally healthy life.  Overwhelmingly, the human goal in life isn't celibacy.  There is nothing automatic about learning to have healthy relationships with emotionally and physically satisfying sex in them.  There are plenty of parts the schools certainly can't help with, but plenty they can.  Just like we don't raise children with a goal in life that they should be unable to drive, we should stop talking about sex ed as if the goal for our children was for them to be celibate.  Sure there are limits on that.  We don't put toddlers in drivers ed and we don't include nascar driving or drag racing in the list of skills for teenagers to master for their drivers license.  Similarly, we can choose what information to give to teenagers in sex ed.  There is no reason we need or want teenagers to be able to recite the Kama Sutra or recite all the sex tips that were talked about in last weeks grocery store magazines.  But some basics are a good thing to help them form safe and healthy relationships that we expect some day will be sexually satisfying.  Since in our culture families and friends haven't been reliable sources of information (too scared, too embarrassed, too whatever it is) some teaching in schools can be a good thing.