Assange and the Presumption of Innocence

The misinformation campaign started by Julian Assange’s Australian lawyer regarding the rape charges behind Sweden’s extradition request continues, aided and abetted by a mess of hyperventilating fanbois (some of whom are female). In the next few days, I’ll collect and address a mess of misrepresentations, conspiracy theories, rape myths, and logical fallacies here, mostly so I don’t have to argue with them one at a time, over and over again. And again. And again.

Part 1: If you don’t say Assange is innocent, you’re saying he’s guilty! Presumption of innocence!!!
This is the argument of a fanatic, frankly, and it’s disturbing to keep finding it posted about here and there. It’s also a perfectly false dichotomy, generally accompanied by a whopping dose of double-standard.

The presumption of innocence is a standard that’s incorporated in many, if not most, Western, industrialized legal systems. It is, in fact, a good thing, allowing people to retain most of their rights while allegations are being examined. I say most, because people are generally required to cooperate to a certain extent in determining the truth behind an accusation–to participate in trials either directly or through a representative, to be subject to certain questions, whether they answer them or not.

Even here, however, there are procedures in place that require a generally independent judiciary to make some preliminary evaluation of the credibility of the accusation before cooperation can be compelled. Whether you agree with the decisions of judges in Assange’s case, those procedures are being followed in Sweden and in the UK.

However, the presumption of innocence has also been adopted, to varying degrees, as a social standard for protecting the reputation of those accused of a crime. It’s in the conflation of the legal and social standards that the problem arises here. Fanbois want this standard to be applied to Assange in the court of public opinion the same way it is in the legal system. However, at the same time, they are willing to convict Assange’s accusers of lies, hysteria, and complicity with a global governmental conspiracy.

I’ve seen two defenses of this practice. The first is to note that the accusers are not charged with anything in Sweden. In addition to this argument coming from the same group who insist it’s meaningful that Assange has not had charges formally filed, making all parties equal in this respect, this is part of that conflation of legal and social systems. A social double-standard is still a social double-standard (rising to the level of hypocrisy in this case) even if the legal status of the two parties were different, which they aren’t.

The second defense of this practice isn’t something I’ve seen baldly stated, but it’s implicit in the idea that anyone not raining down on the heads of the alleged victims is saying Assange is guilty. That’s the assertion that in order to maintain Assange’s innocence, the women must be considered to be lying.

This is the false dichotomy. It relies on a misunderstanding of what a presumption actually is. If it’s not clear to you what I’m talking about, go back to the part where I explain why the presumption of innocence is a good thing. In short, a presumption of innocence doesn’t mean that we say we know anything about the truth behind an accusation. It means just the opposite.

In the social realm, it means we don’t impose sanctions because it isn’t our place to decide what the truth is, that this being a legal matter, we allow the legal system to move before rushing to judgment and acting on those judgments. It means we say we don’t know.

In short, it means growing up and dealing with the uncertainty that is inherent in our not having been a party to anything that happened or being privy to anything but the most superficial and ambiguous indications of what’s going on in the heads of either Assange or his accusers. It means waiting. That this is difficult for fanbois doesn’t change what the presumption of innocence actually is.

Assange and the Presumption of Innocence

Notes from the Front

Your Atheist Correspondent Reports Back from the War on Christmas
I’m not quite ready to do 2010 retrospective posts at the moment, although there are some I’d like to do. The end of 2010 has presented me with too much unfinished business. Some of it is things I need to do and say. Some of it is simply events hanging in the balance. Either way, it doesn’t feel as though the year comes to a close tomorrow.

The Christmas rush is over, however, so I’ll take a quick peek back at that through the lens of this mythical War on Christmas. There is little enough religion in my personal life that the bits that do crop up tend to get noticed, and since part of Christmas is spent with the most religious of the connections, I got to do lots of noticing last weekend.

The Lord Giveth
The “kids” in the connection are, for the first time this year, all in college or beyond. As everyone gathered around the pool table, there were jokes made about the appropriate use of college time being learning to drink and play pool. They had to be jokes, given the way the kids were playing pool and their reaction to the one among them who was exceptionally good.

He came in for a certain amount of teasing about how he was spending his study time. The teasing ended, though, when his brother playfully suggested maybe it was a “God-given gift” instead. I haven’t been able to figure out why that statement killed the conversation. Too irreverent? Too silly? Nowhere to go from there? I don’t know. All I can say is that it was a conversational lemming.

I Shall Not Want
I was disturbed later, however, when one of the adults made his own reference to God’s gifts. He said something along the lines of “God is good to good people.” The context made it clear he was talking about this world, not any hypothetical next one.

I…was creeped out, actually. Prosperity gospel. Fatalistic mumbo jumbo. Supernaturalistic fallacy. Magical antisocial self-justification. Giving it names can’t come anywhere near describing how perfectly this goes against everything I do and am. The next time someone tells you an atheist has no reason to be “good”…yeah. This.

And I said nothing. Why? Because once I opened the gates to respond, I wouldn’t have been able to stop. I wouldn’t have been coherent enough to get a message through to anyone listening. And it would have made no difference to the person I was talking to, since anyone capable of believing that tortuous formula is quite capable of claiming persecution at the least disagreement, much less the relentless volley he’d have received.

Christ Is Risen
I’m happy to say that our tradition of giving a donation plus a small homemade gift is catching on, albeit in a small way. We get some similar gifts, even if we do still end up sitting in the midst of everyone else’s wrapping paper and boxes. Eh, college kids need stuff far more than we do. We’re also lucky that the charities supported are ones we would chose for ourselves. Good gifts.

The interesting thing about one of these gifts was the explanation that came with it. To paraphrase: “Giving is good. We chose this charity that does this. We hope you like that.” Then: “The Lord Christ is risen.” It is interesting, in part, because it was the only religious sentiment passed out with the gifts. Everyone who received one of the donations received the religion with it, but no one else did.

I find myself wondering what that means about how the givers feel about different types of gifts. Are charitable gifts not “real” gifts, so that they need to be justified with religion? Are they gifts more true to the spirit of the givers’ religion, thus earning the phrase? If so, the contrast between that and other gifts points up the contradictions of the holiday in ways that I, an unbeliever, could never hope to accomplish.

I don’t know what the answer is, or even whether it’s something as trivial as these gifts being the only ones with any kind of written sentiment attached (I don’t know whether they were), but the phrase felt enough out of place there to make me think.

The Lord Is Good to Me
For large occasions, this family gathers into a circle and holds hands to sing the Johnny Appleseed song as grace. This is amusing for a number of reasons. Appleseed got most of his seeds from cider companies, and his trees produced cider apples, so what he spread was a convenient source of fermentable sugar. He was a Swedenborgian, which is still tiny and generally considered heretical by more mainstream religious factions. Also, it was hugely fun getting the kids to hold hands with me when they were still young enough to believe in girl cooties.

This year, however, I smiled for a different reason. I happened to be standing in exactly the right place in the circle to notice that one of the kids wasn’t singing, at least to start with. He chimed in once he was clearly the only person not singing (the atheists in the room like singing and just skip the “amen”), but he had the guts to start out alone and against tradition. It gives me a bit more hope for this next generation, who are off to be educated at secular institutions far away from their parents.

It’s always so nice to get even a small victory in this war I’m not bothering to fight.

Notes from the Front

Discriminating Against the Discriminating

It isn’t terribly hard to find Christians who claim to be persecuted for their beliefs. It’s particularly easy this time of year, when people are told that the inclusive wishing of “Happy Holidays” is somehow an affront. Forget that one’s religious beliefs aren’t and shouldn’t be assumed to be somehow visible in a casual encounter or that “Merry Christmas” is grossly inappropriate to many, where “Happy Holidays” welcomes essentially everyone. They’re told they’ve been insulted, and they believe it.

Now, however, via Skepchick, we find a group of Christians who have lost substantially more than their holiday cheer over their religious beliefs. Or at least, they’ve lost over some kind of belief. Let’s see what they lost and why.

But in 2006, after he qualified as a psychosexual therapist, he told his employers that he did not feel able to give sex therapy advice to homosexuals.

A Christian bed and breakfast owner was threatened with legal action for turning away a homosexual couple in March 2010.

Dr Sheila Matthews, a Christian doctor, was told she would be removed from a council’s adoption panel because she refuses to recommend cases involving homosexual couples.

Shirley Chaplin, a 54-year-old grandmother, was taken off wards and moved to a desk job after refusing to remove the crucifix that hangs around her neck. In April 2010 she was told by an employment tribunal that wearing the cross raised health and safety concerns and was not a “mandatory requirement” of the Christian faith.

Right. We have one person who thinks her display of public piety is more important than patient health despite anything written in Matthew and three people who think an injunction from the Old Testament is more vitally Christian than the New Testament’s pervasive call to service for the most vulnerable among us.

That, right there, is the problem with allowing “religious” belief some kind of ascendency over the standards of our public life. As Voltaire said, “If God has made us in his image, we have returned the favor.” These beliefs may be closely held, but they are not religious in nature.

I live in a city with a relatively long history of acceptance of homosexuality. Churches here–of most denominations–largely reflect that acceptance. Those that don’t belong to communities that are not traditionally as accepting. The churches simply codify existing prejudices and values, with the “religious beliefs” of each denomination being shaped by the community rather than the other way around.

Of course, individual’s beliefs are supported and reinforced by their membership in these religious communities. However, when they are not, people generally do one of two things. They convert to a sect that supports their personal beliefs, or they ignore the teachings of their sect in favor of their own preferences (as with the quarter of Catholics who do not believe in transubstantiation or the majority of Protestants who do). This suggests again that labeling beliefs as “religious” and privileging them as such is a problematic practice. Is a belief religious if your religion doesn’t support that belief?

Then we have the fact that there are any number of religious beliefs we collectively refuse to recognize. Banks do not recognize the loan forgiveness of Shmita. We do not kill people for adultery (or consensual extramarital sex). Parents whose children suffer or die because of reliance on faith healing are prosecuted. We allow manufacturers to produce wool-linen blends.

In other words, we legally recognize interests that override an individual’s ability to impose their religious beliefs on others. Going back to our sample discriminatees, the interests of hospital patients in maintaining a sterile treatment environment are obvious. I would hope that the interests of sexual minorities in equal treatment would be equally obvious, but I know that there are those who suggest that it hurts nothing for those minorities to receive their services from someone else.

There are two problems with this reasoning. The first is that requiring sexual minorities to shop around to find someone who will serve them is not equal treatment. It places additional burdens on them that others are not required to shoulder. The second is that while the religious do have the right not to serve in a way that contradicts their religious beliefs, they do not have a right to a service job if they cannot or will not serve.

This isn’t merely in the interest of those who are protected from discrimination. It’s in the interest of our society as a whole that we all have a recognized right to equal treatment, equal rights and responsibilities, that can’t be taken from us at the whim of anyone who finds a community or sect that reinforces their prejudices. After all, there isn’t a form of discrimination or brutality that hasn’t found (or had made) some religious reasoning that makes it all acceptable.

That those in this article can’t see that they’re being held to the same standards as everyone else and being offered the same protections is far more a testament to the fact that their rights haven’t been in question than it is any indication of persecution.

Discriminating Against the Discriminating

Not So Very Little

The worst version of “The Little Drummer Boy” I’ve heard was playing in a pizza parlor on Christian radio. It was a duet, male and female, with mismatched vibrato in their voices. The arrangement was basically New Age, country, soft jazz, and I think they’d reworked the lyrics to make them more Christian.

Yes, it really was that bad. I also heard it this year, which makes me extra happy that this version came along now. This is highly nontraditional and definitely not safe for many workplaces, so it’s tucked below the fold.


Not So Very Little

Grandma Cookies

It’s the time of year when almost everything else takes a backseat to cookie making. As I’ve mentioned before, most of the gifts we give are charitable donations, with cookies to sweeten the deal for the recipients. That’s a lot of baking in a short period of time, particularly if I’ve compressed my holidays by taking a week-long trip in the middle of them, as I did this year.

What am I making this year? Nothing too fancy; I go for variety of flavor over shapes, making at most one “presentation” cookie in a year. There are a couple of trusted standbys: almond sugar cookies and pecan sandies that Ben makes. There are the tweaked classics: Kiss cookies with a coffee cookie and dark-chocolate Kisses, crispy rice bars with chopped pistachios and dried cherries mixed in (‘Cause they’re green and red. Get it? Oh, never mind.). There’s the untried recipe: “Pumpkin cookies with orange icing? Huh. Sure.”

Always, however, are the grandma cookies. I’m sure they had a name at one point, but when I copied down my father’s mother’s recipe, I didn’t keep it. I’ve never seen anyone else make them, so they’ve stayed named after her. They’re a cake-like cookie, with a smooth texture and a mild but rich flavor due to the Dutch-process cocoa.

A few things to know if you’re thinking about making the cookies. This produces a stiff, sticky dough that has to be refrigerated overnight before baking. It’s too much for me to stir together by hand, and it makes my Kitchen Aid whiny. Admittedly, it’s an older stand mixer, but I wouldn’t want to try this with beaters either. Nor can I use my dishers to portion the dough for baking. The sweep comes off the track.

Natural cocoa will not give you the same flavor. If you can’t get Droste at your local market, consider ordering from someplace like Penzey’s (gotta love cocoa powder that is labeled “high fat”). Also, this uses a lot of dishes. Be prepared to take up counter space.

Wet ingredients:
12 oz. cottage cheese
1 c. butter (2 sticks, 1/2 lb.)
2-1/2 c. sugar
3 eggs

Dry ingredients:
4-1/8 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. Dutch-process cocoa
1-1/2 t. baking powder
3/4 t. salt

1-1/2 c. chunks (good chocolate chips, toasted nuts, chopped dried fruits that play well with chocolate)

Powdered sugar for coating cookies (about 1 cup).

Pull the butter and eggs out of the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. In the meantime, whisk together the dry ingredients in a bowl and set it aside.

Dump the cottage cheese into a sifter and work it through the holes into the mixer bowl using the back and edge of a table spoon. Add the butter. When that is roughly mixed, add sugar and mix until the texture is smooth (sugar will still be visibly granulated). Incorporate eggs one at a time.

Slowly add the dry ingredients. Expect to clean cocoa off all the nearby surfaces when you’re done, but working in small amounts will help. When the dough is a consistent texture, add the chunks at once. Stop mixing as soon as they’re incorporated.

Refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350F with racks just above and below center.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls. I use nitrile gloves, as the dough really is that sticky. Roll the balls in powdered sugar to coat. Space about 1-1/2 inches apart on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper. Bake for 15 minutes. May be moved to a cooling rack right away or cool on the pan briefly.

Makes about 7-1/2 dozen cookies.


Grandma Cookies

Who’s the Hero?

So you’ve seen that some guy with a grudge and a gun shot up a school board meeting before killing himself. If you haven’t seen the video (and the standard macho posturing about how the guy had to be a horrid shot because he missed all the people and some dumbass blog commenters can hit a paper target while under no stress whatsoever), check out Greg’s post on the event.

Checking out the news coverage, I was struck a bit oddly by all the articles referring to school security chief Mike Jones as a hero.

Don’t get me wrong. The guy did his job and did it well from what’s being reported. He held off firing his gun until the board members were in more danger from the hostage taker than they would be from his bullets flying around the room. He kept his head and his aim and managed to fire at another human being, which is (and should be) much harder than gun nuts generally give credit for. He lived up to his training and his responsibilities.

However, there is also Ginger Littleton:

Ginger Littleton took about 30 seconds to decide she was going to use her hand-me-down purse to try to knock a gun out of the hands of the man threatening her colleagues on Tuesday.

In the hours afterward, she’d concede it probably wasn’t the best idea. But at the time, she worried she was the only person in position to stop a slaughter at the Bay District School Board meeting in Panama City, Florida.

So Littleton — the one board member the gunman had released, because she was a woman — re-entered the room, sneaked up from behind and swung.

This. This is heroism. Stopping and turning around to go back, totally unprepared, because you’re the only person in a position to make a difference. Taking action despite the risks. Doing what you can because you must.

Yet Littleton is only rarely being touted as a hero, while Jones is everywhere. Sure, Jones is what we’ve been told a hero is. He is male and armed and was generally successful. One of those is a good thing generally, but it does not a hero make.

So why isn’t Littleton being hailed as the hero she is?

Who’s the Hero?

Do These Social Skills Make My Ass Look Creepy?

A while ago, over at Skepchick, Elyse asked for suggestions for dealing with the “creepy dude factor” as a barrier to women’s participation in skeptic and atheist events. A (thankfully small) number of guys asked whether their geeky lack of social skills or someone else’s would be classed as part of that problem. I would love to be able to say that if you think to ask, then no, you’re not part of the problem. But…

Yes, guys, sometimes your social skills are part of the problem. However, it isn’t in the way that you think it is. It isn’t because you’re awkward or not sure how to manage your body language. It isn’t because you don’t say the same things everyone else is saying.

It’s because you can’t set aside being self-conscious long enough to notice that someone just asked for your help with something really damned important.

Still don’t know what behavior I’m talking about, or Elyse was talking about? All you have to do is wait.

yeah… people I’ve never met before falling all over me trying to lay the charm and flattery on thick is CREEPY as hell. Far more creepy than some WoW geek. HOWEVER, if that WoW geek is making a lot of rape jokes, or describes his character’s latest exploits as “raping the shit out of other character” whatever, that is ALSO creepy as hell (apparently this may be common in many games?? I don’t play, I don’t know, but it’s not appropriate in a social meeting). Being condescending is also a super turn off and mostly just annoying, not necessarily creepy, but still likely to make me want to stay home next time.

Not that hard to understand. Neither is this.

The last time I played D&D, two male players spent the whole game having their characters attempt to rape my character, saying it was “in character” for them to do so.

And if the women explaining it isn’t enough for you to understand creepy, just wait for the guys to show up and demonstrate.

i have no interest in learning about your likes and dislikes, i’d rather talk about the last speaker or an issue brought about by that weirdo woman who talked about female porn at TAM london, romanticizing sex at a public venue is sorta lame.

i mean honestly, what percentage of your sexual encounters, are filled with bouquet of flowers, rose pedals leading to the bedroom, champagne and caviar, cheesy music, constant wind to blow back each persons’ hair, and it going on for an hour?

this creepy guy comment brought to you by the committee for more relaxed attitude toward strangers and sponsored by the get over yourself foundation.

Once you stop looking at yourself for a few minutes, it becomes kinda obvious. But to get back to you, since that’s your main concern, what’s so creepy about the way you’re behaving?

How do I put this? Well, think of it this way. When was the last time you had to tell the world that you didn’t feel safe, that you were dealing with people who thought it was funny that you were scared, that you were dealing with people who thought they had a right to whatever they wanted from you?

Okay, there’s a good chance you’ve never been in that position, but try to imagine it. Imagine that kind of insecurity, that kind of fear. Now imagine the risk involved in telling someone else how vulnerable you know you are.

Now imagine that person’s response is “Huh. You don’t think I’ll have trouble making friends or getting a date because I don’t know how to make small talk, do you?”

That’s where you get creepy.

Look, guys. You don’t need to know how to make small talk. You don’t need to know how to make someone laugh. You do need to figure out how to listen to what someone says and understand that sometimes it’s time to put aside your own concerns. It’s really that simple.

Do These Social Skills Make My Ass Look Creepy?

Veganism and Virtue

I posted a link to this article a while ago on my Facebook profile, and it sparked an interesting discussion. Let’s see whether that happens again here.

Many of you know that I have recently been struggling for the first time in my life with health problems. When I discovered that my problems were a direct result of my vegan diet I was devastated. 2 months ago, after learning the hard way that not everyone is capable of maintaining their health as a vegan, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life and gave up veganism and returned to eating an omnivorous diet. My health immediately returned. This experience has been humbling, eye-opening, and profoundly transformative. To hear the whole story just keep reading…

I’ve been known to get into arguments with proselytizing vegans online for reasons that are made all too clear in this post. The typical scenario is that a vegan diet is sold as a great moral good because it contains no animals (read “no death”) that is healthful because it is good. It isn’t hard to find the absurdity in this position. After all, the diet that causes the least death in the world is a starvation diet, containing no food at all. However, despite the existence of those who claim to live on breath alone, we can all generally understand that, well, that diet would kill us.

Yet somewhere in between, proselytizing vegans don’t recognize that morally good does not equal healthful. A vegan diet works for some people but not all. It’s a less efficient diet, and not all of us absorb nutrients equally well, for a number of reasons.

The problem is that because veganism is viewed as a moral good, the inability to absorb all necessary nutrients from the diet, even with supplementation, is viewed as a moral failing. Read the post to see what the writer was subjected to when she discovered she couldn’t live as a vegan.

Then keep reading to see her deconstruct the idea of the vegan diet as a moral good.

Veganism and Virtue

Twelve Months of Almost Diamonds

DrugMonkey is perpetuating a meme again. He does it so rarely, it stays fun to participate. This meme is simple: Post a link to your first(ish) blog post in each month along with the first sentence of the post. So here’s a quick year in review.

January: I’m feeling like crap for a number of reasons, including complications of the surgery and a plain old cold, so I haven’t been posting regularly, but this did catch my attention today.

February: Tired of Valentine’s Day advertising?

March: Two blog anthologies made recent announcements I’d like to share.

April: We have a corner lot in the city, with plantings where a lot of people would have lawn, so lots of trash gets blown into our yard and stays for a while.

May: How do you build up a movement with destructive criticism?

June: “Because I said so” may be four of the most satisfying words in the English language.

July: Still in the middle of a couple of insanely busy weeks, but I’m enjoying them immensely, due in no small part to my honeymooning Canuckistanian friends.

August: Something interesting happened just the other day.

September: I’m delivering a guest lecture at a local community college this evening on religious skepticism.

October: Yesterday and today are the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN.

November: There’s a certain irony in the conservatives saying that they’re “taking back their country,” because that’s exactly what I intend to do tomorrow.

December: Let’s just go through a few of the highlights since my last blog post, shall we?

Twelve Months of Almost Diamonds