"You can go on the internet, you can order these things by mail, . . . make phone calls, and you can get it delivered by mail, you all know that Alaska Airlines will do Goldstreak and you can get things even quickly that way if you need to. So I don’t think access is a problem, I don’t think that finance, that economics is, and my own view is that by and large sexual activity is recreation. Now if you're doing the activity for procreation, obviously birth control is counter-indicated."- Eagle River's Sen. Fred Dyson from the Legislative 360 North via the Anchorage Daily News has already received plenty of attention for this statement (plus the rest of it which you can view at the ADN link above.)
I'd like to play out a little story I imagined when I heard about it and then also talk a little history and use Jonathan Haidt's ideas about moral traits to try to understand the mental gap here.
The Condom - A Short Story
The wind whistled through the poorly insulated wooden home in a rural village off the Alaska road system. He'd come knocking a couple of hours ago, knowing her mother was away. She was excited about having a boyfriend, yet a little fearful of what it all meant. He'd brought some beer and they'd both had too much. She had refused the beer at first, but she didn't want to appear just a child. Her body responded to his hands, yet she could hear her mom warning her about getting pregnant. "We can't do this," she cried out. "We don't have any condoms."
He looked down on her and smiled. He pulled out his cell phone and called Alaska Airlines. "Goldstream me a dozen condoms," he said into the phone. Then he looked back at her, "Problem solved."
Fred Dyson can rightfully claim that wasn't what he meant when he said "you can get things even quickly" but it's what came to mind.
His Alaska Senate page says that Fred Dyson was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, January 16, 1939. That means he's just had his 75th birthday. He went to high school in Seattle and has been married since 1966. He would have been 27. In 1966 the US was just starting to emerge from an era in which pre-marital sex was roundly condemned in mainstream culture. People didn't "live together," they "shacked up" and it was not accepted at all as it is today. The summer of love in San Francisco was a year away.
But nature has a way of overcoming social norms and sex was certainly part of many people's high school lives. But condoms were not sold over the counter. You had to ask the pharmacist for prophylactics. Birth control pills were approved only six years earlier and were still illegal in some states. For girls, pregnancy changed everything. (It still does, of course.) I remember when straight A student XX suddenly vanished from school, no explanations offered. You were disgraced, and many a young couple were quickly forced to get married. And as in XX's case, more often than not, these marriages didn't last. Roe v. Wade was still seven years off, though a couple of states were beginning to legalize abortions. Illegal abortion was a risky endeavor which hundreds of thousands of women a year undertook.
And the happy American family portrayed on shows like Ozzie and Harriet weren't exactly how things were. From Digital History:
[Note: I haven't independently verified this, but it appears to be a solid source, put up by the College of Education at the University of Houston. The quote is just a small part of a long piece titled, "Does the American Family Have a History? Family Images and Realities."]
- It was only in the 1920s that, for the first time, a majority of American families consisted of a breadwinner-husband, a home-maker wife, and children attending school.
- The most rapid increase in unwed pregnancies took place between 1940 and 1958, not in the libertine sixties.
- The defining characteristics of the 1950s family--a rising birth rate, a stable divorce rate, and declining age of marriage--were historical aberrations, out of line with long term historical trends.
- Throughout American history, most families have needed more than one breadwinner to support themselves.
I've recently become aware of the work of Jonathan Haidt who's written on morality and the human mind.
Haidt argues, in the Ted Talk video below, that to a certain extent, our minds are pre-programmed. Our environments will have an impact too, but we aren't blank slates. He argues humans come pre-programmed with five basic moral traits:
- (Keeping the vulnerable from harm)
- Fairness/reciprocity (Do onto others . . .)
- In-group loyalty
- Authority/respect (and the need to keep order in groups)
“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease”[Looking at the link above the quote, I suspect this is like offering "light is speedy" to represent Einstein's theories. Here's a link to the poem that this quote seems to come from.]
Haidt tells us more in an interview on Social Science Space. He’d been studying morality across countries and was bummed that GWB won in 2000 and 2004.
“So when I was invited to give a talk to the Charlottesville Democrats in 2004, right after the election, I said ‘Alright, well let me take this cross-cultural theory that I’ve got, and apply it to Left and Right, as though they’re different cultures.’ And boy, it worked well! I expected to get eaten alive: I was basically telling this room full of Democrats that the reason they lost is not because of Karl Rove, and sorcery and trickery, it’s because Democrats, or liberals, have a narrower set of moral foundations: they focus on fairness and care, and they don’t get the more groupish or visceral, patriotic, religious, hierarchical values that most Americans have.In the split between conservatives and liberals (that the media's reporting of both reinforces and aggravates) both sides move to group loyalty and attack those in their groups who would talk about cooperation with outsiders. We can see Tea Party candidates doing this with establishment Republicans. But liberals also play this game. I'm regularly chastised for not thoroughly condemning 'the enemy' as in this post.
Back to Dyson
I believe that Dyson is wrong in his argument, but I think knowing the world he was raised in and knowing about Haidt's moral traits, we can at least understand how he came to say what he said. Dyson’s argument has an internal logic if you buy his basic assumptions. His respect for authority and for purity and sanctity are reinforced by group loyalty. The basis of his argument is about personal responsibility and the unfairness of having to pay for other people's birth control.
In the Social Science Space interview, Haidt describes Dyson's comments years before Dyson said them. Haidt talks about how he watched a lot of Fox news, like an ethnographic study, to understand how conservatives think. What he found back then, I think helps describe Dyson’s thinking:
"I would watch Fox News shows, and at first it was kind of offensive to me, but once I began to get it, to see ‘Oh I see how this interconnects’ and ‘Oh, you know if you really care about personal responsibility, and if you’re really offended by leeches and mooches and people who do foolish things, then want others to bail them out, yeah, I can see how that’s really offensive, and if you believe that, I can see how the welfare state is one of the most offensive things ever created’. So, I started actually seeing, you know, what both sides are really right about: certain threats and problems. And once you are part of a moral team that binds together, but it blinds you to alternate realities, it blinds you to facts that don’t fit your reality."So, where Dyson sees people who haven’t taking personal responsibility for their lives and doesn’t see why the tax payer should pay for them to have sex with state funded contraceptives, Senator Berta Gardner (who responded to Dyson in the Senate committee) sees poor women as unfairly treated, in a society that structurally disadvantages them. It’s not that poor people are lazy and don’t take responsibility, it’s that society’s structure has doomed most of them to low paying jobs where they work long and hard, yet still earn too little to live even the most basic American Dream life.
My point here is not to debate Dyson. but to point out that he AND his detractors would achieve more success in the legislature for the people of Alaska, if they both acknowledged that they probably don't know everything and probably are not right about everything. (And if they did, their next election opponents would quote them in attack ads.) Dyson, I believe, strongly believes what he says and probably is just as perplexed by those attacking him as they are by what he proposed. Understanding his logic AND the values that underlie it, are the first steps to real communication and potential resolution that doesn't violate anyone's values. (No, I don't think we're as far apart as the extremists say and the media echo. Yes, I know that there will always be some people who won't be satisfied.)
Without recognizing and acknowledging that the other side probably has valid points, we deny their humanity and they ours. They aren't the enemy, and certainly not agents of Satan. Rather, each side places greater weight on different values and thus each side sees different ‘facts’ and interprets what they see differently.
Dyson sees lazy people doing frivolous things and thinks they should pay for it themselves, not using taxpayer money. Gardner sees state funded birth control as an act of compassion to poor people struggling to get by in a society tilted against them. Furthermore she believes that easy access to, and use of, birth control would lead to fewer unwanted babies and more ability for women to get an education and keep a job. She sees the immediate costs to taxpayers of supplying the birth control as cheap compared to the long term costs of dealing with kids whose parents didn’t want them and aren’t capable of responsibly raising them.
I should probably mention that my personal interactions with Sen. Dyson occurred at Alaska's political corruption trials. It turned out he was attending the trials and also reading my blog posts which he said he liked. He was polite and respectful. Another time I had to call him to ask him about a mistake he'd made when introducing Joe Miller at a political rally. He again was cordial and acknowledged he'd made an error and had confused Miller with (current Senate candidate) Dan Sullivan. These were intersections of our lives where we had some common ground. Situations where what we saw in each other was positive, despite our strong differences in other areas. And I think these intersections would allow us to converse civilly on issues where our personal values would lead us to conflicting conclusions.
I'd strongly recommend Jonathan Haidt's Ted Talk on the moral mind. It supports my approach here which some of my readers find too sympathetic to the 'bad guys.' It does what is essential to break an impasse - it changes the discussion by focusing on the process rather than the content of the impasse. It asks people to look at their underlying values and to become conscious of their behavior. [I don't see this video in my preview, so if it doesn't work, you can find it (The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives) here.]
Responsibility of Politicians
I would add another aspect to this. I believe that Fred Dyson is certain that he's right. And in the United States, everyone is entitled to his opinion. But once you take the responsibility of political office, you have an obligation to represent fairly the views of as many as possible. (I know that not everyone can be satisfied.) You have a responsibility to listen to others and to seek 'the truth' rather than to simply seek a victory over those who disagree with you.
I believe that Dyson's missing a lot of the picture. Our understanding and practice of sex is very different from what it was when he was young. (And our belief of what it was when he was young is also probably flawed as the citations from digital history above suggest.)
Our differences have, perhaps, more to do with the moral standards Jonathan Haidt says we came pre-programmed with. The challenge is to test our truths, to find common ground with those who give more weight to other moral traits. Rigid, moralistic stances on either side won't lead to good legislation.
Of course, cooperating with 'the other' requires that the other is willing to also cooperate. My take on the Tea Party is that they are certain they are right as reflected in their refusal to compromise. Human history is littered with tragic stories of the suffering caused by those who believed they owned the truth and who had the political or physical power to enforce their truth.