Friday, December 29, 2006

82. Man's civility lacking naturally

It was a terrible irony when Steve Irwin, of Crocodile Hunter fame, was killed by a stingray barb while filming in Australia. The irony is further exemplified because I understand that the likelihood that someone would die from a stingray is pretty remote.

I cannot say that I really watched the Crocodile Hunter more than a couple of times, mostly in passing, but his death was tragic from an ecological standpoint. Few others have reached out in the preservation of ecosystems as well as the care and understanding of nature's most obscure and dangerous animals in a more oddly eloquent way than the heavy-accented Australian.

However, following Irwin's death, reports began to surface that stingrays were being killed and mutilated by people- probably out of both fear and revenge. Such action is both ignorant and in exact opposition of what Steve Irwin would have wanted. The Times-Online reported, "The dead stingrays have been discovered on two beaches in Queensland State, where Mr. Irwin lived and ran his popular wildlife park, Australia Zoo. Two of the unfortunate rays, discovered today, were retrieved with their tails lopped off, according to local fishery officials."

Equally tragic and ironic were the deaths of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were killed by the grizzly bears they so endeared while producing the documentary Grizzly Man. However, many people are attacked and killed by animals- most often by bears and dogs. In almost every case, the responsible animals are tracked and killed, as well as any others guilty by association. This action by humans as a measure of revenge against animals is certain, regardless of celebrity status or the type of attack.

An attack on humans is a death sentence for the animal. This is difficult to understand since these animals are acting like the animals we insist they are. When we expect them to accept the abuse of living for human appetite we separate them from their consciousness, pain and spirit. When animals harm a human, suddenly they are conniving murderers. This is a deplorable sentence when one considers that some of the animals, such as pit bulls, are bred specifically for their aggressiveness. And others, such as bears, are acting in a manner consistent with their genetic programming- an argument that saves human murderers from the death penalty on the grounds of lacking mental capacity.

I understand the premise that if an animal attacks one person, it might attack and harm another. Of course, this automatically dismisses the idea that attack was provoked by an insensitive or abusive human. It also dismisses the criminal plea of temporary insanity. There is no trial or witness testimony, the animal, and often others like it, is executed as readily as possible.

I realize that this is an uphill argument, but sometimes I wonder just how much we want nature's deck stacked in our favor. It as though no other species have a say as to what happens on our planet. It is not enough that we destroy their habitats and pollute the planet's air and water. It is not enough that many live and die miserably on "factory farms" or are tested on for human benefit. Humans rule and we decide which animals are to be food, which are to survive and when to execute those that question our authority. Our domination seems to forbid any measure taken by an animal in fighting back and protecting itself. It is apparent that natural selection and the survival of the fittest only apply to other species- humans have crowned themselves exempt from nature's struggles. Consequently, it is somewhat ironic that the more we attempt to distinguish ourselves from nature's cruelty, as a civilized being, the more harm we seem to inflict on other species.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

81. Who's fighting this war?

Traveling down Route 2 upon our first snow of the season, and our first taste of the holiday season, I trailed a car that had a bumper sticker that read, "Merry Christmas: How is THAT offensive?" Not long after I learned that Wal-Mart had decided to greet their customers with "Merry Christmas," rather than the politically correct, "Happy Holidays." I found these two incidents oddly related, and contemplated the issue a bit further.

My question was, is wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" offensive? I am among the staunchest civil libertarians and an outspoken non-theist, yet I do not ever remember being offended when wished a Merry Christmas. However, according to the media, there seems to be a "War on Christmas." And, for many, the war is real- as evidenced by those that rejoiced in Wal-Mart's decision and the amount of Christmas Cards sent to the ACLU.

My curiosity was aroused, and I decided to find out if there was indeed a "War on Christmas," and if so, who was responsible and what exactly people were fighting about. I conjured up a small, very unscientific, survey and e-mailed it to both my religious and non-religious (agnostic and atheist) friends. In addition to the "War on Christmas," I wanted to know if people, specifically my non-religious friends, were offended by the "Merry Christmas" greeting. I also wondered if my religious friends were upset at the political correctness implied in wishing folks a "Happy Holiday."

I received dozens of responses, and the results were a little surprising. Most of the non-theists did not acknowledge a "War on Christmas," while nearly all the religious responses felt that there was. As for a greeting of "Merry Christmas," only 2 of 26 non-theists said that they were offended. It seems, almost conclusively, that the war for political correctness is not being fought by non-theists. Conversely, the religious response was that they were, often very, upset about being asked to be politically correct. Many of the arguments focused on the theme that this is a "Christian nation." Non-theists blamed the media and the conservative base for making an issue out of nothing, while religious responses primarily blamed the ACLU and atheists. Finally, in a show of solidarity, both non-theists and theists felt that Wal-Mart changed their policy for financial gain and publicity. I would agree, I think it is a great strategic move by Wal-Mart- attempting to mobilize the conservative base- at a time when they are facing increased resistance from communities.

It seems then, unexpectedly, that Christians were more offended at the political correctness of "Happy Holidays," than non-theists were over "Merry Christmas." In other words, being politically correct is more offensive to Christians than not being politically correct is to non-theists. Christians seem to be rallying behind the premise that their "right" to say "Merry Christmas" has been taken away. However, it might only be a self-inflicted skirmish.

One atheist made this comment, "As a former member of a cultic fundamentalist group, I know it is valuable as a method to maintain cohesiveness in a group to make the members feel embattled, that the world is against you." Whether it is the ACLU, atheists or the media that is responsible for the "War on Christmas," there is certainly a measure of embattlement. My survey was retuned by the ACLU which noted that they are inundated with Christmas cards, empty donation envelopes, and large donations on closed bank accounts. Furthermore, some of the Christmas cards are filled with expletives and the ACLU voice mail is often filled by after-hour callers. Promoted by Christian groups to their members, and through e-mail campaigns, the endeavor does not seem very kind or Christian-like.

For the record, the ACLU's involvement in Christmas is limited to the separation of church and state insomuch as it related to the government endorsement of a particular religion. While it may occasionally represent religious discrimination, it does not have any influence over corporate or individual decisions regarding how the holidays are celebrated. Much of this misinformation is propagandized by the media and people like Bill O'Reilly. In truth, governments are permitted to exhibit some religious displays so long as secular displays are also represented.

While I favor diversity, respect and consideration as a measure of inclusiveness, I am not always in favor of political correctness. What I am in favor of is discourse, and believe that with understanding- ignorance and prejudice would be eradicated. The unwritten rule forbidding the discussion of religion and politics in many arenas only amplifies the misinterpretations. People need to be willing to have a civilized debate, and to occasionally change their minds. It is this level of discussion that might eventually lead to real political correctness. Because, like saying you are "sorry," political correctness only means something if it is sincere.

Non-Christians have the same guaranteed rights as Christians, but must also accept that that the majority of this country is Christian, complete with their holidays and traditions. On the other hand, Christians must acknowledge and embrace the premise that just because they represent the majority, they cannot trample the rights, culture and traditions of the minority. While not personally offensive, wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" is exclusive and presumptive.

Minorities have the same right to celebrate the holiday season as Christians. Other religions celebrate traditional December holidays, such as Hanukkah, and the non-religious celebrate other events such as Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice. In fact, for those unacquainted with the "real" story of Christmas, it actually began as a celebration of the winter solstice, as noted here by the History Channel:

"The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.

The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking."

Moreover, it is unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25. The history and tradition of this holiday is as muddled as religion itself. In fact, it was the Roman god Mithra that was said to have been born on December 25- which, incidentally, is also the date of the pagan Saturnalia festival. The History Channel continues:

"In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention the date for his birth. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25."

The winter holiday season is my favorite time of the year, narrowly winning favor over the comfortable autumn tone. There seems to be a kindness in the air, save the indomitable holiday shopper and the perplexing, as debated here, choice of seasonal greeting. Many of the responses from my survey spoke about the meaning of the holiday season and Christmas- an affection that my family and I share. Nearly all responders, theists and non-theists, share the holiday tradition with family and friends, and engage in the exchange of gifts.

Perhaps my favorite plea was for the traditional "peace on Earth and goodwill to men." There are so many important issues in the world, such as war, disease and poverty, it almost seems ridiculous to waste time analyzing what is most often a sincere and warm holiday greeting. In the end, the decision is a personal one, and with that, I would like to wish everyone a wonderful holiday season- and not just because it is politically correct.