Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

I was so happy to see this outside the psychology department.

The whole controversy on our campus surrounding Cru and their “I Agree with Markwell” campaign has gotten me thinking about proselytism. (Proselytism, in case you don’t know, is just a fancy word for trying to convert people to another religion.)

In my view, proselytism is wrong.

I have two foundations for this view. One of them is my knowledge of psychology. Research in social psychology has confirmed, over and over again, that people are much more susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation than we’d like to believe. (For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to list studies here because I’m assuming most people have taken Psych 101 and have learned about them. But if you’re curious, ask, and I’ll send you a dozen.)

The success of dubious religious ventures like witch hunts and cults suggests that adding a spiritual element makes peer pressure even more potent. If people can be persuaded to do even such ridiculous and terrible things, how hard will it be to persuade them to take a pamphlet, give out their email address, come to church, donate money, gradually abandon the beliefs they’d had before?

This is especially harmful when it comes to non-Christians, who are a minority in the U.S. (and, in fact, in many other places). In many ways, it’s difficult enough as is to maintain your own beliefs and practices when the entire surrounding culture immerses you in another belief system. If you don’t believe me, talk to a Jewish kid at Christmastime. I still remember how indignant I felt when other kids got a big present from each of their extended family members and I got just one.

But in all seriousness, science typically shows that people are very suggestible. Proselytizing groups may claim that the only people who convert are people who really, genuinely, truly want to be Christians, I’m not so sure that you can always tell the difference between really, genuinely, truly wanting something, and being subtly manipulated into wanting that thing. And while I concede that Northwestern’s Cru chapter represents only the mildest, most harmless form of proselytism, I oppose any action that implies that you, the proselytizer, know better than everyone else.

Which brings me right to my next point. The second foundation for my opposition to proselytism is my moral code. I believe that, with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others. I place religion on the same plane as several other areas of human experience, such as sexuality–things that are personal and that have no impact on anyone but ourselves. For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not. So why would you attempt to convince them to believe the things you believe?

I obviously don’t think that all forms of persuasion are wrong. Arguing about politics is valuable and important because political decisions affect all of us. Influencing people’s purchasing decisions via marketing is necessary for our economy to work. If done sensitively, talking to someone who seems to be making a harmful decision about their career, relationships, etc. could be very helpful.

But ultimately, a person’s inner life belongs to them alone, and most people value that inner life and resent attempts to intrude upon it. I think intruding upon it is wrong.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that mine is the best moral code in the world and that everyone should adopt it and that people who do not adopt it are Bad. If I thought that, it would make me no better than the Markwell people.

But I do think that we’d have less conflict in our society if people lived by a code such as this one, and it works for me because it helps me feel like I’m treating others with respect.

Is this moral code completely incompatible with evangelical Christianity? Yes. Christians and others who proselytize genuinely believe that others need to be saved/brought to Jesus/what have you, or else they’ll go to hell. However, it’s important to note that this brand of Christianity is incompatible with all other belief systems, including most Christian ones. In this brand of Christianity, only two types of people exist in the world: good Christians and people who haven’t been converted yet.

And before anyone goes all First Amendment on me, note that I would never suggest that proselytism should be illegal. After all, it’s a form of free speech. Laws have nothing to do with my argument.

After all, not everything that’s legal is right. It’s perfectly legal to spread rumors, use the n-word, and cheat on your partner. And yet these are things that we almost universally agree are wrong. Why? Because they hurt others.

Proselytism may not hurt in the same way that getting cheated on does, but it hurts in a more insidious way. It erodes minority traditions and belief systems and destroys trust between different religious groups.

For instance, if you ask Northwestern students whether or not they’d be willing to engage with Cru in any way, many of them will now tell you no. It’s not hard to figure out why: Cru members made their condescension and disrespect for others’ faith blatant when they expressed their wish to convert us all to Christianity. (In fact, this whole episode inspired me to join Northwestern’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Apparently I’m not the only one.)

The various forms of backlash that “I Agree with Markwell” has inspired, much of which has taken on a deeply anti-Christian tone, only proves my point. While I obviously don’t condone insulting people or their religious beliefs and wish that people would be more civil, I’m not surprised that so many Northwestern students are so annoyed and angry at Cru. After all, they basically told us that we’re going to hell. Their proselytism has, in a way, torn this campus apart.

I don’t think that my moral code is one that will ever be adopted by our majority-Christian society. But I do think that the world would be a better place if people learned to leave each other alone. You may disagree.

America: Still a Puritan Country

An apology that shouldn't be necessary.

Among the many things that disgust me about American culture, such as the spectacle of parents shoving McNuggets down their kids’ throats and of people desperately trying to get famous by releasing moronic YouTube videos or starring on any one of numerous TV shows meant just for this purpose, one thing that always gets me is the image of a politician or athlete standing in front of a microphone in a room full of reporters and apologizing for his (or her, but it’s almost always a man) personal sexual choices.

I don’t understand this about American culture. I’ve lived here for twelve years now, and I still don’t understand it. Why is it that someone we value for his contributions to politics (or sports or acting or whatever) must also be a pinnacle of human achievement and morality in every possible regard? Why can’t we realize that people are never perfect?

I am completely shocked by the fact that people are now calling for Rep. Weiner’s resignation. Does his sex life affect his ability to make laws? No? Then there’s no reason for him to resign.

Cheating is “bad.” But so is, arguably, driving SUVs, yelling at family members, and being a Buckeyes fan, for instance. Granted, these things are less “bad” then cheating. So how do we decide what’s bad enough to warrant asking someone to resign from their position?

One argument that I hear a lot is that prominent figures are “role models” for our nation’s children and should therefore be held responsible for their personal misdeeds. Well, with Weiner, this may not exactly be relevant, but it certainly applies to other notables whose sex life has become a matter of public record, such as Tiger Woods. As much as I doubt that a little kid who loves sports and strives to imitate Tiger’s dedication to his game would also choose to mimic his dalliances with strippers or whatever they were, I do think this can be a teachable moment. A parent could explain to their kid that sometimes people who are really great at some things make mistakes when it comes to other things, or that sometimes being really talented and famous makes people do bad things. Can we move on now?

Another argument I hear is that the problem isn’t necessarily the sexting thing, but the fact that he lied about it. Well, why shouldn’t he? It’s his business. Saying “no comment” amounts to admitting it’s true, so the only option is to lie. If I did something that I know my friends would disapprove of, and they start asking me if I did that thing or not, I would undoubtedly say no. Because it’s my business.

When it comes to apologies, there is only one person that Weiner should apologize to–his wife. The rest of America should not require an apology from him for something that’s none of their business. I don’t need his apology.

If nothing else, the reaction to the Weiner scandal–actually, the fact that it was even a scandal to begin with–shows that the Puritans who founded this country must be smiling down upon us from heaven, because we’ve proudly continued on their legacy. In this country, if you’re a prominent figure and you do one bad thing, you are a Bad Person, and you must apologize to the entire nation, resign from your position, and live out the rest of your days in quiet solitude, pondering your sins.

If Weiner resigns, I know that I personally will be extremely disappointed. Not only because we’ve lost a member of government who might’ve done some good, but because this sets a precedent–a person who broke no laws and committed no crimes can be forced to lose his job just because we don’t consider him “moral” enough.

Sex, Morals, and Academic Freedom

A fucksaw.[First, some backstory--this post concerns a controversial event at Northwestern in which the professor for a class called Human Sexuality held an optional live demonstration that showed a man penetrating a woman with a sex toy. The story, which was first reported by our campus newspaper (the Daily Northwestern), quickly blew up and was featured in media outlets all over the world, including the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Here are the NYT and CNN articles on it.

Second, I wrote this piece for the blog of Northwestern Sex Week, an annual event that I'm on the planning committee of. Here's the original post.]

Much has already been written about the infamous Professor Bailey and the optional sex-toy demonstration he held for his Human Sexuality class. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.

First of all, I’m not in the class and did not witness the demonstration. From what I’ve heard, I’m not sure that it would’ve had educational value for me, personally. That said, I am a member of SHAPE (Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators) and the Sex Week committee, and therefore, I already know quite a bit about sex. And yes, I know that women have g-spots and can potentially ejaculate. I also know that the range of human sexualities and sexual proclivities is virtually limitless, and that each individual views and experiences sex differently.

However, not everybody realizes this. For much of my adolescence, I didn’t either. Like some of the people I’ve met here at Northwestern, I freely labeled others’ sexual behaviors as disgusting, weird, abnormal, pathological. I didn’t realize how wrong this perspective was. The impression I get of Professor Bailey’s class and this demonstration is that they aim to eradicate this perspective. To that end, I can only endorse them both with complete confidence.

Second, even supposing that this demonstration had no educational value for anyone–which I highly doubt–we enter dangerous territory when we advocate banning something simply because we, as individuals, do not see its value. This is especially true in the academic realm. The concept of intellectual freedom does not exist to protect someone’s right to claim that the sky is blue; it exists to protect someone’s right to challenge existing norms and assumptions. It does not exist just to protect my English professor’s right to interpret a Dickens novel in a particular way; it exists to protect a human sexuality professor’s right to teach controversial material to his students. Even if Professor Bailey’s demonstration ultimately taught nothing, he should have the right to try unorthodox teaching styles, just like he has the right to conduct unorthodox research. Even if he failed, he has learned. That’s what academic life is all about.

I am also disappointed to read the numerous online comments from Northwestern alumni claiming that, because they disagree with this demonstration, they will no longer be donating money to Northwestern. This is, to put it bluntly, incredibly selfish and narrow-minded. In my opinion, one donates to an institution to support its overall mission, not because one agrees with every policy, every professor, every class, and every lecture. I, for instance, do not agree with some of the things that Northwestern faculty and administrators do–quite a lot of things, actually. Yet you can be sure that after I graduate, I will be donating money to this amazing school, probably for the rest of my life.

Third, this entire controversy, in my opinion, was started by a campus media given to sensationalism. With the media firestorm that has ensued, you would think that there had been some high-profile complaint from a student or parent, some allegation that the demonstration deeply disturbed a student–something. To my knowledge, there was not. In the article that broke the story, the Daily Northwestern failed to quote even a single person, student or otherwise, who had been offended or displeased by the presentation. Yet the article’s headline referred to this event as a “controversy.”

Finally, I would like to challenge all those who oppose this demonstration on moral grounds. Professor Bailey himself said it perfectly in his statement of apology:

Those who believe that there was, in fact, a serious problem have had considerable opportunity to explain why: in the numerous media stories on the controversy, or in their various correspondences with me. But they have failed to do so. Saying that the demonstration “crossed the line,” “went too far,” “was inappropriate,” or “was troubling” convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning. If I were grading the arguments I have seen against what occurred, most would earn an “F.” Offense and anger are not arguments.

Students were warned multiple times of the graphic nature of the presentation, and told that they were free to leave at any time. The individuals who staged and participated in the demonstration were all consenting adults. The course itself involves watching videos of people having sex, and no controversy has arisen because of that. The course, and this demonstration, involves an act that is as normal and natural as breathing, eating, and sleeping. Like Professor Bailey, I have yet to find a convincing argument for why this should not have happened that does not hinge on personal values, and that does not seek to impose one’s personal values on others.

In short, the fact that Professor Bailey was forced to apologize for the world’s closed-mindedness is tragic. And it means that we, the Sex Week committee, have our work cut out for us this year.

Let’s not forget that there was a time when you couldn’t say the word “pregnant” on television. There was a time when discussing sexuality in a classroom setting would’ve been impermissible. There was a time when a play like the Vagina Monologues could never have been staged in public, and there was a time when Sex Week could never have happened on a university campus.

Apparently, there is also a time when demonstrating the use of a sex toy on a consenting woman in front of a hundred consenting adults is unacceptable, too. That time is now. But we should remember how strange–how silly–yesterday’s taboos seem to us today.