Sunday, May 29, 2005

Honour for abortionist a disgrace to university

From the Web site of the University of Western Ontario (aka "Western"):
On Thursday, June 16 at 10 a.m. Western will confer an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a humanist leader who has promoted the idea that people have a right to control their own sexuality and reproduction, without interference by the state.

He founded the first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1968 and in the year that followed he challenged the criminal code by providing safe abortions for women in his clinic in Montreal.

His belief in a “Woman’s Right to Choose” eventually led to a change in the law.
Perhaps I had better provide a little more background. A blog is an international forum, and this is first and foremost a Canadian story. That said, anyone interested in the continuing controversy over abortion is likely to be stirred up by the story.

In the 1970s and 80s, Canada had a law which permitted abortion in hospitals, but only if certain criteria were met. Dr. Morgentaler decided the quickest way to legalize abortion on demand was to flout the law. He opened clinics in several provinces and offered abortions without regard to the legal criteria in place at the time. Inevitably, Dr. Morgentaler was charged with having committed a crime, just as he had planned.

After several legal battles, the case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988. In R. v. Morgentaler, the court ruled that Canada's abortion law constituted an unjustifiable violation of section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which reads,
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.
The court commented, "Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a foetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman's body and thus an infringement of security of the person." Thus the court struck down the abortion law.

On the other hand, the court recognized that the state might have a legitimate interest in the protection of the fetus. A different law might be deemed acceptable, providing that it achieved a better balance between the competing interests at stake:  the woman's right to security of the person and the state's interest in protecting the fetus. In particular, the state might justifiably limit access to abortion in the later months of a pregnancy.

The Canadian legislature made one attempt to replace the abortion law but could not achieve adequate support among Members of Parliament. In Canada there is presently no law prohibiting abortion at any stage of a pregnancy. Much of the credit (if that is the right word) for the situation must go to Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

Not surprisingly, Western's decision to confer an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Morgentaler is quite controversial. According to
Joanne McGarry, a Western graduate and executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said her organization is asking disgruntled alumni to register their displeasure by stopping their donations to the university.

"This man's sole contribution to Canada has been the taking of life in unprecedented numbers," said McGarry.
Western has also faced criticism from within its own faculty. Don McDougall, the Chair of UWO's Board of Governors, wrote an open letter to the university community. In the letter, Mr. McDougall comments, "For the past several years, [Dr. Morgentaler] has advocated abortion as a means of reducing poverty and criminality and removing unwanted children from our midst. This form of eugenics should offend most people in our academic community."

UWO alumni have started on online petition to protest the decision to honour Dr. Morgentaler. To date, they have collected 11,261 signatures.

Here is my take on Western's decision, as expressed in an open letter to UWO's President Paul Davenport. (I sent the original via e-mail on June 17, 2005. I haven't received a reply, but I don't presume that Western is under any obligation to reply to me.)

President Paul Davenport:

This e-mail should probably be directed to the Senate, since that is the body that awards honorary degrees. I couldn't find an e-mail address to contact the Senate, so I am voicing my objection through you.

Dr. Morgentaler represents different things to different people. For people who reduce abortion to a woman's choice, Dr. Morgentaler is a symbol of a great social good. But for people who are mindful not only of the woman, but also of the child whose life ends at abortion, Dr. Morgentaler is a symbol of a great social evil.

You comment, "Research universities like ours attach a very high value to encouraging differing points of view and debate." But how does the decision to honour Dr. Morgentaler "encourage" the alternative point of view on abortion?

As you know, Canada has had no abortion law since Dr. Morgentaler's personal victory in 1988. Over 100,000 pregnancies are aborted in Canada every year; to my mind, this is a horrific statistic. There is no law against third-trimester abortions. The child is not recognized as a person but stripped of his or her rights in law. Thus no attempt is made to balance the rights of the child and the mother.

That is what Dr. Morgentaler symbolizes for me. A very great social evil, indeed.

Some day, perhaps, another figure will emerge and achieve some kind of compromise which acknowledges the child as a party to the abortion. That figure may deserve to be honoured by Canadian institutions and individuals.

But Morgentaler? The Senate's decision to award him an honorary degree is a disgrace to the University of Western Ontario.

I could offer a further explanation of my opinion, but I think it's better to turn things over to you, the reader, at this point.

All points of view are welcome here, with a proviso that should be clear from my previous post. Present your position, defend it vigorously, but please … don't stoop to personal insults. Ad hominem arguments can only diminish your credibility.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Debating etiquette, part 2:  Diversionary tactics

The story thus far …

Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

In our last installment, we looked at assertions. There can be no debate without them. If you want to improve your debating skills, begin here:  be precise in wording your assertions and reduce them to their essence before setting out to defend them.

On the other hand, a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate.

Today we will explore a negative theme, as we turn our attention to diversionary tactics. If your goal is to win the debate, diversionary tactics are your friend. But if your goal is to discover truth — I hope this is your goal! — diversionary tactics are an obstruction to be avoided.

For the purposes of formal debate, logicians have identified dozens of logical fallacies. (I know, it's an oxymoron. Fallacies are illogical, not logical. Nobody ever said logicians were … well … logical.)

A logical fallacy will sidetrack your argument. It's like taking the wrong turnoff from a highway:  when you reach your destination, you discover you aren't where you intended to be. If your destination is Truth, logical fallacies are a shortcut to la-la land.

Believe it or not, some people will deliberately introduce logical fallacies to the argument. Their only goal is to win the debate, and they don't care if Truth is sacrificed in the process.

(You thought human beings were inherently good and decent folk? I regret to inform you that you were dead wrong.)

Everyone has heard of some of the classic logical fallacies. These include:
Circulus in demonstrando (circular reasoning)
This occurs when someone uses the very thing they are trying to prove as part of their argument to prove the thing.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (mistaking correlation for causation)
This is the mistake of thinking that because two things occur together, one must be a cause of the other.

Non Sequitur
Reaching a conclusion which does not strictly follow from the premises.
If debaters use any of the above, they may be guilty of nothing more than sloppy thinking.

I want to turn our attention to something more sinister:  diversionary tactics. An unscrupulous debater will deliberately introduce these logical fallacies to deflect you into an eccentric orbit. Here are some examples:
The red herring (speculation on the origin of the phrase)
This is the very model of a diversionary tactic. It involves presenting relatively unimportant arguments which will capture your attention like, say, a streaker at a football match. You waste precious energy beating an irrelevant argument into the ground and feel good about yourself the whole while. (Man, I am destroying this guy's position!) When you recover your senses you realize — too late! — that you haven't addressed the core issue of the debate.

The straw man (etymology of the phrase)
This involves creating a caricature of an opposing argument, which is therefore easy to refute. The straw man tells us nothing about the merit of the debater's actual position. Virtually any position can be made to look foolish by pushing it to a ludicrous extreme.

Argumentum ad misericordiam (appeal to pity)
Any argument designed to appeal to people's emotions instead of their reason. However moving the debater's rhetoric may be, his or her idea may still be unaffordable, impractical, unjust, or objectionable on some other legitimate grounds.
All of the above fallacies are regrettable, since they may deflect us from our goal. But there is one diversionary tactic I despise above all others:  the argumentum ad hominem. Such arguments are directed at the person (homin- means man) instead of the person's opinions.

Ad hominem arguments are especially objectionable because they are demeaning and unnecessarily hurtful. In my opinion, debaters should unfailingly treat each other with respect.

Some people are downright nasty in the comments they post on blogs. I think it must be due to the anonymity of the experience. All of us need a certain amount of social pressure to keep the darker side of our natures in check. But we aren't equally reliant on outside controls. Some people have an inner moral gyroscope that tends to keep them upright, while others are entirely dependent on external authorities to set appropriate boundaries.

Anonymity puts us to the test. If a person is kind and patient in person, but nasty when posting a comment on a blog, which kind of person is she? — the nasty kind. In the absence of social pressure, she reverts to her true nature.

If I am faced with an aggressive and condescending blogger, I will go through a series of steps with him (for simplicity's sake, I'll assume the blogger is male):
  1. I'll try to improve his conduct by setting a good example for him. In my experience, this is surprisingly effective. When people are treated with respect, and presented with a reasonable argument, most of them will rise to meet you at your level.

  2. If that approach fails, I'll point out the objectionable behaviour, using the most neutral language I can craft. That's one of the reasons I am writing this series of posts on debating etiquette. It will enable me to sidestep the incipient personality conflict and refer the blogger to a neutral standard.

  3. If that fails … I still won't sink to his level and respond in kind. Two better options remain open to me:

    (a) I can stop communicating with him. He may be keen on playing tug-of-war, but I don't have to pick up my end of the rope. This option requires a lot of self-restraint:  I'll be giving him the last word unless I take the extreme measure of blocking his access to my site.

    (b) I can take advantage of my superior intellect. (I must be smarter than this guy, since he can't engage me in meaningful debate.) I can slice him and dice him with surgical precision, exacting my pound of flesh without spilling a drop of his blood. To paraphrase a close colleague of mine, The Referee, I don't have to play the goon; I have talent.
Humour is a particularly effective weapon here. Your adversary is self-important and too earnest by half. Laugh at him and he will quit the field — he won't be able to cope with it.

Here's a wonderful example from Bystander, a British magistrate:
Jonathan Miller has followed up his earlier email thusly:-

You know perfectly well that magistrates get jobs via party lists – so why dissemble?
What a poltroon you are! But jumped up, all the same. Your little web notice claiming to be engaged in the business of law is frankly pathetic. You are not a lawyer. You are a lackey.
Yours with customary disrespect,

I am becoming a little worried about Mr. Miller. I think that he might need some attention to his sense of proportion. Still, at least he didn't call me a drink-sodden popinjay, although that might at least have been more accurate then the rest of what he says.

Commenter #1
I always viewed Miller as somewhat over rated. The only way he gains any real stature is by standing on the shoulders of his own self opinion.

Commenter #2
Wear this dickhead with pride, you're no-one until you've got a single-issue lunatic on your back.
Miller stands one pound lighter, and — OK, maybe there's a little blood on the floor. Commenter #2 stoops to gratuitous name-calling ("dickhead"). But Commenter #2 also illustrates a key point I'm trying to make:  he refuses to let Miller get under his skin. He laughs him off (this guy validates you, Bystander — wear him with pride).

This is the most effective way to deal with an aggressive and condescending blogger. If you lash out at him, he will just keep coming back for more. But if you laugh at him, he will quit the field.

Next up is my bound-to-be-controversial post on abortion. After that, I will proceed to "Debating etiquette, part 3:  arguments".

If you'd like a fuller description of argumentum ad homimem and other logical fallacies, this site impresses me as a good place to start:  logical fallacies. I don't entirely agree with the source's philosophy, but that's because we're writing for different purposes. (He is writing with a view to formal, competitive debates.)

Monday, May 23, 2005

Debating etiquette, part 1:  Assertions

Within the next few days, I intend to post on a controversial topic. I think I've figured out a way to piss off people on both sides of the abortion controversy. It's just possible that this will lead to some heated exchanges.

Before sticking my neck out, I would like to discuss some rules of engagement. I intend to explore the etiquette of debating in a series of posts. After this post on assertions, I will turn my attention to diversionary tactics, arguments, and premises.

Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

For me, Truth is a kind of holy grail. I believe that Truth and Ideology are often at war with one another, and my allegiance is to Truth.

Every debate begins with an assertion (or proposition). If the subject is controversial, someone is bound to respond with a counter-assertion. For example,
    • "The war in Iraq was necessary";
    • "The war in Iraq was a mistake."

Assertions are important: there can be no debate without them. In fact, if you want to improve your debating skills, this is the place to begin. Let me offer two tips, taken from the university setting.

First, university students are taught that every essay must have a thesis:  a simple statement (= assertion) that the student will defend in the body of the essay.

The same principle applies outside the university setting. Before you defend your position, you need to carefully define it. If your thinking is sloppy at this point, everything that follows will be confused and unpersuasive.

Second, university students are taught to reduce the thesis to its bare essence. When a first-year student presents the professor with a thesis statement, the professor invariably responds the same way:  "It's too broad. You need to narrow your focus." For example,
"Saddam Hussein was a sworn enemy of the United States. He might have had weapons of mass destruction and the Americans just haven't found them yet. Even if he didn't have any, he was going to develop some and then he would have presented a direct threat to American security."
(Poor thesis statement.)

"Saddam Hussein had to be removed from office before he found a way to strike the USA."
(Better thesis statement — although I personally think the war in Iraq was a mistake.)
The first example is open to rebuttal at several points. Remember that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. An effective debater will focus on your most vulnerable point and immediately put you on the defensive.

So drafting a good thesis statement is trickier than you might suppose. To be effective, your assertion must be precisely worded and reduced to its essence, like sap boiled down into maple syrup.

But there is more to a debate than this.

Judging from what I read in the blogosphere, many people mistake assertion / counter-assertion for debate. The worst blogs sometimes remind me of Monty Python's "argument booth" sketch.

For those of you who aren't Monty Python fans, I should explain the (typically absurd) premise: a client enters a business establishment where he pays someone to argue with him. (I downloaded the script here, presumably in violation of copyright law.)

[The client enters the room. The professional arguer is seated at a desk.]
Is this the right room for an argument?
I've told you once.

No you haven't.
Yes I have.

Just now!

No you didn't.
Yes I did!


I'm telling you I did!

You did not!
I'm sorry, is this a five minute argument, or the full half hour?

Oh … Just a five-minute one.
Fine. [makes a note of it] Thank you. Anyway, I did.

You most certainly did not.
Now, let's get one thing quite clear. I most definitely told you!

You did not.
Yes I did.

Yes I did.

Yes I did!!

Look, this isn't an argument.
Yes it is.

No it isn't, it's just contradiction.
No it isn't.

Yes it is.
It is not.

It is. You just contradicted me.
No I didn't.

Ooh, you did!
No, no, no, no, no.

You did, just then.
No, nonsense!

Oh, look, this is futile.
No it isn't.

I came here for a good argument.
No you didn't, you came here for an argument.

Well, an argument's not the same as contradiction.
It can be.

No it can't. An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.
No it isn't.

Yes it is. It isn't just contradiction.
Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.

But it isn't just saying 'No it isn't'.
Yes it is.

No it isn't. Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
No it isn't.

Yes it is.
Not at all.

Now look!
[presses the bell on his desk] That's it. Good morning.

But I was just getting interested.
Sorry, the five minutes is up.

That was never five minutes just now!
I'm afraid it was.

Now they have arrived at a different assertion (the five minutes is up) and counter-assertion (that was never five minutes!), but the dialogue is still stuck in the same rut.

The point is this: every debate begins with an assertion, but a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate.

Next time, we'll look at diversionary tactics, with particular reference to ad hominem arguments.

Belated haiku

The contest is over and a champion has been crowned. (See the low down on haiku). But here is a belated entrant to the field:
Long weekend, big plans
Mother Nature squats and sprays.
Cancel the parade.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The low down on haiku

A haiku is a poem consisting of three lines with a specific pattern of syllables: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.

You knew that! But there's more to it than the 5/7/5 pattern.

Here's a link to an interesting haiku story. (The story is worth reading for its own sake.) The author is a Jewish man who took a creative writing class with his wife, where he learned that a true haiku must:
  • express something about nature;
  • use very concrete terms, never generalities;
  • deal with the here and now; and
  • be composed of strong nouns and verbs. (It should rarely be necessary to use a modifier, like an adjective or an adverb.)
  • each line should contain a complete thought;
  • often the three lines are split into two parts, by a colon or a dash, with an imaginative distance between the two sections; and, finally,
  • the whole haiku should have a twist that conveys some insight by means of juxtaposition.
Ooh, a challenge! The gauntlet has been thrown down! Now I am compelled to compose a haiku of my own:
Five senses:  lovers'
portal to transcendent realms;
Earthy and sublime.
OK, I cheated, particularly by breaking up the first line. (Rule #41: each line should contain a complete thought.) But I conveyed an insight by means of juxtaposition not too badly, I think.

Form and content stand in uneasy tension with one another — that's where the challenge lies. The poet who perfectly executes both achieves nirvana on the spot.

Are you up to the challenge? Do you have the IQ for haiku?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Wisely ignorant

Socrates is reputed to be one of the wisest men who ever lived. Paradoxically, it was his ignorance that made him wise.

(Note to the reader: I am using the word ignorant in its original sense, "lacking knowledge, uninformed": not in its colloquial sense, "ill-mannered, uncouth". Socrates was aware that he lacked knowledge, which made him wise.)

There used to be a television show called "Kids say the Darndest Things". But I think adults say the darndest things, too. People sound off on subjects they know nothing about. They assume they know something: but based on what? They haven't studied the subject and they haven't trained themselves to think through issues in a methodical way. But they have an opinion, and they know they are right.

In person, I am cautious about expressing an opinion. (You might have formed a different impression of me, based on my blog!) As a result, I often find myself shut out of conversations. While I pause to think, someone else seizes the conversational ball, and I go back to listening.

I wouldn't mind, if only the other person had something thoughtful to say. But too often, the confidence with which people express an opinion is inversely proportional to how much they actually know about the subject. I end up wasting my time, listening to a foolish monologue.

Very few people can speak intelligently on a wide range of subjects. Most of us would do well to listen more and speak less.

Epictetus (an ancient Greek philosopher) put it this way: "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." A proverb attributed to Solomon says, "Whoever restrains his words has knowledge … even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise" (Proverbs 17:27-28).

But I began by speaking of Socrates. Here is his account of himself, when he was on trial before his fellow Athenians. The sentence structure is a little convoluted for a modern reader, so here's a brief summary: (1) The oracle at Delphi says there is no one wiser than Socrates. (2) Socrates is aware how little he knows, so he thinks the statement is absurd. He sets out to prove the oracle wrong. (3) Socrates learns that his ignorance is the very thing that makes him wiser than his fellows.

Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him…whether anyone was wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of what I am saying.

Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name.

When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? And what is the interpretation of his riddle? For I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature.

After long perplexity, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.”

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention, he was a politician; and in the process of examining him and talking with him, this, men of Athens, was what I found. I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.

So I left him, saying to myself as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really worth knowing, I am at least wiser than this fellow — for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this one little point, then, I seem to have the advantage of him.

…The truth is, O men of Athens, that god only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; although speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.

[excerpted from Plato's Apology]

A challenging message for those of us who blog!

Monday, May 09, 2005

Safe sharks, dangerous sofas

A lawyer friend of mine ( regularly sends me his newsletter. Here's a recent item I particularly enjoyed:
In law as in life, perspective is everything. Consider deer and sharks. Deer are cute, sharks are dangerous, right? Actually, in the US (where they have sharks and keep such statistics) more than twenty-two individuals die in collisions with deer for every person killed by a shark. In fact, for every person eaten by a shark, well over a thousand die when upholstered furniture catches fire. Just when you thought it was safe to sit on the couch….
I hesitate to bring up an old lawyer joke (especially where a friendship may be at stake) but my mind has made a quick lateral association.

I am reminded of the joke with the punchline about professional courtesy. Is it mere coincidence when a lawyer defends the reputation of sharks?

I'm just asking.

Berliners squelch Neo-Nazi parade

From today's Globe and Mail —

Neo-Nazis planned a parade through the streets of Berlin yesterday (V-E Day, the anniversary of the end of World War II).

Their original plan was to march through the Brandenburg Gate and past the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Legislators had managed to change the route, but the march was scheduled to go ahead.

"By 2 p.m., more than 3,000 black-shirted young skinheads from all over Germany, eastern and northern Europe had gathered" in a plaza. But that was as far as they got. Thousands of Berliners gathered and blocked every street.

"After several hours of waiting, the skinheads marched, in orderly fashion, to a subway station, where they disappeared under police escort underground, not to be seen again."

If only that last comment were true! — not to be seen again!

Orgasm Day

From today's Globe and Mail —

The mayor of Espertantina, Brazil, has declared May 9 a holiday: Orgasm Day.

Mayor Felipe Santolia is quoted as saying, "from what I've seen, women have more trouble achieving orgasm than men." No surprise there — the proposition is conventional, if regrettable. But then the mayor adds, "especially in marriage"! Say it ain't so!

According to the article, Espertantina is known for its religious fervour. Nonetheless, "the remote town of 38,000 people has been unofficially celebrating orgasm day for years." The newly-instituted official celebrations are described in the article.

But what goes on in the unofficial celebrations? — perhaps it's best left to the reader's imagination.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Gender-based differences

I'd better introduce this post by affirming my credentials as a liberal-minded individual.

For the record, then, I am reluctant to conclude that behavioural differences between men and women are innate. It's too easy to assume that the traditional division of roles has a biological basis, and is therefore immutable.

I'm particularly sensitive to this criticism because, as a man, I may be accused of having a vested interest in the traditional, paternalistic norms. (In fact, all the jobs I've had were of the sort more traditionally associated with women: for an example, see my previous post, which discusses my experience as a caregiver.)

Now that I've got that out of the way (whew!), I can turn to the subject I really want to address.

This article, A tenth of early teens sexually active: study, in today's Globe and Mail, summarizes a report from Statistics Canada. The main point of the article is, "More than a tenth of Canadian teenagers report having sex by the age of 15." But the report also touches on the issue of gender-based differences with respect to sexual behaviour:
The report also found that girls who had a weak "self concept" were more likely than those with a stronger sense of self to have had sex by 14 or 15.

"The opposite was true for boys," Statscan said.
Presumably this reflects what teenagers really want. Up to the age of 15, most teenaged girls prefer to keep their virginity. The self-confident ones say "No", and make sure that boys take "No" for an answer. The ones who lack self-confidence end up yielding to the boy's wishes, and having sex.

Most teenaged boys, on the other hand, are eager to lose their virginity even before age 15. The self-confident ones are more effective in persuading girls to have sex. The ones who lack self-confidence end up yielding to the girl's wishes, and go without.

I suppose this information only confirms what we all remember from high school. But aren't women — even young women — becoming as brash in their sexuality as men have always been?

Three thoughts:

(1) Perhaps we should draw a positive conclusion from the data: that young teenaged girls are exercising due caution. One biological fact will never change: sex is inherently more risky for the female than the male. Obviously this is true with respect to pregnancy, but it's also true with respect to STDs.

(2) Sex may be less of a thrill for a young woman than it is for a young man. I suspect that the average 14-year-old boy doesn't know what a clitoris is; or, if he knows what one is, he couldn't find it; or if (by some miracle) he knows what one is and can find it, he won't approach it with the necessary diplomacy.

Anecdotally, I understand that some men figure it out, years later. And some men never do.

(3) I'd like to think that the pattern changes as women age. Anecdotally, I understand that many women do not find themselves sexually until they approach age 40. Maybe, at that stage of life, women get to be the sexual aggressors some of the time.

More unwelcome news, from the same article:
Roughly three in 10 young people who had sex with multiple partners in the last year said they hadn't used a condom during their last encounter.
One day, we're going to get these things right. But apparently not in my lifetime.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

A beloved friend, vividly remembered

He was my friend, and he was unique.

I have to maintain confidentiality, so I won't use his real name. Let's call him Bruce.

Bruce was developmentally challenged from birth. He spent most of his life in an institution; everything was provided on site. There was a swimming pool and a bowling alley, for example. Medical and dental care were also provided within the institution.

It was rarely necessary for Bruce and his peers to leave the grounds. That's why, when I was growing up, I never met anyone like him. They were cloistered in a kind of parallel universe that did not intersect with mine.

Bruce was toilet trained and he learned to walk, but he never learned to speak. Not a single word. When people can't make themselves understood, they are bound to experience frustration, and they may become aggressive. When Bruce's caregivers couldn't train him to stop biting people, they had all his teeth extracted.

In the 1980s, when Bruce was in his 40s, he was moved to a group home in a residential community. That's where I met him: I became one of his caregivers.

New staff made Bruce nervous, and he had ways of testing whether they were up to the job. The first time I was left alone with him, he wet his pants. He was very distressed about it: the whole time I was changing him into dry clothes, he was wailing and slapping himself in the head.

Minutes later, Bruce wet himself again. I had begun to lead him down the hall to his bedroom when I had a sudden flash of intuition. I took him to the bathroom instead, where he sat on the toilet and urinated. If I had gone directly to the bedroom and dressed him in dry clothes, he would have wet himself for the third time. I suppose I had passed the test.

New staff found Bruce intimidating. He wasn't very big; it was the growling that scared them. I don't know how many decibels Bruce could emit, but it was most impressive. It was hard to talk over the noise once he got the engine going.

The thing is, Bruce growled when he was happy. The happier he was, the louder the growl. But new staff didn't know that. It was an aggressive sound to uninitiated ears.

Bruce would also slap himself in the head for joy. Sometimes the slapping was a sign of distress, but often he wore a great, sloppy grin on his face as he did it. And the slaps were not gentle — he really blasted himself.

Bruce had another habit that put people off: he constantly stuck his fingers in his mouth, which caused him to drool. Sometimes he would flick his hand and fling spittle across the room. People didn't like to touch him because it was a slobbery experience.

Before my time, someone came up with the bright idea of giving Bruce a briefcase to carry when he was out in public. They would hook arms with him on the other side to support him, since he was always unsteady on his feet. So both hands were occupied, and he couldn't stick his fingers in his mouth.

They'd abandoned that idea before I was hired, so I never saw him carry the briefcase. Just the thought of it makes me laugh, though — Bruce in the guise of a yuppie MBA.

I refused to be put off by Bruce's drooling, and we became great friends. When I came through the door at the beginning of a shift, he would hasten over to greet me, growling at 60 decibels or so. He would throw his arms out as if to hug me, an ear-to-ear grin, unimpeded by teeth, stretched across his face. I would grab his upper arms, and he would grab mine, and we would begin to sway back and forth, lurching from one foot to the other, in big exaggerated steps.

We would dance around in a circle, as if Bruce were singing instead of growling, our faces almost touching. I wish I had it on videotape. It is one of the happiest memories of my life.

There was a convenience store about three blocks from the house. That was a long walk for Bruce, but I insisted on getting him out for some exercise. In the beginning, he would walk a few steps and try to turn me back. But it became part of the routine, once I began to reward him with Cheezies and root beer.

We purchased a wheelchair for Bruce for longer outings. On gorgeous summer days, when I just had to get outside, I would take him for a long walk through the neighborhood. Sometimes he would object by pulling off his shoe and wailing, but usually he quite enjoyed it. He would rest his head in one hand and growl contentedly, watching people wash their cars, or children playing.

Sometimes I would walk beside the wheelchair, pulling it along from the side to make eye contact with him. I would talk to him as we walked. He would grin with delight, maybe slap himself, and reach out one hand toward me in a gesture of affection.

Bruce couldn't talk, but he could communicate very effectively with those who took the time to understand.

Two boys came over to meet him on one memorable occasion. They asked me a few questions and looked at him with unabashed curiosity. Suddenly their eyes lit up and their jaws dropped open. "How does he do that?", one of them asked.

"Do what?", I said. They were plainly amazed, but I had no idea why.

"How does he turn his tongue completely upside down?!" These boys weren't put off by Bruce at all; on the contrary, they were deeply impressed by his novel talent.

On another memorable occasion, I took Bruce to worship at a Salvation Army church. This sort of adventure was always risky. Bruce didn't like to deviate from his routines, and he could be quite unpredictable in public.

While we were sitting in church, Bruce was thinking to himself: "I don't know these people. That prayer was too long. I prefer stringed instruments to brass." Or something like that.

One could only infer Bruce's thoughts from what he did. On this occasion, he suddenly stood up and whipped his pants down — including the underwear — mooning everyone who was seated behind us. I thought we might be asked to leave but, to their credit, those Salvation Army folks didn't even blink. They came to greet us after the service, and treated Bruce with such respect, I looked to see if he was carrying his briefcase.

Sometimes Bruce became aggressive. Presumably he was in pain. His health was pretty good, but he suffered from chronic constipation. We gave him prune juice, mineral oil, fibre supplements, and a medication that was supposed to help. Despite all the attention we paid to the problem, it continued to trouble him.

One day Bruce looked at me and his eyes narrowed. He walked over and suddenly — whack! — he smacked me in the head. I had no idea he could move so quickly. It was another unsuspected talent. He had gangly arms, and he could swing them incredibly fast. I never saw it coming until I was struck by the bony hand at the end of the whip.

For the next hour, I had to avoid him. He didn't trouble the other staff, just me. I have no idea why I was the target of his aggression. Perhaps I had a little karma to work off, from the misdeeds of a past life.

Bruce died a couple months ago. He was nearly 60. Considering the extent of his disabilities, he lived a reasonably long life. I haven't worked at the group home for years, and I didn't hear about his death until the funeral was past. The world is a less colorful place without him.

Theologians never discuss this idea, but I think God loves variety. Human beings reward conformity, and we like people to stay within a narrow range of "normal" behaviors. Religious people can be the worst offenders, expecting everybody to believe the same things and behave the same way. But I am convinced that God loves variety.

Going into the group home was like entering a foreign country: a different set of rules applied to all the commonplaces of social intercourse. New staff were always off balance for a while, until they learned the little social graces.

That's the way it was with Bruce. I like to think I enriched his life; I know he enriched mine. No one welcomes me with a growl when I arrive at my current job.

He was my friend, and I loved him. I wish you could have met him. We'll not see his likes again.


For a social comment drawn from my group home experience, see Quality of life.