Another alleged genocide

The attention of the United States remains firmly fixed on alleged genocide in Gaza. But another alleged genocide has received little or no notice. Human Rights Watch alleges that a genocide has been committed in Sudan. The BBC reports:

“A genocide may have been committed in the West Darfur city of El Geneina in one of the worst atrocities of the year-long Sudanese civil war, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW). It says ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed against ethnic Massalit and non-Arab communities in the city by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and its Arab allies. The report calls for sanctions against those responsible for the atrocities, including the RSF leader, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti. The UN says about 15,000 people are feared to have been killed in El Geneina last year.”

Here’s the full BBC story. Be warned: it makes for unpleasant reading.

The reason I mention this alleged genocide is that wars and violence in sub-Saharan Africa don’t seem to get much attention in the US. Take for example the brutal war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC has close to three quarters of the world’s cobalt reserves, and cobalt is a key ingredient in the lithium ion batteries that the U.S. and other countries are counting on the halt global climate change. Yet we rarely hear about this war in the US, and there are no protests calling for divestment from companies that profit from access to cheap cobalt for their lithium-ion batteries. Similarly, little attention has been paid in the US to the Mahgreb insurgency in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and other nearby countries, even though al-Qaeda is behind much of the violence. Perhaps Americans have grown weary of hearing about al-Qaeda, but I would have expected a bit more media and social media attention paid to a conflict featuring a stated enemy of the US. Or what about the conflict in Ethiopia which began in 2018 and may now be slowly winding down — estimates of the death toll vary from 180,000 at the low end to over 600,000. I saw no widespread outrage in the US over the atrocities committed in that conflict.

So why does the war in Gaza and Israel draw so much attention? I suspect this is partly it’s because psychologically we humans have a limited capacity for compassion. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and if you’re paying attention to Ukraine and Gaza/Israel, you probably don’t have much compassion left over for alleged genocide in Sudan. I suspect the lack of attention is also due in part to the fact that most people in the US have little interest in what happens in Africa. When I’m looking for news and information on Africa, I don’t find much on US news outlets or US social media; I have to go to the BBC. But I don’t really have an answer to this question, except maybe to say that we in the US reserve the right to choose which atrocities we pay attention to.

Another view of war

Vera Brittain served as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse during the First World War, serving in Malta, France, and London. Having seen the horrors of the “Great War” first hand — and after having her fiance, her brother, and her two best male friends die in the war — she became a committed pacifist. In 1937, while the threat of another European war kept growing, she said this in a pamphlet published by the Peace Pledge Union:

“I hold war to be a crime against humanity, whoever fights it, and against whomever it is fought.”

[Quoted in “Vera Mary Brittain,” Poetry Foundation website, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/vera-mary-brittain accessed 29 April 2024.]

Plant morphology

I’ve been doing a deep dive into plant morphology. I went down this rabbit hole while doing planning for some ecojustice workshops I’m planning this summer. One of the activities I like to lead is dissecting flowers— it helps participants see things from a new perspective, and a great deal of ecojustice is learning how to see things (like society) from a new perspective.

If you’re going to dissect flowers, why not dissect non-flowering plants as well? However, ferns, green seaweeds, red seaweeds, mosses, etc. — differ in their structures from flowering plants, and thus they have their own terminologies. Even grasses, which are a flowering plant, have their own peculiar terminology.

I quickly decided the terminology of grasses was too complicated to present to casual workshop participants. Awn, floret, panicle, pedicel — I could envision everyone’s eyes glazing over as they heard those terms.

The basic terminology for ferns and seaweeds, though, was easier to present. And there were some interesting contrasts with flowering plants. For example, flowering plants have stems; seaweeds have stipes. Flowering plants have roots; ferns have rhizomes.

There is a transcendent point in all of this. Life on Earth is filled with incredible diversity. Our human language really can’t encompass that diversity. But we can use words to help us see some of that diversity a little better.

A drawing of a seaweed with the parts labeled.
Parts of seaweed, shown on Bladderwrack, Fucus vesiculosus

On average, Amazon charges you 29% more than they should

Maybe Amazon has the lowest online prices (maybe), but odds are that if you shop from Amazon you’ll pay more than you should.

Legal scholars from Boston University have been researching Amazon’s anti-competitive practices. They have documented how Amazon manipulates buyers into paying 29% more, on average, than they should be paying:

“As one of many examples, we present the first evidence that Amazon’s search results systematically bury the lowest priced items even if they have high ratings.(18) We find, for instance, that the best deal on the first page—factoring in ratings and price—was on average located in the seventeenth slot, where few consumers look.(19) Moreover, consumers who chose the first relevant item returned in the search results would have paid on average 29% more than if they had located the best deal.(20) One of the reasons these findings are important is that more than half of Amazon’s regular customers always purchase the top result provided.(21) And filtering the search results by ‘Price: Low to High’ does not solve these problems on most searches, particularly since this feature still ignores unit price and shipping costs.” Rory Van Loo & Nikita Aggarwal, Amazon’s Pricing Paradox (Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, 2023), pp. 4-5.

Footnotes 18 and 21 in this paragraph give essential information to help understand how Amazon manipulates your behvior to get you to pay more:

“(18) Our findings, posted to SSRN in May of 2023, build on previous research showing that Amazon and other online companies also manipulate consumers and engage in behavioral pricing by not displaying shipping costs or by preferencing their own items. See, e.g., Glenn Ellison & Sara Fisher Ellison, Search, Obfuscation, and Price Elasticities on the Internet, 77 ECONOMETRICA 427, 449 (2009) (using purchase data to show that online third-party sellers of computer parts can raise prices by 6% to 9% through obfuscation strategies, such as hiding the shipping costs); Julia Angwin & Surya Mattu, Amazon Says It Puts Customers First. But Its Pricing Algorithm Doesn’t, PROPUBLICA (Sept. 20, 2016, 8:00 AM), https://www.propublica.org/article/amazon-says-it-puts-customers-first-but-its-pricing-algorithm-doesn’t (analyzing 250 items, each with multiple options for which vendor sells it, and finding that Amazon’s product pages push items fulfilled by Amazon to the “buy box,” even though once shipping costs are added that item would be on average 20% more expensive than the cheapest alternative); Adrianne Jeffries & Leon Yin, Amazon Puts Its Own “Brands” First Above Better-Rated Products, THE MARKUP (Oct. 14, 2021), https://themarkup.org/amazons-advantage/2021/10/14/amazon-puts-its-own-brands-first-above-better-rated-products (finding that Amazon systematically puts its own products at the top of search results, without looking at the price impact). Unlike our research, Ellison and Ellison were focused on behavior by the end seller rather than the platform and did not empirically study Amazon, Angwin and Mattu focused on obfuscation in a specific item’s product page rather than in Amazon search results, and Jeffries and Yin do not measure the extent of burying or higher prices paid as a result of self-preferencing….
(19) See infra Part I.B.
(20) Id.
(21) FEEDVISOR, THE 2019 AMAZON CONSUMER BEHAVIOR REPORT 14, 16 (2019) (‘For those who buy products on Amazon daily or almost everyday, more than half [54%] always buy the first product listed on Amazon’s search engine results page [SERP].’)”

Not to put too fine a point on it, Amazon is deliberately misleading its customers in order to squeeze more money out of them. Buying from Amazon is a sucker’s game, where in the long run the consumer always loses. (If you don’t want to read the entire scholarly article, Cory Doctorow summarizes some of the key points here.)

Yet another reason why friends don’t let friends buy from Amazon.

Still going on

In 1977, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote an introduction for her anti-war novel The Word for World Is Forest — a novel which she had begun writing in 1968. In the 1977 introduction, she said:

“1968 was a bitter year for those who opposed the [Vietnam] war. The lies and hypocrises doubled; so did the killing. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of noncombatants in the name of ‘peace’ was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoilation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of creatures of the Earth in the name of ‘man.’ The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.”

Today, in 2023, the connection between war and environmental exploitation is still in place. Sad to say, humanity is still dominated by the ethic of exploitation.

Why we should follow the URJ’s lead

The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) is in the middle of a restorative justice effort around various forms of misconduct. They released a message for Yom Kippur this year talking about how they will “make amends for the harms endured by victims/survivors” who have experienced “bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, abuse, and more” in URJ congregations and related programs.

This follows the release and online publication — in full, with no redactions — of a third party investigation into misconduct in the URJ. That report was followed by a restorative justice effort which focused on survivors’ needs. This restorative justice effort began with a written report summarizing a long series of interviews with victims/survivors of misconduct. Additional efforts aimed at meeting the needs of survivors is ongoing through 2023.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should follow the URJ’s lead. Just like the URJ, we need a third party to compile as full a report as possible on the decades of misconduct, especially (but not limited to) sexual misconduct, much of it perpetrated by clergy or other persons in power. A UUA report, like the URJ report, needs to name names. And it needs to be published on the UUA website with no redactions.

Then the UUA should follow the URJ’s lead and carry out restorative justice aimed at meeting the needs of victims/survivors. In the past, the UUA’s efforts to address misconduct have, all too often, minimized the impact on the misconductors at the expense of victims/survivors. To give just one example: when Rev. Jason Shelton was disciplined by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, he was granted the privilege of writing an explanatory email that was sent by the UUA to all UU ministers and congregations; but the alleged victim was not given that privilege.

The UUA took a baby step towards restorative justice when they finally published a chronological list of ministers removed from fellowship. But soon — in a classic example of how the UUA considers the needs and feelings of alleged misconductors more than the needs and feelings of victims/survivors — the UUA changed the list. Now there are two lists on one webpage, one list for ministers removed from fellowship, and one list for the ministers who resigned from fellowship rather than face charges. The message to misconductors is clear — if you get caught, just resign from fellowship, and you get put on the less damning list. And if you resign from fellowship, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee will drop your case and never adjudicate it. Worse yet, from what I’ve seen, male sexual misconductors in particular are carefully protected from having their misdeeds brought to light, while their victims/survivors are tossed to the curb.

I sincerely doubt that anyone in the hierarchy of the UUA (and it is a hierarchy) has the gumption to propose a process like that the URJ has undertaken. For example, can you imagine the UUA publishing a report that names Saint Forrest Church as an alleged sexual misconductor? Neither can I. Patriarchy is still alive and well in the UUA.

As I read the URJ report of their interviews with survivors/victims, this passage stood out for me: “Again and again [the authors of the URJ report say], we heard that the most harmful institutional betrayal is the disjuncture between the direct and indirect harms that occurred despite the stated values the URJ seeks to uphold. One said, ‘You don’t practice what we [in the URJ] preach’…”

I wish we in the UUA would follow the URJ’s lead. Would that we, too, would attempt to practice what we preach.

Cover of the URJ report

The ongoing effects

Last night I was trying to explain to Carol about the lingering effects of COVID burnout on the helping professions. She pointed out that many trends that were supposedly caused by COVID were simply existing trends that accelerated during lockdown. But I’m pretty sure that it actually was COVID that contributed to increased burnout in the helping professions.

The healthcare professions are an obvious example. During the first year of the COVID pandemic, doctors, nurses, and others who worked directly with COVID patients saw an increased workload, and an increased risk of infection. There were also healthcare professionals who had a very different experience of COVID — I knew a dermatologist who saw a substantial decrease in their workload during lockdown, although that decrease brought separate concerns of declining income, etc. On the whole, though, a significant number of health professionals left their profession, and reports are that there’s still a labor shortage in much of the healthcare system.

Mental health professionals saw their workload peak a bit later in the pandemic, as many people began to have mental health problems isolation caused by lockdown. We’re still seeing a high rate of depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental health problems, and mental health professionals may still be feeling overwhelmed by the lingering aftereffects of the pandemic. The end result is that someone seeking mental health care can wait weeks for an appointment.

I know less about other helping professions, but I suspect that other professions also saw increased burnout. For example, it seems likely that many social workers — depending on their specialty — also experienced burnout during COVID due to increased workload and increased job pressures.

This brings us to clergy. From what I’m seeing and hearing, clergy are also subject to COVID burnout, just like the other helping professions. In 2021, 42% of clergy reported considering leaving ministry. I suspect there were several reasons for this. Sociologist Scott Thuma has outlined some of the stresses on clergy during the pandemic: increased conflict in the congregation, increased demand for food and other assistance, increased mental health problems, and learning new ways to do ministry. I’ve watched as more Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers than usual have left the profession over the past couple of years. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn other UU ministers are just quiet quitting.

Beyond all this, all people in the helping professions can experience the trauma or secondary trauma that everyone in society is experiencing. The epidemic of mental illness that began during lockdown continues today — we’re all feeling the effects.

I know I’m still feeling the effects. I had to put in some extra hours this week. This is normal for ministers; some weeks we have to work long hours, other weeks there’s less for us to do. Pre-COVID, I had no problem working a few extra hours. But this week, those extra hours really tired me out; I don’t have the reserves of energy I used to have pre-COVID.

I don’t have a call to action for you. Nor do I have an easy solution for clergy burnout. Nor do I mean to imply that clergy somehow have it worse than anyone else in society. I think my only point is that we all need to be understanding of each other’s ongoing stress, as the effects of the pandemic continue.

What is religion, anyway?

I’ve been doing a deep dive into the question: What is religion, anyway? It’s pretty clear that “religion,” as we use it today, is a concept that really arises fairly recently in human history, during the European Enlightenment. From what I can see, the concept of “religion” arose from more than one source.

On the one hand, as nation states emerged in the early modern era, there was a general cultural move to make a strong distinction between “religious” and “secular.” “Secular” meant the emerging nation states, which had control over armies, warfare, coining money, imperialism and colonialism, etc. “Religion” was a new category, or perhaps a radical redefinition of medieval Western Christianity. “Religion,” especially in Protestant nation states, was conceived as inhabiting voluntary associations (local congregations and larger groupings of congregations called “churches”), and as being a matter of personal experience. “Secular” meant public spaces; “religious” increasingly meant personal spaces, or spaces inhabited by small bounded communities.

On the other hand, at the same time that Europeans were beginning to distinguish between “religious” and “secular,” they were also sailing all over the world and colonizing other lands and other peoples. As Europeans encountered other peoples, they experienced a bit of culture shock: people in the Americas, in Africa, and in southern and eastern Asia didn’t have anything that looked at all like Christianity — nor like Islam or Judaism, the other two traditions that Christian Europeans knew best. For example, at first Europeans had a hard time knowing what to do with peoples in the Indian subcontinent; then the Europeans decided to subsume a diversity of traditions under the heading of “Hinduism,” arguing that all “Hindus” actually worshiped the same transcendent god, named Brahma, who was sort of like the Christian god; and Hindus all traced there lineages back to sacred texts like the Rig Veda. Before the Europeans colonized the Indian subcontinent, “Hindu” was mostly an ethnic descriptor, people who lived around the Indus River; after colonization, “Hindu” became an adherent of “Hinduism.” So Hinduism is, in a sense, a creation of the colonization process.

The European Enlightenment also challenged traditional European concepts of the Christian God. As the Enlightenment progressed, various people began doubting the truth of the Christian God. By the late nineteenth century, a robust tradition of atheism emerged in Europe and in (European-colonized) North America. From what I can tell, this European tradition of atheism knew little about, e.g., much older traditions of atheism in the Indian subcontinent. That still holds true today, so that what we call “atheism” is really mostly the narrow tradition of Euro-American atheism. I call it narrow, because it was heavily influenced by Protestantism. This is not to say that Euro-American atheism is somehow a kind of super-Protestantism (although it can seem that way at times), but both traditions are clearly the product of the same broader Euro-American culture. As a result, Euro-American atheism can look a lot like Euro-American Christianity, with an emphasis on: personal belief or non-belief; conversion stories; proselytizing or the seemingly similar activity of actively encouraging people to leave religions; etc. Again, it’s not that Christianity and atheism/secularity are two sides of one coin; but rather that they’re both products of the same culture, and seem to take up much the same sort of cultural space.

That’s a brief summary of what an increasing number of scholars agree upon. My deep dive into the topic? I’ve been reading a whole bunch of books.

One book I’ve found helpful on this topic: The Secular Paradox: On the Religiosity of the Not Religious, by Joseph Blankholm (NYU Press, 2022). The book is a sociological study of people who are not religious, and who are part of organized secular groups. One of the fascinating things Blankholm finds is that organized secular groups in the U.S. seem to be dominated by older white men from vaguely Christian backgrounds. Blankholm interviews Black atheists, Hispanic atheists, formerly Jewish atheists, “Muslimish” atheists, etc. — people who often don’t fit neatly into the organized secular groups. So how come the old white guys get to dominate U.S. atheism? Blankholm has some good things to say about this.

Another book I’ve found super helpful is: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brett Nongbri (Yale Univ. Press, 2015). Nongbri is a scholar who specializes in the Ancient Near East. He also argues that “religion” is a concept that didn’t exist before the European Enlightenment. Thus, when we talk about “ancient Egyptian religion” or “ancient Greek religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Even when we talk about early Christianity or early Islam as “religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Nongbri goes into some textual analysis showing how modern translators use the word “religion” to translate ancient terms that do not carry our contemporary meaning. In other words, to say that Jesus of Nazareth (or Paul of Tarsus, depending on your theology) founded a “religion” is an anachronistic way of framing that history. Jesus may have founded something, but it was not what we mean today when we say “religion.”

If we take Nongbri and Blankholm (and many other scholars of religion) seriously, we find something rather disconcerting. The word “religion” works best to describe Western European Christianity from the early Modern period onward. That implies that “religion” does not work so well to describe the so-called “world religions.” And indeed, if we look closely, we see that the concept “religion” has been imposed on many phenomena that weren’t religions before colonialism, e.g., “Hinduism” wasn’t even a thing until after the British colonized India. Nor does “religion” work so well when applied to anything before the Enlightenment.

Which in turn implies that “religion” is not a universal concept that applies to all human cultures in all times and all places. This is something that scholars have been saying for some years now, e.g., Jonathan Z. Smith in “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998). And if “religion” is not a timeless and universal concept, then neither is “secular.”

The practical effect of all this? Well, for us Unitarian Universalists, we are definitely part of a religion, since both Unitarianism and Universalism started out as Christian heresies. But at an institutional level, we got kicked out of the Christian club a century ago. You can be a Christian Unitarian Universalist, but Unitarian Universalism can’t really be considered Christianity. Which means the term” religion” when it is applied to us is not going to be a perfect fit. In fact, it might be argued that these days we look more like organized secularism than organized religion. And given the apparent complicity of organized religion in colonialism, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Noted, with embarrassment

“I think…that one-sided views are the easiest to express pointedly and with rhetorical effectiveness and that a pervasive human temptation is to content oneself with striking half-truths rather than to seek the balanced whole truth with the persistence and energy needed for success.” — Charles Hartshorne, Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (SUNY press, 1983), p. 80.

Hm… I think that describes much of what I read on the web, and almost all of social media. It certainly describes way too many posts on this blog….

Let us name it … ASS

People talk about “artificial intelligence.” They get corrected by people who say, It’s not intelligence, it’s “machine learning.” But actually machines don’t learn either. All this false terminology isn’t serving us well. It obscures the fact that the humans who design the machines are the intelligences at work here, and by calling the machines “AI” they get to dodge any responsibility for what they produce.

In a recent interview, science fiction author Ted Chiang came up with a good name for what’s going on:

” ‘There was an exchange on Twitter a while back where someone said, “What is artificial intelligence?” And someone else said, “A poor choice of words in 1954”,’ [Chiang] says. ‘And, you know, they’re right. I think that if we [science fiction authors] had chosen a different phrase for it, back in the ’50s, we might have avoided a lot of the confusion that we’re having now.’ So if he had to invent a term, what would it be? His answer is instant: applied statistics.” [quoted by, originally in, emphasis mine]

Applied statistics is a much better term to help us understand what is really going on here. When a computer running some ChatBot application comes up with text that seems coherent, the computer is not being intelligent — rather, the computer programmers had assembled a huge dataset to which they apply certain algorithms, and those algorithms create text from the vast dataset that sounds vaguely meaningful. The only intelligence (or lack thereof) involved lies in the humans who programmed the computer.

Which brings me to a recent news article from Religion News Service, written by Kirsten Grieshaber: “Can a chatbot preach a good sermon?” Jonas Simmerlein, identified in the article as a Christian theologian and philosopher at the University of Vienna, decided to set up a Christian worship service using ChatGPT. Anna Puzio, who studies the ethics of technology at the University of Twente in The Netherlands, attended this worship service. She correctly identified how this was an instance of applied statistics when she said: “We don’t have only one Christian opinion, and that’s what AI [sic] has to represent as well.” In other words, applied statistics can act to average out meaningful and interesting differences of opinion. Puzio continued, “We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion…. We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion.”

That’s exactly what Simmerlein was doing here: averaging out differences to create a single bland consensus. I can understand how a bland consensus might feel very attractive in this era of deep social divisions. But as someone who like Simmerlein is trained in philosophy and theology, I’ll argue that we do not get closer to truth by averaging out interesting differences into bland conformity; we get closer to truth by seriously engaging with people of differing opinions. This is because all humans (and all human constructions) are finite, and therefore fallible. No single human, and no human construction, will ever be able to reach absolute truth.

Finally, to close this brief rant, I’m going to give you an appropriate acronym for the phrase “applied statistics.” Not “AS,” that’s too much like “AI.” No, the best acronym for “Applied StatisticS” is … ASS.

Not only is it a memorable acronym, it serves as a reminder of what you are if you believe too much in the truth value of applied statistics.