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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Spurious, Vapid, and Disconcerting at the Same Time

I have argued before (on more than one occasion, actually) that religious rights in and of themselves are fundamentally untenable when they pertain to actual action rather than mere belief. There is absolutely no reason why one person's anathema or predilection for a particular action should carry more weight than my own simply because that opinion is religiously motivated. Likewise, if that religious opinion interferes with the worldly rights of another person, rights based in this world should take precedence. My reason for raising this subject again is this article detailing how an Orthodox Jewish couple is bringing a case to court on charges of religious discrimination because a sensor was installed to automatically turn lights on and off in the hallway.

As a person who has a tendancy to obsess over odd things, I know what it is like to feel deeply disconcerted over seemingly innocuous things. For example, as an impressionable child I was introduced to the (normally) harmless childhood rhyme
Don't step on a line, or you'll break your mother's spine.
Don't step on a crack, or you'll break your mother's back
as the premise for the game of walking along the sidewalk avoiding cracks and lines. I guess either because of my intrinsic inclination to play games and follow rules, or some internalized irrational fear for my mother's well-being, it got to the point that I thought about this game every time I walked down the street. I would make up other sets of rules on other floor patterns (not so rhythmically composed, but sometimes far more interesting depending on the tile pattern). As I got older and most people grew out of childhood rhymes (and as my feet got bigger) it got more and more awkward to avoid breaking these walking rules. It was particularly awkward when walking with a group. Eventually, fear of social awkwardness ended up winning out over internally driven discomfort and I gradually began to convince myself to step on cracks and lines. When alone, I still sometimes find myself involuntarily hesitating when I step onto a cobblestone or brick street, or subtly adjusting my stride to avoid stepping on breaks between the sidewalk blocks. I can usually snap myself out of it, but I am not being fasecious with this story. It genuinely bothered me to break my internal rules of walking. It is not something I am always comfortable talking about (after all, it sounds a little crazy. It is also why I so greatly enjoy this xkcd strip, though; it makes me realise I at least might not be singularly crazy), but I bring it up to demonstrate my point.

I am not claiming that people should be unallowed to have irrational beliefs, and even subsequently irrational behaviours. However, I am saying that those irrational beliefs and behaviours should get no special treatment when they are religiously based, and must be restrained by the rights and needs of all other members of the community. I am, after all, free to walk as oddly as I want in order to meet whatever rules I come up with or hear in a childhood rhyme. Likewise, though, other people are free to ask me why I walk that way (and are free to laugh at my response or probe my motivations). More importantly, the civil authority responsible for constructing and maintaining the sidewalks is free and bound by its responsibility to the good of the whole population to use construction methods that are the most expedient and effective, regardless of how difficult that might make my subsequent attempts to avoid cracks and lines. Why should it be any different if my discomfort stems from an ancient book rather than a childhood rhyme?


Robert said...

Yes, because the Torah talks about electronic devises, particularly electronic sensor light switches.

Mozglubov said...

Well, yes, but that leads us into an argument about interpretation and the difference (or practical lack thereof) between dogma and scripture that I was talking about in my continued discussion of Darwin and Wöhler. But the fact that the interpretation taken by this couple is as absurd to non-believers as it is just makes me shake my head.

jbrydle said...

You've echoed some things that have been on my mind a lot recently - namely my own irrational rituals and behaviours, and at what point do such behaviours become fair game for criticism.

I used to do the tile pattern thing too, but not so much any more. Now my odd rules mostly apply to car trips. For example, I will click my tongue or tap my toe every time the line described by the angle of the sideview mirror crosses a lamp post or painted dash in the road. Weird stuff, but I don't think it's hurting anyone. It's made me rethink attacking the private religious beliefs of other people.

The automatic light thing is pretty funny though. Feynman wrote about a similar case here:

Anonymous said...

OK, quit whinning. It's taken us a few years, but we're close to deploying a solution for your childhood issues.


M. Python
Head, Dept. of Line and Crack Avoidance
Colonial Section
Ministry of Silly Walks
HM Government

Mozglubov said...

Oh, it's not just the issues of walking surface that I need to deal with... for years I spent a great deal of effort memorizing which staircases in my life had odd numbers of steps and which had even. Going up a new set of stairs was always an effort, because it meant a guess. This stemmed out of long legs meaning I take steps either two or three at a time, and for some reason I made the rule in my head that the only time I could take a different number of steps was at the beginning of the staircase. Therefore, if the staircase had an odd number of steps, I had to remember to only take one step at the beginning or else I'd feel uncomfortable at the end.

The nice thing to know is I only felt uncomfortable, and didn't actually have to go back down and take the staircase over again. I think I've pretty much gotten over this bit of crazy on my own, so I won't be whining about to the good people at the Ministry anytime soon. I wouldn't want to take up your resources and thereby spoil someone's chances of getting a grant to develop his forward aerial half-turn every alternate step into a proper silly walk. That would just be selfish of me.

Mozglubov said...

In case it isn't obvious in my last comment, steps two at a time was my default. There were a few staircases with small steps that nicely had a multiple of three, but two steps at a time was the standard (hence the focus on odd and even).