When contextualizing its report on transphobic death threats received by an Armenian activist, The Guardian somehow forgets to mention religion

Lilit Martirosyan’s speech in the Armenian parliament has gone viral.

Addressing a panel on human rights, Martirosyan described the plight of the trans community in Armenia. She explained how her own experience of threats and violence reflect the challenges that she and other trans people face in the country:

I encompass in myself — tortured, raped, kidnapped, subjected to physical violence, burned, immolated, knifed, subjected to murder attempt, killed, emigrated, robbed, subjected to stigma and discrimination in social, medical, legal, economic areas and in every aspect of a dignified life, unemployed, poor, and morally abandoned — the Armenian Transgender’s image.

While Armenia has passed legislation to decriminalize homosexuality, there are no laws to prohibit discrimination against LGBT persons. The government disqualifies LGBT people from joining the military. Same-sex couples are not allowed to marry, or to adopt.

ILGA, a globally renowned NGO, ranks Armenia 48th out of 49 European countries for LGBT rights. In the ‘Hate Crime & Hate Speech’ category, Armenia finishes (joint) bottom of the pile, with a score of zero percent. The past year has seen a surge in violent anti-LGBT attacks in the country.

Therefore, perhaps it was no surprise when Martirosyan’s truly historic and brave speech sparked an immediate backlash from Armenian conservatives. It started even before she left the podium. Panel chair, Naira Zohrabyan, decried Martirosyan’s speech for having (allegedly) deviated from the official debate schedule and ordered her to leave the chamber, shouting “You have violated the agenda!” at her as she walked away. Some of the MPs applauded this verdict, shouting “Bravo, Ms Zohrabyan!

Pic: YouTube

The Guardian reported on the death threats today:

The speech, two weeks ago, has since sparked a backlash in Armenia, where homosexuality has been decriminalised but discrimination against LGBTI people is rife. There have been anti-LGBTI protests in front of the national assembly and verbal attacks made by some parliamentarians have included calls for her to be burned alive…

Martirosyan said the home addresses of several people who work for Right Side, the transgender rights organisation she created in 2016, have been leaked and that her own home address has been spread across the internet by extremist groups who have threatened to “kill them if we find them”. Nationalists, she said, have gathered outside her house, raising Armenian flags…

And so on, and so on.

Pic: Aysor.am

Strangely, across its 760-word report, The Guardian entirely avoids pointing out why these Armenian protesters want LGBT persons to be “burned alive” so much that there are pickets outside parliament and — more disturbingly — attempted lynchings in rural Armenian villages.

They fail to even refer to the fact that the protests are spearheaded by Armenian church figures and clerics, and that much of the inflammatory language used in the protests is infused with religious diatribes.

The leader of the Prosperous Armenia party, Gagik Tsarukyan, invoked “Armenian traditions and faith” to declare Martirosyan’s address a “vice,” adding that “we must hide the vice as it was before.”

Protesters were led to parliament by religious groups and individual clerics, who called for a “ban on sexual minorities” at the legislative level. The clerics included Ghazar Petrosyan, a priest who once berated the Armenian president for being a “friend” of Elton John, on the basis that “nothing can alleviate the sin of being gay.

One of their schticks was to declare that Martirosyan’s speech had “desecrated” the parliamentary podium, and that the chamber needed now to be cleansed. They brought incense, which they said was needed in order to “sanctify” the podium at which Martirosyan had stood. The protesters were told that this would set off the fire alarm in parliament, so they offered to bless the podium with holy water instead. Some of the religious groups even brought a new podium to replace the one that Martirosyan had tainted.

In Armenia, religious attacks on the LGBT community go right to the top. Last year, the supreme leader of the Armenian Church decried “the phenomenon of homosexuality” as “unacceptable to the way of human nature” and, literally, “a threat to our nation’s survival.”

The fact that The Guardian can report on these protests without even mentioning their religious underpinnings — in a country such as Armenia, where church-led conservatism has long been a source of concern — is, frankly, nothing less than bizarre.

The obvious question to raise is: would The Guardian have mentioned religion had these protests taken place in a Muslim country?

Well, when The Guardian reports on transphobia and homophobia in places like Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Iran, for example, it seems to me that they are quite quick to refer to sharia law, clerics, and other religious frames of reference by way of context. The fact they avoid doing so when describing Christian protests in Armenia certainly stands out.

I note that the Guardian’s Armenia report is “supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

I wonder does this mean that certain terms and conditions apply?

Maybe not, but it’s worth remembering all the same that, even in The Guardian, paid-for content is exactly what it says it is.

Paid for.

*Yes* obstruction: ‘Active information avoidance’ and the Mueller Report

It is one of the great ironies of modern politics that Donald Trump is associated with popularising the term “fake news” to western audiences. Heck, on a number of occasions he claimed to have coined the phrase himself. (At one point he even claimed to have invented the word “fake.”)

That claim turned out to be, yes, well, you know what it turned out to be.

It’s so obvious, it’s not even funny.

And speaking of obvious, here is the final paragraph — the FINAL CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH COMPRISING THE ‘CONCLUSIONS’ SECTION — of the Mueller Report:

Surely this is the killer bit:

…if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we were unable to reach that judgement.

After 400+ pages, it’s quite an in-your-face ending. All that’s missing is a Mic Drop GIF.

Pic: giphy.com

And yet…

What is it that some people can’t see?

I guess what we have here is a case of “active information avoidance.”

Active information avoidance is the term psychologists use to describe how people knowingly choose to avoid, ignore, or downplay information that they are aware (a) is available and (b) is materially relevant. People engage in active information avoidance when they choose not to look at something that makes them feel bad.

Active information avoidance helps us to understand that the idea that humans are, by default, rational self-interested decision-makers is actually a myth. In reality, most humans default to irrational (but still self-interested) decision-making. It’s the psychology of echo chambers, groupthink, false consensus effects, and confirmation bias. And it’s really hard to get rid of.

One example is the ‘ostrich effect‘, where investors literally avoid logging into their online share data when they know the stock market is ‘down’, but log in more frequently when the stock market is ‘up’.

A second example is more common — when middle-class people avoid eye-contact with poor people they encounter begging on the street. Prosperous people also commonly avoid visiting poor areas of town for similar reasons — to avoid finding out how poor the poor really are.

The reality is that most people are prone to active information avoidance, especially when there is a risk that new information might debunk their worldview or threaten their sense of themselves.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

Active information avoidance helps people to preserve their sense of safety, righteousness, and certainty. We are all prone to it.

So maybe that’s why US Attorney General William Barr chose to selectively quote that last Mueller paragraph in his infamous four-page teaser trailer the other week. You know, the one where he quoted the “does not conclude/does not exonerate” bit and then implied that Mueller was making some kind of philosophical point about underdetermination.

And maybe that’s why Trump himself was so quick to summarise “DOES NOT exonerate” to mean “TOTAL exoneration.” In philosophy-of-science terms, we might consider this “Not-X-is-equal-to-Total-X” stance as consistent with an extreme form of “fallibilism” — the idea that no belief is ever justified; that every claim to truth is liable to be the opposite of true.

Instead of invoking Game of Thrones imagery, he could have just tweeted the Duhem-Quine thesis.

(Or maybe he’s simply just a liar. Who knows?)

Psychologically, the ultimate range of crowdsourceable ideas is wide open. Because of active information avoidance, it can include virtually anything. We shouldn’t be surprised to see black-is-white argumentation in modern politics. In fact, we should probably be surprised if we don’t see it.

But one thing about active information avoidance is that it can’t last forever. In most cases, it is self-defeating. Information, by definition, has utility — the term information is reserved for ‘counsel from fact’ that is useful, that resolves uncertainty, that leads to better decisions. When people avoid information, they avoid something that has utility. In theory, at least, they should ultimately fall behind those who are good at facing up to things — as when the people who have their medical check-ups ultimately fare better than those who avoid them.

You never know. Maybe this is the tipping point. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an illusion.

Yep, maybe it’s fake (thank you, sir).

It’s ‘bogus argument’ time again, as Ireland’s right-wingers gear up for divorce referendum

A letter in today’s Irish Times:

And — oh look! — basically the very same letter in today’s Irish Independent:

This chap really does make heavy use of his letter-writing kit. It’s almost as though he is on some sort of campaign.

Here are some line-by-line hot takes:

“… we will be asked to facilitate more liberal divorce laws. We will also be asked to pave the way for the recognition of foreign divorces.”

Darn those foreigners! We don’t want their foreignness here!

We already have in our country too many victims of shattered households.

That may be, but it has nothing to do with divorce. Ireland’s divorce rate — 0.6% — is amongst the lowest in the world. It turns out that households shatter all by themselves, and that divorce laws have nothing to do with it.

Divorce is the end result of family break-up, not its cause. (I’m getting some serious “Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy” flashbacks as I type this.)

“Those of us who are involved with homeless services, youth support or societies like St Vincent de Paul, are all too aware of the heartache and confusion caused by divorce and the fragmentation of families”

Caused by divorce” you say? This seems unlikely. In Ireland, divorce is only available after four years of separation. People who become homeless due to relationship breakdown become homeless straight away.

It is absolutely true that relationship breakdown is a risk factor for homelessness. For example, children of separated parents are more likely to become homeless, especially in socioeconomically disadvantaged families.

But this is entirely different from the claim that divorce causes homelessness. If anything, having a legal divorce helps to make homelessness less likely, given the way courts mandate the provision of alimony and other financial security for family members.

It is the chaotic nature of non-divorce breakups — where no law or court determines what financial arrangements are made — that places families at financial risk.

You could say that this is one of the main reasons for divorce laws: to protect families from the chaos of unstructured and unregulated family breakdown.

“Every marriage worthy of the name has to try to withstand the storms of life; it is more than just a fair weather relationship.”

I repeat the point — Ireland has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. I think we get the fact that marriages are not fair weather relationships.

“My family and I will be voting No”

Ah, his family and he. Such a family guy. All about the family.

Remember the 90s? I sure as hell do….
(Pic: Newstalk.com)

Basically, his line — that liberalizing divorce laws will lead to an increase in family break-up — is a retread of what was run back in Ireland’s previous divorce referendum, in 1995.

I have written about that particular campaign, and the timelessness of its reactionary subtext, before.

But the argument holds no water. The ‘evidence’ presented — namely, that homelessness and family break-up exists — does not support the hypothesis — i.e., that reducing the mandatory waiting time for divorce will make homelessness worse.

Pic: Flickr/Free Stater

Meanwhile…it turns out our letter writer has been writing letters before.

Just last October, when writing to the Sligo Champion, he complained that the provision of abortion services would turn his local hospital into an “abattoir for infants.” In January, he popped up in the Irish Catholic to recommend that “spiritual counselling” be offered as treatment for women who suffer from “post-abortion trauma” (a mental health condition that, inconveniently for him, does not exist).

In past times, he was using the terms “foetus” and “child” interchangeably when discussing different types of abortion. Later he claimed that the “people of this area” — i.e. Sligo-Leitrim — “want the right to life of the unborn child to be protected” (the actual referendum result showed that 60% of them begged to differ).

Elsewhere he busied himself defending the Catholic Church from the Irish Times‘s terrible accusation that bishops had a habit of ‘dictating’ to the state. And he has popped up in the Irish Catholic on several occasions, at one point to offer a “big thank you to all our hard-working Catholic priests.”

I don’t know about you, but I think he might be a religious conservative.

And there it is. The folks to object to the mere existence of divorce, never mind the reduction of the mandatory waiting time, are all religious conservatives. That’s their beef. They don’t want divorce because, well, because Jesus.

You know, I’d nearly respect them more if they just said so, instead of trying to mount bogus arguments about X causing Y — as though they give a damn about using empirical evidence to resolve ethical questions.

Or about homelessness, for that matter.

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