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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why Opinion Polls Do Not Always Matter

It is tricky to balance majority rule and personal insight into the truth. However, this story is a reminder that public opinion is not a safe bet in every case.

It appears that Serena Williams has created "controversy" by making some remarkably balanced observations on a local story in Ohio. See the whole article here. I exerpted a small part:

She adds, "I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you -- don't take drinks from other people."
And Williams is also quoted as saying: "She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different."
Serena's controversial comments quickly set off a social media outcry Tuesday,

I found nothing controversial about what she said. In fact, I think she is right on the nose in her assessment. This is why being told "the majority of people do not think like you" is sometimes a reason to think you are right! To crouch this in theological terms "all have sinned" and all fall short in godliness and wisdom. What this means is that sin is real, people are imperfect, and mistakes are made (intentionally and not). In fact, in the best of times there are still all manner of errors at work. Because I am a sinner, fallen and imperfect (in thought, word and deed, things done and things left undone) I cannot rely on my own reasoning (nor on "my Bible" because it is me who is reading and interpreting it!) without an abiding awareness that I can make mistakes. On the other hand, I have no other option but to choose, and in choosing to be humbly confident that I am choosing well. If I find I am in a minority that only means that the majority disagrees with me, not that they are right (or wrong). The majority is simply a larger number of flawed and sinful people (like me) many of whom have aligned themselves with a less reliable source of truth than I have. There are times when "most people" are just wrong.

We do well to remember that when Pilate asked the crowd, "Jesus or Barabbas?" that the crowd chose Jesus. Israel's history is full of "the people" going asray and the individual (Moses, Elijah or Jeremiah, for example) being right. Large groups frequently make bad choices.

Now, I am neither a tennis fan nor a fan of the Willliams sisters. I recognize they are amazing players, but what pulled my attention to the story was the word Steubenville. The Catholic Charismatic renewal was strong there in my younger days, so I wondered if the comments were in reference to some religious topic.

Instead, I read what can only be called "sound advice" about behavior. Note she says:
1. "I am not blaming the girl." The young woman had been raped and her photo taken. The picture then made the rounds on the social media. Serena is not justifying any of that. She is not saying it is the girl's fault. No one has a right to rape anyone and no one has a right to take a photo like that and publish it. Serena makes that point first.
2. Serena said it is not a good idea to be out drinking, that a 16 year old should not be drunk like that and that a person should not place themselves in "that kind of situation." I am trying to remember the adults in my teen years and what they taught me... Hmm, seems like my parents, grandparents and every other adult basically told me exactly that. Do not get drunk. Do not put yourself in bad situations. Do not do things which get you in trouble. They were always clear with me, things can get out of hand easily, so try to be in a situation where it is less likely that they will. I give my kids this advice all the time. I have told my kids frequently that no one has ever said, "If only we had had more booze to drink we would have made a better decision."
3. Serena re-emphasized she did not know all the particulars about the girl and added that "unless they slipped her something, then that's different." She points out that the girl may have been drugged against her will. Pretty darn fair and balanced I would say. She does not exonerate the boys involved and she does not call the girl the insigator or cause. What she says is the girl had made some bad choices, even if she did not cause it.

So what is the controversy? What could possibly be criticized here?
Underage drinking is illegal and immoral. In fact, one argument for restricting alcohol consumption among teens is because this sort of thing occurs. So really, should that part be glossed over? Do I want my own daughter to be aware of the dangers of drinking like this? YES! Do I want my daughter to avoid doing such things? YES! The risk of rape for girls is much higher than boys so girls especially need to be concerned about their vulnerability. Obviously, boys should not rape girls. Just as obviously, girls need to know some boys are bad and when drinking is involved everyone gets stupid...

My point? If we live in a society where people think Serena is out of line for what she said (note, she was asked the question and responded to it) then society cannot be trusted as a reliable asset in moral decision making. Society got this one wrong. Society blew it. Serena is right. And that is one more reason to always think before you go along with the crowd.


  1. Jeff, I haven't looked at your blog in some months and am frankly sorry I made an exception today.

    That anyone of your age and experience could express such views seriously is as astonishing as it is embarrassing.

    By no possible stretch of the imagination could Serena Williams's ignorant and irresponsible comments be considered "remarkably balanced." For her to say that the Steubenville rape victim should not have been drunk in such a place is certainly accurate. She then goes on to speculate, what she can't know about, whether the girl was a virgin and which, in any case, makes no difference.

    No fault or condition of the victim can be excused as mitigating what was done to her. It is useless for Williams to protest that she is not blaming the girl, since the tenor of her comments can't possibly be taken any other way.

    No one of any age, and especially a minor, should be drunk, and no one vulnerable to rape should place himself or herself in a setting where such behavior could occur. But if such behavior does occur, nothing can excuse it, regardless of the victim's faults, and comments such as those made by Williams add nothing to a rational or moral understanding of the issue.

    The kindest thing one can say of your comments in this post is that they were made at 4:30 in the morning. Society did not get this issue wrong or blow it, as you asserted--you did, Jeff. Your comments show the judgment and maturity of a 14-year-old boy. They are a disgrace and an embarrassment, particularly for a man in his 50s who is an ordained minister, and you owe your readers an apology.

    I have been reading the Bible through for the first time in some years. I started May 22 and am not quite halfway through. I commented on Facebook that from time to time, as one reads, it can be strangely moving and one may even feel a sort of prompting from a "higher plane" and even think of visiting church--that is, until one actually does so and hears the minister say something breathtakingly stupid, upon which the inquirer goes home, grumbling to himself about having wasted his time.

    I'm sorry to say that you have proven my point for me, though at least I didn't have to make the effort to drive 11 miles to Collierville to make it happen. You are a fool, Jeff, and you don't belong in the ministry. To think that someone like you represents the One who defended the woman taken in adultery and yet is capable of making comments like these makes me understand, what I have suspected for years, that Christians have no idea what they believe and merely use their profession to excuse the prejudices that they held already.

  2. It seems we disagree, Michael. The issue is more complex than you seem to indicate. I may be a fool and I may be saying something breathtakingly stupid. Then again, maybe you need to read what I actually wrote.

    When I was 14 I knew that choices had consequences. I do not think the girl should have been raped which is why I wrote this: "Obviously, boys should not rape girls. Just as obviously, girls need to know some boys are bad and when drinking is involved everyone gets stupid..." The words, some "boys are bad" are a judgment on them not her. I am not blaming her or letting the boys off. All I am saying (at 57) is there is more going on and you being mad because I mention it seems inappropriate to moral decisions making. Our society prefers not to actually consider multiple angles. I am surprised, truly, that you would be so reluctant to do so.
    Sorry Michael, your "energetic" response seems overboard to me.If someone is mugged wandering around inner city Memphis late at night we would probably suggest that "you shouldn't have been there." That does not mean we think they deserved to be mugged. It is just pointing out the reality.

  3. My response was appropriate to the inanity of what you wrote. You got what you deserved.

    Williams admitted she knew little about the incident, but she speculated on whether or not the girl was a virgin, said she was "lucky," and said that the boys' punishment was unfair. Her comments were outrageous on their face. No other response is possible, from any right-thinking person.

    You admitted that you were equally unfamiliar with the context of Williams's remarks, to the extent that the mere mention of the word "Steubenville" had you wondering if the occasion had something to do with charismatic renewal, an observation that, if you had said nothing else, could rightly be called breathtakingly stupid. I know ministers are busy, but do you actually read the paper? Your comment reminds me of nothing so much as my first wife confessing that she had always thought Watergate was a dispute over fishing rights.

    So Williams knew little about the incident and showed it in her amazingly insensitive remarks and you, if possible, knew even less than Williams, but that didn't stop you, not only from wondering what could be controversial about them, but from arraigning society for its supposed misjudgment of Williams.

    Sorry, Jeff--and I really am sorry because I personally know something about your intelligence and education--but you have made yourself out to be, in this instance, a colossal idiot. In fact, as I thought about this more through the day, I found it even more astonishing that someone could say this after training in clinical psychology and years of experience caring for the spiritual welfare of others.

    I don't deny that our society is averse to moral accountability, and that is a signal ill of our culture at this time. And yes, it manifests itself in people putting themselves in very bad situations, whether through substance abuse, overeating, sexual promiscuity, or the like, and they simply suffer the consequences of their acts.

    But you chose the wrong instance to make that point, bud. The girl should not have been present, and if present, she should not have been drunk. Those two things are undeniable.

    But Williams's comments were ignorant, insensitive, and thoroughly offensive. She brought her condemnation on herself. And you, apparently knowing even less than she, affected to find her comments non-controversial and defended her!

    The kindest thing that can be said on your behalf in this instance is that, at age 57, you went off half-cocked. Having read your earlier comments on the Newtown slaughter, and your strange inclusion of a reflection on abortion in our society, which had nothing whatsoever with Newtown, any reasonable reader is forced to wonder if you suffer from the vindictive small-mindedness and lack of sympathy that any adult ought to have outgrown years ago but that some on the Right seem content to wallow in. I would prefer to think that you were better than that. This nonsensical post of yours makes it very hard to maintain such confidence.

    I said what I had to say earlier and will not belabor this point. This is your blog, and your readers (at least a few of whom, I am convinced, must have had a reaction similar to mine and could hardly believe that a man of your age and experience could actually have written such a thing and meant it) come here no doubt because they wish to be led beside the still waters, and I have no need to spoil it for anyone. But if you really are what this essay seemed to convey, you are contemptible. You owe your readers an apology. If you are not what this essay seemed to convey, you need to learn that words mean something. I'm done.

  4. Michael,
    I apologize to you and my readers.
    My reflections needed to make clearer that I think rape is wrong and that the girl should not have been raped. This was not a great example for me to make my point.
    I was trying to refect on what was written in the paper. Ironically, you agreed that the girl should not have been drunk, which is what I was trying to say. That was my point.

    Your vicious language, however, is rather unnerving. I find it far in excess to what I wrote and consider you to have crossed the line. In fact, you have given a perfect example of my concern. The way you responded is my concern and you have proved it is a valid concnern. As you say "words mean something' and your words mean something, too.

  5. "In fact, you have given a perfect example of my concern. The way you responded is my concern and you have proved it is a valid concnern."

    I've seriously pondered whether or not to reply, but your response shows that you still don't understand the issue, and there is one point that I still hadn't made clear, so I'll make it here. The site would not accept this in its full length, so I've had to make it in two parts.

    You seem to think that my response shows that I am yet another of those who are insufficiently aware of the dangers that people bring on themselves when they are drunk and in company where they can be abused. No, I am not unaware of, or unconcerned about, those issues. I also have a daughter, now grown, and I warned her many times about such dangers.

    Actually, it is ironic that you should raise the alarm about people not caring enough about right and wrong, because that lack of caring about standards is exactly what Serena Williams's comments showed. Her comments were in line with the many who felt that the rapists' punishment was excessively harsh. One could just as well have written a post about the young men, saying that if they didn't want their public disgrace and legal sentences, they needn't have transported a nude, half-conscious girl from place to place, photographed her in the act of being assaulted, posted the photographs on social media, and then bragged about it.

    I understand that you apparently knew nothing about the overall circumstances and took Williams's comments as nothing but common-sense observations about the dangers of exposing oneself to abuse and in a vulnerable condition. You have acknowledged that this wasn't the best instance for making your point.

    But there is an issue that you still don't get, Jeff.

    As a Christian, you represent the teachings and actions of the One represented in Scripture as showing mankind the Way of Salvation.

    Christians often ask themselves and each other, "What would Jesus do?" In this case, no one need ask that for long, since there is an actual instance in Scripture where a woman was brought to Jesus guilty of immorality worse than anything the Steubenville victim did. Unlike the Steubenville victim, she had not merely placed herself among unruly men in a drunken condition and been taken advantage of. If we accept the text that says she was "taken in adultery," we must understand that she had consciously and willingly entered into an immoral act explicitly condemned in the Mosaic Law.

    Technically, those who wanted to stone her were correct. Jesus did not deny her guilt but pointed out, by inference, that her tendency to sin was something she had in common with those who wished to stone her and challenged the others to consider her punishment in the light of that tendency.

    After the crowd slunk away, Jesus said to her "Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more." He didn't deny or evade the fact that what she had done was wrong and even referred to it, by implication, as a sin and told her not to repeat that or any similar behavior, but he graciously offered her mercy.

    Supposing there had been a Serena Williams among the crowd of the woman's accusers who had spoken up and said "Well I'm not trying to blame her, but if she didn't want to be dragged out here and threatened with stoning, she should know that you don't just hop in the sack with someone else's husband--I don't know if she was a virgin or not. Really, she was pretty lucky..."

    Can anyone with the faintest understanding of either the letter or the spirit of Jesus's teaching doubt for a moment that he would have promptly characterized such comments as typical of the Pharisees? Can anyone who has read the Gospels even as literature believe for five seconds that he would have responded by calling such comments "Remarkably balanced?" Good heavens!

  6. (Part 2)

    The point I failed to make before, except in passing in my first post, is that your original post shows no evidence that such considerations, including a reference to this obviously applicable episode in the career of the One you are claiming to represent, ever crossed your mind. One can't tell that it ever entered your thinking at all.

    In other words, Jeff, and in case you're wondering about my intemperate language, a large part of it proceeded from the fact that not only was I, an atheist, having to remind you, a Christian and a minister, about this episode from the Gospels; not only did your original post raise serious doubts about whether or not you possessed the wisdom, judgment, and graciousness that anyone should expect from a minister, but your post raised serious doubts as to whether you are even a Christian at all. What sort of Christian can have preached the gospel for years, comment on an issue like this, and never even have the episode of the woman taken in adultery cross his mind? Can it be said of such a person that the teachings of Jesus have penetrated very far? Please. I'm afraid that's a bit of a stretch.

    So if it makes you feel better to consider me as yet another member of the "crowd of sinners" who rail at the faithful because we are pricked in our consciences by godly standards, which is the way you seem to want to understand this, I can't stop you. But if you think that, you are missing a very obvious issue that is staring you full in the face. You are a so-called minister who has denied that the Creator of All knows the future and who, when I questioned you about whether this wouldn't make the biblical prophecies mere educated guesses on God's part, wrote back to me saying, among other things, "I don't see that as a problem." You are a man of 57, educated at one of Europe's most distinguished universities, who, the last time I visited your church, preached on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, if I remember correctly. And now you show yourself to be someone who, in considering the standing of a woman caught in immoral circumstances, doesn't see fit to reflect, or comment on, the graciousness and wisdom shown by your Teacher in a similar episode. What is any reasonable observer, especially one even a little older than you, expected to make of such a person functioning as a minister? Do you consider this a creditable representation of the One you serve?

    I have no doubt that you will console yourself by saying that this just shows that unbelievers will resort to anything to avoid facing the knowledge of God, etc., etc., and that you have received many private assurances, orally and in writing, of how unfairly treated you were by someone who just doesn't understand spiritual things, and you are are certainly welcome to such consolations as these reflections provide. But if you are honest with yourself, you will acknowledge that whether or not my original language was necessary, there is a point here that you have overlooked, and it ought to be faced.

  7. Michael
    Let me be clear. I understand why my remarks were offensive. I apologized. I admitted that this was not a good example to use. I have tried to face your feedback. Apparently that was not enough.

    Your decision that I am unworthy to be a priest and am not even a Christian are baffling to me. I do not think Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is appropriate to the situation. What Serena said was in response to a question. It should have been stated better. The mob attack and viciousness (which you have modeled quite efficiently three times) are the problem in my opinion. Whatever I may be missing you are inappropriate in what you say. period.

    You could very easily have said what you said in a way which was respectful and helpful. Instead you chose a full scale attack on the weak excuse that you are an atheist and I am a preist. Seriously? Others made the same point as you did with me and I acknowledged that they were right.

    As regards God knowing the future, get over it, michael. I am pretty sure you are not the final authority on theology and philosophy. Lots of people can have conversations without it blowing up into verbal assault. The fact is I do believe in Jesus and am very sorry you do not. It is His place to judge me and I trust He will do so honestly and thoroughly. Your input was less helpful than it should have been in helping me be more faithful. Your continued need to attack as you do makes me wonder what they real agenda and motivation for all this is...

  8. >Your decision that I am unworthy to be a priest and am not even a Christian are baffling to me. I do not think Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is appropriate to the situation.

    Then you've just proven my point. No one who doesn't immediately see the applicability of the woman taken in adultery can be said to understand anything at all about the spirit of Jesus's teaching, and to claim otherwise is laughable. Thanks, I guess, though on this, I would rather have been proven wrong.

    >As regards God knowing the future, get over it, michael. I am pretty sure you are not the final authority on theology and philosophy.

    True. But those who are so regarded believe that God knows the future. You're a bit out of the loop on that one, bud.

    >you chose a full scale attack on the weak excuse that you are an atheist and I am a preist.

    Jeff, I hope you learn before you're very much older that one doesn't *need* an excuse to tell the truth. I told the truth about you. Deal with it.

    I have asked myself, "What if there really is a God--and he's like Jeff? What if the Creator of all is an oblivious twit who egregiously misunderstands the very Book published in His Name and gets upset and feels sorry for Himself if you point that out? What if His Divine Head is up His cosmic backside? What if, upon having an interaction with Him, you are left honestly unable to tell if He really can't understand the point at issue or just doesn't want to?"

    If any of those things were true, could anyone seriously ask if an atheist would regard it as "heaven" to spend eternity with such an entity? Sorry, Jeff; the question answers itself.

    Your post today relieved me. I confess I really, really, really thought that you were going to post a message saying that Trayvon Martin got what was coming to him and that George Zimmerman's had been judged too harshly. Apparently, such egregiousness is too much even for you, and I'm glad.

    I'll close by offering a suggestion that you would do well to heed. In my opinion you should either:

    1. Rename your blog "Journey in Fatuousness" and adopt, as the epigraph, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." It would be no more than the truth." Or, better still:

    2. Stop typing. Post one more message: "Closed in deference to Proverbs 17:28."

    Good luck, Jeff. One can only hope that you grow up before you live many more years. You've got a long way to go.

  9. I prayed for you today. I prayed you would get some peace.

    You asked me to apologize which I did. Now you are basically telling me to resign as a priest and stop talking/writing because I am an idiot.

    I have always tried to treat you with respect. I really do wish you well and am sorry that this has gone in the direction it did.
    For future reference, it is possible to make constructive comments without attacking a person. I do not think I have ever attacked you, I hope not. I wish you well.

  10. >Now you are basically telling me to resign as a priest and stop talking/writing because I am an idiot.


    That is exactly what you need to do, Jeff. Get up in front of your congregation and your bishop, admit that you have the judgment of a heedless, 14-year-old boy, lightly toying with weighty things, that your comments cast grave doubt on your maturity, your ministerial vocation, and your profession as a Christian...

    ...and then tell them that you are voluntarily withdrawing for a period of silent meditation and reflection.

    You have no idea how much good you could accomplish. For yourself, as well as others. Perhaps you'll surprise me and, contrary to my expectation, do the right thing.