Will Saletan Seemingly Determined to Miss the Point on Scanning vs. Groping

Will Saletan of Slate has made a career of suggesting ways that women can compromise their bodily autonomy for the greater good. So, maybe I should take his latest column as a gesture of solidarity. Therein, Saletan argues that we should acquiesce to the new nude backscatter scans because the new genital-groping pat-down is objectively so much worse:


And from the standpoint of dignity, [the National Opt-Out Day activists'] advice is insane. If you opt out of the scan, you'll get a pat-down instead. You'll trade a fast, invisible, intangible, privacy-protected machine inspection for an unpleasant, extended grope. In effect, you'll be telling TSA to touch your junk.

Saletan purports to be an expert on applied ethics, yet he is blind to the sexualized coercion implicit in the "choice" between allowing a stranger in another room to see your naked body vs. having your junk touched. (For the record, I don't support National Opt-Out Day, in part because a lot of its major backers will use any slowdown as pretext to privatize TSA, which is such a complete non sequitur that anyone who even suggests privatization as a cure for junk-probing is insulting your intelligence. Private contractors would enforce the same rules as public employees. Remember how we outsourced interrogation of terrorism suspects overseas? That ended very badly.)

It's all about managing expectations. Homeland Security could have decreed that everyone must pass through the nude scanner. If that had been the edict, TSA would be grappling with even bigger backlash. Ostensibly giving passengers a choice between a scan and a pat-down makes the invasion of privacy seem more acceptable. It gives the passenger the illusion of control. We're so busy playing "scan or grope?" that we forget to ask why we're paying for scanners the TSA can't even justify with a cost-benefit analysis.

Despite what Saletan would have you believe, acquiescence is no guarantee that your junk will be left alone. According to the TSA blog, you will get patted down if you refuse a whole body scan; if you get scanned and something looks unusual; if you set off the metal detector; or at random. How many times have you been called back through the metal detector because of a rivet on your jeans or an aglet on your shoelace?

The metal clips on my mom's fallopian tubes set off airport metal detectors about one out of every 10 times she flies! Until now, it's been a big joke. She just laughs and tells them they've got the thing turned up too high. I hope she won't get groped next time.

Of course the genital pat-down feels more significantly more invasive and degrading to most people than the body scan. That's what makes this whole scenario so profoundly morally objectionable. The point of the new junk-touching protocols is to make the scanners seem attractive by comparison

The new invasive pat-downs were introduced on Oct. 29, just before the new scanners rolled out in dozens of airports across the country. Homeland Security made the pat-downs worse on purpose. A TSA screener predicted that nobody would opt for a pat-down over a scan "once they figure out what we're going to do [viz junk]."

If the choice were between a standard pat-down and a scan, more people would choose the pat-down. If enough people felt queasy about nude scans, screening would slow, and the scanners would become an expensive boondoggle overnight.

Nobody has even tried to justify across-the-board "enhanced" pat-downs as enhanced security. We're just supposed to assume some magical relationship holds between the touching of junk and the prevention of hijackings. The old protocol was pretty thorough and agents always had the option of pulling people aside for additional screening if the initial frisk turned up anything suspicious.

The threat of groping is the stick the TSA is using to herd us through the nude scanners. What's so objectionable about the program is not just the nude scans, it's the fact that people are being forced to do something that many regard as sexually humiliating with the threat of even greater sexual humiliation. If you believe the TSA propaganda about how the machines don't really show that much, consider the fate of TSA Miami screener Rolando Negrin who was mercilessly teased by his co-workers after they saw his penis during training.

As videographer/protester John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner found out when he refused a scan and a pat-down in San Diego, you're not necessarily allowed to leave if you get to the screening area and decide you'd rather skip the whole thing.

The scanners will not save lives. They will only make money for Michael Chertoff's cronies. Check out this Popular Mechanics interview with security consultant Bruce Schneier, the man who coined the term "security theater." According to Schneier, the manufacturers of the scanners admit their technology would not have caught the underwear bomber. "The guys who make the machines have said, "We wouldn't have caught that," he said.

[Image credit: Stargazer95050, Creative Commons.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.