Sunday, May 10, 2015

A rare instance of a reflective ST?

I can only hope. Is ST questioning its contribution to stupid debate/opinions?

May 10, 2015

Never mind the data, what's the point?
They add nothing to a moral argument; why not ask instead: Why do you feel this way?
By John Lui

Deep inside The Straits Times Forum Page, tucked in with letters scolding bad cyclists, unexplained phone charges and the shutdown of The Real Singapore website, there was one letter last week that squeezed two unbeatable topics - sex and real estate - into one quite wonderful package.

The Yale-NUS College is introducing mixed-sex suites in its student housing, and the writer was having none of it.

At least I think so. The letter was earnest, heartfelt and darn near unintelligible.
Here's the letter:
May 05, 2015 
Co-ed cohabitation endangers chastity
YALE-NUS College recently announced that it will be allowing male and female students to share suites ("Male, female students in Yale-NUS can soon share suites"; April 22).
In the report, a parent, Mrs Grace Yeo, was quoted saying: "These are not teenagers but young adults. I trust my son to make responsible choices."
I wonder if this is representative of Singapore parents today.
Based on the 2004 Global Sex Survey by Durex, the average age that Singaporean youth first have sex is 18.9 years. The survey also found that Singapore youth have an average of 5.8 sexual partners.
The average age that our youth first have sex is dangerously close to the age when students would enter Yale-NUS.
So we have to ask ourselves a fundamental question: Is it an issue to have premarital sex?
Or perhaps we think that even if our children have premarital sex, they can sort it out after marriage.
A recent report ("Recent marriages not standing the test of time"; April 7) showed that recent marriages are failing more often than in the past, and I would say that today's generation lacks faithfulness.
How does abstaining from premarital sex help? Because when your partner can control himself before marriage, he will be able to control himself after marriage.
One may ask: Why keep your virginity when you can have fun? Because sex has the uncanny ability to create a lasting connection with another person, and the voices of your previous sex partners hovering over you when you embark on a serious relationship can be very disconcerting.
Rage and insecurity can hinder the formation of a healthy relationship and it is very lonely to be in such marriages.
Intentionally or unintentionally, Yale-NUS' policy propagates a lifestyle that begets relational loneliness.
Chen Dewei

I tried to follow its reasoning as it writhed this way and that but, like the maths question about Cheryl's birthday, it left many of us feeling exhausted.
But what stood out for me were the tools the writer used to justify his beliefs.

The writer thinks co-ed living brings men and women into close proximity and therefore promotes sex before marriage.

That leads to what he calls "voices of your previous sex partners hovering over you" when you embark on a serious relationship, causing it to suffer.

On that last point, I can agree: No marriage can withstand sexy poltergeists.

But what struck me was, why did this writer take a perfectly valid moral opinion - sex before marriage is bad - then undermine it with confusing and contradictory shards grabbed from population studies and sociology?

Yale-NUS College later explained once more that what it was introducing was mixed-sex suites with separate bedrooms.

This practice might be new on campus, but off-campus, mixed-sex house-sharing has been going on for a very long time, long before the ghosts of past sex partners started floating above our beds.

The writer seems to be using a classic method of persuasion, the appeal to general welfare: This or that issue is bad not because it hurts me (because that would be selfish), but it hurts everyone.

This sort of appeal is very popular in Singapore and, over the years, the method has evolved and been refined.

I remember a time when letter writers made appeals to values like thrift and hard work ("Surely this will destroy our sense of financial prudence.").

A thing was liable to "corrupt the minds of the youth" (usually to do with a youth craze of the time that older people couldn't stand).

If all else fails, whip out the trusty "no right-thinking person would do it" or that the thing in question "flouts common sense".

But those reasons are less seen these days.

Simple moral reasoning - "I believe this because that's what my parents taught", or "This is what my religion says", or "I hate this because it just makes me uncomfortable" - seems to have fallen out of fashion.

People can now whip out supporting facts within a few seconds of pecking around on the Internet.

Others, meanwhile, cook up a word salad made up of phrases like "social cohesion" and "fostering harmony" or bring out that old favourite, "it benefits the economy", as if only lunatics would argue against it.

Tossing our elderly into the sea would be great for the economy, but I doubt anyone is going to suggest it.

The more someone writes as if he were penning a corporate mission statement, the shakier he knows his ground to be.

That magisterial tone is an appeal to our respect for authority.

Looking like pragmatic, data-driven beings has made us really bad at conversations about things that have nothing to do with data.

Does Amos Yee, or anyone else who spews rubbish online, deserve punishment and, if so, how much?

Is the Pink Dot event good or bad for society?

What should the sex education curriculum look like?

Are people who dislike the idea of a hospice or a columbarium in their neighbourhood wrong?

In these discussions, the same bits of data will be waved around.

These include the rates of divorce, abortion, fertility and current property values.

Sometimes, a survey on values will be thrown in, whether for sexuality or online codes of behaviour.

There will be assertions about why X must surely be the cause of that particular number's rise or fall.

People who throw down research think they are scoring a slam dunk, as if the other side will cave in immediately, saying, "Oh no, you used statistics! Well, I can't beat that. You won fair and square. Well played, sir!"

I'm still waiting for that to happen.

Bringing data to a moral argument adds nothing because values are rarely logical, fully articulated or fair.

People with progressive ideals - those who are for co-ed dorms and expansive sex education - would help their cause if they knew that they are facing a set of conservative and often irrational beliefs that tie a majority of Singaporeans to their family.

Change would require them to sever ties. Some people can do this, many cannot.

I also wish the question "why do you feel this way?" was used more frequently in values debates, but no one seems interested in how the other side thinks.

It's a useful question and, if asked often enough, gets to how these issues are primarily about feelings, not rationality that can be moved by research, and certainly not about the spirits of ex-girlfriends or boyfriends hovering around the ceiling.

I agree with Mr Lui - people don't know how to argue their moral or value-informed position - we are "really bad at conversations about things that have nothing to do with data." 

But these questions are precisely the ones that evoke visceral responses from readers, which is why ST continues to publish these letters. And when such letters are not forthcoming, ST will ask a stupid survey question that would evoke visceral responses from readers.

So my hope at the start of this? Fat hopes.

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