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There’s an essay which I see referenced every so often, titled On Bullshit. The bit of it I most commonly remember seeing quoted, and wanted to reference here, is, usefully, the extract quoted on bullshit’s own Wikipedia page:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

I think this makes for a good definition; it’s useful to have a term for this particular kind of disregard for accurately representing reality, as distinct from lying. I also think it leaves a gap for a related term.

It’s possible, I suggest, to fail to be either on the side of the true or that of the false, not through cunning self-interest, but through simple incompetence. To have an eye on the facts, but for that eye to be so blind, or perhaps feeding its input to a brain so stultified, that it might as well not be.

True bullshit, as described above, must be powered by at least a modicum of intelligence. One’s purpose must be clearly identified to oneself, and some declarations and assertions found which can be persuaded to support it, even if their connection to reality is never regarded. This naive alternative to bullshit I’m describing might be mistaken for bullshit, as the results are often very similar – but the self-serving motivation of the bullshitter is replaced by a hapless inability to formulate sentences, or perhaps even beliefs, that correspond to truth or falsehood with any reliable consistency.

It’s not quite the case that I’m simply describing a well-meaning idiot, truthfully describing the world as they feebly understand it, either. Again, the results may be close enough that the distinction isn’t always clear, but my suggestion requires a certain level of bluster, of continued pressing-on and self-assurance, combined with an utter disconnection from the world and any facts within it. Arguably, he does “believe” the truth of what he says, but so little thought is put toward it, such meagre analysis of any beliefs or opinions he superficially appears to hold, that even whether any meaningful comprehension of his surroundings is occurring remains unclear. He processes enough to continue functioning, but not enough that any relationship between his assertions and the world around him can be counted upon.

I reckon there’s something there worth describing. Now it just needs a name.

And based on my experiences today, I think a fine name for this phenomenon would be “Southeastern Rail”.

Yes, this was all just a thinly veiled rant about my ridiculous commute this morning. Sorry.

The thing about Transcendence is that it’s not in any way a film about artificial intelligence. It’s about being human, and being God, and the implications of our impossible quest for one given the unavoidable limitations of the other, or some such wank. It uses the trappings of AI as a framework for the storytelling but has about as much bearing on the actual path of interactive electronic simulation technology as Lawnmower Man. I might have enjoyed it more if I’d figured out that distinction earlier; there’s nothing wrong with telling that kind of story, or of telling stories that way. But I’d like to see a story about AI that’s actually about AI sometime. Outside of fanfic from some of the funner corners of the rationalist community.

What? Half-arsing something on your phone and then copying and pasting it from a Facebook update totalling counts as blogging. Well, self-plagiarism’s the best you’re getting for now, anyway. Moving house is still keeping me too discombobulated to get much writing done. My online handle’s a bigger lie than my old MySpace username, Extrovert McSmallpenis.

Atheist horseman Sam Harris has denied being a sexist pig.

Having to defiantly declaim against a position you purport not to hold rarely ends well. In fact it’s usually a sign that things have started pretty badly and are only going to get worse (cf. 98% of all sentences ever composed which begin “I’m not racist, but”). And considering the umpteenth resurgence of interest, over the past week or so, in what a clusterfuck of prejudice and tribalism some corners of the atheist movement have turned into, you could be forgiven for expecting the worst.

But I don’t think this is anything like the train-wreck it might have been. I said on Twitter that I was around 85% in agreement with Harris in that post, and a day later I think that stands. He doesn’t seem to believe anything outrageous, and his stated position seems level-headed and pretty reasonable. I have a huge problem with the snide dismissiveness I’ve seen directed at people who disagree with this assessment and take greater issue with Harris’s words, but that hasn’t seemed to come from Harris himself. His cause is done no favours, though, by certain of his supporters, including the occasional “big name” of atheism who really should have learned to handle these pseudo-controversies more humanely and communicatively by now (naming no names, Professor).

One point on which I’m not wholeheartedly in support of Harris is his closing jabs against “a well-known feminist-atheist blogger” with whom he’s had some recent private correspondence over this matter. Now, it’s possible that he’s not talking about Greta Christina, but given her own public comments about engaging with him, it seems a reasonable bet. As I type this, she’s not had time to respond to Harris’s post in full, but has tweeted a link to this old post of hers as a relevant collection of thoughts in the meantime.

The piece is about the (apparently) common social justice slogan, “Intention is not magic”. This refers to the idea that, if you’ve caused somebody harm or offense, the simple fact that you didn’t intend to do so doesn’t magically absolve you from responsibility for the harm you did, in fact, cause. “It wasn’t deliberate” is only a partial excuse, and that’s as true for, say, using a term you weren’t aware was a slur against a minority, or naively parroting a false and derogatory stereotype, as it is for accidentally crushing someone’s toe.

It’s an important point, worth remembering when people try to excuse blatant sexism and racism as harmless banter. All too often, people get haughty and defensive when it’s pointed out that they’ve caused offense, and attempt to hide behind the magic of their intent.

But intent’s not the only thing that isn’t magic. And, in this case, something else seems worth remembering:

Your immediate gut reaction to someone else’s words isn’t magic either. And nor is the unfavourable interpretation you instinctively place upon them when you take offense.

Both these “not magic” rules have to be applied discriminately. Some things are viscerally appalling at first glance for very good reasons; obviously complaints of offense are often legitimate and should be taken seriously. But it’s not out of the question that someone saying “I don’t think I have anything to apologise for” is basically in the right. (Many atheists will have experienced religious folk being outraged and “offended” that they dare to assert their own lack of belief; even if my saying “God doesn’t exist” upsets you, I don’t think I owe you an apology.)

And as much as the sincere apology format that Greta suggests probably should be a much bigger part of general discourse than it currently is, it’s not automatically the only acceptable response to an accusation of harm or offense being caused. We’re not magically obliged to bow and scrape our way through an “I didn’t mean to, I’ll try and do better next time” every time someone else reckons we were out of line. And, in this case, I’m not at all convinced that Sam Harris is the prejudiced, hate-filled, unrepentant monster some folk really are making him out to be.

The world in general could surely use a good deal more honest contrition, of the kind that really listens to our interlocutor’s concerns, and doesn’t mentally put them into a box as “someone on the other side of the argument and who I will therefore always be in dispute with”. Even if this isn’t a case where that’s the best way to fix things, you won’t have to go far to find another where it will.

Try not to let these disagreements divide the way you see the world into teams, though. I’m not on Team Anyone here. I spent a while being wary and uncomfortable with a couple of good atheist bloggers because they were coming down on the wrong “side” of a Rebecca Watson-centric debate (I forget which one), and that was a ridiculous way to behave. Greta’s still cool, and you should read her book.

Dawkins is kinda just turning into a dick, though.

Here’s a thing I Facebooked recently:

I got more Twitter attention than I had for ages yesterday, by pointing out that homophobia is silly to people who already knew that. As you can possibly tell from my rather glib phrasing, it felt less than satisfactory or victorious.

It’s definitely worthwhile progress that being gay is coming to be seen universally as obviously completely fine, but I don’t see much of a useful endgame following from enlightened folk like me simply continuing to point it out.

I think I’m troubled by certain inbuilt methods of engaging with those who disagree, and how naturally I slide into those easy patterns. If you want people to learn to love better, and you’re not using love to teach that lesson, surely your methods are flawed from the start. Be the change you want to see in the world, and such. Otherwise your strategy is “Stop hating people different from you, or I’ll hate you for your differences from me.”

If you crush the rebellious, they’ll just learn tyranny & oppression. If you demand they be more accepting, without yourself displaying acceptance in action… Well, I don’t know. Just seems like if I want to be as revolutionary as I want to be, I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more.

This has been: @writerJames tweets from a nice warm bath while slightly tipsy on the theme of optimising the world through improved compassion and communication, then recaps it on Facebook the next morning.

Surprisingly, not everyone was instantly won over to my proposed hippie lefty love-fest of peace and harmony. I guess they must’ve just been feeling grouchy. Or maybe there’s at least one major proviso which deserves to be added to the above points.

Broadly speaking, I stand by my generalised support for being nice, and I’m strongly inclined to speak out in favour of being kinder to people than they might seem to deserve. Compassion can make real constructive progress between people of differing views possible, in ways that anger and bitterness can’t, far more often than the other way around.

But I can see, on reflection, how something as apparently innocuous at first glance as idly wishing for a charming idyll of universal tolerance might be problematic. As is so often the case, it’s largely down to the context. My context at the time of the above thoughts was a nice hot bath on a comfortably lazy afternoon. Not everyone shared in it.

(In the context of my position of comfort and security, I mean. Obviously no-one was sharing my bath. No-one ever is. Or seems to want to. I’m beginning to think I don’t know how to set up a Facebook event properly.)

The way nobody quite put it to me in the comments was: “That’s easy for you, but some of us are still dealing with shit that we deserve to be angry about, fuckdammit.” Maz pointed out how much fun it isn’t, being told essentially to “calm down dear”, something she’s heard often enough before. She objects to other people’s behaviour, and her audacity for speaking up seems to be reprimanded more severely than the genuinely objectionable remarks that earned her wrath in the first place. While I wasn’t advocating the passivity she argued against, I also wouldn’t dispute the entitlement she claims to her anger.

But my hypothetical commenter summing things up was right about something important. It is easy for me.

And if I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it’s easy, it seems like I have more responsibility than most to make some sort of effort.

My comments were coming from a place of significant privilege. Being a straight white able-bodied male, that’s true of most comments I’m ever likely to make. But the feminists who believe this means my opinions should be ignored or shouted down only really exist in the fetid imaginations of a significant slice of the men’s rights activism movement.

The remark I originally made on Twitter, which my later series of tweets referred to, was about this post by one of the UK’s foremost pitifully watered-down attempts at religious extremism, Christian Voice.

Now, to me, watching a niche outfit like Christian Voice, as they rail against the inevitable march of progress, and bluster about how those gays are undermining all you straight people and your own marriages, no really they are, you just don’t realise it – to me, it’s almost adorable. They’re too quaint to take seriously. They certainly aren’t a threat, but they’re too tragic to really be a joke either. They’re like a doddery grandparent who keeps muttering about how the blacks are everywhere these days doing jobs white people used to do, who you roll your eyes at and gently remind that that we don’t use certain slurs when we talk about people these days.

Their attempt at oppressive bigotry is such a misguided, overblown, tiny little gnat of a thing, it feels inappropriate for me to get all fiery and indignant over it. It’d be like trying to become righteously enraged at the unacceptable behaviour of a toddler throwing a tantrum on the living room floor, flailing at you with their tiny balled-up fists.

And the context of all this is that I’m still a straight white able-bodied male. The thing I know – but didn’t explicitly acknowledge in my original burble – is that for many people homophobia is really not in any way adorable. People are still shamed, humiliated, harassed, brutalised, and attacked for their sexuality. And that’s just in the kinds of progressive countries where these attitudes are obviously on the way out, let alone in somewhere like Uganda. A lot of folk are made seriously fucking miserable by the kind of prejudice at which I sigh and shake my head with weary indulgence.

Now, being aware of that context doesn’t negate the value of bringing compassion to these arguments, or undermine my basic point that fighting hate with hate is a suboptimal method for reaching a conclusion of love and tolerance. But if people are feeling hectored about their tone, I’ve done something wrong.

Judging anyone else’s moral obligation to be kind, patient, and compassionate to people unwilling to return the favour is absolutely not a game I meant to play. However much I might uphold that ideal, I know that berating anyone else for failing to live up to it, without considering their own circumstances and why it may not be a realistic goal in their case, will only add to the world’s level of dickitude. The one person whose situation I’m sufficiently familiar with to make that kind of moral judgment on is me.

I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more, is what I said. I can hold myself to that standard, while recognising that my straight-white-male-ness is part of what makes this a practical expectation for me, and that not everyone shares those features. It was a pondering on my own capacity for self-improvement that set me off on this road. Which is also why the later comment that “from what I recall of your blogging about religion, you don’t write in the style you’re suggesting here” is quite accurate.

Part of the reason for this apparent double-standard is that, while homophobia has always been almost entirely unthreatening to me, I’ve not always identified with the same privileged position when it comes to religion. I’ve been part of the atheist movement, as it were, and railed against the many and varied injustices of religious oppression as if they were in some way personal affronts. But, if I’m honest, my rights and personal safety have never been under serious threat from any Christian bigots or Islamic extremists or Jain nutjobs. I don’t need to defend my right to my anger the way some people do.

So, I don’t need to be an asshole to outspoken religious people any more than I do to anachronistic homophobes. I don’t need to give them a free pass if they’re going to be hateful or irrational or make the world a notably worse place in any way, but I also don’t need to be hostile in order to stand up for reality and kindness. If you can do that too, then wonderful, I recommend it. If you can’t, then it’s not for me to expect it of you. It may be an unreasonable ask, if these issues are actually affecting you personally and fucking up your life. We’ve all got our own shit to deal with. You’re entitled to work through yours however. I can dig it.

Hopefully that makes a bit more sense of things. Either way I think I’ll stop talking about it now.

Oh and by the way we’ve sold our house but can’t buy a new one yet and it’s all a ridiculous mess.

Bye.

(P.S. I read this only after drafting all the above, which makes a more interesting point more concisely than I did.)

Yeesh, over a month. The progress bar has inched a bit further along but we’re still not in our new house. There’s less still to do than there was a month ago, though. I mean, there must be. It’s mathematically necessary, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s true.

I don’t have any original thoughts to share about Robin Williams, but I guess I can at least signal-boost the sensible advice I’m seeing repeated a lot in my internet circles, in case some of it hasn’t made it to yours.

There’s an organisation called the Samaritans, whose aim is to provide some kind of support to anyone in acute need of it. If you’re lost in the world, feel you can’t cope, or are simply desperately sad, and there’s nobody whose personal relationships you feel you can rely on, the Samaritans are the ones who want you to know that they exist for this reason, and they can be contacted at any time.

Something else they provide is a set of best practice suicide reporting tips. Basically, for individuals who are especially vulnerable or experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are some ways they might hear about suicide being reported which will put them at a greater risk; whereas, hearing about it in other ways might make them more aware of the support options available and encourage them to make use of these. The Samaritans want to help make that second kind happen more often, and have offered some specific advice to this end.

Some amount of research has been done, and as a result advocacy organisations know a thing or two about the impact that reporting has on vulnerable people. This potentially life-saving knowledge is broadly ignored by the media.

Whenever you discuss things like this, though, please try and bear the information in the above links in mind. The things you say and do about a subject like this can really matter to people. Perhaps not as significantly as a tabloid front page, which seem to have more or less universally got it wrong (example links not provided), but you’re never too small to give some thought to how you’re affecting people and whether you could be helping them out a little more. Not even if you get as few hits as this place lately.

And it’s seriously not a free speech issue. I haven’t seen anyone get into that kind of tizzy over this advice, but I’m sure they’re out there. Discussions like this always seem to devolve into that kind of rabid right-libertarian defensiveness eventually. Yes, government restriction of speech is bad. I don’t want you to be arrested for using inappropriate terminology when discussing suicide. I’m just asking you to pay attention to what is known to prevent further deaths, and try doing some of that, rather than being an asshole.

It’s sad that Robin Williams is no longer with us. It’s sad that he couldn’t find the help and support he clearly needed while he was alive. Trying to make sure nobody else feels that way in future would be a worthy goal for our species. If you need to say more about it than that, regardless of being told that you’re putting people at risk or adding to the trauma already faced by many people, then you really need to look at yourself and your priorities.

Anyway, I suppose there’s no point being too frustrated over the newspapers breaking every sensible guideline and making things worse for everyone. Doing whatever makes you money while not giving a shit about negative externalities like the deaths of non-customers is basically what capitalism is.

Also, everything Dean Burnett says.

See you in, I don’t know, another month maybe, for another progress report, and perhaps some actual sodding progress this time.

War and Cakes

I am so done with being in the middle of moving house.

We’re probably like 90% of the way through the overall, incredibly tediously and drawn-out process, if you count from the very start of the “hey let’s sell our house, oh and hey that other house looks nice let’s go and live there instead” impulse. But we’re currently stuck in an awkward interim bit where we’re moved out and into the in-laws’ guest wing, most of our stuff is boxed up, and we’re still waiting for the last bits of interminable legal wankery to be settled before we get to actually be living in our own home with our own stuff again.

I’ve got a bunch of half-started blog posts which I’ll get back to once I have a computer in a place where I can actually sit and work on things regularly again. Right now it’s sitting in an otherwise almost empty room, everything else having been packed up. The clacking of my keyboard has started echoing weirdly in here. I guess the curtains used to muffle that? I dunno.

Anyway. Christian Voice recently reminded me why I still read their blog. In an article about a suggestion to abandon the obligation for Christian assemblies in state schools, something which seems utterly bizarre that it wasn’t done years ago, they provide several unremarkable paragraphs of fairly straightforward, unemotional reporting on the objective course of events, and then completely out of nowhere they hit you with a sentence like:

However, it isn’t at all clear what ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural’ values would qualify as ‘inclusive’ nor whom or what they could be founded on if not on the God who brought this nation victorious through two world wars.

Wonderful.

And then a week later, they actually end up being largely in the right (though perhaps by accident) on another recent matter – the right to turn down a commission without having to justify yourself seems a fairly clear one in this case – and come up with an interesting point I don’t recall seeing in any other analysis. Could the bakery have claimed they were afraid of breaching copyright?

Also the continued insistence with which some people put the quotes around gay “marriage” is just funny.

I’ll be better at this again soon. Until then I’m getting a new kitten tomorrow so I don’t give a fuck about any of you anyway. Seeya, losers!

Watch this music video. It’s lovely. You may know the song.

If you don’t find that beautiful and moving, then either you’re dead inside, or I’m way more of a hippy than I give myself credit for.

(Or possibly your tastes in music and art just diverge substantially from mine. I suppose it needn’t be anything dramatic.)

What still strikes me about this video is how little happens in it, and what a disproportionate effect it has.

The music itself is rather lovely, and although I’m paying as little attention to the lyrics as I generally do, no doubt they’re also very sweet. But the video is wonderful, charming, delightful, inspiring, adorable, heartening. If you were ever inclined to doubt that world is capable of beauty and kindness, seeing this will put any such fears to rest in just a couple of minutes.

Which is odd, because all you’re seeing is some people you don’t know, sitting on a sofa, listening to a song on some headphones. Sometimes they smile at each other, enjoying a shared joke, or chuckling at the artificial nature of the situation. There’s the odd glance of recognition between them, perhaps after a particular lyric connects in some way. One person just sits and holds a framed photograph.

That’s all there is. It’s barely anything at all. It’s a simple, unremarkable series of snapshots of perfectly ordinary people doing something perfectly ordinary for a brief moment in their lives. And it’s one of the most moving things I can think of.

Which I think means that, somewhere, a small bunch of musicians and filmmakers have tapped into a staggeringly important and borderline magical power of the human mind.

Seriously. I mean, how can it not be? The world is fucking horrible, you guys. Terrible things that should make any sane person want to abandon this whole spinning space-rock and go live on an ice moon somewhere are happening every day, all over the place. Citation utterly superfluous. Pick any half-dozen comments at random from basically anywhere on the internet. Watch an American news channel for as long as you can stand. Learn a single fact about the international arms trade. Everything is so far from optimal it’s terrifying.

But then you can look at some people being people for a couple of minutes while a man plays guitar and sings a nice song, and it all seems okay.

Even a shared experience as small and easily attainable as this, is enough to make us feel connected. It lets us feel like those people we’re watching are happy and splendid and that everything’s alright because the world is full of happy splendid people just like them. (You have to assume that they’re listening to the same song that we are, anyway. It probably loses its impact a little if you turn the sound off and imagine they’re spacing out to some dubstep.)

My threshold for having my perspective shifted to allow me to see the world as a place of beauty and love and joy and potential and hope is phenomenally low. The littlest, simplest thing can remind me of so much good, and make me feel like it’s all so valuable and important and wonderful.

That sounds like a fucking superpower to me. And it’s made all the more powerful if, as I strongly suspect, billions of other people share it.

There’s a lot that goes on in the world which is horrible and frightening and sad. But it can’t truly be without hope, or beyond redemption, while it can so easily seem wonderful again.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Ugh. Just how much of a drip am I?

2. Yeah, but go watch that video again. I’m going to.

3. Life’s not so bad, eh?

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