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I haven’t live-tweeted a consciousness-stream of pseudo-philosophical bollocks from the bath in a while. But I did read this article while taking a soak yesterday, and although I kept my pseudo-philosophical bollocks to myself at the time, it irritated me enough to come back to.

Richard Dawkins is being sued for $58 million. The plaintiff claims to be “the only individual on earth in the history of man that has scientifically disproven Evolution”, and reckons that comments Dawkins made in 1989 were a clear and insulting reference to a book this guy published in 2013.

Furthermore, he wants Dawkins to publicly apologize and destroy “by fire or shredding” every publication that includes the statement. So every copy of a New York Times from 1989.

Which is obviously ludicrous, but that’s not even a slightly interesting observation. Creationism is ludicrous, but it’s not utterly incomprehensible. It’s not usually that hard to understand basically what’s going on in the head of someone who believes God created the universe not that long ago. They’re still living in the real world in various important ways, which this guy suing Richard Dawkins emphatically is not.

I mean, look at what he’s saying. Think about how far removed you’d have to be from reality as we know it, to embark on a lawsuit like this. The list of things you have to mistakenly believe – the mountain of basic ideas about how the world works you’d have to fail to understand – in order to act as though a sweeping generalisation made in 1989 was a personal attack on you and your book published in 2013, and that demanding all copies of a decades-old magazine be rounded up and eliminated is a form of redress that could ever possibly be either meaningful or productive – is more than I can get my head around.

This person’s relationship with reality, as far as I can tell, is beyond anything I can conceive of as part of the human experience. I’m not going to start making diagnoses of mental illness over the internet, but you can understand why I’d be tempted.

And this guy’s approach to the world is just as alien to creationists. He is not representative of anyone. He is not further evidence that those kooky god-botherers are all nuts. Most of the folk who agree with him entirely on the matter of evolutionary theory are totally on your side about what a bizarre way this is to try to sue somebody. You remember how your everyday creationists aren’t playing anything like the same game as this guy, right? Most Americans are creationists. Most Americans are not this guy. We’d notice if 60% of a global superpower was this off the page.

But what bugged the hell out of me about this story was something Dawkins’ lawyers said. Now obviously I have no legal qualifications or understanding of anything, and I’ve no idea about the specific details of this case. I’m entirely ignorant of the extent to which it’s important to frame an argument this way or how much they consulted with Dawkins over the precise wording of how they described his intentions. No doubt there are many good reasons that the highly paid experts in their field didn’t act quite how I would have done.

But here’s what Dawkins said in 1989 that’s caused this belated kerfuffle:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

And here’s how these words have been explained by his legal defenders:

It is hyperbole meant to make a point. It does not rise to a level beyond what is decent and tolerable in a civilized society.

They deny elsewhere that he was stating a “fact”, and seem to explain his assertion in terms of rhetoric, as if he’d been obviously exaggerating just to make a stronger point.

But… isn’t it clear that Dawkins meant exactly what he said? The scientific conclusion about the obvious fact of evolution is clear, to the extent that anyone who claims to deny or reject it must be doing so through one of the obvious faults he lists.

This seems to hold up to me. To take his options in a different order, if someone doesn’t accept evolution…

…perhaps they’re evil, and lying about it for some nefarious purpose…

– they might be “insane” for some value of such, and simply be unable to build up a coherent picture of the universe which can contain even obvious truths, due to some badly faulty wiring…

– they might be stupid, which is no doubt the case for many folk who fail to grasp a relatively straightforward concept, or who have some obvious blocks or prejudices that stop them from getting it…

– or, maybe, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that last one’s really the crux of this. “Ignorant” may sound like just an insult, and if you just bristle at it and don’t examine further, you may read Dawkins’s claim as amounting to “only dumb-asses don’t agree with me”. But if you understand it to be pointing out that people who reject evolution simply lack knowledge or understanding, which is all “ignorant” really means, doesn’t that accurately describe them pretty well? How many creationists have you seen convincingly pass an ideological Turing test, and demonstrate that they actually know what it is they’re sure they don’t believe in?

This isn’t to say that providing the information they lack will fix their ignorance – if only anything about human psychology were so straight-forward – but I genuinely think Dawkins had covered all the bases with his original statement, and that it should be read as a literal statement of fact. A statement of fact with room for clarification, certainly, about the use of “ignorant”, and how noting somebody’s lack of knowledge can be a sympathetic judgment, not a harsh and dismissive one. But absolutely a statement of fact.

Maybe there’s some legally useful value to claiming it as “hyperbole”, and to deny that a sizeable demographic were being labelled ignorant or stupid by Dawkins’s comments. Maybe a crucial legal point that will affect how quickly the case can be dismissed rides on it being read that way. But I think it misses a fundamental point about just how settled the science of evolution is. And it’s a real indictment of the state of free speech law, if a frivolous $58 million case can really depend on such an interpretation.

Quoth Steampunk Emma Goldman:

You all know I am no fan of that “poor little State- and Church- begotten weed, marriage,” but I do love angry conservatives, and happy queer people, so today qualifies as a good one.

But as a general rule, if you want to find opinions I agree with, you are more likely to hear them voiced by someone shouting interruptions at a politician giving a speech than in a supreme court decision. Let’s keep fighting for all the LGBTQ folks whose problems aren’t solved by access to marriage.

I'm pretty much down with that. This week's marriage equality news from the US is a great sign that compassion and reason are both winning the battle at a rate of knots. It opens up opportunities for numerous families who've been waiting for acknowledgment, and bodes well for a near-future where same-sex relationships are sufficiently normalised that this isn't even a question any more.

But it's worth remembering that the government didn't itself achieve anything progressive or positive. All it did was finally got the fuck out of people's way, in this one area, once it became sufficiently politically expedient to do so. It deserves minimal credit for making a small step towards butting out of everyone's personal business, so late in the game. Love was already happening, people were already finding and creating beauty in their relationships with each other, no thanks to the government, which is just oppressing them a little less now.

A lot of prejudice and inequality is still universally pervasive, much of it built into the fabric of the state. The very fact that nine people making a 5-4 decision can have such a sweeping influence over the entire country is bizarre in itself. Ideally, there wouldn't be marriage equality because the Supreme Court declared it thus; there'd be marriage equality because what the fuck business is it of yours who we love and build our lives with, and who the hell's going to stop us?

So, you're still on notice, America. Don't start thinking you can distract us from the prison industrial complex, continuous indiscriminate killing and torture of innocent foreigners, systemic police brutality, the war on drugs, and the rest of the bullshit you’re still failing to deal with, just because you're suddenly throwing a hundred thousand or so totally fabulous parties.

Well, okay. Maybe for the rest of this weekend we’ll be distracted by the fabulous parties, and all the fabulous people who get to celebrate their love and feel more validated and accepted than they’ve been allowed to up until now. Have fun, fabulous people, and congratulations.

But then it’s back to work. There’s still a lot of shit to straighten out. Marriage equality’s a good start. Next stop: polyamory!

(Seriously, a lot of critical commentators have brought this up, as well as at least one of the dissenting Justices: if you let gay people get married, what’s to stop the same reasoning being applied to relationships with more than two people? These people are making an excellent point, entirely by accident.)

Dammit. I could have had an x in the middle of my name. How did I not realise how much cooler that would’ve been?

I could also have got a Facebook fan page and posted regular content that people enjoy and want to share. This guy had all the great ideas I failed to come up with.

Okay, so, if you’re going to mock Men’s Rights Activists with contempt and create Facebook pages devoted to taking the piss out of their ideas, you really have to try not to be the caricature they hate you for being.

I mean, you shouldn’t have to try very hard. But at least check once in a while. Those loons on the other side of the debate stop being so laughably wrong if you start turning into their ridiculous straw man.

Case in point: two people were recently arrested by police officers and ended up in court in front of a judge on a charge of “manspreading“. Which is that thing where a guy on a train sits with his legs unnecessarily wide apart taking up too much room. Arrested. Taken to court.

I don’t really want to bring this case up by talking about men’s rights and feminism. The abuse of authority by state agents grossly overreaching beyond any reasonable interpretation of criminal action is a far more relevant and important angle than the gendered aspect, and it was originally reported in the context of some unsettling data about numbers-driven policing. I should be putting on my anarchist hat for this one and leaving my feminist headwear on the rack.

But it was the feminist blogosphere that drew it to my attention in the first place, and the context of the way it’s been reported there doesn’t seem to go any further than “lol, men”. And this drives me crazy, not because I’m worried about being a member of the most oppressed demographic suffering at the hands of those evil feminists, but because that’s the standard dumb MRA narrative and you’re playing right into it.

The Internet provides a surfeit of wankers who claim misandry at any opportunity, no matter how ridiculous, and who absolutely do not need to be handed any more ammunition. “Feminists want me to be locked up just for sitting down in a way they don’t like” is exactly the kind of ludicrous, persecution-complex nonsense they’d have been saying months ago. And now there are sizeable feminist groups online who seem willing to abandon every other principle for the chance to score a point against those terrible MRAs – but are actually doing unprecedented work to vindicate their victimised worldview.

This isn’t about me shifting from one side toward the other in some notional “feminism vs. MRA” battle. The Men’s Rights Movement has very little to do with men’s rights and is far more interested in misogyny and disparaging feminism at any opportunity. And the people I know who’ve been most effective in actually supporting men’s rights have been strongly-identified feminists, for whom understanding and combating the way men are systematically harmed and demeaned by sexist assumptions and prejudice is an integral part of that philosophy.

But that just makes it all the more important that feminists take stories like “arrested for manspreading” seriously as an issue of government intrusion, and don’t laughingly support the same kind of coercive state power they’ve objected to before, now that they’re finally not the ones getting screwed over for once.

Otherwise what happens is: MRAs see women cheering while men are arrested for a seemingly trivial offense; they post their own pictures of women similarly guilty of taking up unnecessary space; they get mocked and accused of being creepy for taking pictures of women on public transport; they note the disparity in the way the genders are treated and conclude yet another case of sexism against men; the “evil man-hating feminists” narrative is reinforced; and this time they haven’t even had to distort reality to do it.

I’m a feminist because we’re supposed to be better than this.


Two posts in a row about standing up for people I disagree with, because ideological consistency is more important than maintaining tribal bounds. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go for the hat-trick and write about my soft spot for Peter Hitchens.

Hey, it’s Friday night, the weekend is here, and it’s time to paaaaaar-tay, if by paaaaaar-tay you mean find myself largely agreeing with a Christian voice article.

Seriously, I think their objections to the conviction of a street preacher for “delivering homophobic sermons” last year are basically spot on. And while this guy doesn’t sound like someone I’d generally find myself siding with, having the government take action to curtail your free speech in what seems like a pretty clear-cut case of unjust state censorship is the kind of thing that can quickly bring me on board as your ally.

I’m not going to join Stephen Green in praying that the judge in this case will repent and find Jesus, but I am going to keep looking out for chances to defend my principles at the expense of my personal biases. Threatening someone with jail time for speaking his mind in public should feel no less palatable just because I disagree with his message.

A year after the first confirmed outbreak, progress is being made in the Ebola crisis in west Africa. The situation’s far from perfect, but the news is tentatively good.

So I hope you’ll all join me in a hearty chorus of “Thank you, Bob Geldof!”

You may have noticed he re-re-recorded that song even he thinks is terrible against last year, with another new crowd of young poptastic faces helping to raise lots of money to fix another foreign country where everything’s terrible. It sold well, probably, and pooled some cash that made some sort of a difference to people trying to fight a horrible disease, I imagine.

But I think I may have figured out what it is about his recurring Band Aid obsession that makes him so irritating:

The whole thing is classic Gryffindor.

The whole purpose of the narrative is to put him on display as the Hero who boldly leaps into action to save someone in distress. And when you’re the Hero, there are certain things the narrative requires you to do, like Stick To Your Guns, and Stand Up For The Victim, and other things that perpetuate an idea of black-and-white morality and can best be achieved through posturing. Little things like critical scientific analysis of your methodology don’t fit with the model at all.

I’m not sure if Geldof’s ever heard of effective altruism, but there’s none of it present in his obsession with re-treading old ground over and over again, and I suspect he’d dismiss it as something for smart-arse tossers to feel high-and-mighty about while people like him are out there actually doing the work and raising the money.

It’s an unfair characterisation, I don’t know the man nearly well enough to guess how he might respond to new ideas, but frankly given how little curiosity he displays for improving or reassessing his methods he deserves no benefit of the doubt.

His narrative requires that buying the song is the way you show that you care about diseased Africans, whether or not you like it, as if buying a single on iTunes for 99p as many times as it takes was a remotely efficient way to contribute financially to an international relief effort.

Being a Gryffindor, Geldof jumps at the chance to be selfless and self-sacrificing in pursuit of the greater good, in a way that just so happens to make him look dashing and noble, and it wouldn’t occur to him that maybe a genuinely selfless path wouldn’t put him at the focal point, or that helping other people might leave his ego bruised or ignored rather than elevated. After all, if he doesn’t get to take a messianic role, how can he be saving everyone?

Meanwhile the Hufflepuffs of the world are buying the single in their hundreds of thousands, because they’re kind and decent people who are presented with an easy way they can make some sort of difference. They were also texting their donations a few months before, to an appeal for funds that would improve the medical infrastructure in countries preparing for an outbreak like this, but before such an outbreak gets out of control, at a point when much more harm reduction can be achieved and lives saved at a much smaller expense.

The Ravenclaws have been working on these improvements to infrastructure for a while, but haven’t really gained much serious traction with the public because the Gryffindors keep distracting their potential supporters with grand heroic gestures that end up hurting the cause more than they help.

I’m not sure what Slytherin are up to. I’ve never had a good grip on how that lot think. Patenting an Ebola vaccine?

But however the hat sorted you, don’t let fucking Bob Geldof lecture you on where your ethical responsibilities lie with regard to charitable giving. Try to give more of a shit about the practical end result of a suggested action than how much feel-good cheerleading you get to do about it. Consider donating directly to organisations you know will do real good. Read some folk who live and work in Africa telling Bob Geldof to fuck off, though far more eloquently than you’ll get from me. Cross your fingers we don’t hear another celebrity chorus later this year asking whether they know it’s Christmas in Nepal.

Happy Christmas. War is over.

Or something.

I tweeted something of a stream of consciousness the other day, about the recent vote on same-sex marriage in Ireland, and in particular against the response to those who vainly railed against it.

I managed to Storify it over here, and I’m re-creating it below as well, because apparently I’m some sort of multi-platform SEO-conscious content-guru now. Ha. Oh god I hope I’m joking.


Finally watched the video the #VoteNo campaign seemed to think was their trump card, and I’m glad I did.

It’s still quite wrong, and #VoteYes was undoubtedly a triumph for compassion and equality and basic good sense.

But there’s more of a case to argue against than blunt, nuanceless, medieval homophobia fuelled by nothing but hateful bigotry.

Anything that reminds me that my ideological opponents didn’t all just wake up and decide to be evil anti-humanists is worth looking at.

It’s a much more feeble victory to be right about #VoteYes if we can’t sincerely and compassionately consider the arguments against.

Which doesn’t mean agreeing with anything they say or accepting that they have a point. They don’t! They’re still wrong!

But I spent too long doing that instinctive flinch thing against the whole #VoteNo tribe and made their wrongness their defining trait.

You do your own philosophy a disservice if you only let it be challenged by the weakest caricatures of the other side.

There can be nuance and intelligence to what your enemy is saying – and maybe even truth, if you try hard enough to understand them.

It’s a rare but vital skill to be able to do that, without flinching defensively against the feeling that your world(view) is under assault.

I still kinda suck at it. As ever, this is a note to self more than a lecture to others.

This has been “I should figure out how Storify works for this kind of thing. And hey, didn’t I used to have a blog?” with me, @writerJames.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled radio silence while I read Neal Stephenson books on my kindle in the bath.

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