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Archive for May, 2010

I don’t know why I’m doing that. But I found that balloon earlier, which was in the goody bag fun pack thing from last year’s meeting, and thought it’d make a good picture. For some reason.

Anyway. I’m going along to TAM London again this year, and tickets are still available if you want to come too and see that hugely impressive list of speakers.

I don’t have much to add, except to chip in with my thoughts on the somewhat controversial subject of the price of the tickets. It’s up over £200 a head this time, which is a heckuva price tag, and not everyone’s thrilled about this.

I’m fine with it, though. For a start, they’re bringing in a lot of seriously impressive names to talk and mingle, as well as hiring out the Hilton Metropole Hotel for the whole event. Putting up 1,000 people for a weekend’s activities is going to require some funding.

Also, it’s a fundraiser. The reason this particular series of gatherings exists at all is to raise money for a charity organisation, namely the James Randi Educational Foundation. It would make sense to charge the highest possible price per ticket that they’ll be able to find a thousand people willing to pay. The idea that it “costs too much” becomes sort of meaningless, in that context. I might think that $140 million is orders of magnitude too much to pay for a Jackson Pollock painting, but it was allegedly worth it to some guy, so it really doesn’t matter what I think.

The other complaint that comes up from time to time is that setting the price so high excludes many ordinary people who can’t afford to splash out on such a high-budget luxury, and serves to make the skeptical community elitist and inaccessible to exactly the kind of everyday folk it should be trying to court.

And this might be a concern if the skeptical community didn’t thrive in so many other places. The most obvious example would be the Skeptics in the Pub meet-ups, which have dozens of locations all over the world now. My own local branch has two meetings coming up in June, each with a notable guest speaker, a chance to mingle with 250 fellow skeptics, and an entrance fee of £2. These are the occasions driven by activists and volunteers, to encourage involvement by anyone dipping their toe in on the fringes of the skeptical world, who don’t have the resources to commit to any more grand endeavours, or for whom it’s not yet worth it to go to such lengths.

TAM can exist in conjunction with these smaller, less pricey meetings. There’s no contradiction. It’s just a different flavour of occasion.

And of course there are numerous places online to join in with and become part of this community, without attending this one particular annual event. For examples, check out around 80% of my “Roll out the blogs!” list on the right.

One interested suggestion I’ve heard – annoyingly, I can’t remember where – is that all the big TAM speeches should be made available to watch for free online, in the spirit of TED. On giving not even a moment’s thought to the practicalities of this, I think it’d be a great idea. It would go a long way to making the event more accessible, and provide some excellent publicly available material with which to reach out to people not wholly on board with the skeptical movement at present. And I don’t for a moment imagine that any significant number of attendees would be put off from coming if they realised they’d be able to see most, or even all, of the talks online later, and save themselves the money. People still go to the cinema; they don’t just wait for the DVD.

(Speaking of which, as it happens I am still waiting for the DVD of last year’s TAM London, and I’m going to include a gripe about this here. They’ve had legitimate problems in getting it arranged – first with clearing some copyright issues, then with the production of the discs themselves – but the communication hasn’t been great, emails with status updates haven’t always gone out when they were promised, and it’s sometimes felt like we’ve paid our money and been left hanging. The organisation really could have been better on that one. Still, when I sent Sid a message on Facebook the other day, I got a direct personal reply with an update of the situation eleven minutes later, so they’ve not totally dropped the ball.)

As I was saying, I don’t know if a completely online, TED-like system would be at all practical, but I think it’d be wonderful if it could, and would strongly encourage anyone who knows anything to give some thought as to how it might be made to happen.

Whatever happens, this October should provide quite a show.

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Okay. This one’s going to stretch me. That’s what she said.

I’m going to try really hard not to let this turn into an angry rant. I know I like angry rants, but I think it’s worth exploring whether I can channel that same vehemence and passion into something less dickish.

No, I haven’t had an irritable personality transplant, or found Jesus down the back of the sofa, or anything else that might have inexplicably mellowed me out. I’m just experimenting with a more calm and measured debating style, and I’m aware of the irony that would result if I took my usual approach and ended up shouting “BE MORE DIPLOMATIC AND LESS FUCKING HOSTILE, YOU CUNTS!!”

…Okay, that one doesn’t count, because I was quoting the kind of thing I’m not going to say here.

(By the way, having seen in advance how this turns out, I should warn you that it’s long. Stupidly long. I’m much more succinct when I’m allowed to just swear at people, but I’m not editing it down again now. Also, there are still liberal smatterings of sarcasm. If I tried to go without sarcasm or gratuitous personal abuse for this many words, I’d probably asphyxiate.)

So. What got me going on this theme was this article. It’s not the first article ever to express this particular message, and it’s certainly a long way from being the douchiest thing on the internet, but it’s the one I happened to read most recently, so it’s the one I’m going to address directly now.

In this particular diatribe, the author invites atheists, by the clever use of an internet-friendly series of initials, to “S(hut) T(he) F(uck) U(p)”. He expresses weariness with “evangelizing atheists” and their tendency toward “fervent anti-religion diatribes”, because of which the author and his many friends from varied religious backgrounds have all agreed that these atheists “are pretty much a gang of annoying douchebags”.

My first intention was to respond to this article in kind, by asking the author to please STFU, levelling various accusations of extremist irrationality at him, and then demanding something like: “See how you like it??

But instead, I’m going to see whether I’m capable of a more tactful approach, and demonstrate how the author could have approached this thorny matter in a way that wouldn’t just make the people he’s talking to think he’s a cock.


Hello there, Mr Kinsman! I hope this relaxed and friendly missive finds you well. How are things in Albuquerque, this fine day? Gosh, it’s almost like we’re in a musical. I can tell we’re going to get along just fine.

Since we’re already such good friends, I hope you won’t mind my raising a slight quibble about the tone of one of your recent complaints. You wrote something of a diatribe recently titled “dear atheists”, in which you rather laid into non-believers for a certain kind of arrogance, and requested as politely as you know how that they “STFU”. And while I think I can see whence your frustration originates, I also think you could have done a better job of expressing it in more reasonable, accessible terms.

For a start, for whose benefit are you writing? Is it really the people you’re addressing?

What I mean is, saying “Dear so-and-so” at the head of a piece of writing can be a handy rhetorical advice, even if you don’t intend it to be read only by the people you’re ostensibly writing to. Hell, I’m doing it myself in this very essay. But is that what you’re doing? Or are you honestly trying to communicate something to the very atheists who have so gotten on your wick?

If it’s the latter, then I think a more diplomatic approach is really going to be necessary if you expect to get anywhere. I know you disapprove of some aspects of how these people behave, but how do you expect them to respond to a letter that begins, in no uncertain terms, by instructing them to shut the fuck up?

If someone used those exact words to open a dialogue with you, in which they proceeded to explain the many ways in which your own behaviour displeased them… would you really be inclined to listen, and to obediently stay quiet and keep your opinions to yourself in future? Or would you wonder who this person was, and where they got off telling you what to do?

I think you’d find yourself very inclined to take the second option, and rightly so – so you may want to rethink your approach if you expect any atheists to respond to you with anything other than antipathy and hostility.

What you’re trying to do isn’t going to work, in short.

Secondly – and I hope this doesn’t come across as obnoxiously sarcastic or patronising – are you sure you really know what the word “atheist” means? Or at least, what most people who identify themselves with that word mean by using it? There are a lot of honest misconceptions on this subject, and it might be that you’ve just got the wrong idea about some things.

Or, think of it this way: if you wish to directly address a particular group of people who irritate you, are you sure that “atheists” is the most accurate way of referring to them? Because the views you seem to find so abhorrent are actually held by a much smaller demographic than I think you recognise.

Allow me to analogise. You’ve probably noticed that the Catholic Church has been in the news quite a bit recently, due to some shocking revelations that have rather brought them into disrepute. Now, if I were to fail to make some important distinctions, and write a blog entry entitled “dear Christians”, in which I asked the members of your religion to “please stop raping children”, and embarked on a lengthy discussion of the cruelty and evils of sexual abuse and the many ways in which Christians ought to stop interfering in my affairs and those of innocent minors… then I think you might take issue at some of this.

Specifically, you might object to my tarnishing all Christians with the same brush, and failing to distinguish a minority of awful sex offenders from the majority who would never do anything so terrible. And you’d be right. If I want to address this issue, it’s not enough for me to casually blame the problem on all “Christians”. I’d have to be very clear on who’s actually guilty of the things I’m objecting to.

Well, I would raise a similar objection to your own piece. I’m an atheist, and probably even a proselytising one – I keep a blog in which I often debate philosophy, dissect the arguments for the existence of a god, and explain why I don’t accept them. I have no compunctions about letting people know that I’m an atheist, and that I think they should be too. But in your post, I seem to be getting painted with the same brush as some very scary radical extremists. So radical, in fact, that someone who’s been immersed in the atheist movement as long as I have has somehow never encountered one. It’s virtually a complete straw man.

You say to the people you’re talking to: “You’re not just satisfied to disagree; you want all religion banned, outlawed, eradicated.” Clearly this doesn’t refer to me, because I don’t want any of these things. And yet, the tone of your piece makes me feel as if I ought to suffer in the collective guilt of those who do, because of the many things I share in common with them as a proselytising atheist.

This doesn’t feel fair, either to myself or to atheists in general, who I think deserve more than a very brief disclaimer at the top of the page acknowledging that some of us are fine. If I object to the rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church, you’d probably prefer that I choose my words more carefully than to say “Dear Christians, please shut the fuck up about how God hates fags.”

You’re certainly right that anyone holding the views you describe is an “enem[y] of freedom of speech and freedom of thought”. But they’re not simply “atheists”, whoever this fringe group of lunatics are, and they can’t really be held up as an example of the douchebagitude of atheists any more than Rush Limbaugh can be said to prove that all Americans are obnoxious bigots.

And when you attack such a tiny fringe position so vehemently, it makes me wonder quite why you find yourself so enraged by this particular target. Maybe you were simply having a bad day and felt the need to get some things off your chest – a personal blog is a great place to do that. But if you want your blog to engage with the rest of the world, then it kinda falls on you to choose your wording more carefully than if its use were entirely personal and therapeutic.

What I mean by this is that your choice of focus may be indicative of your personal feelings. “STFU” is what you lead with, and most of the entry continues on this irascible theme – again, no doubt very therapeutic, but not exactly tailored to strike a chord with anyone in disagreement. Any kind of sensitive diplomacy is breezed through rather carelessly in a barely noticeable clarifying paragraph, which does little to moderate the overall ranting tone of the piece.

In fact, speaking as an atheist, the impression I come away with on reading your piece is not that it’s only those other atheists you’re talking about, with views that I myself would find abhorrent, and that you might be perfectly tolerant of my own views. Rather, the feeling I get is of being told, by you, what my opinions are and how much they offend you. This is the way it comes across to me; as if I’m being unfairly dressed down, even though I share almost nothing in common with the extremist niche demographic you describe.

And if I weren’t being deliberately careful in my choice of words here, this would result in my expressing some decidedly uncharitable feelings toward you.

What your article looks like is a very direct, focused attack on atheists in particular, without any real context. It doesn’t look like you’re keeping a religiously themed blog. I couldn’t find any posts in your archives about the Catholic rape scandal, or any other breeds of zealot who ought to shut the fuck up. If evangelising atheists are annoying douchebags, then are evangelising Christians also universally annoying douchebags? If not, what’s the difference? Is it just that the atheists are evangelising something that you don’t personally agree with?

I have to say, this is how you’re coming across to me. Not like someone with a legitimate complaint, but like someone who just personally doesn’t like the idea of outspoken atheism. And that’s not a position that I can imagine many atheists feeling much sympathy towards – even the overwhelming majority who would be entirely on your side taking a stand against anything as oppressive as an attempt to outlaw all religion.

Perhaps you’d like to consider how your words would sound if pointed in a different direction, with only a slight change to the specific details, but with the tone and rather careless overgeneralisation intact:

Dear gays,

(And I mean the flamboyant gays, not the lovely people that I know who are for the most part rational, reasonable, and don’t keep shoving their sexuality down your throat,)

Please STFU.

I understand that you don’t find people of the opposite gender sexually attractive. You have a right to not feel what you don’t feel, but your fervent anti-hetero diatribes are humorously (and frighteningly) close to the preachy, hate-mongering speech of the very sorts of homophobic bigots you claim to hate. You’re not just satisfied to disagree; you want all straight marriage banned, outlawed, eradicated. You’re enemies of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, not just freedom of sexuality, and that pisses me off. Evangelizing gays are pretty much a gang of annoying fags.

Dear women,

(And I mean the proselytizing women, not the lovely people that I know who are for the most part rational, reasonable, and stay in the kitchen,)

Please STFU.

I understand that you sometimes feel oppressed by men, and that you often have trouble being taken seriously because of your gender. You have a right to not possess whatever genitalia you don’t possess, but your fervent anti-male diatribes are humorously (and frighteningly) close to the preachy, hate-mongering speech of the very sorts of chauvinistic bigots you claim to hate. You’re not just satisfied to disagree; you want all men banned, outlawed, eradicated. You’re enemies of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, not just freedom of Y chromosomes, and that pisses me off. Evangelizing women are pretty much a gang of annoying bitches.

Dear black people,

(And I mean the uppity black people, not the lovely people that I know who are for the most part rational, reasonable, and know their place,)

Please STFU.

I understand that you’re still struggling to overcome centuries of oppression. You have a right to possess as much melanin as your body can produce, but your fervent anti-white diatribes are humorously (and frighteningly) close to the preachy, hate-mongering speech of the very sorts of racists you claim to hate. You’re not just satisfied to disagree; you want the entire white race banned, outlawed, eradicated. You’re enemies of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, not just freedom of sun-tanning, and that pisses me off. Evangelizing blacks are pretty much a gang of annoying… um, let’s play it safe and stick with douchebags.

How does that look now?

I expect you might find yourself having an opinion or two at this point. You might be reminded, for instance, of certain homophobic rhetoric you’ve probably heard before, from people claiming not to have anything against gay people but to object only to having it “shoved down our throats” all the time with all these parades they seem to keep having.

I hope it’s clear why I call that kind of rhetoric bigoted. The problem has never been gay people being too flamboyant; the problem is people who, due to their own insecurities and prejudices, get far too easily offended by people expressing things they have every right to express.

And a group of people who have historically had their ability to express such things – deep and personal aspects of themselves, like who they happen to be sexually attracted to – severely restricted, by other people who didn’t want to hear it, might feel compelled to go further than simply expressing these things. They might wish to rejoice in it, to defiantly shout to the world who they are and what rights they’re entitled to, as in the case of gay pride parades. It’s an important way of taking a stand against the pervasive hatred typified by my hypothetical quotes up there.

I should make it clear that I’m not claiming atheists have just as rough a time of it as gay, female, or black people. There’s not nearly such a weighty history of institutional oppression in our case, and very little actual violence. Atheists are under-represented in much of society, and widely viewed with unwarranted suspicion and disrespect; black people were owned as property by other people on a worldwide scale and still suffer the remnants of that prejudice. Atheists certainly don’t have it as rough as all that.

But, with that caveat, I’d argue that it’s not totally out of line to make the comparisons that I’m making. The discrimination has similarities in quality, if not quantity. It’s the same type of thing, even if it’s not on the same scale.

And I hope you’d agree with me that my above examples – “Dear black people,” and so forth – would be appalling and offensive if written sincerely.

It’s certainly not the case that these groups – women, black people, LGBT folk, atheists, and other discriminated minority classes – should be immune to criticism. For instance, while I consider myself a feminist, some people associate that word with the extreme man-hating fringe of the movement. No doubt some in the atheist community take things way too far as well. But if you intend to write an article that comes this close to insisting that an entire oppressed demographic stay oppressed, I suggest that the onus is squarely on you to make it over-abundantly clear just who it is you’re referring to, and who you’re okay with.

It’s not all women or feminists I have a problem with. I consider myself a feminist. The problem is with sexist prejudice against women, and – at the other end of the scale – with those who hold extremist ultra-feminist views so rare I can’t even remember hearing them seriously expressed since a 1968 manifesto.

It doesn’t seem to be all atheists you have a problem with. It seems to be those who hold extremist views that I’ve only seen honestly expressed very occasionally, in rare corners of the internet, where they tend to be most loudly rejected by other atheists.

So I really think it’d be a worthwhile idea to think a bit more about who it is you’re chastising – and who’s likely to feel like they’re being chastised.

At least one of your atheist friends left a comment in agreement with your post – and it’s great that they’re secure enough in their non-religious identity that it’s no big deal for them. They seem to feel that atheism can take a few hits like this, and indeed may benefit from being taken down a peg from time to time. Which is awesome for them – but coming out as an atheist is still a big deal for a lot of people. Acceptance is often far from assured, even from one’s family – and when a demographic has a history like this, and faces a lot of societal oppression in response to its attempts to be heard, I think you need to be really, really careful about telling them to just shut the fuck up.

You don’t seem to have much of a problem with anything that any atheist has done, except that they’re too loud for your liking. Well, as outlined above, sometimes people need to be loud, and this need is only exacerbated when it’s clear that other people don’t want them to be heard. Your only complaint about what atheists have to say, it seems, is that you don’t want to hear it – but if I went around telling everyone to shut the fuck up who had something to say that I didn’t want to hear, my throat would be raw before I even finished breakfast every morning.

So you could probably just learn to live with the fact that sometimes people who think differently are going to want to say what they like. But if your intent is to help them refine their message, and compromise on some more reasonable arguments that you find less offensive, then I have to say that your current approach seems very unlikely to be effective.


Phew.

Well, that was interesting. For me, anyway. You’re allowed to have found it dreary and long-winded. It felt like good practice, even though I don’t really intend this particular post to have any direct effect on its subject matter.

Aside from the unwieldy length of this drivel, any thoughts? Is there some value in the effort to be approachable and conciliatory, sometimes, rather than going all-out snarky from the beginning and just telling him to fuck off, as I was extremely tempted to do?

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The backlash following Everybody Draw Muhammad Day has begun. The Facebook page for “Everybody draw Holocaust day” is, as I post this, “liked” by 1,271 people.

And, well, obviously they’re all entirely welcome to draw pictures of the Holocaust happening, or not happening. They’re certainly free to highlight the other genocidal atrocities in recent human history that don’t get as much attention, even if they want to throw a distinctly anti-Semitic slant on it. But it’s clear that it’s little more than a petty foot-stomping tantrum in response to people’s religious sensibilities being offended. The page description begins:

The difference is that you draw Lies about Muhammad and we draw Truth about you.

What does a drawing of a lie about Muhammad look like? Was my drawing a lie because he wasn’t really that skinny? The only statement made about Muhammad by most of the pictures drawn of him is that religious zealots don’t get to impose their own laws on the rest of us. People have been killed over this issue, and so we’re making a stand for our free speech by defiantly publishing pictures that some people don’t want us to. Nobody’s lying about anything, and you have to be pitiably thin-skinned to take it that way.

It’s a shame it’s so wacky, because in places they have a germ of a point. These people should have the right to question the accepted historical narrative of the Holocaust, however batshit insane and culturally offensive the way they go about it. In one of the group’s photo albums, there’s a snapshot of this Wikipedia page, which lists various notable convictions that have been made against people for the crime of Holocaust denial in parts of Europe. People have been fined thousands of Euros and imprisoned for years for expressing what I can only assume are their honest beliefs. It’s such an offensive opinion that people don’t even want to have to hear it.

And that is wrong. But the message is getting lost in a wave of anger and indignation against the people who have caused a different kind of offense against Muhammad. The way the founded of the group sees it, “[t]he secularist world proudly parades and legitimizes” this unfair punishment. By recounting it on Wikipedia, apparently.

So, yeah. The remedy for bad speech continues to be more speech, rather than silence. And religious fundamentalists continue not to understand anything.

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The Liberal Conspiracy website has a better-informed and more thorough discussion of Project Prevention than I managed a few days ago. It’s increasingly clear that this is an organisation driven by a specific ideology, which doesn’t care to examine its own workings enough to question whether what it’s doing is really in its clients’ best interests. This line was especially revealing, referring to the organisation’s founder, Barbara Harris:

Harris’ interest isn’t in the long-term outcomes for the women she works with or the areas they live in. There’s no subsequent monitoring programme and no requirement that addicts sign up for treatment – Project Prevention’s involvement with these women begins and ends with their fertility.

The stated “main objective” of Project Prevention is “to reduce the number of substance exposed births to zero”, and their approach with this goal in mind is unhelpfully single-minded. The plight of infants born to substance-addicted mothers is no doubt awful, but Barbara Harris is fixated on this one solution, to the exclusion of an overall picture of providing treatment and care as best they can, based on what people need, whatever that might involve in any specific case.

No doubt a lot of people with drug problems would benefit from some of the forms of contraception and birth control that Project Prevention can provide, but they’re not looking at it in terms of providing the best and most appropriate care for their clients. As far as they’re concerned, the fertility issue is the beginning and the end.

I hadn’t picked up on the issue of the complete lack of aftercare before, but thinking about it now, this is insane. In the substance misuse centre I work at, there are constant discussions about where clients are going to move onto once their treatment with us is complete, whether medication will be prescribed from somewhere else, whether they have support in the community, whether we could look to arranging housing, whether they’re registered with a local mental health or psychological team to follow them up sporadically in the coming weeks and months.

These are all a big and necessary part of treating anyone for drug addiction, but none of it seems to be on Project Prevention’s radar. It kinda seems like it should be, if you’re going to be performing major operations on people with serious addiction problems.

Oh, and the founder of the organisation, Barbara Harris, has made her Twitter feed private, after some people started tweeting questions about her methods at her. Now, there’s no problem with having a private feed, if you only want your personal friends to be able to follow the thoughts you share on there – a lot of people go that way. But it still purports to be Project Prevention’s official feed, so this doesn’t speak well to Barbara’s approach to openness and outreach.

I hope nobody questioning her was hostile or unpleasant, and made her feel like there was no point listening to people simply being obnoxious. But @DrPetra was among those asking sensible questions of Barbara – whether she wouldn’t try integrating with existing services, for instance – and got accused of condoning child abuse for her trouble.

Speaking of Dr Petra, she just tweeted a link to a report that Canada’s teen birth and abortion rates have plummeted following better sex education and wider access to contraception throughout that country. There’s been more than a one-third decline in ten years, as a direct result of doing exactly the opposite of what the abstinence-only puritans say is best. Just thought that was worth a mention too.

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So there’s this campaign which seeks to fight against the discrimination and prejudice often faced by those with learning disabilities.

And… I’m not really a fan.

Yeah, I think I’m just going to give up on trying to find a way to summarise my main point without sounding like a dick. In context, though, and after a lengthy explanation, I hope it’ll be clear why I don’t feel that I can really get behind this campaign.

It’s not just a free speech thing, for a start. Just because I have some libertarian (or maybe just very liberal) leanings when it comes to free expression, doesn’t mean I think people should go around calling each other retards without a second thought. Almost universally I wish they wouldn’t.

Ofcom recently reversed its ruling on a Channel 4 broadcast from some time ago. They’ve now decided that an episode of Big Brother’s Big Mouth did in fact breach the Broadcasting Code.

I didn’t see the show, and haven’t been able to find a relevant clip, but this seems like the right decision. The way I’ve heard it described, Vinnie Jones used the word “retard”, and performed what sounds like a grotesque and obnoxious imitation of what that word means to him, while the usually lovely Davina was carelessly blasé about it. I’m not keen on censorship merely on grounds of offence, by any means, but there’s a limit to how far people can go in demeaning a minority before you earn some form of public admonishment.

But the punishment – assuming that punishment of some sort will get handed down at some point – isn’t simply because a particular word was used. The whole sequence of events that was broadcast was unacceptably offensive. It’s this careless intolerance that’s the problem, not simply the word “retard” itself.

I think that’s a better idea on which to base a campaign for tolerance – and while I’m sure the people behind r-word.org are doing plenty of good work, I think it’s a mistake to make the word the driving force of the campaign. The result of this is that the impression they give – the thing the people they’re trying to reach are likely to feel – is itself a message of forceful oppression. If someone happens upon the organisation for the first time, the message they take on board might be: “You’re not allowed to say this thing any more, because we’ve decided it’s bad.”

Which is just going to put anyone who cares about free speech on the defensive right away.

The important, fundamental idea – that the way you speak and act affects people, and that if you’re careless with your words and actions you might make things harder for some people who are already having a rough time of it – is in there somewhere. But it’s buried under the surface, which only addresses one of many symptoms, and is less persuasive than the encouraging idea that you can help make the world fairer and better for people who struggle for equality.

I sympathise with the intent behind the r-word campaign a lot, and other attempts at outreach and speaking out are the reason I’m more aware of the impact of my words than I used to be. But this approach lacks nuance. The root problem is people’s attitudes, not this one word, and the attitudes are what we should be trying to change.

Obviously, part of a healthy and compassionate attitude will include being aware of the words you use and how they affect those around you. But if you don’t get people to think about why they suddenly can’t say this word any more, plenty of them are going to find other ways to be intolerant bastards. And people have a track record of finding this an extremely easy challenge to which to rise.

So, I suppose that’s what I think. What do you reckon? Am I being too harsh?

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So PZ Myers discovered a truly appalling human being recently.

Specifically he posted a link to this blog entry here, titled “Rape is equality”. It’s written by a Norwegian guy who calls himself “a libertarian and an antifeminist”. I contend that he doesn’t know what a libertarian is, but he’s half-right.

If anything, this guy’s rantings are worse than that article title implies. He describes his life as having been “ruined by involuntary celibacy”. Which seems to mean that women have infringed on his human rights by not having sex with him. This is clearly unfair and oppressive of them, and justifies his conviction that men ought to “stop thinking of rape as wrong”.

He doesn’t post to his blog often, but his most recent entry was about a recent case of alleged sexual assault that got some public attention. Part of the defence in that case was that, because the woman had been wearing skinny jeans of a type that would be impossible for an assailant to remove without the wearer’s consent, she could not possibly have been raped.

I won’t go into what’s wrong with that, but this antifeminist blogger’s reporting on it is solely focused on the plight suffered by men accused of rape, and shows not a shred of interest in the role of female victims.

(In a previous entry, he explained that “Sex is obviously something women have and men want, and any man claiming to be raped by a woman is not a reasonable person and cannot be taken seriously”, and that “A man getting sex from a woman is lucky, period, even if he was forced”.)

And he closes the skinny jeans entry with the following phrase. I really believe he is entirely serious, and neither satirising nor exaggerating in any way when he says these things. I’m aware of Poe’s Law but I genuinely don’t think that I’m missing some cleverly ironic point here.

In fact, I gloat when a woman is actually raped. Since women and the law do not care if we actually rape and only care about obtaining convictions, we might as well get our money’s worth.

No words. None.

So this guy’s obviously a fucktarded lunatic. There’s no point trying to debate him or persuade him round to a more reasonable position. He’s way too far gone for that. What’s the point of even taking any notice of someone like this? Wouldn’t we be much better off ignoring him, and not giving him or his dangerous and misanthropic ideas the oxygen of publicity (or, for preference, any other kind of oxygen) by drawing attention to them?

I’d better have a good answer for that. Y’know, after I’ve spent all this time going on about him.

And I think I do, aside from the morbid curiosity (which, believe me, is quite captivating).

Anything that might be said in response to this maniac isn’t actually said for his benefit. I don’t want him to benefit. But that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit at all to calling out this kind of vile hatred.

Pointing out the despicable illogic and damaging malevolence of a person like this is for the benefit of anyone – of any gender, sex, or sexuality – for whom his outpourings of bullshit form part of the overall social discussion. He represents a voice and a set of ideas that are out there interacting with the world. People meet him and his beliefs every day.

And while he might be an extreme case, his blogroll testifies to the fact that he’s not alone.

So this is why we highlight this kind of loathsome wretchedness for what it is. It’s to let the world know that is emphatically not okay to say these things, and it’s not okay to let them go unchallenged either.

Any thoughts? Is it worth tackling this kind of thing any more thoroughly than just pointing it out? Is there any value whatever to be found in actually refuting this guy’s points, such as they are? Let me know what you think.

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Hello there. I have some links about things for you to click your mices onto.

– There’s been some bitching lately, mostly among Facebook groups, about people not being allowed to wear football strips or fly English flags in pubs, and how it’s obviously the fault of foreign people wearing turbans and claiming benefits. Allow Carmen to set a few things straight.

– Science-based Parenting has an interesting article about the relative merits of Bristol Palin and Lady Gaga as role models for young women.

I saw this trailer in the cinema on Sunday, for a dark and horrifying story about a truly terrifying and sinister individual. Have a look. It’s actually really good.

– Oh yeah, I went to the cinema on Sunday to watch Four Lions, and it was brilliant. Chris Morris is totally forgiven for that shite he did in between being awesome. The Islamic extremists were well-rounded and complex human characters, but never so deliberately heartstring-tuggingly sympathetic that you forget that they’re complex human characters who plan to commit mass murder. It was genuinely funny and consistently quite moving, and I can be a cynical and hard-to-please bastard on both those points. Highly recommended.

– You probably noticed when Google turned their front-page logo into a playable Pacman game last week. According to somebody’s calculations, this cost the world nearly five million hours of productivity. My first thought – aside from “worth it” – is that calling this a “cost” assumes that every minute of every one of those hours would have been spent hard at work, were it not for Google’s mischievous intervention. Speaking from personal experience, it seems far more likely that many of them would have been spent doing something else of no practical value instead.

– And most excitingly of all, I am re-launching The Daily Half-Truth in an effort to get myself writing stuff more regularly. So you should start checking back over there every weekday, or turn it into RSS food or something, for short chunks of surreal snarky humour about stuff that’s going on in the world. Here’s the first in this new run. (It’s about Lost, but don’t worry, there are no spoilers for the finale. I still haven’t seen it, for one thing.)

Right then. Back to work.

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Shock and outrage has ensued following the announcement of something legal being advertised on TV. It’s a neat and understated little ad, and after all the furore I was amazed at how low-key the message is. You can watch it here.

I’m not much interested in reiterating why this is a good thing, and why this subject deserves to be talked about some more. But the usual “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” outcry is as annoying as it was predictable. Personally, I kinda hope nobody did spend much time thinking about the children while making this clip. It’s not for them, it’s not being aired anywhere they’re likely to see it, and even if they do see it they’ll experience nothing that can possibly sully the little bastards’ innocence and purity.

A lot of the objections I’ve read – from people savvy enough to avoid coming across as old-fashioned puritans, and steer clear of saying anything too overtly anti-feminist – is that it’s unnecessary. That there’s enough information out there already about pregnancy terminations, and women just don’t need to be provided with yet more reminders of the options available to them.

To which my first thought is: have you ever seen adverts before? Have you any idea the amount of pointless crap that gets peddled, hawked, and oversold constantly on every commercial channel on the planet? Why does it suddenly bother you now?

And anyway, that’s crap. We’re not nearly at a point where good information about pregnancy-related issues and the availability of safe medical procedures so saturates our culture that anything more would be overdoing it. According to that CiF article, there are over 50,000 “backstreet” abortions a day worldwide, leading to 80,000 deaths per year. And it’s happening as near to home as Northern Ireland. Technically that’s part of the country I live in.

I’ve never been pregnant, partly because I had the good sense to be born into the dominant gender which can delegate all that messy stuff to someone else. But I can get my head around the notion that, if you’ve got yourself one of those baby things fermenting in your ovaries (or however it works), and you’re in the middle of making a nice salad when suddenly you’re overcome by a sharp sensation of abdominal OW OW OW, you might find yourself a little on the fucking scared side.

So having, say, a phoneline that people are aware they can call, to ask questions about exactly this sort of thing, is kind of important. I know I’m not their primary target demographic, but I’d never heard of Marie Stopes International before this ad, so you can’t argue that there’s no room at all for raising awareness.

And honestly, for all the fuss made over it, this is one of the most delicate and innocuous messages about sexual health I’ve ever seen. It’s thirty seconds long. It doesn’t mention abortion once. It shows a few brief shots of some women, who an on-screen caption tells us are all “late”. A voiceover then says:

If you’re late for your period, you could be pregnant. If you’re pregnant and not sure what to do, Marie Stopes International can help.

That’s it.

They’re not telling anyone what they should do. They’re offering to help if you don’t know what to do.

It’s not “advertising abortion”. It’s advertising a sexual and reproductive health service that provides advice and safe medical options to those who need it. They advise on contraception, they offer counselling, they test for STIs – and yes, they offer pregnancy terminations and advice thereon where appropriate. These are useful services for people to be aware of. There is no reason to panic over one tiny TV spot letting people know about organisations like this.

If you want to hear what somebody informed thinks, Dr Petra’s written about this too.

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The prophet Muhammad is said to have lived around 570-632 C.E., and is a sacred figure to the world’s 1.5 billion followers of the religion of Islam.

He didn’t look anything like the above picture, but that’s because I’m very bad at drawing.

Depictions of the prophet Muhammad are forbidden under Islamic law, and they have historically made a lot of Muslims very angry. In 2005, a series of satirical cartoons which included images of Muhammad, published in a Dutch Danish newspaper, led to worldwide protests, arson, and the deaths of over a hundred people. If you type “Dutch cartoons” into Google, the top result sends you here, to Wikipedia’s description of these events – even though they were in fact Danish cartoons, as I failed to recognise when writing this, or during any of the subsequent redrafts and proofreads, until it was pointed out to me. I leave my idiocy largely intact, in case anyone in the future is ever tempted to take me seriously.

And now, as evidenced above by the extremely offensive image created and published by myself, I am gleefully joining in with all this wanton destruction.

Sorry about that.

I don’t mean to offend people on this blog.

That may sound disingenuous, but it’s actually true. It’d be daft of me not to think that some people will be offended by things they read here sometimes. Maybe they’ll disagree profoundly with my worldview, or disapprove of irreverence on certain important subjects – or perhaps they’ll be insulted because I wrote a fiery rhetorical diatribe telling them to fuck off.

But offending people is not to be found anywhere on my list of intended objectives. Not when it comes to posting this picture of Muhammad, and not on the vast majority of the rest of this blog. I make arguments and express frustration and do lots of things that people will find offensive. But it’s never just about pissing people off.

I understand that it’s something which might well happen, though. And I apologise for that. But it’s something that I’m entitled to do, and that I need to do. For the simple reason that there are people – screaming hordes of violent, irrational people – who don’t want me to be able to do it at all.

Yes, it’s contrarian of me. Yes, I’m doing something I’d never normally have any wish to do, and I’m only doing it now because of how much it infuriates and antagonises certain people. Yes, it’s comparable to the kind of childish instinct which sets your button-pushing finger twitching when you see a button marked “DO NOT PUSH”.

You know what, though? I’m okay with infuriating and antagonising this particular lunatic fringe. The lunatic fringe who destroy property and murder people over a cartoon drawing. And when the button is my button, in my house, why the hell should anyone get to tell me what I can and can’t do with it?

There are people shouting threats of death against anyone who dares to commit this trivial act – and how we respond to those threats goes a good way toward defining us as people. If our reaction is to do as we’re told by the dangerous maniacs, to sit quietly and not cause a fuss, to chastise others who exercise their freedoms in a way that gets them hurt, to cower and hope that nothing bad will happen… then who does that make us? And what will happen when these same lunatics start making other rules for us to live by?

I wrote this article last year in response to the “Crackergate” furore, in which PZ Myers desecrated a communion wafer. I still support what he did, and the arguments I make there are just as appropriate today. These fanatics want us to be scared, and we do what we do because fuck them.

There’s one thing that’s not agreed upon by everyone taking part in Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, and that’s the nature of the pictures themselves, and how intrinsically offensive they should be. My own drawing is extremely careless and inartistic, and entirely innocuous as a result. Some people have gone further, though, and come up with extremely provocative and deliberately offensive drawings, designed to provoke ire even regardless of the taboo against depicting the prophet at all. I’ll let you do your own search for pictures of Muhammad engaging in bestiality, for instance.

I’m not entirely decided on this point myself, but I’m fairly sure that this latter approach is at best unnecessary, and at worst counter-productive. These pictures are actually offensive in their own right, and while they are still unquestionably protected by the basic right of free speech, a lot of moderate Muslims are going to be justifiably annoyed and alienated by this. These moderates, who would normally be completely on our side in condemning extremist acts of violence, might voice their legitimate complaints at just how offensive these obscene depictions of Muhammad are – and this might mean they get unfairly lumped in with the raving complaints of the extremists themselves.

And don’t forget, these extremists are fucking nuts. You don’t need to draw Muhammad doing anything remotely controversial for a substantial bloc of wackos to flip their lids. They lose their shit over fucking stick-figures. Save yourself the effort.

So. I think I’m about done. Any points I’ve missed have been more than adequately covered by the Friendly Atheist and Greta Christina, among many others. Hemant also has a compilation of Muhammad images submitted by readers, many of which are wonderfully clever and creative. And don’t forget the Mohammed Image Archive.

Have you violated someone’s tyrannical and anti-humanistic law today?

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Here is an advert pointing out the disparity between the Shell oil company’s recent profits, and the humanitarian results of their recent massive oil spill. Here is a statement from Amnesty expressing disappointment that the Financial Times newspaper decided not to run this advert. Here are Naomi McAuliffe’s thoughts.

– I’ve been hearing about Project Prevention a lot lately. They’re an organisation set up to help children born to drug-addicted mothers. The primary way they do this in the US is by offering addicts $300 to receive “long-term contraception”, which in some cases involves a form of sterilisation.

They’re coming to my attention because the woman behind it all, Barbara Harris, has come to the UK recently. And while I’m sure she’s filled with the best of intentions, I do not support this organisation.

I work in a substance misuse treatment centre. One of the nurses in my building is a Pregnancy Liaison, and works closely with a clinic at a local hospital to deal specifically with clients coming to us for treatment who are also pregnant. There are detailed protocols in place for handling this kind of thing, and I’ve typed up many assessments for substance-addicted women detailing their medical and psychiatric condition in the weeks before and after delivering a baby.

My point is that, in the UK, the NHS is kinda on this one already. It’s not totally escaped everyone’s notice that sometimes drug addicts have babies, and those babies might have problems that need medical support. If there’s good reason to support certain kinds of medical intervention to assist with this – such as long-term contraception – then why should this be done entirely independently by someone like Barbara Harris? Why should it not be integrated into the existing infrastructure?

It’s not at all clear that Project Prevention’s approach is based on good science or in their patients’ best interests. The fact that people have to be paid to submit to these treatments surely counts as a red flag that they’re not always the most healthy and sensible thing to do, otherwise why would they need such coaxing? And consider the first thing stated on their website’s page titled “Objectives”:

The main objective of Project Prevention is to reduce the number of substance exposed births to zero.

Maybe I’m being picky about bad writing more than anything else here, but I’d have thought that the main objective of a charitable medical organisation ought to be more along the lines of providing a high quality of support and care to as many patients as possible, rather than simply attempting to completely eradicate a certain type of behaviour.

It’d be like a family planning centre saying that their main objective was to reduce the number of abortions to zero. Sure, a world with no unwanted pregnancies might be a wonderful idea, but the focus of your activities should surely be to provide care where it’s needed.

So yeah. Not comfortable with this at all. The Northern Doctor is far more scathing.

– Nick Clegg gave a speech today about political reform. I’m cynical enough not to be falling over myself until I see some of this actually happening, and it’s disappointing not to see a repeal of the Digital Economy Act mentioned specifically. But hey, maybe something’ll come of it.

– And lastly, go watch my new favourite TED talk ever. This is so awesome. This is so awesome it almost makes me want to be a maths teacher. Seriously, I just love this guy and cannot fathom why he and people like him aren’t basically in charge of everything. Or at least everything to do with maths textbooks. I need to write about fun maths stuff here more often. So much of its unpopularity among kids is down to the dismal way it’s taught, and it’s tragically unfair.

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