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Archive for April, 2011

One extra thought that I didn’t fit into yesterday’s post.

If a centralised state is going to impose its authority on the general populace (as they tend to do), it has the responsibility to justify its existence, and provide ample reason why it should get to do that.

In other words, you don’t get to tell me what to do unless you have a damn good reason, whoever you are. And pointing out that you’re here and you’re bigger than me isn’t going to cut it.

Now, the main way that most states tend to justify their existence – at least in the modern democratic world – is that some sort of centralised national infrastructure is necessary to provide essential public services and their upkeep: hospitals, roads, police, that kind of thing.

And you don’t need me to explain that this is a very persuasive argument. It could even be correct. As I said yesterday, I’m still in the middle of reading through one anarchistic counter-argument; currently, the obvious idea that some kind of centralised government body is needed to get stuff done is still very compelling to me.

But it’s worth remembering that anyone in favour of the state does need to make this argument. People exerting authority over other people cannot be called a good thing in itself. It needs to be justified by producing sufficiently positive and important results.

If a system without hierarchical authority could provide everything that a state system is relied upon to provide, such as the services listed above, then by definition the system without authority would be preferable.

If you’re not an anarchist, your implicit claim is that a state authority is a necessary evil. And that’s okay; I’m not attacking that claim in this post, just clarifying that it’s there.

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I’m finally reading An Anarchism FAQ.

I’ve written before about not quite being convinced by the claims of anarchists, and about the things which the state might be good for. Some of my worries have been partially addressed so far, and I’ve got plenty more reading to do. I think it’s worth attempting at least to understand the ideas.

So I don’t have anything to add about the political philosophy itself yet. But I will talk about the rhetoric that anarchistic apologetics tend to employ.

Very briefly, anarchism is a political philosophy which is against the idea of society being run by a government imposing its authority from the top down. Anarchists claim that a state with such authority is not necessary for society to flourish and provide all the amenities we enjoy, and indeed that any such state is an actively negative force in oppressing people and limiting their freedoms.

This is not an idea wholly without merit. Anyone who’s ever been pissed off at their government starting a war without asking them first will be able to understand some of the motivation behind this anti-statism. But some anarchist essays, and some sections of the FAQ, make me want to stand up in defence of hierarchical authority.

I mean, c’mon, it’s not that bad.

I’m not saying we should settle for it. I don’t mean to imply that we should settle for a certain degree of authoritarianism because it’s only a minor evil. You should absolutely fight for liberty and decry tyranny to the full extent it seems justified.

But working for a living within a capitalist society is really not the same thing as slavery. That’s worth remembering. Whereas some anarchist writings would have you believe that, once you’ve formed a relationship with another person or group in which you agree to submit, no matter the degree, then you’ve agreed to be oppressed. And oppression is a totally black-and-white binary state. Either you’re free, or you’re a slave.

Even if you’re deeply opposed to capitalism, I think that’s an unproductively hyperbolic line to take.

I’m currently a minor cog in the state’s machine of centralised authority. I work for an hourly wage, and my total income is some way below this country’s median. I’m certainly not one of the fat cats at the top of the chain; I’m well within the oppressed masses.

And yet, somehow, I’m basically doing okay. I’m not plodding through a colourless life of serfdom and drudgery. I kinda enjoy my job, and I have a fair amount of free time to indulge my passions and express myself creatively. I’m not saying I couldn’t be doing better, or that I wouldn’t be thriving significantly more under an anarchist system. But likening my role to slavery is going to make me think you’re out of touch, and/or demented.

A lot of people actually find substantial happiness and fulfilment within the current system, and it’s not an empty fulfilment which they fall for because they don’t know any better. There is art, and beauty, and friendship, and love, making many people’s lives worthwhile, even under capitalism.

You can acknowledge this and still oppose the system for its shortcomings. You can credit an authoritarian system with the capacity to sometimes – albeit not often enough – give people the chance to flourish.

Or, rather, you can credit the people in the system for that. They’re not all either making a cynical power-grab or being blindly corralled into subservience.

Also, establishing an anarchist system sounds like it’s hard. There’s complexity and nuance within the proposed ideas of how an anarchist society should be run, which take some thoughtfulness and imagination to come up with. The FAQ acknowledges that there are “preconditions”, which don’t exist in instances where governmental authority simply collapses into chaos. If it’s unplanned and structureless, then all we get is the media’s misguided concept of “anarchy”. An actual anarchist society isn’t just a matter of smashing the system and calling it a day.

And yet sometimes it seems like anarchists resent that any government has ever imposed authority over anyone. Beyond a certain point, this turns into a bloody-minded refusal to consider the ways in which a hierarchical society might, historically, have been useful in organising society and providing services. Every nation I’m aware of that’s got anywhere in the last couple of millennia has had a centralised state. Maybe, at the time, it was a useful way to progress.

Again, it should be possible to acknowledge this, and moderate some of the invective hurled against all forms of authority anywhere ever, without compromising on your principles going forward.

It’s worth taking seriously the anarchist argument that structures in which humans hold power and authority over other humans are restrictive, and that all society would be better served by an arrangement that fostered genuine equality. But it’s not necessary to insist that everyone within a system of authority is either insufferably privileged or labouring in unconscionable bondage.

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A new video went up on Monday. Embedded below, if you missed it. And you really should check out what Thunderf00t‘s been up to lately, if you’ve been running low on blasphemy.

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There have been squillions of stories just like this one.

A woman who needs a liver transplant has been told she can get one, paid for by Medicaid. She’s turning it down.

What she wants is to go to a different hospital, in a different state, where the doctors would be willing to do a new, less safe procedure, which better complies with her religious principles.

And for the state to stump up the extra cash and pay for this as well.

A court ruled in favour of the state in February 2010. Apparently this woman’s still been fighting the decision in the 14 months since then, rather than getting her medical issues treated.

The state are already supporting her in every way they could reasonably be expected to. But she’s suing them for “violating her First Amendment rights to exercise her religion” with their decision not to simply give her $250,000, and instead only to give her the medical treatment that she actually needs.

This woman’s a Jehovah’s Witness, and would only accept a “bloodless transplant”, based on a contorted interpretation of a few bizarrely specific Bible verses which this sect believes forbids blood transfusions.

Hemant asks the obvious question: How far does this go? If it violates somebody’s rights not to go out of your way to give them everything they need in order to do things exactly as they say is mandated by their religious beliefs, how far does it go?

If I claim to worship a god who abhors clothes, is it oppressive to insist that I choose between violating my personal doctrine or staying inside all the time? What about if my deity needs to be praised by the consumption of caviar and expensive wine, or if I can only abide by his holy laws in an appropriately respectful manner by headbutting a child, or ritually sacrificing a live animal no smaller than an adult golden retriever every full moon? Should all this be laid on for me, in deference to my religious rights?

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to about people’s religious privilege:

Saying “because it’s my religion”, as a legal justification for something, or in any similar circumstances, should carry exactly equivalent weight to saying “because I really, really want to”.

Because that’s all it is saying.

This doesn’t totally trivialise religious conviction. If someone really, really wants something, then that’s worth listening to, if you care about people (which you should). A passionate desire for a particular outcome is a perfectly good reason to consider helping somebody reach that outcome.

But it’s ultimately an entirely personal thing, and calling it religion doesn’t change that.

This person is suffering from a serious medical condition. The political infrastructure in place allows other people to offer to help her with this. If she wants to take the help that’s offered, she’s welcome. If she has personal principles of her own which obstruct her from doing so – something that’s so important to her that, if it comes down to a choice between following these principles and risking death, she’ll still hold to her values – we can all respect her decision to decline help.

But when you start expecting everyone else to jump through hoops, based on nothing more than your own personal preference, that’s where it stops being about your rights. Now you’re just listing extra stuff that you really, really want. Which obligates nobody to comply.

Up to a point, going the extra mile to help you with this is the compassionate thing to do. If you want a vegetarian meal while recovering in hospital, it’s not going to cost anyone much effort to set that up for you. It’d be callous to insist on making you choose between sticking to your principles and not eating meat, or starving yourself for as long as your illness renders you incapable of going outside on your own to get a salad.

But providing a set of meals that conform to your ethics probably isn’t going to cost the state a quarter of a million dollars. As much as I support kindness and accommodation, that’s just not a reasonable thing to expect when so much help is already being offered.

Your commitment to your religion is your commitment, not ours. It’s up to you to decide how much it means to you, and what’s worth sacrificing for it.

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I may be taking something of a step back here.

I’ve talked about feminism a few times before, what it means to me, what it means to someone else, and how it relates to skepticism or men’s rights. It’s been an important theme to much of my engagement with the rest of the internet, and something I’ve argued about on a number of occasions with some degree of passion and interest.

Now I’m wondering if I even know what it means.

I haven’t suddenly shifted my views on anything real, or not all that much. But I think my interpretation of the term “feminism” itself bears some examination.

I wanted to talk about this even before I read Holly’s post on Imaginary Feminism and recognised so many infuriating factors of certain critiques of “feminism” that I keep encountering. I slightly take issue with the word “imaginary”, because it’s sadly not true that the kind of feminism she’s describing doesn’t exist. The examples she cites – Valerie Solanas, Phyllis Schlafly, and the rest – are all real people, who really believed the things they said, and continue to have supporters.

It’s the way it’s all lumped together that’s the problem. As Holly says, one of the primary straw-man claims about feminism is that it’s monolithic. Solanas et al. were feminists, and so it’s assumed that anyone else who identifies as a feminist, or writes from a feminist perspective, or promotes an agenda of empowering women and calls it feminism, can’t possibly also believe in things like sexual positivity, and must be seeking to actively disempower men.

A big part of the problem is people who insist on seeing feminism this way. I know people who look at this extreme bloc of thinkers – and more contemporary writers like Bidisha and Kat Banyard – and think that’s what feminism is. And while ideas like theirs certainly deserve to be criticised, turning it into a deliberate effort at feminist-bashing might well alienate people who would otherwise agree with you, if they identify as feminists themselves but mean something very different by it.

But I think a lot of the problem comes from the word itself.

Since so many different feminists have such different ideas on what it means, is it too vague a term to really mean anything? There are no doubt some feminists who do hate men, and for whom that is a defining part of their idea of feminism. But even aside from this extreme minority, there are various conflicting ideas on how to work for equality, and what equality means, and where things like sex work and men’s rights fit into that equality.

As well as a (possible) feminist, I’m an atheist, and there’s a degree of disagreement within the atheist community about what that label means as well. But there isn’t the same wild variety of opinions within atheism as in feminism – or rather, opinions only tend to vary on unrelated subjects, or peripheral details like the tone of atheists’ public engagement. What it means to not believe in God is one of the more straightfoward aspects.

It’s less straightforward to believe the radical notion, as the bumper sticker goes, “that women are people”. This was a definition of feminism pinned to the bedroom wall of one of my ex-housemates, and is less than helpful in explaining things. You’d have to go a long way to find someone who’ll disagree that women are people, in any literal, biological sense. But if it’s meant to be taken in a more nuanced, metaphorical way, then it doesn’t help resolve the many disagreements over how this should be done.

Similarly, everyone who’s not dangerously insane would agree that men should have rights. That’s not the same as saying women shouldn’t have rights, or that men particularly need to defend their rights against a horde of angry women who want to strip them all away. And yet the “Men’s Rights Movement” has an unfortunate tendency to be a mess of bitterness and misogyny. The equivalent of certain brands of misandrist feminism, I suppose.

But because there are so many differing views under the massive “feminist” umbrella, the opposition to feminism is necessarily just as disjointed and scattered in what it thinks it’s against.

The flavours of anti-feminism that I’ve generally encountered before (as regular readers may recall) have tended to be sophisticated and progressive. It’s dead set against things like the stereotyping of gender and sexuality roles, victimisation of women, and downplaying or ridiculing of men’s rights, which it often observes in mainstream feminism.

And it’s true that all those things are present in feminism to some degree, and I support anyone taking a stand against them. But going after the whole feminist movement, or all feminists, for these particular transgressions means you’re liable to frustrate and alienate a lot of potential allies.

They forget that the more historically prevalent kind of “anti-feminism” has wanted women to stay in the kitchen all day, looking after the children, not bothering their husbands with any domestic chores or having any vocational aspirations of their own, and not worrying their pretty heads over any silly things like being allowed to vote.

This is what most feminists are opposed to. They’re usually not against the idea of respecting men, or acknowledging and respecting people’s complex and nuanced decisions on gender identity and sexuality. Even those feminists who are against the very existence of strip clubs or pornography or prostitution are often attempting to express a compassionate notion of liberalism, not crushing people’s rights for their own convenience.

Being an “anti-feminist” these days may mean that you endorse and support ideas wholly compatible with many people’s idea of feminism.

So I have to wonder whether the terminology’s that much use to me.

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I just want to record and repeat a quick quote from Holly at the Pervocracy. She points out something really important to consider when talking with people who might partly agree with you, but might also seem to make some offensive assumptions:

It took me a while to learn Internet-Social-Justice-Speak, with its rather dense and idiosyncratic uses of “correct” language. I was able to learn it, though, because I have a decent amount of free time, unlimited and unmonitored Internet access, am fluent in English, and have had formal education on related concepts.

In other words, I think expecting people to speak Internet-Social-Justice-Speak flawlessly is a gigantic expression of privilege.

I’m putting this here, in part, so that I can find it easily when I want to refer back to it in future. It perfectly sums up so many problems I’ve had in online discussions, not least with the anti-feminists (of whom more next week). You can correct people if they’ve overstepped a line, but always be kind, and remember that Internet-Social-Justice-Speak is not monolithic and homogeneous, and is not trivially easy and instinctively obvious either.

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Getting involved and doing stuff is hard, which is why people don’t often bother.

When taking action involves leaping multiple hurdles, even minor ones, with no immediate and obvious pay-off, it can become really tempting to shrug it off and move on, and tell yourself that it wouldn’t have made that big a difference, or that someone else would be better suited to take care of it.

Which is why I think some of the coolest work in this area is about removing or minimising those hurdles, to make it much less of a long-term brain-draining effort for people to get useful things done.

I’ve written before about politics, and the simple steps to getting involved in that, thanks to numerous handy tools that people have set up for precisely this purpose. I was unlikely to ever bother finding out who my MP is and how to contact them and typing up a letter and thinking what to say all on my own steam, but sites like TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem let me do all of that in like two minutes, without having to get up from my chair.

Do you like getting things done in just a few minutes without having to get up or do anything that’s hard?

Introducing: FishBarrel.

I’ve not submitted many complaints to official regulatory bodies about alternative medicine before. There was MMS that one time, because that stuff was just horrifying and I was feeling energetic. There was the magnets for menopause thing, which was at least a partial success.

But it’s still a lot of effort navigating through the pages of the Advertising Standards Authority or Trading Standards and deciding what avenue of complaint is appropriate and finding the right forms and choosing what relevant information to include where.

Which is why FishBarrel – put together by Simon Perry off of the Leicester Skeptics in the Pub – is so nifty. It’s a plug-in for your Chrome browser so that you barely have do any of that crap yourself. You just see some dodgy website online claiming to cure sadness with the power of authentic unicorn tears (or whatever), highlight the bullshit in question, click COMPLAIN, and it’s done. I’m simplifying, but just barely.

This thing is going to make it much more likely that I’ll end up taking action about medical claims which can’t be supported in future, instead of rationalising that it probably wouldn’t make a difference anyway.

If you’re running Chrome, you can download the plug-in here, and watch Simon’s video for a run-down of just how easy it makes these things.

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