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Archive for July, 2011

So, you know how the Old Testament has a bunch of ridiculous and unrealistic rules in it, about not wearing clothes made from two types of fabric, and stoning disobedient children to death and whatnot? And how Christians sometimes inconsistently explain this away by saying that those laws aren’t for us? How they point out that, while the Bible’s still obviously infallible, it’s just that those were old rules for the ancient nomads of the time, and we don’t have to abide by them any more since Jesus came along and wiped the slate clean?

Is there any reason why the same logic doesn’t also excuse us from the Ten Commandments?

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I’m still not an anarchist, but I’m still finding the literature interesting. Even outside of the extreme anti-statist stuff, it’s giving me things to think about with regard to democracy, capitalism, and the class structure of society.

Most people aren’t anarchists. Most people reckon there are worthwhile benefits to having a system of elected government representatives taking care of some things.

There’s plenty of disagreement about the role government should play, and the extent to which it should intrude on ordinary citizen’s lives. But at times some people’s ideas of what government is for get completely out of control, beyond anything that can be justified even by non-anarchists.

For example, from a news story about a town in Arkansas:

The City Council adopted an ordinance last week making it illegal to form any kind of group without its permission.

Yep. This is the kind of thing politicians start thinking they can do once you let them take charge. Just start telling everyone else that they’re not allowed to form groups for any reason.

In particular, they passed an ordinance (and overruled the mayor’s veto) which got rid of the existing Citizens Advisory Council in the town. The most damning thing to be said against the advisory council quoted in the article is that it had been “causing confusion and discourse among the citizens”.

So the few in charge decided that the people couldn’t be trusted with discourse, and outlawed the founding of any new organisations “without approval from a majority of the City Council”.

It’s really important that, if we’re going to have elected officials in roles where they get to make executive decisions that affect people’s lives, we don’t forget why they’re there, and why we put up with them making any decisions on our behalf. To think that laying down this kind of fascist and dictatorial rule, seemingly crushing people’s freedoms for the sake of maintaining their own authority, is even close to what the elected officials we deign to tolerate are for, is to have a colossally misguided mindset about the nature of government.

(h/t Reason)

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I’m an optimist.

At least, I try to be, but it probably won’t work.

One of the ways in which I like to hope that things will all work out okay in the end, without any real justification except not wanting to feel depressed, is that kids won’t be permanently screwed up by stuff like this. It’s creepy as hell watching children repeating any kind of dogmatic nonsense their parents have clearly drilled into them, possibly without even really understanding what they’re saying, but in time they’ll grow up and be able to make their own decisions about this, right?

I mean, this kid‘s clearly just enjoying the attention he’s getting from making a lot of noise like he’s seen some grown-ups do. He’s not been irreversibly indoctrinated with anything. He’s still got a chance to grow up into a rational thinker of some kind, right?

Right?

Well, it turns out that sometimes this desperate optimism isn’t entirely misplaced.

In the UK, the “Nazi teeny boppers” of the American band Prussian Blue – also the name of a compound used in gas chambers in Hitler’s Germany – are probably best recognised from the Louis Theroux documentary made about them some years ago. The band consisted of two young sisters, who started performing from age 9, driven at least in part by their white supremacist mother.

They were cute and blonde and innocent-looking and played guitar and sang songs about how the Holocaust never happened and black people are ruining their country, and it was creepy and wrong for all the obvious reasons.

But these days, they don’t do that any more.

The sisters are 19 now, and “pretty liberal” and want to exert “love and positivity”.

They’re still not so sure about the whole Holocaust thing. But, it looks like they might be growing up in exactly the kind of way my naïve optimism would have blindly hoped for. Frankly, I have more respect for them than for the people who sent them death threats in the name of tolerance and liberalism when they were twelve years old.

(h/t Orac)

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No, I’m not there. But in the absence of any particularly interesting reporting from me lately, I highly recommend catching up on what’s been going on lately in Las Vegas, at the latest Amazing Meeting. There’s a lot of info on the site, a continual stream of news on the Twitter #TAM9 hashtag, and The Friendly Atheist has a lot of liveblogging going on, recapping each morning and afternoon in separate chunks, with plenty of photos (including here, here, here, and here). There’s a lot of geeking out over Bill Nye going on, and numerous other attractions too, for those (like myself) for whom The Science Guy doesn’t have the childhood nostalgia draw he holds over some.

I’ll make it to one of the Vegas meetings someday. The London ones were great, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s gearing up for another one of those anytime soon, sadly. More blogging will happen later, when there aren’t more fun things to be doing. (I’m going to start watching The Killing, for one. If it turns out to be rubbish I shall be very annoyed with you, internet.)

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PZ Myers recently gave some sensitive, measured, and wise advice to a young religious girl.

This maniac must be stopped.

That might be going a bit far, but Ken Ham’s not happy with him. Ken is a prominent creationist, and blogged about a nine-year-old girl called Emma, who’d got in touch with Ken to tell him about a conversation she’d had.

Ken advises people, when confronted by cocky scientists or arrogant atheists who claim to know what happened millions or billions of years in the past, to ask if they were there to see it happen. Like the formation of moon rock, or the evolution of life. Did anyone see it happening?

PZ explained to Emma – in the kind and reasonable tones of, basically, a well-meaning teacher speaking to a child – why this isn’t really such a good question to ask. Questions in general are good, and he gave her kudos for speaking up, but asking whether a scientist was around to watch moon rock being formed several billion years ago probably won’t teach you very much. Obviously she wasn’t there.

But the scientists aren’t saying “I know this is how this moon rock formed billions of years ago because I was there to see it happen”. Even creationists don’t think scientists are that crazy. But then where did these scientists get their crazy ideas from?

Well, how about asking them that? When they make some declaration about evolution or ancient moon rock, ask them something you actually don’t know the answer to: How do you know? Now that is almost always a good question to ask.

To see why, imagine the situations were reversed, and a scientist was asking someone like Emma about Jesus. Emma could probably tell them quite fluently what she knows about God sending his son to Earth to save mankind. If the scientist then asked, “Were you there?”, what would Emma say to that?

She wasn’t there when Jesus lived, obviously. But she’s never claimed to be, and it would be a bit of a dead-end question. Whereas, if the scientists asked how Emma knows any of this stuff about Jesus, then she can point to the Bible where it’s all laid out. And now we’d be getting somewhere; now both parties have a better understanding of where the other is coming from.

PZ’s hypothetical open letter was thorough and well targeted. He also specifically stated that he had no intention of trying to send it to a child he doesn’t know who had solicited no such correspondence.

Ken Ham got to hear about PZ’s response, though, and by the time it reached his ears second- or third-hand and became further mangled by his own dissonance-laden brain, the headline became: ATHEISTS ATTACK.

First of all, if you can find anything in PZ’s post that can be called an attack against this kid, then maybe you can next turn your supernatural detective skills to the task of finding the Higgs boson and save CERN some trouble.

Secondly, the agglomeration of deliberate wilful ignorance in Ken Ham’s follow-up post is staggering. He doesn’t link to PZ’s post, and doesn’t seem to have read it. The word “apparently” features multiple times, and it’s clear from his mischaracterisation that he either hasn’t bothered to read it and thus has no idea what he’s talking about, or he’s an outright liar.

Emma’s mother fares no better. Judging by the words Ken quotes, she’s quite bewildered as to why so much anger and energy is being put into calling her foolish and “attacking the enemy”. By atheists who would very happily and gently explain everything that puzzles her, if she simply cared to read anything other than the Bible. But no.

Sigh.

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Okay, there was another thing.

The group headache that is elevatorgate trundles on. And I read a couple of things worth reading about it.

For a start, ryawesome is embarrassed for the skeptical/atheist movement. And it’s not hard to see why. I do take issue with his “don’t throw a tantrum” dodge by which he sort of avoids generalising against all skeptics and atheists – there’s a reason I try not to harangue “Christians” as a monolithic group when discussing homophobic bigotry, not least because I’d alienate every single one of my Christian friends – but there’s no point pretending there isn’t a substantial problem that he’s addressing.

I’ve always been annoyed by the ease and readiness with which “smug” is hurled as invective against atheists in general, partly because it doesn’t match my experience of many atheists, and partly because it’s a pretty limp accusation next to anything you’d use to describe religious fanatics. But I’m grudgingly having to admit that that stereotypical arrogance is exactly what great swathes of the skeptical community exhibited when they decided that a woman was wrong to make an offhand comment about feeling uncomfortable in an interaction with a man she didn’t know.

And perhaps more to the point, there’s been distressingly little humanity on display from a lot of people who I suspect would identify as humanists. This includes some of Rebecca’s critics, and also some of those defending her, such as the lady who looks forward “to watching [Richard Dawkins’] legacy crash and burn”.

I know I’m veering close to just shouting at everyone to stop being shit again, and I know how self-defeating this would be. But… but… gah.

However, Keir Liddle also makes a point that’s bugged me for a while now.

Namely, other skeptics acting like twats or being perceived as twats does precisely zero to undermine the importance of a skeptical worldview. Being an atheist is about not believing in God. Whether or not you’re an atheist has absolutely fuck all to do with how much you enjoy the company of the kind of people who post on atheist message boards and write anti-religious blogs.

And I think the ideas in these two posts are entirely complementary. There’s no contradiction there; in fact, there’s no reason they can’t work well together. If anything, people who do still identify strongly with the skeptical or atheist movement should be the most vocal in rebuffing those serving to give it an embarrassing reputation. I wouldn’t get embroiled in these things so much, albeit often inarticulately and sometimes inconsistently, if it didn’t matter to me how people with whom I share a “skeptic” label behave.

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So, stuff’s been happening. The news seems to be falling apart.

I could do some sort of write-up about the ever-increasing flurry of scandals that began with the News of the World’s collapse, but it’s not like pointing out the horribleness of some of the horrible things some people did will really bring anything new to the discussion. I am utterly devoid of unique insight, and if you’re relying on me for providing basic news-gathering services on something this big, you’ve got problems.

The one thing I will say is that John Finnemore’s editorial on Radio 4’s The Now Show was an absolute blinder:

There’s also an extended transcript here. He knows how to say words good.

I know that’s not much to leave you with, given my relative silence this past week, but I’ve only gone and been and done and gone and got myself a girlfriend, who’s become something of a focus of mine, and at this particular moment is rather more interesting than you lot. No offense. You’re still great. She’s just better. Her name’s Kirsty and she’s a nurse and she has a cat with no teeth.

So, how’s your week been? (I don’t actually care. A girl likes me.)

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Right, I’m finally not too lazy to write about this interesting new collaborative blog I’ve been enjoying.

The phrase “What about teh menz?” has an odd place in gender-related and feminist discussions. It refers to the way that, in the middle of a feminist conversation about something presumed to be a feminist matter, the plight of men will sometimes be injected into the discussion, often unwelcomely.

When women are talking about rape, for instance, it’s possibly for a man to unhelpfully steamroller in and complain that everyone’s ignoring how men can be raped too, you know. If someone new to the debate starts acting as if this omission is the gravest injustice of the whole topic, as I’ve seen happen, this can be frustrating for women trying to discuss a serious matter without being told that they’re the insensitive ones.

When Giles Coren tried to discuss the ways society can be unfair on men, the mocking cries of “What about teh menz?!” were flying thick and fast, as people of both genders characterised his views as a needy whine with no relevance to the important sexual discrimination going on in the world (i.e. that against women).

The thing is, though. There are male victims of rape and sexual assault out there. And there are gender-biased assumptions that do men no favours. There is some serious injustice against men which deserves to be addressed.

But it seems to have been historically extremely difficult to support one side of the debate without, inadvertently or deliberately, disparaging the other. There has been a tendency for men to bring up male victimhood in a way that shuts down or hijacks women’s conversations: sometimes “What about teh menz?” really can be an unwelcome whine.

At the same time, the stereotypical idea that men’s rights don’t need to be defended is one that a lot of feminists seem happy to propagate, and there’s a great deal of unfair antipathy to the very idea that there might be biases against men which should be fought.

But there’s no reason these two schools of thought should be antithetical. If we can avoid being outright dismissive of either, we might be able to actually make some worthwhile progress toward proper gender equality.

Which is why it’s good to see a blog asking: No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz?

Anyone who’s been paying attention will be familiar with my rambling cogitations about feminism, and whether it’s worth pursuing, or worth adapting, or just too nebulous and variable to really mean anything. I’d all but abandoned use of the word, as being too laden with baggage, but the FAQs on this blog offered an interesting clarification. Here’s a snippet:

Where feminism seeks to improve gender equality with a focus on issues affecting women, masculism seeks to improve gender equality with a focus on issues affecting men. Taken together, these two (complementary!) movements form “gender egalitarianism.”

There are ways in which women are unjustly worse off than men in our society; this deserves to be addressed by anyone who values fairness. There are ways in which men are unjustly worse off than women in our society; ditto. Highlighting the importance of one cause doesn’t need to downplay that of the other. And whether the specific thing you’re talking about seems more like a feminist or masculist issue, you should probably be thinking about it in the context of making things better for everyone.

If I’m going to be a feminist, I’m damn sure going to be a masculist too.

Actually, maybe being a humanist will cover both bases just fine.

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Right. I wasn’t going to talk about this, but I’ve unexpectedly had an opinion, so what the hell.

Brief summary of what’s been going on, in case your Twitterstream and RSS feed haven’t been exploding over this in the same way that mine have. Skip the next four paragraphs if you know what I’m talking about and it’s already given you a headache.

Rebecca Watson. Cool lady, Skepchick, atheist activist. She’s at a conference a while ago, giving a talk on religion and feminism and stuff, mingling with other critical thinkers. Hangs out in the bar afterward, decides she’s done and announces her plans to go to bed at around 4am. Is followed into the lift by some guy, who invites her to his hotel room for coffee.

Rebecca makes a video, describing this encounter and why it made her really uncomfortable and was not an okay thing to do, and offers this advice to any men in a similar situation: “Don’t do that.”

You know how YouTube comment threads can get. Some people went a little over-the-top in castigating this guy as a sick sleazy creep deserving of nothing short of contempt and disgust. Others went a little crazy in slamming Rebecca for speaking out about something that made her uncomfortable, and for daring to criticise a man for what they – from their expert witness position of not being there and not really knowing a thing about what happened – deemed totally innocuous and nothing to get worked up about.

PZ Myers offers some advice, regarding just when it is and isn’t okay to make sexualised comments at a stranger in a confined space in the middle of the night. Hemant, in the friendly manner that earned his blog its name, calls for calm. Richard Dawkins weighs in on a comments thread, and Jen McCreight picks him apart. PZ has another go at explaining things with a calm civility that many wouldn’t expect from him.

And here we are. You’re up to speed.

Now.

To get to my Opinion wot I has had, we need to take a bit of a detour. I’ll try not to ramble.

Who remembers Dr Laura? She’s been a talk-show host and self-help guru type in America, and was the inspiration for the character at whom a famous Jed Bartlet rant was directed. She’s kind of a dick.

Last year, she was fielding a call on her phone-in radio show, from a black lady wanting some advice on dealing with her white husband’s friends, who would sometimes casually use racial slurs that she found offensive. Dr Laura questioned whether the n-word was really something to be offended by, and said it herself eleven times over the course of the conversation.

She repeatedly said arguably the most objectionable word in the language, in a rather confrontational manner, to a black woman who’d come to her for help, after the woman expressed some surprise that Dr Laura would say it at all in such a blasé fashion. Dr Laura was widely criticised for being insensitive, and apologised the next day, but completely undermined this later by saying some bullshit about her First Amendment rights.

Here’s where I think much of the problem lies:

One thing I suspect Dr Laura knows, with considerable certainty, is that she’s not a racist.

Racists are other people. Racists hate black people, or at the very least think less of them just because of the colour of their skin. That’s a horrible way to treat people. Dr Laura would never act like that. She doesn’t have a problem with black people just because they’re black.

So when this black woman comes along, and starts implying that Dr Laura is racist – as if it’s somehow offensive when she, Dr Laura the non-racist, utters a perfectly harmless word that she hears black people using all the time – well, that’s just rude. This black woman needs to calm down and get some perspective and stop making these horrible accusations.

Because Dr Laura knows that she’s not a racist.

And, goes my thesis, one thing that a lot of men know is that they’re not sexist.

A number of people have been indignant and quite angry that Rebecca found the behaviour of Elevator Guy (as he’s come to be known) at all creepy. One thing that I think motivates this is that he wasn’t doing anything that far off what many of them might find themselves doing: approaching someone they find interesting and attractive with an invitation to further discourse. They’ve tried to chat up women before, maybe under similar-ish circumstances, and they’re not all chauvinist pigs.

So how dare this woman come along and start implying that we men, because of perfectly innocent behaviour like this, are all sexist? She’s obviously making a fuss about nothing. Sexists are other people who hate women and only think of them as objects. We’re not like that.

The problem being, of course, that people are quite capable of getting things wrong, offending others, revealing hidden prejudices, and otherwise failing to be perfectly politically correct and socially acceptable, even without being some horrible sexist racist monster, and without meaning any harm at all.

What Dr Laura didn’t appreciate was that racism is a much bigger deal for some people than it is for her, and that even if her intentions weren’t actively to disparage any person or any race, there’s a wider culture of racial tension and abuse out there, and she can’t claim to be apart from all that simply by knowing, as I suspect she does, that she’s just better than all those horrible racists out there. (And also that her bruised ego at being accused of racial insensitivity isn’t the most important part of the conversation.)

Similarly: what some of Rebecca’s critics might not appreciate is that gender politics is complicated and difficult, and even “nice guys” can misjudge things, or make faulty assumptions, or just get it wrong, and should really consider accepting the mild rebuke when it’s offered, rather than passionately insisting that they didn’t do anything wrong, because they’re not sexist. (And their offense at having their “nice guy” status called into question isn’t the most important part of this conversation either. Rebecca didn’t even call anyone sexist. Nobody’s been written off as a horrible monster because of what they did. Just learn from this.)

And I think I’m done.

I like having opinions. I should try it more often. Feel free to tell me why this one’s a load of bollocks, though.

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I’ve not written about this at length before, but not kept my views exactly secret either. Basically, what Marsh said.

Having said that, I think much of the anti-circumcision camp can sometimes get bogged down with slightly weaker arguments that they really don’t need to worry about. In particular, when they counter claims about the perils of foreskin ownership with ways in which this particular area of skin can be beneficial.

It doesn’t need to be useful, or to actively promote good health, or to have anything particularly wonderful going for it. All you have to do is point out that the default course of action is not to cut bits off other people.

In religious arguments, the burden of proof with regard to God is on the person making the positive claims about him. And in arguments where one side is saying “I think surgically removing a bit of this newborn child is a good thing to do”, it’s very much up to them to justify that.

For instance, don’t respond to studies saying that sex is better without a foreskin, by pointing to other studies which indicate the opposite. Well, if you have good reason to think that your studies really are the only sound ones, I guess you could do that. But you should primarily be asking why such a ridiculous argument is being made for slicing a chunk off your baby’s genitalia in the first place.

The implication is that a significant number of uncircumcised men aren’t enjoying their sex life as much as they could be, and are seething with frustration at this damnable yoke of a foreskin they’ve been cursed to carry around with them. And that this is such a huge problem for these poor men, that it’s worth taking a knife to every new-born boy’s junk pre-emptively so that it can be avoided.

This is a serious mishandling of priorities. Most of these men’s sexual experiences would benefit far more from an open and honest conversation with their partner, a little creativity and research, and maybe a shopping spree at Lovehoney, than from having had their foreskin removed years ago. And in those cases where the foreskin really is the problem, there are various medical or surgical interventions which can be employed down the line, once there’s actually a problem that requires it, and once they’re in a position to understand and consent to the proposed fate of their dangliest of bits.

Other arguments intended to justify and support this mass emasculation, in brief:

Tradition

Fuck off.

Seriously. If the best you can say for it is “We’ve been doing it for years”, isn’t it maybe time you stopped and asked why you’ve been doing it for years?

Lots of things are traditional. Some are good, some are bad. If it’s a good idea, it should stand up on its own merits. The sole fact that it’s an idea with tenacity has no predictive power either way.

As it happens, if circumcision wasn’t already a long-standing cultural tradition, and was a new thing that people were just starting to do now, my guess is that most people would be appalled by it, and far less impressed by the usual justifications offered.

Aesthetics

Fuck RIGHT off, you insensitive, superficial, thoughtless lacerater of children.

Religion

To quote a wise and handsome man:

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”.

In other words, nobody’s obliged to care if you consider something a religious obligation if it’s a flat-out terrible thing to do.

You’re welcome to exercise your own freedoms to the full extent of your capabilities, up to the point where they adversely affect other people. They can be religious, or not. Doesn’t matter. Knock yourself out. But beyond that point, you don’t get to snip off the tip of someone’s dick for the same reasons you don’t get to poke out their eye or hack off their clitoris, regardless of what you think God wants.

It’s superfluous

There is plenty of my body that’s technically superfluous. I’m not convinced my middle toe on either foot has ever done anything for me. Its neighbours on either side have the balance thing taken care of. But they’re not exactly in the way, and I’m rather glad they were left there when they weren’t causing any trouble, and I was allowed to decide what to do with them myself.

Health benefits

Here the evidence is murky at best. But however much the data might inch things onto the pro-circ side here, it’s not enough to merit such an intrusive and widespread intervention as some people suggest.

At least, not in the developed world it’s not. In Africa, where a good deal of research has been done, it does seem that HIV infections are being prevented by circumcisions, and that there is a significant percentage reduction in other infections.

In Uganda, for instance, circumcision might be an understandable route to take, and is certainly some way removed from being a monstrous act of barbarism. But the developed world has certain advantages we take for granted which Ugandans don’t have, such as widely available contraception and sexual health information.

There might be worthwhile benefits to circumcising 1.2 million American babies a year, if it was a given that they would all be having unsafe hetero intercourse and not looking after their sexual health in any other ways. This might be a fine opportunity for another jab at abstinence-only education, but I’ll hold back on that for once. Americans aren’t like that.

The health benefits of cleaving millions of babies’ penises are easily surpassed by those of educating them in basic cleanliness and sexual health later in life. It’s just not necessary.

Seriously, there should be a much higher bar than many people seem willing to set, before we start cavalierly perforating our children’s manhoods. Think of it this way: What percentage reduction in HIV transmission, in penile-vaginal sex, would justify female circumcision? How much infection would it have to prevent before you supported cutting off every clitoris at birth as a preventative measure?

Which I suppose I should touch on at least briefly before closing. This process involving the excision of the clitoris in young girls, which is alarmingly prevalent in parts of Africa, is utterly terrible. It is more deserving of the name “genital mutilation” than male circumcision (though I’m not getting into that semantic argument here), and is certainly more likely to cause problems and be resented by the victims later in life than removal of the foreskin. On an individual level, it seems safe to say that girls have it worse.

But it’s not a competition, and it doesn’t just have to be considered on an individual level. What concerns people about male circumcision is how widespread it is in developed countries like the United States, where it goes on all the time as if it were perfectly okay.

They’re both serious issues worth addressing. But only one is the primary subject of this particular blog post, and only one is something that many of your neighbours and work colleagues might boast proudly about doing to their own children.

The title of this post might seem a bit laboured, but I’m sure the spoonerism is as dear as clay.

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