Archive for December, 2011

– No damn President of mine is going to celebrate Kwanzaa. At least, no African President.

– This black kid shouldn’t have run from those cops. It’s “illogical”. I mean, it’s not like they were going to hurt him.

– “Mohammed had a thing for little girls.” Any law which locks people up for saying this is repugnant. Any law which has to resort to the technicality that, because Mohammed stayed with his nine-year-old wife until she was eighteen, such comments constitute “incitement”, is batshit insane. And yes, the law can still go hang if that first sentence was replaced by “The Holocaust never happened”.

– Apparently you can be prevented from taking a plane out of London if you’re in possession of the wrong kind of political literature, on the apparent grounds that you might “upset” the other passengers by passing it around among them. Wow, they’re not even pretending this is about legitimate safety concerns any more.

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You don’t want the Gay Liberation Movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan,” the Archbishop of Chicago (they seriously have those?) recently said.

And he’s right. I certainly don’t want that. That would be terrible, if that happened.

In fact, here’s a list of some things which would be terrible, should they come to pass:

– The Gay Liberation Movement morphing into something like the Ku Klux Klan.

– The ACLU transmogrifying into three hundred Spartans.

– My fiancée being replaced by a clone of John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

– A plate of fish fingers eating me for dinner.

– My house being haunted by the ghosts of dinosaurs who used to roam the plains of ancient Kent.

– Discovering that my life is being written by Dan Brown and I’m about to be plunged into a web of intrigue and conspiracy and clunkily expository dialogue.

– The Catholic Church so ignoring the teachings of its heralded Messiah that it protects child abusers and puts thousands more young people at risk of serious harm by impeding criminal investigations.

Fortunately, I think I’m pretty safe from most of those horrendous possibilities. Nearly all of them, in fact.

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– Has it really taken this long for the Westboro Baptist Church to get around to hating football? This can’t be the first time on this particular crazy train for such dedicated contrarians.

– Justin Bieber, ice giants, and big floofy dogs, together at last.

– Cory Doctorow’s blogging and tweeting about it is kinda making me wish I was at the Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin. I are proper nerd.

– The latest case of othering, on my other blog: Israeli extremists harass children.

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I hadn’t heard of Youthreach, but until recently they apparently offered a counselling service to young people in Greenwich. Theirs was one of the services whose funding was recently cut as a result of budgetary cutbacks to public services, in response to the UK’s financial crisis.

Jon Ronson spoke to some people who worked there, and some young people who’d used the service before it was shut down. These include teenagers with severe anxiety or mental health issues, and some with a history of suicidal thoughts or attempts.

They would go to Youthreach once a week, talk to someone about what was on their mind, and be offered sympathy and advice. It was something they looked forward to and valued in times of their life when they were experiencing a good deal of unhappiness. They reported things like that it made them feel normal for a change, and like they could function in society.

The annual budget for this centre was £118,000. It closed six months ago.

I don’t know the context of that particular budgeting decision. I have no idea which local councillor or official or group made that call, and what pressures they were under from the various other competing demands of the local community they’re trying to serve in austere times. And I don’t know the people Jon spoke to, their lives or backstories, what’s going on in their world.

But you have to wonder, when the budget of this one Youthreach centre constitutes a little more than 1% of 1% of 1% of the total cuts to public service spending nationwide, how many other similar stories there are out there, and how many other kids with depression or autism or anxiety have had one more valuable lifeline taken away from them.

If encouraging volunteer counsellors and therapists to be available for troubled young people isn’t something we can prioritise, even (perhaps especially) when times are tough and we’re “all in it together”, I just don’t know what the hell we’re doing.

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– The abhorrence of Mike Adams’s approach to just about everything notwithstanding, NaturalNews is on the side of right once again.

– Radley Balko has a new rule. And he’s right. Because of the authority the police have to curtail other people’s freedom, they should be watched very carefully, and recording their actions is in their own interests’ as much as anybody else’s if they’re on the level.

– It doesn’t seem like news at all that those who are elected to office, specifically to be “representative” of the people, aren’t.

– I can feel the power of Jesus flowing through me… it’s getting stronger, praise God… and BAM, UTERUS.

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I’ve launched a new blog today, titled There Are No Others. It’s intended to document cases of in-group bias in public discourse, and suggest more humanistic ways of addressing the problems and disputes we face.

It’s based on an idea that’s been recurrently tickling my interest for long enough that I’m going to explore it in more depth, and see if it continues to seem worthwhile.

I’ll probably cross-post things between blogs intermittently for a while, but go ahead and add http://therearenoothers.wordpress.com to an RSS feed reader or some such to keep up with that side of things first-hand.

Here’s what I’ve said about the idea of “othering” in the blog’s inaugural post:

By “othering”, we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us”. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.

This psychological tactic may have had its uses in our tribal past. Group cohesion was crucially important in the early days of human civilisation, and required strong demarcation between our allies and our enemies. To thrive, we needed to be part of a close-knit tribe who’d look out for us, in exchange for knowing that we’d help to look out for them in kind. People in your tribe, who live in the same community as you, are more likely to be closely related to you and consequently share your genes.

As a result, there’s a powerful evolutionary drive to identify in some way with a tribe of people who are “like you”, and to feel a stronger connection and allegiance to them than to anyone else. Today, this tribe might not be a local and insular community you grew up with, but can be, for instance, fellow supporters of a sports team or political party.

It’s probably not quite as simple as the just-so story we’re describing here. But there’s no doubt that grouping people into certain stereotyped classes, who we then treat differently based on the classes we’ve sorted them into, is a deeply rooted aspect of human nature. Intergroup bias is a well established psychological trait.

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us” is a simple heuristic people often use to decide whether someone is part of their tribe or not. If you are, then you can be expected to toe the line in certain ways if you don’t want to be ejected; if you’re not, you can be dismissed and hated as an “other”, the enemy.

A number of psychological experiments, such as the Asch Conformity Experiment, demonstrate the extent to which we feel compelled to make sure we fit in, as part of the tribe, in some situations.

Other research into, for instance, the Benjamin Franklin effect, shows that we have a startling tendency to come to hate people who we treat badly. If we’re experiencing guilt about our treatment of some person, or group, or class, and having trouble reconciling that guilt with our notion of ourselves as good people, our brains are extremely adept at resolving the situation by othering the people we feel that we’ve wronged. If we dehumanise someone, and distance our empathy with them, then we won’t have to feel bad about the shabby way we’ve treated them.

Political partisanship is a common area for othering to be found, and will likely be a prominent focus on this site. Any American readers will surely have noticed a tendency in many of their countryfolk to speak of “Democrats” or “Republicans” with derision, imagining this “other” to be a homogeneous group. The desire to associate with one party or the other is so strong that people will even support the other party’s policies, when they believe they’re identifying with their own group. To some extent, one’s political allegiances seem to have more to do with the label somebody has adopted than their actual opinions. (This has also been noted by Howard Stern, although he seemed to miss the point that this is something we’re all capable of, not just Obama supporters in Harlem.)

Furthermore, experiments such as the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes exercise demonstrate just how readily we can be swept up in a group identity, learning to embrace only those of our tribe and reject the “others”, even when the difference is entirely arbitrary and meaningless.

The concept behind this site, then, is that a) humans have an undeniable and insidious inclination to engage in “othering” thought patterns for the purpose of self-preservation, and b) learning to avoid and counteract these thought patterns is integral to greatly reducing the world’s hatred and suffering. Our intent is to raise people’s consciousness about othering behaviour, to make them more alert to these thought patterns, and to encourage alternative ways of addressing the problems that we often seek to avoid by dehumanising any one group.

This site is still in the early stages of its development, and is not created or maintained by any experts in psychology, or anything else for that matter. We will be as science-based as possible, but if you want to read some more about the relevant psychological subjects by browsing around on Wikipedia for a while, this might be a good place to start.

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Oh yeah, and I hope you all had a fun Christmasorwhatever over the last few days.

– “Let us allow ourselves to be made simple.” That’s a lot of what’s wrong with religion in one sentence, right there.

– A Christian pastor’s advice to a rape victim, based on the advice given in his holy book that billions of people take seriously: “It’s too bad that you didn’t force him to kill you instead. That way you could have at least died a virgin.

– Bruce Hood’s written a book I’m looking forward to reading, about how “there is no ‘you’ inside your head“. His Royal Society Christmas Lectures start tonight, too.

– Some corporate people still don’t really seem to understand how Twitter works.

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He really is. He’s the guy whose main schtick is the Illuminati reptilian alien trans-dimensional Freemason conspiracy, of which just about everybody rich or famous is suspected to be a part.

Yeah. That guy. He’s been on this train for years, and sufficiently large crowds of people are… entertained? intrigued? also crazy? …that he regularly lectures to packed-out crowds in large theatres, and sells an impressive number of books.

I saw part of one of his lectures yesterday on an obscure Sky TV channel. He was astounded at how true-to-life the film Monsters, Inc. was. If he were right about even a quarter of the stuff he was saying, he’d basically be a harbinger of the apocalypse in a Clive Barker novel.

A lot of his conspiracy ideas are, on the face of it, rather horrifying notions, if you forfeit your senses long enough to take them seriously for a moment. We’re all being lied to by the people in control, who sit at the top of the pyramid pulling the strings of the presidents and world leaders below. Of course the idea of evil forces acting behind the scenes to further their own power, with no regard for our well-being, is a disturbing one.

And yet, at the same time, I’m far from the first to note that deranged conspiracy theories are often a way of imposing structure and order onto a scary and chaotic world. The horrifying conspiracy actually provides some sort of reassurance.

For instance, Icke believes that the 9/11 attacks were obviously orchestrated by whoever’s really running the show, for their own nefarious ends. But the idea that George Bush – a man who “can’t even tie his own shoelaces” – might have been responsible is something he finds comical. The brilliant minds really behind it all were playing Bush for a fool, just like the rest of us.

As scary as that idea is, here’s another frightening scenario: George Bush, a man no better equipped to command the world’s largest superpower than he appears, actually persuaded people to give him millions of dollars, with which he also persuaded half the population of said superpower that he was the best man to take charge of the country.

Jesus. If I think about that too long, I might start needing a cuddle and some reassurance that the space lizards have got it all under control.

Another point Icke made – which I think was intended as some kind of rarely seen supporting evidence for his overall theory – was about the amount of human suffering in the world that’s caused by people. Or rather, not people people, but secret reptilian people. Because, when you look at the number of children starving to death around the world, or dying of preventable diseases, or being shot and blown up in unnecessary wars, or suffering in any number of ways because of other human activity, it seems clear that these aren’t the actions of real human beings. We have empathy, we care for people, we could never do such dreadful, damaging things. The reptilians lack such compassion, and only they must be responsible for such atrocities.

Except the truth is scarier than that, too. The human mind has evolved an astounding capacity for compartmentalisation, rationalisation, self-deception, and just about everything else necessary for subjugating, dehumanising, and destroying each other, given the right circumstances. All the ghoulish, evil things in which Icke sees the work of malevolent aliens? That’s all human behaviour. And human behaviour is all that we’re capable of.

If David Icke thinks his world of hidden dimension-crossing aliens vying for global domination is a scary place, he needs to open his eyes and take a look at the world he’s really living in.

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– I’m going to be way better at being married than this Christian couple who’ve written a whole book about it.

– Anyone remember Christmas With A Capital C, that godawful-looking movie which was being trailed about this time last year, and seemed to be just another outlet for fantasist Christian whining about anti-Christmas oppression? Apparently both the writer and director had a much more thoughtful approach, and it really shows in the finished film. Huh.

– Don’t throw the cat in the furnace… Don’t throw the cat in the furnace… Oh god is he going to throw the cat in the furnace? Oh thank fuck. That was creepily tense.

– And that’s it. I’ll be off for at least a day. Happy Christmas. Or, as we atheists say: Happy Christmas. (Thanks to Robin Ince for that line.) See you soon.

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– What’s worse than playing cruel jokes on your young children and filming the resulting distress for public entertainment? Getting them girls’ toys when they’re a boy. Or vice versa.

– These drug courts sound like an excellent idea. And hey, Matthew Perry likes them. So they must be good.

– “Sorry for ruining marriage, straight people. It’s totally the gays’ fault.”

– PZ Myers comes up with a good line on why those atheists who seem dead set against any criticism of theism are often so annoying to the rest of us: they “happily sacrifice reality on the altar of let’s-just-get-along“.

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