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Archive for April, 2012

(This is kind of a Roman Railway post.)

Every so often, I decide it’s time to revisit something that I know just makes me happy.

Here’s a couple of YouTube videos that exemplify what I mean. This one’s got a guy playing music from Peanuts on the piano to a roomful of old people:

 

 

And this one’s got a guy called Matt doing a silly dance all over the world:

 

 

Both these things make a mixture of feelings well up in me. Joy, hope, optimism for the future, delight at the beauty that’s possible in the world. That kind of thing. It’s a happy, positive, self-reinforcing delight.

Of course, there are other kinds of delight that are less well intentioned. Every good action movie needs a good come-uppance, where we take pleasure not just in the positive outcome for the good guys, but in the much-deserved suffering of the villains. If the bad guy isn’t frustrated, furious, or dead at the end of it all, why bother?

I think this second kind of delight, while common and understandable, is morally problematic. I’m not sure that outwardly exhibiting pleasure directly stemming from someone else’s distress is ever actually okay.

I don’t mean to casually label basically everyone on the planet as a monster, here. The urge to revel in an opponent’s defeat is a very strong one, and a very human one. You probably don’t have to go back very far in this blog to find examples of me being just as guilty of it as anyone. It’s far from the worst thing you can do.

But still, I’m not sure it’s ever the right thing to do. Taking pleasure from someone else’s negative emotions might be something we should, in every instance, strive to avoid. It’s beneath us as compassionate human beings.

One particular example of the uglier side of joy, which springs most easily to my mind, is the malicious glee that repeatedly emerges from certain quarters every time a news story about Margaret Thatcher’s failing health emerges. There are plenty who find pleasure in these facts, and have long since announced the excitement with which they’re anticipating the week-long street party when she finally dies.

I don’t agree with any of Thatcher’s politics, but the crowing over her eventual passing just seems unnecessary and vile. There’s nothing positive about it to celebrate; it’s not like her despotic hold over us is finally being broken, or the things she did which you disagree with will somehow be undone. Another human consciousness will simply cease to be, and another woman (who you also probably don’t like very much) will mourn the loss of her mother.

She might be close, but Margaret Thatcher’s not the ultimate right-wing boogey-man. Let’s bring this one all the way. It’s time to talk Hitler.

Was it a good thing when Hitler died?

Millions were filled with joy when they heard the news, and it’d be insane to begrudge them that. It wasn’t just one man’s death they were celebrating; it was the prospect of an end to a war that had killed millions over the course of too many years. They were delighted by the prospect of being able to live again in safety, of not having to live under a brutal Nazi regime, of no longer having to live in terror regarding the fates of their loved ones. There was a lot to celebrate when Hitler died.

Its consequences were joyful, of course. But the death of a man itself? I still say there’s no joy in that.

Many of those millions would disagree. They’d have been thrilled to be rid of him, not just for the hope of peace that ensued. And I can’t criticise anyone too harshly for that. None of my loved ones have ever been torn apart by shrapnel or taken away and gassed. I can’t condemn anyone for finding a grim satisfaction knowing Hitler was dead, or even outright jubilation that the bastard finally got what was coming to him. Of course I can see their point.

But still I think there’s a better way to be. A more positive way to approach the world. And while I’m not so unreasonable as to chastise anyone who can’t get there immediately, and can understand entirely why the catharsis of schadenfreude might sometimes feel necessary, I think this better way is always worth aspiring to.

Take heart from the positive. Move on from the negative.

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Ask An Atheist

Also, it’s apparently National Ask An Atheist Day today.

I’m an atheist, and therefore eligible to be asked stuff. Feel free.

I don’t really suspect that this will entice anyone out of the woodwork who’s been following me but holding in their questions for the rest of the year, but I’ll throw it out there all the same.

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Roman Railway

(I’m putting this here because I’ve noticed a certain style of argument I sometimes make in my blog posts, and I want to describe what’s going on in one place which I can then refer back to, rather than apologising for it and getting all tangential in each post itself when I’m doing this.)

Sometimes I have a fairly original idea. No, really.

Sometimes my ideas are badly formed, barely coherent, and not very well thought through. Yes, only sometimes.

My point is, when I think of a new approach to something worth writing about, I’ll often plough right ahead with it, and explain every point I can think of which supports it or helps it make sense, and end up coming out with some fantastically elaborate metaphor or some such, before I’ve actually stopped to consider whether it makes any sense.

(An example of this would be a thing I rambled a while ago on marrij, which turned out being kinda okay but not exactly profound.)

More often than not, I’m still happy with my post some time after it’s finished. But it’s entirely possible that I might get a bit caught up with how much fun writing is when I’m on a roll, and ignore some obvious reasons why none of what I’m saying really applies to the situation in hand in the way I’m assuming it does.

When this happens, I’m just going to post it anyway. Maybe it won’t stand up to scrutiny in the morning. Maybe it’ll be a semi-interesting discussion point. Maybe I’ll have hit upon something cool. But I’m just going to slap my needlessly extended line of reasoning up here and not worry about that.

Because I can’t think of a proper name for it when I do this, I’m going to call it a Roman Railway. It’s long and straight, like a Roman road; it’s a continuous train of thought, like a railway; and it’s alliterative, like all good writing should be.

In future, then, I’m planning to link back here every now and then at the start of a post. It’ll be shorthand for “I’m exploring an idea, and I’m going to see how far I can take it without any attempt to pick it apart, so feel free to explain why it’s all crap and don’t assume I’m married to this particular line of thinking”.

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Wonderment

Two posts in a row where I’m just referencing someone else’s cool graphic. Well, I’m focusing on other creative things you don’t get to read. (No great loss, don’t worry.)

 

 

I think I’m a little way beyond the Hofstadter point, but probably not that far. Scoring a few hundred milliSagans isn’t too shabby, though.

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Yes. This. Entirely, wholly this.

In case you’re experiencing problems with the graphic, it’s a quote attributed to Neil deGrasse Tyson:

I am driven by two main philosophies: know more about the world than I knew yesterday, and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

Have you done both of these things today?

If not, get cracking. See where it takes you.

(nabbed from Atheism Resource)

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(Reposted from my other blog, which I might just start doing as a matter of course.)

The release of the film The Hunger Games highlighted some worrying examples of othering recently.

Certain responses – from a very limited segment of the fan-base of the books and the film, no doubt – to the casting of black actors in major roles were disheartening, and actually quite shocking. You really don’t expect to hear things like this being said so brazenly in this day and age, except from devotedly hateful extremists.

But the comments listed on that post, and this tumblr compilation, seem to be more lazily thoughtless and tribalistic than actively racist.

Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture

I’m still a bit lost for words at this. I can’t quite get my head around the necessary sequence of events. First, this person must have experienced a feeling of crushing disappointment at realising that a character she’d read about had dark skin (even though, I’m told, this character’s skin colour is explicitly described as such in the book). Further, it must have entirely failed to occur to them that the qualities she originally admired or appreciated in Rue might still be present – that the colour of her skin might be no hindrance whatever to this young girl being innocent, or likeable, or courageous, or charming, or quick-witted, or whatever she’s like.

And then they must have decided that publicly expressing all these unfiltered prejudices was a perfectly fine thing to do.

Some black girl.

Absent but strongly implied, of course, is the word “just”. Just some black girl.

Not, like, a girl girl. Just some black girl.

However you might have told the story to yourself while reading it, I don’t understand how you can have this reaction to encountering an entirely irrelevant racial disparity, and believe that it’s an acceptable reaction to have.

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Any objectivists out there? I’ve ingested Ayn Rand in quantities far beyond the Recommended Lifetime Allowance for a human adult, in my indecisive and politically experimental past (as if I were now informed and confident in my political opinions), and I still see her ideas referenced quite often in political discourse – and not always with disparagement and contempt.

One of the main features of her schtick is the idea of selfishness, as a much maligned and underrated quality which is in fact the key to humanity’s salvation. Acting in personal, individual self-interest is about the highest good to which you can aspire, in her writings.

This is obviously counter-intuitive, in a way, but there’s a more sophisticated support for it than you might think. There are (at least) two distinct things that might be meant by proclaiming the moral superiority of acting with self-interest.

She might be saying that we should all simply be looking out for ourselves; that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and there’s no room for compassion for anyone else; that everything you can ever expect to achieve for yourself, you’re going to have to claim at somebody else’s expense; that life is zero-sum.

Or, perhaps she was fine with a spirit of community and partnership and shared humanity and cooperation and pulling together and solidarity… but also believed, as a matter of fact, that the most efficient way to run an economy is for everyone to act selfishly; for nobody to try to decide what’s best for everyone else, and force people to act accordingly; for people to look out solely for their own affairs, and let the ensuing market forces arrange things optimally.

It seems clear from her writing that this second interpretation is what Rand intended. It’s strongly asserted in her novels that people acting in their own self-interest make the situation better for everyone than it would be if people acted differently, particularly if they were to put deliberate effort into making things “fair”.

Here’s the thing. Assuming that modern objectivists don’t make the rather tedious claim that selfishness is an intrinsic good – something self-evidently moral and virtuous, and to hell with all notions that community and interaction are an important part of our humanity – there’s now an implicit empirical question, of whether these claims about the efficacy of self-interested behaviour are actually true.

This “doing whatever suits you under the justification that it’ll all work out best for everyone that way” scheme. Philosophy aside, does it work?

It’s something that rarely seems to get discussed by objectivists and Rand fans. Or maybe I’m just not paying attention. But it’s a claim I’m doubtful of, and the potential pot-holes in which don’t seem to get a lot of play among the people who cling to the basic idea, but often forget that the end which justifies it all is meant to be compassion for other people.

Does it really all hang together? Are people rational enough that they’re not going to be significantly duped as to what their own best interests are? Will there not be any problems when hiding law-breaking activity is cheaper (and thus a more self-interestedly beneficial option) than simply obeying the law? Or when lobbying for a change in the law is more cost-effective than having the pesky laws there to obey in the first place? Are there times when leaving people free to act in their own interest wouldn’t simply encourage a flourishing and democratic exchange between everyone but, heaven forfend, might give a select and fortunate few the chance to fuck the rest of us over?

There’s an important question for objectivism in this. I’m not going to answer it now. I’m only here because I didn’t want to waste even more time on Kongregate today before my lunch is ready. But it’s worth asking.

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