Archive for August, 2012


I are poorly.

I shall resume sitting quietly and eating unchallenging light meals after this brief message:

Fuck the South African police.

Read the article. The usual sputtering disbelief and impotent outrage from me shouldn’t be necessary. You can fill it in yourself.

(And no, I’m not expecting this to be the first in a 206-part series of sovereign states whose police can go fuck themselves.)

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A guy in prison is suing for being forced into slave labour.

He’s been offered the choice of working for 25 cents an hour, or suffering a condition known to be injurious to mental health.

And he hasn’t been convicted of any crime.

He’s awaiting trial because he can’t afford bail, and is one of a thousand such inmates in this one county alone, who are deemed to pose “little to no” danger to the public. But even if it had been established that he’d done anything wrong in his life – which, bear in mind, it hasn’t – this is the kind of retributive attitude to criminal justice which only serves to further distance the least advantaged from the rest of us.

Initially, a judge dismissed his case on the grounds that none of this man’s rights were being violated by this self-evidently inhumane treatment. The case was based on the 13th Amendment, and the judge said that what was going on here was “nothing like” the slavery of 19th century America which prompted the law in question.

Obviously, there are ways in which this guy’s situation is importantly different from the ownership of other human beings as property. But while the distinctions are important to remember, the similarities are too significant to ignore. An appeal court later decided:

Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, it is well-settled that the term ‘involuntary servitude’ is not limited to chattel slavery-like conditions. The amendment was intended to prohibit all forms of involuntary labor, not solely to abolish chattel slavery.

Whether this is true or not, you don’t need to be a constitutional scholar to observe injustice in the modern world. The way America’s system of crime and punishment treats those people who fall into its domain – whether wrongdoers or innocent bystanders – is a prime example.

(h/t BoingBoing)

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Even though the sound of it is… well, opinions vary.

The latest big atheisty skeptosphere type thing seems to have started with Jen McCreight (or one of her commenters). Atheism Plus. It’s for atheists who care about more than just the no-god thing. It is the internet’s new jam.

The fact is, most of the atheist community has already been concerning itself with various things beyond the falsehood of religion for some time now – but it’s not implicit in the word “atheist” itself. For many, the factors which led them to atheism are similar to those which compel them toward various kinds of social activism – but there’s nothing to say you can’t be a misanthropic anti-science crazy bastard who also doesn’t buy any of that hooey about Jesus.

Some atheists still find non-belief central to their identity, but want to be something more than simply a non-believer. Insofar as this is prompting people to rally around noble causes, embrace positive values, and find new reasons to feel energised about the possibilities of an atheistic, skeptical, compassionate, engaged worldview, I can totally get behind this.

Personally, I’ve been using the word “humanism” for years to basically describe the same thing, but it’s not a label which suits everyone. Arguably it doesn’t necessarily even imply non-belief in God, so if you want that to remain central to your identity, then it makes sense to keep looking for another label.

Mostly, this seems to be a thing driven by good intentions, aimed at nurturing more positive interactions and encouraging better social engagement among people who have something in common and choose to band together. I think a strong majority of what I’ve seen discussed around Atheism+ is coming from a good place. But I’m still nervous.

The various splits, schisms, and dichotomies among the atheist/skeptical/rationalist/humanist/etc community that already exist are largely artificial and unhelpful. You’re either with the FTBullies or against them, and such like. And I’m worried that Atheism+ might just become one more divide, another way to see people as either part of your in-group or outside of it – and for those on both sides of that dividing line to distance themselves from the others.

Its socially conscious aims are all fantastic, and are nothing new to the atheist community at large. But there’s something about defining them as a whole new movement which I’m not sure is a great idea.

And that’s even before I read this, in which it’s clear that some people are totally on board with the idea of Atheism+ being a divisive issue. That’s just fine, they say, so long as we’re keeping out only the wrong sort of people – misogynists and racists and abusers and whatnot. Just like they‘ve tried to oppress women and minorities and others in the past.

This just seems dangerously wrong to me. There can be opinions which aren’t compatible with your worldview, but once you start deciding that people are just inherently not part of your crowd, even if it’s because they believe abhorrent things, then Atheism+ becomes a potential tool for abuse.

It might be a significant improvement to say “Those inhuman scum don’t support gay marriage”, where once people said “Those inhuman scum think a black guy’s vote should count just as much as mine”… but it’s still not great.

I’d love to see what people do with Atheism+, if they’re inspired by seeing what possibilities exist for people to band together and do good things and spur each other on. I’d hate to see it turn into some sort of litmus test, a requirement that you prove your worth by joining the club, so that the tribe all agree that you belong before you’re deemed worthy of anybody’s consideration.

My darling love has also decided this isn’t for her, and said something which at first made me a bit sad:

I think that the conclusion I’m coming to is that I should give up on the idea of finding a group of “my people” where I can snuggle in and wear the nice symbol on a necklace. It’s a bit lonely not having a tribe…

But then I realised this is actually kinda how I think anyway.

People are getting on board with Atheism+, in part, because they’re disappointed that the atheist community doesn’t wholly consist of “their people”. There are enough profoundly differing views that not everyone can be part of the same tribe, and splits and rifts will naturally form. Throwing your lot in with any one particular identity always has the potential to exacerbate conflicts, which now become about tribes rather than just individuals.

I’ve been a bit more socially withdrawn than some, and had less success in getting deeply involved in the community – but perhaps as a result, I’ve found it easier not to have to pick a side. I follow various people I’m interested in, and agree or disagree with them on an individual level as best I can. This may also relate to the fact that atheism’s never been any kind of a struggle for me, or something I’ve ever suffered for and needed reassurance over; I don’t need the comfort of a tribe the way someone bravely abandoning a lifelong Christian upbringing despite their family’s anger might do.

I’ve also gotten to know what it feels like when my brain interprets Person A’s attack on Person B as a wound against my own ego to an irrational degree. I’m fairly good now at recognising that this means I’m too mentally tied in with Person B, and need to be careful about losing my objectivity.

So, I’m a bit all over the place with Atheism+. I don’t doubt it’s going to encourage people to do plenty of good. I also worry about the potentially stifling effects of setting entry requirements to being part of a conversation.

If it’s all going to be a colossal mess, let’s try and make it a good one.

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This is an interesting thing about the differences among libertarian views on corporate power.

I tend to find right-wing libertarianism very tedious, and often largely self-defeating, given how authoritarian can be the ultimate results of its basic tenets about capitalist property rights. I came to the libertarian socialism with which I now hesitantly identify through a fairly mainstream liberalism.

The line of thinking that got me there is typified by the kind of argument suggested by the above article, in response to the classical liberal claim that more government intervention is what’s needed to keep corporate power in check:

I agree with you that corporate power exists, and share your concern with its evil effects, but I believe you’re mistaken about its causes and remedy. The evil effects of corporate power result, not from government’s failure to restrain big business, but from government propping it up in the first place: this government support includes subsidies to the operating costs of big business, and protection of big business from market competition through market entry barriers, regulatory cartels, and special privileges like so-called “intellectual property.”

The fact that capitalist power can even be amassed in the first place, into such concentrations that it supposedly needs to be “reined in” by the government, relies on numerous such forms of tacit government support which don’t often get seriously questioned. Maybe taking some of that support away, instead of trying to add more safeguards for corporations to find ways around, will actually achieve at least some of what many liberals are really aiming for.

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I don’t really have the combined time, energy, and enthusiasm for the subject to analyse Jen McCreight’s latest post in much depth. It’d take hours I don’t have or could be spending on better things to fully lay out the interesting points she raises, the problems she highlights, the ways in which I take issue with how she sometimes addresses them, and so on.

If I were also to go into everything Rebecca Watson’s ever done which I’ve strongly agreed with, strongly disagreed with, or which has provoked a reaction from other people about which I have strong feelings, I’d be here all day. Ditto Ophelia Benson. They write a lot, and people write about them a lot, and it gets complicated and intricate. (Greta Christina’s still pretty much unqualifiedly awesome.)

So, since I don’t have the time, the energy, or the enthusiasm to hammer out all the fine details, I’m going to have to continue covering things with inadequately broad strokes, and acknowledging the shortcomings of my own approach.

Broad strokes time: There has been a lot of vicious, creepy, unpleasant, unnecessary verbiage on this part of the internet lately. The above named female skeptics have been the objects of direct and deliberate abuse – language intended to demean them, mock them, and cause them emotional pain – significantly more often than they have been the initiators of any such negativity towards others. It’s by no means been a one-sided issue, but it’s clear to me where the balance lies so far.

I can’t think of anyone else who’s spent as much time trying solely to make another specific person feel bad about themselves via insults and belittling, as that elevatorgate blog has with Rebecca Watson. She gets called a cunt a lot. Replacing her own name with a slur makes it easier for some people to dehumanise her, so that they don’t have to worry so much about how else they treat her. And I don’t even know what the hell this is. The most egregious stuff in this debacle has been the invective hurled at a number of women. So that’s where most of my anger and attention is.

There are, without question, numerous blogposts which could be written about occasions when Rebecca Watson has been overly harsh with someone, or snapped aggressively, or been curtly dismissive of a point which might have been valid. But to place all your emphasis on that, without comparing it against the hundreds of specific, personalised rape and death threats other people have sent her, would be like starting a site about male victims of rape without ever acknowledging that women can be sexually assaulted too. There are unquestionably real and important issues to be raised, but your emphasis can make you seem oblivious to the context into which you’re wading.

And if I had the time, energy, and enthusiasm, I might try raising those issues, and providing the context to them in such a way that I could bring these things up without being an ass. But I don’t. And, given how much downright hateful shit some of the above named have faced lately, they deserve some of that context before I go ladling on any more public criticism.

Thus, while Rebecca Watson et al. are certainly not blameless paragons of virtue, they have my general, conditional support, on the broad-strokes issues. If I had to “pick a side”, because I had so little time and energy that I wanted to really oversimplify things, it’d be theirs. I wouldn’t be entirely content with that solution, but it’d be the least repellent choice open to me.

My next post will be about something which really does interest me. And no, it’s not how all police are bastards.

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This right here is what I mean about the police.

If you’re a cop and you sexually assault a kid in Texas, you will serve less time behind bars than if you are a woman who has consensual sex with adults; you’re better off having a badge and a rape conviction than a vagina and consent.

It’s not that the police are all terrible people who do bad things. The fact that a particular police officer sexually molested a young girl is, I suspect, largely independent of his career choices.

But the police, as an institution, have a role of particular power and privilege in society which isn’t questioned enough. The prevailing attitudes around them seem to be such that they get off lighter for serious abuses of trust and power than the rest of us would.

Their authority makes it harder for accusations to be made against them, and for prosecutions like this to be successfully brought. There needs to be a sea change in the relationship between cops and everyone else. Part of that change is saying fuck the police, without losing our humanity.

Hey, remember when I was mostly just interested in how a lot of other people believe in God?

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I’m having to go through some of the standard boilerplate online training watchamajigs at my new job at the moment. You probably know the sort of thing: a short on-screen presentation about the dangers of falling over your own shoes, then a multiple-choice quiz about the correct safety precautions for preventing any paperclip-related fatalities around the office.

Because I work in finance, there’s a bunch of stuff about money laundering and identity theft too. Presented entirely out of context, here is a question that was posed in a test of my competency to manage people’s pension schemes:

I may have misunderstood a few things about the private sector. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this job after all.

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