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Archive for October, 2013

I was asked recently if I’d be interested in submitting some of my thoughts on feminism, from the perspective of A Bloke, to a feminist blog collective thing being sub-edited by a pseudonymous friend. So I did.

It begins thusly:

Greetings, internet feminists!

Hi, I’m a man. You might remember me from such heteronormative activities as “dating” and “sex”.

Read the whole thing over at Everything But The Kitchen Sink.

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Too long ago for it to still be topical, Greta Christina asked for some ideas on how the atheist and skeptical communities can “take on social justice”.

It’s a less intensely important question to me than it might once have been. I’ve been drifting a little from the “community” part of atheism and skepticism online lately, more through a reordering of my priorities and time management than any fading of my passion for the subjects themselves. But I’m going to chip in with an idea of what might benefit a lot of online communities, all the same. It’s not a specific suggestion for something which can directly be put into place (which is what Greta was asking for); it’s just where my mind went on giving the question some thought.

Don’t expect everyone to speak with one voice.

On anything.

There needs to be room for genuine, deep, fundamental differences of opinion to be expressed, among people who coexist in a community and share some common goals and interests. That really needs to be a thing that’s okay. Otherwise disputes and disagreements will still be inevitable, but they’ll also be needlessly divisive.

And we need to be very selective in what assertions someone can make which render them persona non grata to us. We need to be very slow and cautious in deciding that somebody’s differences make them such a hostile, destructive outsider that their collegiality absolutely cannot be tolerated, and they must be either forcefully and vehemently corrected or simply cast out.

We spend a lot of time telling religious people that, even though we think they’re completely, empirically wrong about things they strongly believe, and that our beliefs might offend them personally on a visceral level that makes them recoil from our very existence, we’re still people, and we deserve respect. Well, some of the ideological and personal gaps between atheists are at least as wide and chasmic as those between myself and any given god-botherer, so the same logic deserves to be turned inward, too.

To take a completely arbitrary and uncontroversial example: some atheists think that Rebecca Watson was right in the advice she offered after being approached by a man in an elevator in a way she found inappropriate. Other atheists think that she overreacted in a way that was unjustified and sexist.

Now, there are unquestionably some terrible human beings who’ve taken hardline positions on both sides of this argument. But neither of these viewpoints is enough to make somebody a bad atheist. Neither of these viewpoints alone should make someone unbearable for you to be in the same room with. If the single fact you know about someone is that they disagree with you on “elevatorgate”, it’d be a real shame if that meant you could never swap any stories about your experiences of religious persecution with them, or share thoughts on how to discuss your godlessness with deeply religious relatives, or in some other way engage with each other on a topic that’s meaningful to both of you.

And this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about Rebecca Watson’s courageous feminist activism and/or feminazi misandrist histrionics. If you think the implications of that whole clusterfuffle are important, then of course you should keep talking about it and explaining why it matters. But it’s not a great idea to use a simple yes/no analysis of “Are they on the right side?” as a litmus test for whether somebody really counts as a part of your group.

Now, if you do manage to give up on expecting your tribe-members to all agree on anything, this may make it harder to define exactly what it is that unites you all. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you don’t need to maintain unity among the group even on important matters. Maybe you might have some positive interactions with folk who, for whatever reason, fail to see the heroic/evil Rebecca Watson for who she really is. Maybe, if we try to see people as still being part of our community even when they’re painfully misguided and wrong about some really obvious and important things, then our efforts toward “social justice” could – and bear with me, because this may sound crazy – benefit from an atmosphere of diversity and inclusivity.

So that ended up being less a practical suggestion, and more another restating of my tiresomely idealist philosophies. I make no apology for feeling compelled to repeat myself.

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Jesus Christ the police are the fucking worst.

There is no sense to this. It helps nobody. It makes the world a worse place for everybody it affects.

Not a single individual has been helped or allowed to benefit from this. Not a single aspect of reality has been made lovelier or more conducive to joy or beauty.

People given authority and immunity and powers above those reserved for normal citizens, so that they can keep us “safe”, are going out of their way to actively cause us harm.

This is sad and depressing and heartbreaking and all of it is the direct result of the actions of representatives of the state, for whom there was no need and no justifiable motivation to do any of this, who are devoting massive amounts of their time and our money across the country in situations like this to making things worse and causing misery.

Holy shit do we ever not need to be doing this to each other.

via Reason

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I’ve started following some people I disagree with on Twitter.

Listening to people you disagree with is really quite important. I mean, I talk to hypothetical people I disagree with on this blog all the time, and I act like I’m expecting them to listen. So it’s only polite.

And I do get probably an unhealthy amount of my reporting on what “the other side” think only when it’s been filtered through someone on “my side” reporting on it, with all the expected disdain and righteous indignation that I find it hard not to share.

So I’ve added a few contrarians to my feed. I’m planning to find more blogs to achieve the same thing, too. Feel free to make suggestions. (I’m a libertarian socialist atheist humanist, in case you need a recap on who I’m likely to find utterly antithetical to every value I hold dear.)

Anyway, there’s a particular thought process some of these oppositional commentators seem to spark in me. It goes something like this.

1. This opinion contradicts my understanding of the way things are!

2. I am more rational than to simply dismiss it out of hand, however. I shall follow the attached link and look a bit more closely into what the assertion actually is, and how well it stands up.

3. Well, it isn’t immediately obvious to me what’s wrong here.

4. But something must be, this person’s a tit and clearly on the wrong side of everything.

5. Okay, that’s definitely not a rational conclusion. Can I actually find any holes in this piece of analysis?

6. …No.

7. But it doesn’t mean this person’s right; really, I just don’t understand the subject well enough to have an opinion either way. It’s quite intricately political in an area I’m not well versed in.

8. Is that a cop-out to avoid admitting that I was wrong about something, because this person made a good point?

9. No, I think I really honestly don’t have a clue one way or the other. This seems like a good point, but so did the other stuff I’d already read from the other side. Apparently I can’t reliably tell which of these two opposing viewpoints is making the best points. I really should conclude that I just don’t know what’s going on.

10. Y’know, I probably should’ve started with that before even deciding I had an opinion worth defending.

I’ve also provided myself with a few examples of how a little intelligence and rationality can be a dangerous thing, if they’re deployed and placed strategically so as to continue reinforcing one’s own biases.

In particular, this comes up in my reactions when somebody not part of my “in-group” makes a claim about a contentious subject, as opposed to when somebody who is identified as being on “my side” makes a similar claim, when I don’t have time to fully examine either of them right now.

The contrast between “Hmm, I should study this more carefully later, and also find an informed rebuttal from someone who disagrees, to make sure I’ve got both sides of the story and can fully and rationally assess the truth of the situation” and “Yep, makes sense!” is quite stark.

So I’ve learned some things about my own rationality, and the way my brain works when confronted with ideas and individuals I tend to find unreasonable and infuriating.

On the other hand, I’ve also been reminded that, sometimes, people whose political opinions happen to differ significantly from mine are also horrible. Just unbearably, viciously, despicably horrible.

So there’s that.

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I lack the time, energy, will, calm, poise, rationality, and overall mental composure to talk much about the condition of the welfare state in this country and the Conservatives’ attitudes toward those who benefit from it (or seek to benefit from it, or are systematically exploited by it).

However, apropos of something that came up on one of several blogs that regularly make me angry and sad about this subject, I’d like to post a brief reminder.

Whatever the heck conservative think-tank Policy Exchange are doing appears confused and misguided, at least from this reporting. But one representative phrase leapt out at me, a statement they apparently believe is supported by a majority of the public according to a recent poll:

Everyone should be made to work for their benefits except mothers with young children.

Given the prevalence of this kind of thinking, its deliberate exacerbation by many current politicians, and the extent to which the despicable repackaging of slavery for the 21st century known as workfare is still being falsely heralded as a boon for the underclasses, something apparently needs to be strongly reiterated.

If you’re doing work, you should get paid for it. If other people value the output of your labour, they should remunerate you directly for that.

Benefits, on the other hand, are what people get which doesn’t directly correspond to their own ability to pay, either in toil or coin. If you’re not working, or you’re trying to find work, or you’re ill or disabled, or if you just don’t fancy any of the shitty jobs going (yep, fuck it, basic income for everyone), then you get benefits. They’re things you just get, because we’re a social species and we give a fuck about each other. We understand that none of us can look after ourselves in total isolation, that sometimes some folk need some help, and that the rest of us have the capacity to provide that help.

What follows from these ideas, then, is that you don’t make people work for their fucking benefits.

Benefits are what people get without having to prove themselves to you.

And you especially don’t make people work for their benefits by forcing them into a full-time job, and then not actually paying them a salary, but making their benefits the only thing conditional on their labour, thus making them massively worse off than if you’d kept your grubby, sanction-hungry fingers out of the whole deal.

Seriously.

With all the effort some people put in to making sure none of these feckless scroungers gets a goddamn penny more than you’ve decided they’re entitled to, we could feed the fucking planet.

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Here’s something that could make you hate and despise your benevolent democratic overlords to the very core of your bitter soul, if you’re not careful.

At least some of the members of Congress currently not doing their jobs have been expressing how important it is that they continue to get paid.

I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line.

Rep. Renee Ellmers there, before this story presumably took off and motivated a change of heart.

On one level, it’s not hard to sympathise with her plight. And that’s always a level worth paying attention to. She’s used to doing a job for which she gets paid a salary, and abruptly not receiving that salary could be a serious snag in her financial situation. I have no idea how many regular payments to things like mortgages and insurance premiums this Congresswoman is currently obliged to make, but it’s not unreasonable if she works her salary into her assumptions for being able to meet those obligations.

Really, her discomfort with the idea of giving up her income is understandable. I know it’d put a serious, frightening crimp in my own financial situation if I suddenly wasn’t getting paid.

…And here we approach the point. Ms Ellmers’s salary is quoted at $174,000 per annum. To put that in terms we can all understand, that’s more than I get. It’s a lot more than a lot of people get.

Which is perhaps why the delineation of her own monetary neediness as “the bottom line” rankles so deeply, and in what ought to be an entirely predictable way. That might be your bottom line, Ms Ellmers. Other people’s bottom lines go down way, way further.

I know nothing about this person’s situation and the debts and responsibilities she has to manage. She may even be right. It may be entirely true that she would become suddenly quite vulnerable and find it difficult to continue supporting her lifestyle if her primary income dried up. What’s infuriating isn’t the idea that she’s lying, it’s the lack of imagination.

Surely if you know how tough it can be on $174,000 + whatever your general surgeon husband brings in from his own practice, it doesn’t require much imagination to briefly consider how things might be for someone supporting a family alone on one tenth of your salary. Surely it’s kinda sorta a really important part of your job to spend time thinking about the people in such a situation who you supposedly represent. People already pushing the limits of personal deprivation to make ends meet. People who know that a problem at the bank that delays a bill payment could mean a spell without electricity or food for them or their children. People for whom downscaling some of their plans to accommodate a drop in household income, as you’ve had to do, is likely to mean ending up homeless, because there’s simply no further down for them to go.

It’s seems like it should be really hard not to take more of an interest in other people, is all. And yet some folk seem determined to try.

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Let’s talk about not believing in God.

Atheists often frame their position as a simple lack of a belief; they don’t take the active, affirmative, assertive position that theists do, don’t make any direct claim, and simply don’t hold the positive position that “God exists”.

I’ve written before about why the extent to which some atheists take this feels like an unnecessary cop-out.

Atheists should totally be making positive claims. Part of the reason why many are reluctant to do so, is because of an implicit idea that “belief” is a binary thing, something you either have or you don’t.

Christians believe the claim that “God exists”, and atheists don’t. Some atheists might conversely believe the claim “God does not exist”, but many deny holding any such position, and define their own godlessness as a kind of belieflessness. It’s not that they don’t believe in anything – we often have to remind people of our strongly held convictions in favour of love, truth, beauty, cheesecake, and the basic goodness of humanity – but when it comes to God, we simply don’t buy it, and are otherwise keeping out of the argument.

I don’t think this holds up. I think that the usual ways we describe belief are necessarily short-hand for a more complex set of ideas, and that we can afford to start being clearer in our positive declarations.

As an analogue, let’s say I’ve flipped a coin but not yet revealed the result. Do you “believe” that it’s landed on heads?

Assuming you have no improbable insider knowledge about the coin or my tossing abilities (steady), you haven’t a clue which way it’s landed. So, I guess you “lack the belief” that it’s landed heads. And you lack the equivalent belief that it’s fallen on tails. It’s not that you disbelieve either option – they’re both possible, and wouldn’t be especially surprising.

Now let’s say I’ve rolled a fair six-sided die, and am also temporarily hiding the results. What beliefs do you have about the number that’s showing? Presumably you lack each individual belief in its landing on any given number – but it seems like this is true in a different way from the coin-toss. In that first case, if you’d arbitrarily picked one option to guess at, it would’ve been no big deal whether you’d been right or wrong. With the die, if you randomly picked the right one, you’d be a little more impressed. On seeing what number it landed on, you’ve now adopted one particular belief you formerly lacked, just like with the coin – and yet this feels like a bigger deal.

Let’s step it up again. I’ve got a lottery ticket here for last night’s £7,000,000 jackpot. It’s either a winner or a loser, but I’m not telling you any of the numbers on it. Clearly you’d expect some evidence if I wanted to convince you it’s a winning ticket. But do you simply “lack the belief” that I’ve won the lottery, just like you “lacked the belief” that my coin had landed on heads (or tails)? Or are you actually pretty sure I haven’t won?

I’d argue that you’re easily justified in believing I’ve not become a millionaire overnight. The evidence in favour of the idea is so slight, and the odds against it so great, that it seems like a hypothesis worth ignoring. (Even before you consider the odds that I’m lying about having a ticket in the first place. Which I am.)

Now, you might change your mind later, when I invite you round for tea and diamonds in my new gold house, but for now, you’re safe assuming that I haven’t won the lottery. It’s not dogmatic to work with that assumption; it doesn’t imply you’re unwilling to be persuaded by evidence. But come on, clearly I haven’t won the lottery. Frankly, you should be quite content telling me “James, you have not won the lottery”. We’d all understand what you meant. If you can’t make that positive assertion now, then I don’t know when declaring anything to be true is ever going to be possible.

It may seem as if it’s incompatible with acknowledging the possibility that you might be wrong – this possibility can be calculated precisely, after all. But the fact is, we don’t append the phrase “to a reasonably high degree of probability, barring the arrival of any further evidence” to the end of every other sentence we utter. When we have conversations with each other, there’s generally a subtext of “I am not absolutely and immutably 100% certain that this is the case, it is simply the most appropriate conclusion I am able to draw and it seems strongly likely, but I will be willing to reconsider if there’s a good reason why I should do so” to most of what we’re saying.

I don’t “believe” that any given flipped coin has landed on heads or tails. But I can put a probability of 50% on either outcome, which says something more useful than just “I lack belief in any direction”.

With a six-sided die, the probability is 1/6 each way. Is it fair to say “I believe it hasn’t landed on 6”, since I believe the odds are 5/6 against that outcome? Probably not, but I don’t think it matters. If you understand the numbers I’ve placed on each possible outcome, you understand what I believe.

I don’t believe an asteroid is going to crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. Further, I believe an asteroid will not crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. I believe this more strongly then any of the other examples so far. How strongly? It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong somewhere on the scale of increasingly improbable things. In this case, just saying “it’s not going to happen” is a useful short-hand way to get my point across, without going into a lengthy spiel about percentages and Bayesian priors. It gets the gist of my position across in a manner I think most of my audience will understand.

There is no God.

Does that mean I think God’s existence is less probable than, say, flipping a coin and getting ten heads in a row? Would I be more surprised to meet Jesus after I die than to roll a string of double-sixes throughout an entire game of Monopoly? Whether or not I have an exact numerical value for my god-belief, these are the terms we should be thinking in. Not that there’s simply a thing called belief which some people possess and I lack and that’s the end of it.

So can we agree that a flat denial of God’s existence is not dogmatic and unfounded now, please? Can we accept all the implied background understanding that goes along with other conversations about the things we believe? Can we maintain useful phrases like “does not exist” without burying them under a mound of tentative qualifications each and every time, when we all know damn well that Carl Sagan’s garage is a dragon-free zone?

And could we stop acting as if being sure you’re right about certain things makes you an inflexible ideological bad guy, regardless of how reasonable it is to be strongly convinced of your position?

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