Archive for November, 2013

I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious.

Sarah Silverman is right. Atheists are totally obnoxious.

You know who’s especially bad though? Anyone who refuses point-blank to even consider sacrificing their only child on the altar of an unknowable deity. I mean, it’s probably not something I’d do myself – in fact, murdering children because of religious beliefs is something of a bugbear of mine – but the people who claim to know with absolute certainty that it’s wrong? They can be equally annoying.

Also, does anyone else get a little freaked out when chemists keep talking about carbon and calcium and aluminium and so forth, and just presume that those are all actual things? They seem pretty damn sure about that big table with all those elements on it, don’t they? I’m not saying that whole “air, earth, fire, water” thing didn’t have its problems, or couldn’t use some updating, but the extent to which some modern extremists so totally dismiss it in favour of their new paradigm doesn’t sit right with me.

And hey, here’s another bunch who wind me up: heliocentrists. Not all of them, by any means, just the hardcore contingent who put me off wanting to identify with the term myself. Sure, I go along with the claim that the Sun’s at the centre of the solar system with the Earth revolving around it, but is it so hard to even admit that it might be the other way around? That maybe this infinite and incomprehensible universe is stranger than we mere mortal humans can comprehend? The arrogance with which some people just tell flat-earthers that they’re “flat-out” wrong really grates on my nerves.

As if that kind of certainty were really possible within the limits of our human perception. It just comes across as narrow-minded.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Can you think of any other completely one-sided debates where it might be fun to occupy a smug middle ground?

2. How reasonable might it actually be that some people have come to this sort of conclusion about atheists?

3. Is this webcomic ever going to stop being relevant?

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When I wrote this – about the assumption that people who haven’t achieved as much as you are inherently less virtuous – I missed one of the most interesting observations.

The key assumption behind, say, asking what other people’s excuse is for not reaching the same heights you have, and overcoming hurdles and problems like you did, is that success is entirely about determination, grit, mettle, tenacity, fortitude, and other internal merits. Any attribution of failure to external influences – even to some small degree – is written off as excuse-making.

Which is clearly nonsense. It’s not simply a matter of having some innate thing called “character”, and triumphing by pure will, totally disconnected and independent from the outside world. The people we are, and the “determination” or whatever that we’re capable of displaying, is massively shaped by what the world does to us.

But supposedly, it’s unacceptable to pass any shred of one’s shortcomings onto circumstances beyond one’s control, or to expect to be helped along by any kind of intervention from outside your own personal driving force to succeed. Stepping in to help someone out, simply through altruism (it’d be different if you were investing in a business proposition) is beyond the pale; some few exceptional individuals have made sacrifices and overcome obstacles to reach success, and anyone who wants to do the same should just follow that example and not expect any hand-outs.

Except, that’s not how the people who reason this way actually behave. They do make intervention’s into people’s lives, get involved with people’s efforts to succeed, and make contributions in an effort to affect and shape other people’s chances of success.

It’s just that their only intervention is what’s evident in blog posts like the one I linked to which irritated me so much.

Their intervention is to scold, and to chastise, and to spread this message that success or failure is decided entirely within your own mind.

The one contribuion that Matt Walsh guy thought it was worthwhile making, to the lives of women who’ve had children and haven’t got themselves into the same shape that Maria Kang did, was to tell them to be inspired by her message, and to quit whining if they were offended, and to stop coming up with feeble excuses for not already having reached a pinnacle of perceived physical success.

What was he expecting this to achieve?

Did he think it might affect someone’s behaviour, and give them a mental boost that’d help them to work harder and achieve everything they’re capable of? It seems like his intention was something along those lines. But if such hectoring is capable of influencing people’s path, of impacting on their decisions and swaying their chances of success, then why shouldn’t other factors outside a person’s own psyche have a similar effect?

The tone of the article acts as if people are expected to simply be superior human beings by their own force of will – but simultaneously, pointing out their current state of inferiority is presumed to motivate them and steer their actions, in a manner which its whole argument says is impossible.

If no valid excuse for failure is acceptable, then there can be literally nothing in the physical universe which could have any impact on what somebody achieves. And then you get into a kind of weird predeterminism which I don’t think anybody actually adheres to. Black people should stop complaining about being targeted by the police and just knuckle down to work harder and compensate for it. Non-violent drug offenders should get a shave and a haircut and rise above that criminal record which might stop less determined individuals from getting a worthwhile job. Anyone in Somalia who hasn’t managed to net themselves a nice little summerhouse in the Hamptons by now is just lazy.

If you can acknowledge that the preceding paragraph’s conclusions are insane, then you can’t deny that you – along with the rest of the world around us – have the power to influence other people’s chances of success, by making things easier or harder for them to achieve what they aim for, and making them more or less likely to possess the kind of will, determination, and self-awareness to be able to work meaningfully toward their goals in the first place.

One way to do that is by telling them to stop making excuses and work harder for their rewards like other people have. Another way might involve being less of a dick.

But if there’s any justification for intervening in people’s lives with a nagging article like that one, then there’s no reason to be down on other ways of helping people, or of understanding the circumstances in which they might not be living up to their full potential, and might deserve help.

Classroom discussion questions

1. What might be a valid excuse for not looking like Maria Kang when your kids are the same age as hers?

2. How do you balance the importance of personal autonomy against acceptance of fate and circumstance?

3. Am I being unfair characterising this as a largely right-libertarian position?

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People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.

Says a prominent conservative pundit in the US. In the year 2013. No, I mean 2013 A.D.

This is why fuck conventional views, fuck them in the goddamn neck.

(via Pharyngula)

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Sylvia Browne has died.

Spend more than a few minutes looking into the kind of thing she devoted her life to, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was pretty much one of the worst people it’s possible to be, driven by only the ugliest of human faculties and emotions.

We don’t need to forget or ignore this fact now that she’s gone, but neither is there any need to take joy in the news. Wishing suffering or vengeance on any part of the world only makes it darker and less lovely to be in. And death is still a far greater enemy than Sylvia Browne ever was, no matter how much she twisted it to her advantage over the course of a long and horrid career.

Some people will be personally saddened by Sylvia’s passing; they have my sympathies, even if I can’t honestly join them in their mourning.

For many, the news is a prompt to remind the world at large about this woman’s utter lack of psychic abilities, and the importance of learning how to avoid being taken in by obvious scams, swindles, and other misrepresentations of reality. I’m all for this, but I hope one thing that doesn’t get lost is the point that not everyone with the “wrong” belief in psychic powers is like this.

Some folk believe (incorrectly, sure) that they have some kind of power or gift, and are moved to try to help people, feeling a deep and sincere concern for the well-being of their fellow humans, rather than simply emulating the flimsiest charade of humanity. There is absolutely a non-null intersection between compassion and supernaturalism.

Sylvia Browne was not one of the good ones, by any measure. We can do better than to let any further cruelty and unfair judgment become part of her legacy.

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Cracked has an article up which might also be titled 5 Reasons You Are Not Nearly Depressed Enough About The Way The World’s Dominant Superpower Is Run. Because holy shit, you guys.

I mean, I’m aware of probably the same general stuff you are – that gerrymandering exists and filibustering is kinda crazy and it’s all one giant mess – but every so often I read something about just how screwed up it all really is, how deeply engrained the corruption has become, and the bizarre extent to which vast amounts of human endeavour are being utterly wasted on complete insanity.

And then I’m a bit sad and tired for a while. Then I feel heartened for a bit by the levels of awesomeness that could maybe someday be accomplished if all that effort were channeled into something not batshit insane and motivated by the most destructive human instincts. Then I’m tired again.

Oh well. Only one thing to do when the system’s completely fucked: vote for someone and hope they’ll fix it. Better get cracking.

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Oh, go on, then. I’ll see if I can muster an opinion about the AtheismPlus Block Bot.

This is a thing you can attach to your Twitter account, which will block certain other people for you automatically. Specifically, the people on this list, compiled by an authorised set of official “blockers”, who are presumed to be useful judges of character when it comes to who’s worth paying attention to on Twitter.

It’s entirely opt-in, obviously. It’s a service that’s available, if you want to pre-emptively avoid some amount of hostility on Twitter. If you know and identify with the community behind it, and trust that your ideas of who’s worth avoiding are likely to synchronise well with theirs, then this will keep those undesirable elements out of your timeline before you ever even have to learn that they exist.

This has the potential to be an absolutely horrible way of engaging with the world.

The blockbot’s most basic aim may be a valuable one: it’s there to help people protect themselves from psychic pain. There are certain attitudes and beliefs with which it can be distressing to even come into contact, and from which it’s quite understandable for someone to wish to shelter themselves.

For instance, someone might have a history of personal experiences which mean that rape jokes serve to greatly emotionally upset them. Consequently, they may wish to steer determinedly clear of anyone who’s made such comments in the past, for fear of encountering further, similar distressing episodes in the future.

(It should, but rarely does, go without saying that this is all entirely possible without infringing on anybody’s freedom of speech. They’re only blocked to you; nobody’s being inhibited from continuing to engage with the world at large.)

Now, I get that psychic pain isn’t fun. I experience it to some small degree from a great deal of online or public discourse, prompted by such things as Republican politicians talking about almost anything, or much of the discussion around “elevatorgate”, or being reminded that Katie Hopkins exists.

But that’s actually a good example of why I try not to shut out all such conversation before it can even reach my sensitive ears. I’ve talked about my reaction to Katie Hopkins before – in particular, about how my own mental discomfort is not in direct one-to-one correspondence with other people being evil and nasty and wrong. Sometimes the stuff you find yourself tending to flinch away from is actually really important for you to take a closer look at, and examine why you have such a strong reaction to it.

It may, in fact, be a very simple answer, much as you first suspected. It may be that certain people on the internet are being deliberately hurtful and insulting, in a way that I find grossly upsetting and offensive. I’m certainly not saying nobody should ever block anyone, or that everyone’s points are always worth listening to. But sometimes there are more interesting things to learn than just “this other person is terrible”. And learning interesting things is something us skeptics are meant to be interested in.

There’s a difference between using the blockbot and, say, deciding that anyone who thinks the earth is 6,000 years old has nothing useful to add to a conversation about evolution. The latter is true, and frankly in that case their opinions can be safely ignored. But this is because their untrue claims have been thoroughly and rationally disposed of, to as great an extent as could possibly be necessary, in a context removed from anyone’s immediate emotional reaction to what they’re saying.

With the blockbot, there’s not a lot of such due diligence going on. It’s a much thinner basis – a single disagreeable tweet, often – on which it’s decided that some individuals have nothing whatever to contribute to any further discussion, on any subject.

It may be going too far to suggest that blockbot users are failing in some sort of moral obligation to pay attention to the rest of the world. They’re not necessarily just shutting themselves off in their own bubble of consistent agreement and line-toeing. But they are giving up a certain intellectual moral high ground. It’s part of an approach to debate which reacts to particular differing viewpoints more viscerally and automatically than would be required by the truly “open-minded” approach that’s generally skeptically espoused.

And it tacitly reinforces the idea that anyone who differs from you on certain intellectual points can’t be part of your group and must be somehow bad. It normalises and delegates the decision of who is other and should be shunned.

This is all starting to sound a bit dramatic. I don’t want to be all that harsh on it. We all choose our filters through which to see the world, and if this is something which you want to have as a part of yours, then knock yourself out. I just think that trying to engage openly and honestly with the people the blockbot targets is exactly what we so often ask of people who see us as offensive and barely human. It’s worth trying to apply it with some consistency ourselves.

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The justice is my penis

WHEREFORE, Captain Justice, Guardian of the Realm and Leader of the Resistance, primarily asks that the Court deny the State’s motion, as lacking legal basis.

It’s good that there are lawyers out there who appear to be having some fun. It’s not the only appropriate response to some of the more ridiculous aspects of their profession – a little more direct activism to unfuck the system would also be nice – but it’s still encouraging to see.

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