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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Society has problems that need fixing.

The people we ostensibly put in charge of fixing society’s problems have a great deal of power to enact their proposed solutions.

The perceived problems faced by society, which it’s assumed need to be addressed by those in charge, include such items as: the unjustified claiming of “free money” by those who haven’t proved themselves to deserve it; long-term unemployment; and criminal behaviour by juveniles.

Popular salves for these maladies include, respectively: imposing benefit sanctions for transparently idiotic reasons; forced placement on full-time, unpaid workfare schemes; and solitary confinement of children, a practice widely regarded as torture.

I talk semi-regularly about aspects of our society that I truly believe will be looked back on with horror, disgust, and bewilderment in a century or so, and I want to explore that in some more depth.

Even people who haven’t experienced it directly will be familiar with the racist grandparents trope. People who grew up in a different era often don’t have the same sensibilities to certain issues that we do today, and maybe they can’t be expected to. It doesn’t make them bad people, but they were raised with a certain set of attitudes being strongly normalised, and it’s not always easy to see, decades later, why the way you’ve always acted is suddenly so offensive to people, or so drastically needs altering.

It can be hard to articulate to someone behind the curve just why it’s important to adapt like this. “Just don’t be racist” doesn’t seem like it should need spelling out; and yet if something was “just the way things were” seventy years ago, it may not be obvious that the world has changed for the better.

I’d be amazed if there weren’t things that my generation’s grandkids end up being impatient for me and my peers to adapt to, but which we struggle embarrassingly with. The thing I particularly imagine them wondering about us is:

Was that really the best you could do?


All that technology and productivity and abundance and capacity to do amazing things together, and you couldn’t find any better way to induce better behaviour in kids, or deal with supposed “freeloading”, without shitting all over thousands of other people who were just trying to get by?

You really didn’t have any better ideas for how to help lift up the lowest among you, and give everyone a chance to thrive?

There was really no interest in picking a military strategy that didn’t involve the useless mass murder of random foreign civilians?

Were you guys actually, really, honestly trying as hard as you can to not totally fuck everything?

Really, though?

When they get around to asking us that, I’m not sure what our answer is going to be.

But maybe I’m just projecting, because I’ve already been asking it for so long myself.

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We’re internet celebrities again, me and my beautiful Rock n Roll Bride.

Gosh. It really was a lovely day, that one time we got married.

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What I don’t want to talk about, more than I have to, is the incredibly condescending tone of an article I read recently, and the way it dismisses any criticisms of its message as the irrational ravings of hateful monsters.

There’s an attempt at logic and argument in there, buried under a mountain of disingenuous rhetoric. And while the latter is what originally made me grumpy, I don’t want to respond emotionally in the way that first occurred to me.

Instead, I want to talk directly about the item being defended with such sneering derision for those who took umbrage to it. This item:

If you’re anything like me, and haven’t seen this before (apparently I missed the Twitterstorm when it first made the rounds), you’re probably feeling some things quite strongly after taking all that in. Notice what you’re feeling and how your hindbrain wants to react. Mull that instinctive response over. It’s important, but you need to not stop there.

Maria Kang actually seems to be a decent person. She’s overcome adversities in her life and succeeded despite them, and she seems to genuinely want to encourage other people to do the same. There’s a significant understanding gap evident in the above picture, and the caption is massively misjudged, but I think there was very little malice to her intentions.

However, there is an implication to the words she chose to use. In her blog entries discussing it later, she acknowledges the way her message was interpreted by many, but never really takes ownership of it. And the unsympathetic, compassionless, impatient, victim-blaming overtones – even if they’re not at all what she intended – represent a tragically common worldview. A worldview in which there are no “reasons” when it comes to absolutely any level of shortcoming or failure, only “excuses”.

Let’s pretend that I’m somebody being asked the question, by somebody who takes this “no excuses” attitude (which I acknowledge is not that of Maria Kang herself). Here’s how I might answer:

What’s my excuse?

My excuse is that different people’s bodies react to stimuli in different ways. Different people get saddled with different genetic backgrounds, as well as upbringings which teach them different life lessons, so they end up with massively different mental and physical responses to certain situations.

Some people find some things difficult or painful which are a positive delight to others. Some people are passionately devoted to interests and hobbies which bore the pants off 99% of their fellows. Some people have an arrangement of chemicals in their brain which behaves in an entirely different way from the arrangement of chemicals in yours.

I am a different person from you. I have different goals, different loves, different struggles, different expectations, different capabilities, different talents. The ways in which you and I might vary are numerous.

Maybe you were already keen on fitness before having kids, and had become familiar with the routine of it, surrounding yourself by other people and immersing yourself in a culture which also focused on exercise and healthy living, familiarising yourself with the lifestyle, all of which made it easier for you to slide back into it after your pregnancy. Maybe I was in decent shape before having children and had other interests beyond putting in the effort to do much better than that, and have been struggling to get started since then, unfamiliar as I am with the complexities of the fitness industry, and never having previously learned to identify and make efficient use of the most healthy foods.

Maybe you have family who live nearby who’ve been able to help out with childcare now and then, which let you find some spare time to do the things that matter to you, like keeping in shape. Maybe I don’t have anyone around like that, and have had less free time for such things outside of work and raising my children.

Maybe your innate physiology was such that your body handled several pregnancies well, and allowed you to recover quickly with few ill effects each time. Maybe I had a different body structure from yours, received different medical treatment, and experienced more complications during the process, so that after giving birth I’d lost a lot of blood, was scarred and depressed, and needed a longer period of recovery before I could reasonably be expected to start living a normal life at a reasonable pace again.

Maybe when I attempted to implement exactly the same workout regime as you, I was reaching beyond the options nature made available to me, and spent a half-hour throwing up from the over-exertion after five minutes, thereafter being quite reasonably put off from making any more serious attempts to get back in shape for a while.

Maybe you’re a shit-ton richer than me and so have a lot more options open to you, in the way that money tends to do, as well as avoiding a lot of the negative health effects of the stress that I face from my day-to-day worries of whether I’m going to be able to cover the rent next month after paying for my kids’ food and healthcare bills.

Maybe there’s quite a lot of evidence that a person’s physical fitness and the kind of body they can attain are largely determined by genetics, which are completely beyond anyone’s control.

Maybe there are resources available in the area where you live which aren’t accessible to me.

Maybe something else. Maybe none of these. I don’t know you or what your deal is, after all.

But maybe, in short, your disingenuously posited question actually has quite a lot of perfectly valid answers, and to imply otherwise is petty and mean-spirited and cruel.

(And we haven’t even touched on the idea that maybe everyone else excusing themselves for not being more like you isn’t even necessary. Maybe we neither want nor need to aspire to your alleged optimal state. Maybe my excuse is that I’m fine just the way I am and don’t want to meet your standards for how a person should apparently look if they oughtn’t to feel bad about themselves.)

So that’s enough maybes.

Obviously not all of them will apply. But some of them could, and they don’t deserve to be drowned out by the sound of yet another game of “find someone who’s already achieved something impressive despite ostensibly having things at least as tough as you”.

That game can be a malevolent force when it starts being used to promote the “everyone can do anything if they just try” ideology at the expense of actually existing human beings. After all, what does it say about people who fail? People who encounter setbacks from which they never recover? People who don’t “win the fight” against illness or circumstances, who never reach what you insist on calling their full potential?

They could’ve thrived if they’d just put in the effort – look at all these other people with the same condition who did – but they failed. So they must not have been trying hard enough. So, really, they didn’t deserve any better than they got.

This is an unkind and damaging way of thinking.

And in response to another obvious objection: None of the above diminishes your achievement of attaining the body you presumably want while successfully raising three happy, healthy children. If you’re proud of having worked hard to accomplish what you consider worthwhile, then that’s great. I have no desire to take any of that away, and if we hadn’t got off on kinda the wrong foot I’d be totally happy for you. None of this is about hating anyone for their success.

Suggesting that maybe some people had less free time than you doesn’t mean that you’re a slacker. Wondering whether some folk might have suffered greater financial hardships than you doesn’t imply that you haven’t worked hard to use your own limited funds efficiently. It may well be that you accomplished something which required a great deal of bravery and strength and hard work; but you completely undermine your own merits if you refuse to accept that it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone else to be capable of the same results.

It’s not that the attitudes you find fault with don’t exist. There is such a thing as making excuses, and refusing to take responsibility, and stubbornly blaming all your own failings on the world fucking you over. But there is also such a thing as being fucked over by the world. And you’re massively over-simplifying the way the universe operates, in quite an offensive and patronising way, to endorse the line of reasoning: “I worked hard and got what I wanted; therefore the only reason most people don’t get what they want is that they don’t work hard.”

It’s a very right-libertarian thing, but that’s a tirade for another time. This has gone on far too ramblingly long already, so here’s where I’ll draw the bottom line:

Telling someone “You can achieve anything” can be encouraging and empowering.

Following it up with “So why haven’t you?” just makes you a dick.

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