Archive for September, 2014

There’s an essay which I see referenced every so often, titled On Bullshit. The bit of it I most commonly remember seeing quoted, and wanted to reference here, is, usefully, the extract quoted on bullshit’s own Wikipedia page:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

I think this makes for a good definition; it’s useful to have a term for this particular kind of disregard for accurately representing reality, as distinct from lying. I also think it leaves a gap for a related term.

It’s possible, I suggest, to fail to be either on the side of the true or that of the false, not through cunning self-interest, but through simple incompetence. To have an eye on the facts, but for that eye to be so blind, or perhaps feeding its input to a brain so stultified, that it might as well not be.

True bullshit, as described above, must be powered by at least a modicum of intelligence. One’s purpose must be clearly identified to oneself, and some declarations and assertions found which can be persuaded to support it, even if their connection to reality is never regarded. This naive alternative to bullshit I’m describing might be mistaken for bullshit, as the results are often very similar – but the self-serving motivation of the bullshitter is replaced by a hapless inability to formulate sentences, or perhaps even beliefs, that correspond to truth or falsehood with any reliable consistency.

It’s not quite the case that I’m simply describing a well-meaning idiot, truthfully describing the world as they feebly understand it, either. Again, the results may be close enough that the distinction isn’t always clear, but my suggestion requires a certain level of bluster, of continued pressing-on and self-assurance, combined with an utter disconnection from the world and any facts within it. Arguably, he does “believe” the truth of what he says, but so little thought is put toward it, such meagre analysis of any beliefs or opinions he superficially appears to hold, that even whether any meaningful comprehension of his surroundings is occurring remains unclear. He processes enough to continue functioning, but not enough that any relationship between his assertions and the world around him can be counted upon.

I reckon there’s something there worth describing. Now it just needs a name.

And based on my experiences today, I think a fine name for this phenomenon would be “Southeastern Rail”.

Yes, this was all just a thinly veiled rant about my ridiculous commute this morning. Sorry.

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The thing about Transcendence is that it’s not in any way a film about artificial intelligence. It’s about being human, and being God, and the implications of our impossible quest for one given the unavoidable limitations of the other, or some such wank. It uses the trappings of AI as a framework for the storytelling but has about as much bearing on the actual path of interactive electronic simulation technology as Lawnmower Man. I might have enjoyed it more if I’d figured out that distinction earlier; there’s nothing wrong with telling that kind of story, or of telling stories that way. But I’d like to see a story about AI that’s actually about AI sometime. Outside of fanfic from some of the funner corners of the rationalist community.

What? Half-arsing something on your phone and then copying and pasting it from a Facebook update totalling counts as blogging. Well, self-plagiarism’s the best you’re getting for now, anyway. Moving house is still keeping me too discombobulated to get much writing done. My online handle’s a bigger lie than my old MySpace username, Extrovert McSmallpenis.

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Atheist horseman Sam Harris has denied being a sexist pig.

Having to defiantly declaim against a position you purport not to hold rarely ends well. In fact it’s usually a sign that things have started pretty badly and are only going to get worse (cf. 98% of all sentences ever composed which begin “I’m not racist, but”). And considering the umpteenth resurgence of interest, over the past week or so, in what a clusterfuck of prejudice and tribalism some corners of the atheist movement have turned into, you could be forgiven for expecting the worst.

But I don’t think this is anything like the train-wreck it might have been. I said on Twitter that I was around 85% in agreement with Harris in that post, and a day later I think that stands. He doesn’t seem to believe anything outrageous, and his stated position seems level-headed and pretty reasonable. I have a huge problem with the snide dismissiveness I’ve seen directed at people who disagree with this assessment and take greater issue with Harris’s words, but that hasn’t seemed to come from Harris himself. His cause is done no favours, though, by certain of his supporters, including the occasional “big name” of atheism who really should have learned to handle these pseudo-controversies more humanely and communicatively by now (naming no names, Professor).

One point on which I’m not wholeheartedly in support of Harris is his closing jabs against “a well-known feminist-atheist blogger” with whom he’s had some recent private correspondence over this matter. Now, it’s possible that he’s not talking about Greta Christina, but given her own public comments about engaging with him, it seems a reasonable bet. As I type this, she’s not had time to respond to Harris’s post in full, but has tweeted a link to this old post of hers as a relevant collection of thoughts in the meantime.

The piece is about the (apparently) common social justice slogan, “Intention is not magic”. This refers to the idea that, if you’ve caused somebody harm or offense, the simple fact that you didn’t intend to do so doesn’t magically absolve you from responsibility for the harm you did, in fact, cause. “It wasn’t deliberate” is only a partial excuse, and that’s as true for, say, using a term you weren’t aware was a slur against a minority, or naively parroting a false and derogatory stereotype, as it is for accidentally crushing someone’s toe.

It’s an important point, worth remembering when people try to excuse blatant sexism and racism as harmless banter. All too often, people get haughty and defensive when it’s pointed out that they’ve caused offense, and attempt to hide behind the magic of their intent.

But intent’s not the only thing that isn’t magic. And, in this case, something else seems worth remembering:

Your immediate gut reaction to someone else’s words isn’t magic either. And nor is the unfavourable interpretation you instinctively place upon them when you take offense.

Both these “not magic” rules have to be applied discriminately. Some things are viscerally appalling at first glance for very good reasons; obviously complaints of offense are often legitimate and should be taken seriously. But it’s not out of the question that someone saying “I don’t think I have anything to apologise for” is basically in the right. (Many atheists will have experienced religious folk being outraged and “offended” that they dare to assert their own lack of belief; even if my saying “God doesn’t exist” upsets you, I don’t think I owe you an apology.)

And as much as the sincere apology format that Greta suggests probably should be a much bigger part of general discourse than it currently is, it’s not automatically the only acceptable response to an accusation of harm or offense being caused. We’re not magically obliged to bow and scrape our way through an “I didn’t mean to, I’ll try and do better next time” every time someone else reckons we were out of line. And, in this case, I’m not at all convinced that Sam Harris is the prejudiced, hate-filled, unrepentant monster some folk really are making him out to be.

The world in general could surely use a good deal more honest contrition, of the kind that really listens to our interlocutor’s concerns, and doesn’t mentally put them into a box as “someone on the other side of the argument and who I will therefore always be in dispute with”. Even if this isn’t a case where that’s the best way to fix things, you won’t have to go far to find another where it will.

Try not to let these disagreements divide the way you see the world into teams, though. I’m not on Team Anyone here. I spent a while being wary and uncomfortable with a couple of good atheist bloggers because they were coming down on the wrong “side” of a Rebecca Watson-centric debate (I forget which one), and that was a ridiculous way to behave. Greta’s still cool, and you should read her book.

Dawkins is kinda just turning into a dick, though.

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Here’s a thing I Facebooked recently:

I got more Twitter attention than I had for ages yesterday, by pointing out that homophobia is silly to people who already knew that. As you can possibly tell from my rather glib phrasing, it felt less than satisfactory or victorious.

It’s definitely worthwhile progress that being gay is coming to be seen universally as obviously completely fine, but I don’t see much of a useful endgame following from enlightened folk like me simply continuing to point it out.

I think I’m troubled by certain inbuilt methods of engaging with those who disagree, and how naturally I slide into those easy patterns. If you want people to learn to love better, and you’re not using love to teach that lesson, surely your methods are flawed from the start. Be the change you want to see in the world, and such. Otherwise your strategy is “Stop hating people different from you, or I’ll hate you for your differences from me.”

If you crush the rebellious, they’ll just learn tyranny & oppression. If you demand they be more accepting, without yourself displaying acceptance in action… Well, I don’t know. Just seems like if I want to be as revolutionary as I want to be, I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more.

This has been: @writerJames tweets from a nice warm bath while slightly tipsy on the theme of optimising the world through improved compassion and communication, then recaps it on Facebook the next morning.

Surprisingly, not everyone was instantly won over to my proposed hippie lefty love-fest of peace and harmony. I guess they must’ve just been feeling grouchy. Or maybe there’s at least one major proviso which deserves to be added to the above points.

Broadly speaking, I stand by my generalised support for being nice, and I’m strongly inclined to speak out in favour of being kinder to people than they might seem to deserve. Compassion can make real constructive progress between people of differing views possible, in ways that anger and bitterness can’t, far more often than the other way around.

But I can see, on reflection, how something as apparently innocuous at first glance as idly wishing for a charming idyll of universal tolerance might be problematic. As is so often the case, it’s largely down to the context. My context at the time of the above thoughts was a nice hot bath on a comfortably lazy afternoon. Not everyone shared in it.

(In the context of my position of comfort and security, I mean. Obviously no-one was sharing my bath. No-one ever is. Or seems to want to. I’m beginning to think I don’t know how to set up a Facebook event properly.)

The way nobody quite put it to me in the comments was: “That’s easy for you, but some of us are still dealing with shit that we deserve to be angry about, fuckdammit.” Maz pointed out how much fun it isn’t, being told essentially to “calm down dear”, something she’s heard often enough before. She objects to other people’s behaviour, and her audacity for speaking up seems to be reprimanded more severely than the genuinely objectionable remarks that earned her wrath in the first place. While I wasn’t advocating the passivity she argued against, I also wouldn’t dispute the entitlement she claims to her anger.

But my hypothetical commenter summing things up was right about something important. It is easy for me.

And if I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it’s easy, it seems like I have more responsibility than most to make some sort of effort.

My comments were coming from a place of significant privilege. Being a straight white able-bodied male, that’s true of most comments I’m ever likely to make. But the feminists who believe this means my opinions should be ignored or shouted down only really exist in the fetid imaginations of a significant slice of the men’s rights activism movement.

The remark I originally made on Twitter, which my later series of tweets referred to, was about this post by one of the UK’s foremost pitifully watered-down attempts at religious extremism, Christian Voice.

Now, to me, watching a niche outfit like Christian Voice, as they rail against the inevitable march of progress, and bluster about how those gays are undermining all you straight people and your own marriages, no really they are, you just don’t realise it – to me, it’s almost adorable. They’re too quaint to take seriously. They certainly aren’t a threat, but they’re too tragic to really be a joke either. They’re like a doddery grandparent who keeps muttering about how the blacks are everywhere these days doing jobs white people used to do, who you roll your eyes at and gently remind that that we don’t use certain slurs when we talk about people these days.

Their attempt at oppressive bigotry is such a misguided, overblown, tiny little gnat of a thing, it feels inappropriate for me to get all fiery and indignant over it. It’d be like trying to become righteously enraged at the unacceptable behaviour of a toddler throwing a tantrum on the living room floor, flailing at you with their tiny balled-up fists.

And the context of all this is that I’m still a straight white able-bodied male. The thing I know – but didn’t explicitly acknowledge in my original burble – is that for many people homophobia is really not in any way adorable. People are still shamed, humiliated, harassed, brutalised, and attacked for their sexuality. And that’s just in the kinds of progressive countries where these attitudes are obviously on the way out, let alone in somewhere like Uganda. A lot of folk are made seriously fucking miserable by the kind of prejudice at which I sigh and shake my head with weary indulgence.

Now, being aware of that context doesn’t negate the value of bringing compassion to these arguments, or undermine my basic point that fighting hate with hate is a suboptimal method for reaching a conclusion of love and tolerance. But if people are feeling hectored about their tone, I’ve done something wrong.

Judging anyone else’s moral obligation to be kind, patient, and compassionate to people unwilling to return the favour is absolutely not a game I meant to play. However much I might uphold that ideal, I know that berating anyone else for failing to live up to it, without considering their own circumstances and why it may not be a realistic goal in their case, will only add to the world’s level of dickitude. The one person whose situation I’m sufficiently familiar with to make that kind of moral judgment on is me.

I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more, is what I said. I can hold myself to that standard, while recognising that my straight-white-male-ness is part of what makes this a practical expectation for me, and that not everyone shares those features. It was a pondering on my own capacity for self-improvement that set me off on this road. Which is also why the later comment that “from what I recall of your blogging about religion, you don’t write in the style you’re suggesting here” is quite accurate.

Part of the reason for this apparent double-standard is that, while homophobia has always been almost entirely unthreatening to me, I’ve not always identified with the same privileged position when it comes to religion. I’ve been part of the atheist movement, as it were, and railed against the many and varied injustices of religious oppression as if they were in some way personal affronts. But, if I’m honest, my rights and personal safety have never been under serious threat from any Christian bigots or Islamic extremists or Jain nutjobs. I don’t need to defend my right to my anger the way some people do.

So, I don’t need to be an asshole to outspoken religious people any more than I do to anachronistic homophobes. I don’t need to give them a free pass if they’re going to be hateful or irrational or make the world a notably worse place in any way, but I also don’t need to be hostile in order to stand up for reality and kindness. If you can do that too, then wonderful, I recommend it. If you can’t, then it’s not for me to expect it of you. It may be an unreasonable ask, if these issues are actually affecting you personally and fucking up your life. We’ve all got our own shit to deal with. You’re entitled to work through yours however. I can dig it.

Hopefully that makes a bit more sense of things. Either way I think I’ll stop talking about it now.

Oh and by the way we’ve sold our house but can’t buy a new one yet and it’s all a ridiculous mess.


(P.S. I read this only after drafting all the above, which makes a more interesting point more concisely than I did.)

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