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Archive for the ‘equality’ Category

Horrible things are happening in France.

It’s really not a useful function of this blog to tell you about that. Other, better people have already given you much more useful detail about what’s going on, and I’m no better at picking the accurate and useful details apart from the misinformation and speculation than you are. All I can be is one more futile voice in the crowd, agreeing that it’s horrible when horrible things happen, and we all feel bad.

My one-time secondary blog would be relevant here. If we want to change things, to effect a world less imbued with anger and violence, less susceptible to such an apparent onslaught of attacks and hatred, a good place to start is to examine attitudes to the Other. To try to understand how tribalistic tendencies nurture fear and contempt toward those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel like “one of us”.

And god knows there are plenty of opinions on display at the moment about the Other, and their role in this latest tragedy.

For some, the Other is the Infidel, who refuses to submit to the true way through an inherent grotesqueness that makes them less than human. They deserve nothing less than death, and to serve as a message to the rest of the world.

For many, the Other is the kind of inhuman monster who could commit violence like this against innocent people. Examination of the mindset that could lead to such acts is therefore of no interest. They’re awful, broken people, the ones who did this awful thing, and deserve no sympathy. And maybe this means that some other folk who share some characteristics with the awful, broken people – their religion, say – are necessarily awful and broken too. They might not want to think that. But it seeps through.

For a tragically visible number, the Other is a big collective mass of Everyone Who’s A Bit Different From Me And Is To Blame For This Somehow. Refugees, whose camps are reportedly being burned. Muslims, who are already defending themselves against exactly this type of entirely predictable slur. People with suspiciously dark skin. You know, that lot. You know who I mean. Obviously these groups of individuals are all loosely connected at best, but who cares about nuance and meaningful distinctions when we’re under attack by Them.

For me, primarily, the Other is people who, at times like these, talk about the need to close ranks and close borders, to crack down on all those foreigners coming over here bring all their terrorism with them, to solve intolerance with intolerance, to face hate with hate. The Other is loudly proclaiming how a mercilessly authoritarian approach is the only appropriate response to atrocities like this, and that there’s no time for bleeding-heart lefty ideas like “free speech” and “compassion” when we need to make sure our people are safe.

Humanity and love for the Other: it’s a tough job, but someone’s everyone’s got to do it.

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So I’ve noticed how some people are strongly against socialism.

Or at least, to some interpretation of it. To the idea that a core foundation of society should involve people doing things for the good of everyone as a whole, with no direct benefit to themselves individually. To a system in which we all try to do good for each other based on what we each need, rather than what we can each afford or achieve on our own. That sounds terrible to a lot of people.

And it’s not some perverse hatred of generosity and kindness which leads them there. It’s possible, apparently, to believe that a ruggedly capitalist system, where no more is ever provided to people than what they’re able to earn and pay for, would be the optimal way to allow our most noble impulses to improve the world.

But a lot of the objections to socialist ideas and programs come from thinking too small.

Often, when people are imagining how terrible socialism would be, they’re picturing some amount of their money being taken away from them and given to someone else, because some central authority has deemed that this other person “needs” it more. And they think, hey, I earned that money, through all that tedious drudgery I have to do just to survive at that job I resent, so why does it get taken away from me by the government, to give to someone else who didn’t even work for it?

I mean, for this to make much sense, you need to pretend that people generally get paid money in relation to how hard they toil and how useful their work, which is just comical lunacy. But even so, the above paragraph is not a useful way to imagine how society could work if we were all looking after each other.

When I’m at work, earning a salary to keep me in books and cheesecake, I’d also resent the idea of chunks of it being nibbled at and taken away for things that won’t directly benefit me. I’ve kinda been numbed to it with tax and national insurance deductions by now, but they still hurt a little when I really look at my payslip. We’re a naturally loss-averse species, and I have financial commitments to worry about. Millennia of evolution have given my brain clear instructions on how infuriated it should be by the idea of something of mine being taken away from me.

But regardless of my gut reaction, helping people is a good thing to do, and in the right circumstances it can feel like it as well. If there were more of such solidarity and mutual aid going around in every direction, we’d be less worried and insecure about our own financial position, and might be able to react less violently to any possible sliver of charity we might somehow be tricked into performing.

As it stands, I’ve got bills to pay, a mortgage, animals to feed, all kinds of shit. If my or my wife’s gainful employment went away, even for a little while, I’d be panicking about our income and how we were supposed to cope. Of course I’m going to be wary of any of that vital cashflow being snatched away at the source, and I’ve got a way better and less frangible deal than many people in similar positions.

But without all those artificial worries to make me so insecure – without the capitalistic infrastructure, which massively disincentivises selflessness, and puts people in positions where actual lasting financial security is an impossible pipe dream for almost everyone – if we could just escape all that and feel safe and get the system of incentives right…

…then I’d love to work as hard to help other people as I currently do just to keep alive. And I’d take what help I can from them, too. Be part of a supportive network, a community.

As it is, chances are good that I’ll be too scared to let any of my effort go toward helping anyone else, for fear of losing out. But that attitude works both ways. So my colleagues might then be similarly disinclined to look after me when I’m sick, or keep me sheltered and fed if I lost my job or couldn’t work, or buy me a drink when I’m out of change, or work at schools where my kids will get educated, or help maintain safe roads and reliable public transport, or provide some sort of allowance to help me continue living an independent and worthwhile life when I’m old and decrepit… or any of the numerous ways that every person alive relies on the rest of the species to help them out. Because they’ve got their own lives to support and are worried about their ability to do so, even before I start free-loading.

We might all end up deciding not to let anyone else benefit from anything we could keep to ourselves, if we allow the idea of helping other people to become so abhorrent and frightening.

So if you’re worried about socialism because of what other people might take from you and how little you can afford, I understand. I totally get the feeling of financial insecurity, the urgent need to make sure you can keep a roof over your family’s heads, and put food on the table, without also being expected to take care of other people you don’t even know.

But it’s worth asking where that constant anxiety as you cling to survival comes from, and whether it’s really necessary. Is the system as it currently stands really working out so well for you? It’s made you live in fear of what you might lose out, without appreciating the vastness of the potential for you to gain. You really don’t know what you’re missing.

Especially if you live in the US and you have no perspective on how horrifying your country looks to anyone who’s grown up with socialised healthcare, I mean holy shit you need to sort that the fuck out.

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Remembering that arbitrary lines on a map are a pretty fucking stupid basis for enforcing massively authoritarian rules on whether other humans qualify as “people” and how they’re permitted to live and work turns out to be a shitty and globally debilitating idea, says sensible economist.

I am grossly paraphrasing in a way that I don’t think Tim Harford would entirely appreciate. But it’s a great piece. I loved this on Theresa May:

“The evidence… shows that while there are benefits of selective and controlled immigration, at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero.” (Translation: immigration costs us nothing but we want to reduce it anyway.)

Burn.

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(content note: murder, gets a bit grisly in places, no pictures or anything, it’s basically fine)

A lot of contemporary pop culture is about terrible people doing appalling things.

This is not new or surprising. I mean, real life is so lovely and free of conflict these days, it’s only natural we’d seek out stories of sadism and cruelty as a way to escape the comfortable banality of our everyday lives.

Ahahaha. Oh, what frivolity. Such larks.

Anyway, we’re obviously used to seeing villains and antagonists committing vile acts of evil and terror – killing people, subjugating and enslaving whole populations, and the rest – before being soundly and rightly defeated by the brave heroes. But since they’re not generally the obviously relatable characters we’re meant to empathise with, getting into those bad guys’ heads can be fascinating.

But while it’s written under the guise of “exploring a dangerous and twisted yet still distinctly human and underappreciated mindset”, I’ve noticed distressingly often these kinds of narratives reading like some sort of lefty/liberal revenge fantasy, in a way that’d be creepy and sinister and utterly objectionable if the political allegiances were switched.

And I sometimes wonder how much these “explorations” are genuinely about finding the humanity in someone different from you – finding something human to connect with in a character whose motives and values in general appal and disgust you – and how much they’re about indulging the part of you that kinda does just want to murder people.

You’re not a monster, though, so they’d have to be people whose values seriously disagree with yours – maybe over a political issue like gay rights, or something else far more important than the ethics of killing other people.

The obvious example from TV is Dexter. He killed a lot of people, which we’re not supposed to be okay with. But he also had a career and a family and we liked him. And a crucial part of that dichotomy was the moral code he lived and killed by. The show was pretty inconsistent in dealing with what really drove him and why he felt compelled to limit his killing to those who “deserved” it, to the extent that he did. But importantly, the code was something we could relate to. The people he killed were often themselves murderers, or violent thugs, or rapists, and often tended to be casually homophobic and misogynistic and racist.

In other words, they’re people you don’t mind seeing die horribly. You wouldn’t want to actually kill them yourself, in the real world, obviously – but when you’re watching Dexter, you can kinda get behind him.

And this seems to matter. Dexter’s not a relatable anti-hero because of the contrast between his uncontrollable sociopathic violence and all the other delightful, human, recognisable, charming aspects of his character. We don’t see the good in him and wish he could somehow conquer this one horrifying flaw. Instead, the thing that should be his least likable, most alienating aspect is the primary draw. The fact that he’s a serial killer is shaped such that it’s a positive factor in itself.

In Christopher Brookmyre’s book Snowball In Hell, the viewpoint narrator throughout much of the text is a charming and witty serial killer, who targets a right-wing newspaper columnist and goes to great lengths enacting an elaborately ironic revenge fantasy. (Think Saw, but without the grisly “appreciate your life more” parables.) The book expresses contempt and disdain for the homophobic xenophobic bigot and his inhumane views, it marshals a rational argument against them through our charismatic narrator and ridicules them for the vacuous nonsense they are, and then the main character tortures him to death.

The message, at least in part, seems to be that despising and wishing ill on an asshole with hateful politics is not only wholly reasonable and appropriate, but also not that big a step from sadistically making them suffer and ending their life.

Even the main protagonist’s reaction when she hears about this brutal killing is basically “Well, I’ll try to solve this crime and catch the bad guy, because that’s the technically correct thing to do and it’s my job, but I’m not in any way sorry that shithead’s dead.” Because, you know. Why mourn the malicious and vindictive snuffing out of a human life if they’d said some horrible things about gay people? For all that the murdered journalist was portrayed as appallingly intolerant, he was never so unable to tolerate someone else’s lifestyle or opinions that he slit their throat and let them bleed to death while they begged for mercy. The guy who does that to people is cool and suave; the bigot is just gross.

The narrator-murderer also gives us enough of a direct diatribe about his infuriation with things like manufactured pop music and reality TV, that I’m not convinced we aren’t meant to be going along with it and continuing to agree with his worldview. If it’s really just a satire on the ideas he’s espousing, it’s played very straight and a large part of the audience are going to be taking it literally, missing the satire in ways the author has no excuse not to have seen coming.

It becomes more clearly self-aware further in, I think, but this character’s fashionably cynical perspective provides around 100 of the first 150 pages, and it doesn’t feel at all as if it’s supposed to be alienating or other or different. We’re meant to connect with his contempt, it’s meant to tap in to the way other people feel.

Which could support the argument that he’s satirising the danger of that whole lefty-liberal revenge fantasy thing, except it’s still just played too straight for me to buy that explanation. He’s not writing American Psycho here. That book – if I’ve in any way understood anything (not a given) – was about the frustrations of modern corporate life, and how close to psychotic murder are a lot of the emotions it genuinely induces, in huge numbers of people. It was about the disconnectedness that its protagonist felt, and it was really saying yes, this destructive force might be in you too, or at least not so far from home, and that should worry and unnerve you because this is not a nice person.

Whereas Brookmyre’s attitude seems closer to: Hey, this guy is kinda like you, only he gets to kill those people you pretend you don’t hate. Fun!

It feels like these kinds of stories aren’t really about getting into the head of someone truly alien, whose desires and feelings and thought processes are beyond us, so that we can try to understand someone with a completely different worldview from our own. The message is that these psychotic murderers aren’t that different from you, and you should feel fine about that. Their moral code is almost always understandable to a large degree – they’re offended by the same things you are, they’re impatient with bigotry and injustice just like you – but they have this extra aspect to them that means killing people is permitted. They’re still likable and charming and you’re inside their head because of the way the story’s told, but rather than helping to normalise the other, what this does is make the angry, violent, murderous feelings buried under your supposedly benevolent worldview seem understandable and human and maybe even not so morally wrong.

Murder isn’t treated as a moral evil in the same way as, say, writing disparaging things about gay people and immigrants in a newspaper column, or objectifying women, or sometimes simply “being arrogant”. It’s not that these aren’t really bad things; the point is that they’re not as bad as murder, yet they often feel like they’re even worse, so long as it’s the right kind of murder. We’re coaxed into empathising with murderous protagonists all the time, but there are certain rules; you can’t kill any children, it’s generally safer to stay away from women, and you have to have a wry quip for every occasion. It’d be more of an actual challenge to make a relatable protagonist out of a bullying homophobic jerk than a socially liberal assassin. Persuading us to understand someone’s humanity would be trickier if you let them consistently and carelessly break that kind of viscerally understood cardinal sin.

In Brookmyre again, while we’re following the murderer-narrator and still finding him kinda dashing and charming, there always has to be some lefty-acceptable reason for the people he kills – a racist comedian, a vapid bimbo WAG. Somehow it’s never just an actual innocent who doesn’t deserve it who gets killed while we’re watching him be all suave and charming about it. If we couldn’t other and dehumanise the victim based on their politics, then their murder might start to feel like a real tragedy.

There’s an element of the same issue in the film of Kingsman. You know the scene I’m talking about (unless you don’t, in which case do catch up), and it is quite breathtaking, but the purpose in making those people Westboro Baptist proxies seems to have been to make sure we’re less distracted when they get slaughtered, letting us revel more joyously in the carnage. Which I totally do, that scene is fucking incredible and just typing a sentence about it has made me have to go and watch this amazing edit again as a substitute for revisiting the whole film – but it’d be harder to enjoy the beautifully shot ultraviolence if the people getting killed weren’t homophobic and racist bigots. Which says something uncomfortable about the value I seem to place on the lives of other humans when it turns out they’re not keen on gay people.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of this. I’m not sure there’s even a coherently posed question. And I haven’t even mentioned Hannibal.

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Reformists and revolutionaries never seem to get along.

One side points to the horrendous and damaging things done by the state, and cites this as a reason we should abandon it. The other side showcases the necessary parts of life currently accomplished by means of the state, and declares that, because these things are necessary, the infrastructure currently providing and maintaining them is equally indispensible.

Atheists and secularists, similarly, point out the atrocities committed in the name of religion, as well as the less obvious harm it does to people’s capacity for rational thinking. Apologists highlight the many people inspired to do good things by their faith, and claim that, at worst, religious faith is a useful tool that can be misused.

Too often, one side gets stuck trying to deny the other side’s arguments have any validity at all. Secularists act as if our entire case would fall apart if we admit to a single instance of a Christian doing something nice because Jesus. Some people in my political sphere of engagement seem to fear it’d be a major defeat if they ever had to acknowledge that some people get into politics because they care about the folk around them and want to help.

I think a crucial way to be better at having this discussion is to learn to be more selfish, unreasonable, and idealistic.

We’re always told that we can’t have it all, we have to take the good with the bad, that there’s always going to be a downside and shortcomings to any attempt we make to solve anything. Obvious question, but: why? Why can’t we have the good things without the bad things?

Why are anarchists wrong to think that we should have things like roads, healthcare, firefighters, and other federated national services, but not also have to put up with a government that spies on everyone’s private correspondence, locks up hundreds of thousands of its citizens for non-violent offences, and murders thousands of foreign people with no meaningful accountability?

Why should we have to tacitly endorse all the colossal evil done in the name of religious faith, when people do good things for each other all over the world every day inspired by nothing more than secular humanism?

Why shouldn’t we get to pick and choose the positive bits from existing systems, be they religions or governments or whatever, filter out the negative traits, and make up our own system to just give us the good stuff?

We might never be able to eliminate every undesirable aspect of whatever improved systems we put in place, but when the fallout includes things like 9/11 and the NSA, it seems unconscionably complacent to shrug that off as simply being shit that happens. Maybe when the side effects are quite that bad, we should take this as a sign that the system doesn’t need “fixing”; we deserve a less broken system altogether.

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How To Overthrow The Illuminati is the name of a worthwhile website/pamphlet, about the problems of systemic corruption and inequality in the world, the reasons why many people turn to grandiose and illusory conspiracy theories to explain it all, and how to actually think about correctly identifying the enemy and struggling against the root causes of civilisational inadequacy.

Thanks for the recommendation, The Ex-Worker.

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Occasionally I see someone in an internet argument call the person they’re arguing with a faggot, at which point I stop paying attention to anything else that person has to say.

I mean, if you’re the sort of person who not only uses purely demeaning personal attacks in place of actual conversation, but picks “faggot” of all things to try and put someone down, then you’ve just raised the bar pretty high for me to rediscover any interest in your opinions.

Recently I’ve started seeing “cuck” being thrown around as well. It’s an abbreviation of a term for a man whose wife is unfaithful, if you’re not familiar. Yes, it’s something people really do call each other when they want to be mean, even outside of 16th century literature. No, I don’t think that will ever stop being funny.

The most prominent equivalents I can think of that come from my side of the political/feminist spectrum are “pissbaby” and “fuckboy”.

All these terms serve essentially the same purpose: they’re used to sum up in a single word all the negative and dislikable characteristics possessed by the Outgroup, which explains why we should hate them and ignore them and interpret anything they say in a deliberately uncharitable way, and why their sentience and humanity basically doesn’t count due to their stupid shitty opinions about important stuff.

Of course, it’s not exactly the same thing going on in all these cases. Culture is big and messy and complicated, and rarely do two parallel or equivalent things truly mirror each other. And the main difference is that, well, you’re right. You might use these terms sometimes, but only directed at people who really deserve to be put down, because of the horrible and appalling things they do and say. Your epithets are describing an actual, real-world set of behaviours in other people, which ought to be noticed and castigated.

It’s entirely different from the way they just lash out and call people names as soon as they realise they’re “not one of us”.

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