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Posts Tagged ‘discussion’

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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Hi there, thanks for checking out our restaurant. You’ve probably heard a few things about us in the media lately, but before you rush to judgment, let me correct some of the misconceptions and misrepresentations you’ve almost certainly been told about the food we serve here.

This restaurant was founded by people with a noble vision. They wanted to raise concerns regarding the quality of many of the raw ingredients that end up in a lot of meals presented to the public. There are some chefs out there who are buying their stock from sources who’ll do them favours in order to keep their business. These sources are often dubious, and aren’t seeking to provide customers with the most tasty and nutritious meals possible. This is potentially a serious problem in the restaurant business; if the public are getting a higher level of salt or trans-fats in their diet than they’re led to believe, because of some shady and unethical deals going on between kitchen staff and providers of ingredients, then this is a scandal which deserves to be exposed.

We’re driven by serious ethical concerns, and trying to change genuinely problematic behaviour in the industry.

So would everyone please stop describing this restaurant as “that place where they shit in your food”.

That is not what we’re all about. We’re trying to inform the public on things like the shockingly high fat content often found in even prime cuts of meat. But everyone keeps ignoring our true priorities, choosing instead to focus on complaints about being served plates of food that are literally full of human shit. There is so much whining from people who claim that this happened to them, and from do-gooders who are outraged on their behalf, and it just needs to stop.

Now, look, obviously I’m not saying I support anyone shitting in anyone else’s food. Of course I don’t think that’s okay. But this is all a distraction from the important issues that the majority of us, who aren’t taking a shit in anyone’s food, are trying to address.

I’m just a waiter here. All I do is bring diners’ meals to them, and at the same time provide some handy informational leaflets explaining our concerns, and how these concerns affect you, and how you can make a difference, and (most importantly) whose fault this all is. If the order I’m bringing happens to have been mixed with, or entirely replaced by, a steaming pile of human shit, that’s not my fault. My encouragement about healthy eating and ethical trading practices are peripherally connected to those plates of shit at best.

Really, the uproar over some shit apparently turning up in a few people’s food is totally hysterical and out of proportion. Some customers have reported being unable to eat properly for days due to nausea, even in contexts that have nothing to do with our restaurant. This is frankly pathetic. Bodily waste products are an everyday part of life. If you’re going to be the sort of person who eats and digests food on a regular basis, you can’t be so thin-skinned or unprepared to face the harsh realities of fecal waste, whether or not it’s directly in front of you on a plate.

Yes, I’ve seen the pictures that have been shared online, showing dishes laden with the combined excrement of several of our chefs, which had been placed on the table in front of certain individuals who claim to have been simply trying to enjoy a pleasant evening out with their families. I understand that there has also emerged some camera footage from our kitchen, where you can clearly see several of our cooks defecating directly onto the meals recently prepared for our customers while discussing loudly the virtue of the philosophical point they’re making about modern dietary habits. But I don’t just blindly accept the narrative being pushed on us here, and I question the agenda of those doing the pushing.

They’d have you believe that this is proof that shitting in people’s food is all that happens in this restaurant. In fact, there are strong reasons to believe that some of these people have been shitting on plates of food in their own kitchens at home, and maliciously misattributing the footage to make us look bad.

But of course, nobody who’s chosen to side with the customers can accept that any of them would behave like that. So they just lap up the story they’re being fed by the media, and conclude that everyone who works in this healthy-eating-centred restaurant is just constantly shitting on everything, all of the time. Which is palpably ludicrous and impossible, just on a biological level.

More than that, it’s also deeply offensive and derogatory, to an establishment founded on healthy principles, and with numerous decent people like myself working towards an important goal. People who refuse to let their worthwhile aims get derailed every time someone whines and wails about finding another mound of human shit in their dinner.

This restaurant is not going away. We are determined, and we will persist. No matter how many public health bodies decry our practices and brand us a hazard to society. No matter how many so-called experts weigh in and declare that all the efforts of our dedicated staff to educate the public about what they’re eating are tainted by the stink of all the shit people are claiming to find in their food. We will not be oppressed. Our doors will remain open, and we will continue to serve customers as we have always done, with a focus on improving honesty and accountability in the manufacture and distribution of basic foodstuffs.

If you don’t like it, eat shit.

(Not literally. I would never condone or approve such behaviour.)

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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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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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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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I’ve been thinking about Katie Hopkins more than is healthy lately.

If you don’t know who she is, I’m not going to explain. You wouldn’t thank me for tarnishing your innocence, and I wouldn’t thank me for giving me another ulcer.

She’s a media presence to whom I tend to react in a strongly negative fashion, is all you really need to know. Experiencing Katie Hopkins is something I find unpleasant. It makes me angry, it makes me cringe, it gives me a visceral wrenching in my gut of revulsion and disgust.

But note that these are all statements of fact about me, not her. I’m the one doing the reacting; these feelings of negativity are instigated in my brain, regardless of her status as the causative factor. It’s not clear, a priori, that the blame for my feelings lies primarily, or at all, with her.

Because my feelings are so personal, it’s no surprise that many people don’t react to a given stimulus – such as Katie Hopkins’s ghastly opinions – in a similarly emotive fashion. I can count on a good 80% of my Twitter feed to be even more vocal in their disdain, but there are also a lot of people out there with entirely different feelings toward her.

And there are many reasons why somebody’s physiological response might be far more placid than mine. Perhaps they agree with her on some political points. Perhaps they find it easier to laugh off extremist nonsense like hers as an inconsequential source of amusement, a la Boris Johnson. Perhaps they actually know her personally, and so have some positive associations with her. Perhaps they’ve simply attained a level of dharmic serenity in their life that is currently beyond my reach.

Whatever their reason, the fact that some people manage to avoid that surge of bile at even considering the extent of their genetic material that’s shared with Katie Hopkins, is a commendable and positive thing. I can (and do, and should) passionately disagree with her views on the world and explain at length why she’s wrong about everything – but that innate reaction of nausea contributes nothing beneficial.

All of which made me realise something important: When someone else doesn’t react to Katie Hopkins with the same aversion as I do, or even seems to condone or approve of her existence, it’s all too easy and natural to mentally categorise that person as being all the same things that are wrong with the world as Hopkins herself. But as I’ve outlined, there are numerous reasons that people might not want to join in with my spluttering fury other than that they’re of one mind with her and are just as worth getting angry at as she is.

Being disgusted at Katie Hopkins should not become a litmus test in my mind for holding an acceptable set of political opinions. Someone could “fail” that test and yet still be perfectly decent folk, not at all irrevocably in her camp, and absolutely not worth relegating to the furthest, most depraved reaches of my mental taxonomy of Internet Nutters.

I actually had a practical experience of this the other day, when I had a perfectly cordial Twitter chat about public sector strikes with someone who began matters by asserting that Katie Hopkins “rarely says anything that isn’t true”. Not so long ago, I’m not sure I could’ve let that conversation go as well as it did.

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To nobody’s surprise, I consider it important to be able to empathise with people around us, especially those who are “different”.

It’s something where I try to walk the walk as much as I talk the talk, with varying success. There are a lot of ways in which I do pretty well at accepting and delighting in other people’s differences. The convention I went to on my honeymoon had a fair complement of transgender folk, gay people, bronies, steampunkaholics, to name but a few. I’m not in any of those categories myself; they’re all distinctly different from me in certain ways, but not in a way that presents any problem for me to interact positively with them.

That’s not true for everyone. There are people who are homophobic, or otherwise similarly prejudiced, and who would have been affronted and angered at the very existence of many people I shared a hotel with that weekend.

Comparing myself against them, I come off pretty well. I get to pat myself on the back for being fairly forward-thinking and progressive. But that’s not the most useful comparison I could be making.

I mean, if you’re a gay man who basically likes people and thinks we should all be kind to each other, we’re not really that different. Our values probably overlap a lot, in more interesting and important ways than that one divergent factor of sexuality. It’s pretty easy for us to see each other as part of our respective in-groups.

But the people with whom my interactions are more interesting – the people who provide my loving and compassionate nature with an actual challenge – are the ones who think homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord, and all fags are going to burn in Hell.

Or who think those freaks getting sex changes need the devil beaten out of them.

Or who think atheists are all immoral Satan worshippers.

Or who think mainstream scientists are part of an academic conspiracy to push their fabricated global warming agenda onto a nation of sheeple.

Or who think they’ve uncovered the evidence left behind by the shadowy organisation who orchestrated 9/11 as part of a plot to bring about a New World Order.

Or who think Sylvia Browne has given them messages from their deceased relatives, and that it’s such a shame how closed-minded skeptics can’t accept anything that goes against their inflexible, set-in-stone ideas of how the world works.

Or who eat Marmite.

You get the picture.

Those are my out-groups. Being nice to gay people is easy. This is where my mettle’s really tested.

If I’m going to claim to be any better at dealing compassionately with others than your average hateful, gay-bashing preacher, then it’s my interactions with these people – the ones whose values truly differ from mine, who are truly “other” to me – which I should be judged by.

It’s no good if I’m lovely to people who are part of my tribe, but sarcastic and contemptuous to any outsiders. That’s exactly the behaviour I complain about in others. It’s just that for them, the outsiders are gay people, atheists, or whoever. For me, the outsider is anyone with an irrational hatred of gay people, atheists, or whoever.

So those are the people I need to try to treat respectfully, if I’m going to be at all consistent. If I start being a dick to someone, it doesn’t get cancelled out if I can prove they started being hateful first.

My in-group values being nice to people, and I will tribalistically defend our values just as vehemently as you’ll defend yours. Because if you don’t share our values of being nice to people then you’re WRONG and we HATE you.

That’s the danger that’s too often missed. Treating kindly those people who are different is the precise thing you’re trying to encourage in others. Being hostile to someone whose main difference from you is that they don’t want to treat other people kindly, is entirely self-defeating.

Yep, I seem to be drawing another lesson from Jesus here. Two in a week. Love your enemy. If I make it three, call an exorcist.

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