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Posts Tagged ‘humanism’

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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I’ve never enjoyed Blade Runner, or anything by Philip K Dick. Which is probably heretical in some way; I don’t object to them or people who do enjoy them, they’ve just never landed with me.

I re-read Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep recently, and one thing I don’t get is why humanity gives a crap about tracking down and identifying the andys (or replicants) in the first place. Seriously, why does it matter? It doesn’t seem like they’re infiltrating us as the first phase of some kind of invasion plot; they’re not obviously physically superior to us, they don’t pose any particular threat. All they seem to want is to just get on with being alive and being treated as human, until they inevitably die in a couple of years anyway.

The differences between them and humans are made to sound deeply trivial, anyway. To tell them apart takes either a detailed bone marrow exam of some sort, or the Voight-Kampff empathy reflex test, which would surely produce wildly varying results for genuine humans anyway, and thus be unable to tell an android from just a common-or-garden sociopath.

So why does Deckard’s job exist? Why are substantial resources being spent on tracking, identifying, and eliminating andys at all, as well as continually researching superior methods for doing so? If they’re basically just people, why the fuck not let them get on with it? Why does the planet obsess over sorting them into the right category, so that we know whether they’re inhuman and must be exterminated?

There’s interesting ideas to explore there, about mankind’s insecurity, and why we feel the need to compulsively draw these boundaries to protect our sense of self, and the looming existential dread that we’d have to face up to if we acknowledged the way andys blur the bounds of what being human means. But exploring any of that doesn’t seem to be Dick’s point.

Later in the book, when one character feels empathy toward the plight of an android, they’re warned that this amounts to “reacting like they react”, and is taken as an unquestionably bad sign of some kind. But the idea that the natural human inclination is to feel empathy only toward other humans, and that we wouldn’t normally have the same feelings for a creature we know isn’t “really human”, is just bizarre. Humans will empathise with anything.

A single animation studio has, in the past couple of decades, made millions of people care deeply about plastic toys, insects, monsters that jump out of children’s cupboards to scare them, fish, robots, cars, and a bunch of vaguely person-shaped blobs representing anthropomorphised emotions, among many other non-human entities. Look at the human emotions and personalities the internet ascribes to cats, or sloths, or an elephant seal having its bucket stolen. We will attribute full agency and inappropriately gendered pronouns to a picture of a rock, and some of us will get tearful over how adorable it is if you give it googly eyes and a two-line tragic back-story.

I mean, it’s not like we wouldn’t find countless other ways to hate and dehumanise androids, however much like us they are. Just look at our track record of treating actual human people like shit. But the universally accepted obviousness of eliminating them for not being quite human enough was just another thing that felt unconvincing.

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Something I talk about a lot is the importance of compassion, and how we should all be nicer to people and bring more joy to the world and stuff.

I’ve realised, though, that this can be really unhelpful advice on its own. In isolation, suggesting that people “be more compassionate” has a lot in common with demanding “hey, get taller”. It commends the tendency in people already disposed that way, but doesn’t offer much in the way of a path of self-development.

You have to work actually surprisingly hard to be nicer to people than you’re just naturally inclined to anyway. But it’s the kind of effort you’ll need to make if you really want to change anything, or make the world better, or for anything I say about the importance of compassion to be more than empty platitudes.

I’ve generally been urging everyone to be more like this, but really all I’m doing is repeatedly emphasising the importance of doing more of this. The actual practical question of how to be more like this gets a lot less attention.

I don’t suddenly have any answers now, but I’m going to try and bear it in mind for next time I’m on one of my rants about how tight it would be if everyone was chill to each other.

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Watch this music video. It’s lovely. You may know the song.

If you don’t find that beautiful and moving, then either you’re dead inside, or I’m way more of a hippy than I give myself credit for.

(Or possibly your tastes in music and art just diverge substantially from mine. I suppose it needn’t be anything dramatic.)

What still strikes me about this video is how little happens in it, and what a disproportionate effect it has.

The music itself is rather lovely, and although I’m paying as little attention to the lyrics as I generally do, no doubt they’re also very sweet. But the video is wonderful, charming, delightful, inspiring, adorable, heartening. If you were ever inclined to doubt that world is capable of beauty and kindness, seeing this will put any such fears to rest in just a couple of minutes.

Which is odd, because all you’re seeing is some people you don’t know, sitting on a sofa, listening to a song on some headphones. Sometimes they smile at each other, enjoying a shared joke, or chuckling at the artificial nature of the situation. There’s the odd glance of recognition between them, perhaps after a particular lyric connects in some way. One person just sits and holds a framed photograph.

That’s all there is. It’s barely anything at all. It’s a simple, unremarkable series of snapshots of perfectly ordinary people doing something perfectly ordinary for a brief moment in their lives. And it’s one of the most moving things I can think of.

Which I think means that, somewhere, a small bunch of musicians and filmmakers have tapped into a staggeringly important and borderline magical power of the human mind.

Seriously. I mean, how can it not be? The world is fucking horrible, you guys. Terrible things that should make any sane person want to abandon this whole spinning space-rock and go live on an ice moon somewhere are happening every day, all over the place. Citation utterly superfluous. Pick any half-dozen comments at random from basically anywhere on the internet. Watch an American news channel for as long as you can stand. Learn a single fact about the international arms trade. Everything is so far from optimal it’s terrifying.

But then you can look at some people being people for a couple of minutes while a man plays guitar and sings a nice song, and it all seems okay.

Even a shared experience as small and easily attainable as this, is enough to make us feel connected. It lets us feel like those people we’re watching are happy and splendid and that everything’s alright because the world is full of happy splendid people just like them. (You have to assume that they’re listening to the same song that we are, anyway. It probably loses its impact a little if you turn the sound off and imagine they’re spacing out to some dubstep.)

My threshold for having my perspective shifted to allow me to see the world as a place of beauty and love and joy and potential and hope is phenomenally low. The littlest, simplest thing can remind me of so much good, and make me feel like it’s all so valuable and important and wonderful.

That sounds like a fucking superpower to me. And it’s made all the more powerful if, as I strongly suspect, billions of other people share it.

There’s a lot that goes on in the world which is horrible and frightening and sad. But it can’t truly be without hope, or beyond redemption, while it can so easily seem wonderful again.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Ugh. Just how much of a drip am I?

2. Yeah, but go watch that video again. I’m going to.

3. Life’s not so bad, eh?

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Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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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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From this tumblr:

6) practice compassion, and i mean practice in the “practice piano” sense of the word. sometimes on public transportation i like to look at all the people on the train or bus in turn and imagine how each of them might be feeling, think about the heavy things in their life they may be carrying, and try to feel kindness and love for them. this kind of thing also helps when someone is irritating you. we all have a lot of struggle in our lives – think about the ways your life is hard that strangers and even friends don’t know about – and remembering this can be the key to having warmer feelings towards everyone, which feels good.

Some people know what’s up. I’m a fricken amateur over here.

(Bitching at length about politics scheduled for tomorrow. Watch this space.)

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