Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.)

Read Full Post »

A link to a moving and heart-warming story appeared in my Facebook feed the other day, along with an utterly inexplicable comment from a distant friend-of-a-friend.

It’s not that long a story behind that link, but in short, someone encountered a person who was rude and aggressive; and rather than responding with anger and effrontery in kind, she gave this person the benefit of the doubt and offered kindness and generosity in return. The aggressive person who’d been having a shitty day apologised and was chastened, and it ends with everyone feeling better and more connected to each other and knowing there’s more love in the world than they might otherwise have expected. It’s beautiful.

And here’s what the guy who posted it particularly enjoyed about it:

What’s so wonderful about this story, is that *God* showed up to shower her with empathy; she didn’t force herself or self-generate this deep compassion, but was a free (and freed!) recipient of God’s empathetic, sympathetic & consanguineous heart for this poor frazzled woman.

Now, as it happens, the person telling the story also gave it a religious interpretation. And that’s fine, on the face of it; anything that inspires people to act well and care for each other like this can’t be all bad. She prayed that God would help her to see other people “as He sees them, not as I see them”. If you define God as one who sees people with compassion and kindness and patience and love at all times, this is a fine and worthy aim.

But it goes a step further to declare that the God part – not the wonderful act of human kindness part – is what makes the story great.

Apparently, what makes it a great story is when you stop believing in the intrinsic goodness of people, in our own innate capacity to act well toward others and be caring and forgiving and loving and kind, and start trusting some external and unknowable force to inspire these things in us.

Apparently, it’s not nearly as wonderful to think that humanity might be able to raise itself up to such glorious heights and approach the zenith of all those values we hold most dear, as to presume that our only hope lies in our being granted these feelings of charity and compassion by someone else.

Apparently, we are not powerful, nor capable of overcoming our baser urges on our own; and if God isn’t going to help us, nobody else can, and we certainly can’t help ourselves.

Wow.

And atheists get told that ours is the bleak and cynical worldview.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Marvellous. It is Learning Difficulties week. Is there an Academic Excellence week. This country is a liberal left leaning minefield of pc.

Katie Hopkins there, earlier today, not understanding.

The thing that really doesn’t need doing is explaining what’s wrong with this. We’re all sensible people here, I’m sure. We all understand the potential value in setting aside a week for such a thing. We can see why it might be a good thing to highlight some of the problems that people with learning disabilities face in their lives, or the prejudice they encounter, or the organisations and efforts which already exist to help them out and which could use your support, and the people whose worlds they brighten.

We can easily see how such a thing can be worthwhile, how the disingenuous question about “academic excellence” misses the point (when are white people going to get their own history month, eh?), and how campaigns to raise awareness for disabled people can be motivated by much nobler motivations than the exercise in obsequious box-ticking that Katie Hopkins imagines “political correctness” to be.

We understand that #LDWeek13 is a positive effort by decent people to do good things for people who deserve it.

Katie Hopkins doesn’t understand that.

That’s the thing to remember when you react to her deliberate efforts to be unkind and insensitive. She does not understand.

And that’s a particularly human trait, that not understanding. We all get that about all kinds of things, all the time. It shouldn’t make someone seem weirdly different to not understand something. It’s just like me with the popularity of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, or my wife with the Banach-Tarski paradox. When it comes to the value of Learning Disabilities Week, there’s an incomplete series of concepts in Katie Hopkins’s brain, failing to lead her to the conclusion the rest of us have reached. She doesn’t get it.

Now, I wish she did understand it. There’s something there to be understood, something meaningful. But it’s only worth getting frustrated at her lack of understanding, if it’s going to lead you toward some action that might actually increase that understanding.

Understanding things is good. When someone doesn’t currently understand something, then an action which increases their understanding is an action that makes things better.

I can’t seem to make that paragraph less clunky. If it seems tautological, then that’s probably a good sign. All I’m saying is, it would be lovely if some people who don’t understand some things, could come to understand those things, by way of being talked to.

And I’m increasingly finding that a more interesting challenge than just reiterating the things that we enlightened folk understand already.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: