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Power Currupts August 25, 2014

Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society.
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I really like DarkMatter2525’s new video:

I’ve thought a lot, over the years, about how people respond to power. It was the primary theme of my science fiction novel, which is entitled Power.  In many ways, this book, as well as many things I have written, thought about, etc over my life have been an exploration of how a person might react to any power, whether given or earned. 

Would I trust myself to have ultimate power? Would I trust most people with such power? Would I trust anyone with ultimate power?

The simple fact is that nobody should have ultimate power, whether we could trust them or not. The power we have should be limited and given carefully. Our political process, currently, is not especially good as it favors the wealthy and more often than not gives power to people who seek it for their own ends. And while I don’t agree with Plato that “Philosopher Kings” would be the best solution, I think that the seeking of power is indeed part of the problem and perhaps some reluctant leaders might be a step in the right direction.

All the power I want is the power to make my own decisions, affect people positively wherein I have the intimate relationship to do so, and to prevent harm where I can. I don’t want to manipulate, not even if I believed that it was for the good of the manipulated. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I could tell the difference between my selfish interests and what is actually good for someone else. I don’t want power over people, nor do I want people to have unnecessary power over me. I will grant power where I think it’s fair to do so (a la John Rawls), as I believe we all should.

Our own lives, how we manage our selves, relationships, and projects are the test we are all taking every day. How our society looks is an epiphenomenon of many cultural concepts which cause individual actions and behaviors. In short, our individual decisions add to the whole, and the influence of ideas we spread has some small effect upon the world around us. 

Currently, many parts of our society are not doing well on this test. The question is whether you are part of the problem or the solution. My goal is to be part of the solution more than I am part of the problem, knowing that we all will make mistakes and that the good actions of others may make up for my errors, and my good may outweigh their errors.  Together, we can help each other err less, and grow more.

But if on the whole we are doing more good than harm, we should see the steady progress which we humans are capable of.

And those who seek power should, perhaps, be taking the orders sometimes, and not giving them as much. The ability to be louder is not a sign of being a good leader, and perhaps the quiet have things we should be intentionally listening for.

Not that introverts should take over, necessarily.  Only that the noisy should learn to shut up and listen now and then.

Good luck on your test.

Lane reading Screwtape August 23, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
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I feel like I’ve linked to this before, but my brother is still going on his terrific series of rereading The Screwtape Letters as an atheist. Lane and I grew up with the works of C. S. Lewis pretty much right next to the Bible in prominence and influence, and I love his project of looking back on them to extract the good and criticize the bad.

Some choice quotes from recent entries in the series:

Part Nine:

Self-hatred is not humble. Objectivity is humble. Telling somebody their hair looks nice is humble. Humility is reminding yourself that life is not a competition and you don’t need other people to suck for you to be awesome.

Part Ten:

I do often hear “live in the present” stated in a way that encourages complacency. It is often paired with ideas about leaving the future to itself, which is advice that is hard to take seriously when our action and inaction really does affect the future. Furthermore, it often comes paired with images of smiling people in pretty dresses looking out at the beach or some such thing, communicating the idea that living in the present always means being happy in the present. Sometimes the present is troubled and unhappy. Sometimes the person who is experiencing the present has depression or anxiety disorders. Being told to be happy now is not helpful when you are sad now. It’s not happiness or sadness in the present that Screwtape cares about, but use or neglect of what the Patient has in the moment. Fear and complacency are both potential allies, but if neither anxiety nor comfort are obstacles to the Patient doing today’s work or enjoying today’s pleasures, they are losing the battle.

Part Eleven:

Here’s where I agree, though; I think he’s trying to make the point that when you set yourself up as a judge, you take from yourself the ability to be a scholar. A judge is stuck between good and bad, guilty and innocent, winner and various degrees of loser, but a scholar gets to investigate and pick the good out from a message, no matter the flaws of the messenger, and use the good for their own edification. That, I think, is a point worth remembering.

He’s a smart dude and I’m proud to be related to him, is what I’m saying.

Misanthropy no more! (part 2) August 22, 2014

Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Skepticism and atheism.
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In Part 1 of this long essay I talked about how I have, previously, considered myself a misanthrope.  I used the mythology of Star Wars, specifically the Jedi/Sith division, to illustrate two types of approaches to making judgments about ourselves and others, based upon the differences in approaches which such divisions display. I called them the “good” and “bad,” with the scare quotes because neither is strictly good nor bad in themselves, because that is how we, culturally, tend to identify them, based upon our cultural traditions based in part upon Christian ideas. The distinction, between humility and confidence, is one of a healthy continuum but which has the capability to be expanded into self-deprecation and arrogance, which are not healthy.

From there, I want to deal with what I will call the ugly and the beautiful, which I will hope to illustrate below.

 

The ugly

The devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.

-Hamlet

The gravity of both humility and confidence, if tempered, are not dangerous nor unhealthy by themselves. But if not tempered either can be used by other attributes within us, and they can either cultivate a manipulating or a manipulated set of behaviors.  If intentionally cultivated towards the excesses of self-deprecation (especially if hidden within false empowerment) or arrogance (especially if hidden from any self-doubt), it can lead to disconnection from people, dislike (of others and/or ourselves), and possibly delusions of superiority or lack of self-worth.

The ugly does not seek to empower others, nor even ourselves, necessarily. At best, the ugly is merely a kind of blindness, both of others but more importantly of ourselves. But at its worst the ugly is intentional and uncaring; a targeted, intelligent, manipulation of not only facts, but a cold indifference to the actual nature of people and who they are, in the name of making them useful to one’s selfish desires. At worst, the ugly is nihilism incarnate, sucking on the apathy, fear, and hatred in the world like a predatory vampire.

At best the ugly is a mistake of perception and self-delusion, and at worst it derives from the uncaring sociopathic or psychopathic potential within many of us to not even care what people actually are, so long as they are means towards some selfish end. And, what’s worse, is that sometimes this ugliness can hide in plain sight; the devil often assumes a pleasing shape, so says Shakespeare, influenced by Christian mythology..

The ugly is not stupidity, ignorance, nor lack of power. The ugly is also not intelligence, understanding, nor power itself. The ugly is (in part, at least) apathy, nihilism, and isolation which has the capability of pulling us towards the ascetic self-deprecation of unworthiness or the greedy self-indulgence of feelings of superiority over others. Sometimes, it manages to do both in the same person, perhaps played out in the confused sense of unworthiness covered by delusions of superiority, as a sort of defense against the unpleasant uncertainty and nuance of one’s self-image.

Our various abilities to empathize, sympathize, and to maintain compassion differs based upon physiological factors we did not choose. We are, in a sense, thrown into the world, stuck within the wetware of our brains and forced to make sense of it all, unable to escape the perspective which such physicality insists upon us. And it is through this physiological computer that we comprehend and structure our worldview.  Our lens to the world is this physiology which we did not choose, and so it is no surprise that when we have different wetware we develop different software–by that I mean our ideas, perceptions, and character.

Differences in perspective and worldview are not just about ideas. In many ways, it’s about how, and by what physical processes, those ideas formed. Understanding of others, especially empathy, is the only means we have to close this gap in difference and to create concepts of morality, interpersonal understanding, or even love. Without empathy, we can only maintain shadows of these feelings; rules/obligation, judgment, and requited, often co-dependent, desires.

When we meet others with a different kind of brain it can look confusing and overwhelming to us, and we may not understand the nature of the difference. If person A was born with a natural ability to empathize, such a person will be less likely to manipulate and more likely to be manipulated. If person B has little ability to empathize, they are more likely to not even notice, or care, that they manipulate, and are probably harder to manipulate. And, of course, their ability to manipulate is tied to how much attention they pay to understanding other people, and I wonder if it might be the case that when they learn how to manipulate, they think they are doing what naturally empathetic people do.

This is a disquieting thought, for me.

And, of course, most people are in the gray areas between the super-empathetic and those who struggle to even comprehend the concept of empathy. For most people there is a continuum. For most people, the ability to manipulate, understand, judge, and feel compassion for others depends more on mood, experience, and the specific people we associate with as much as physiology. For most of us, there is a real struggle for the ugly (or the beautiful) within ourselves and from external sources.

Therefore, for most people the ugly is one string tugging their behavior in one direction or another, including how they feel about other people. It is a temporary influence which, in more healthy times, may fade into the background and become largely impotent while it gives way to other attributes. But for others, I think, this ugly is the primary, and perhaps in some cases the only, string which pulls them.

Such people simply may not understand the concepts or experience of empathetic and compassionate concern for other people. And if they do, they might not care or see them as weaknesses or hooks to pull people around by.

And then such people become the source of the strings of others, pulling them towards this ugliness. They become one source of misanthropy, collecting people mired in anger, hatred, and judgment temporarily.  Often, they collect as many people as they can, so long as they are useful, especially if such people are willing to exist around this misanthropy due to cowardice, apathy, or through being led to believe that they might be an exception to such misanthropy–a nice thought, to be an exception! The longer such people remain in such quarters, the longer it feels natural, normal, and even superior.

Such un-empathetic people, largely functional because they grew up adjusting to the world in the way their brain works, may eventually become aware of the difference between them and others and intentionally use their practiced skill of emulating empathy, love, and understanding to get what they want. In some sense, they may even believe that are being empathetic, that they understand, and that they actually are superior.

Telling the difference between such a person and someone who is clueless, insecure, or narcissistic is often difficult. Being clueless, insecure, or narcissistic are forgivable, but being intentionally manipulative, dishonest (especially while claiming honesty as a value), and using people insofar as they are useful is not.

Such people are largely incapable of actually caring for anyone except for how those people add or take away from their own selfish desires. Such people will collect misanthropes, the insecure, and even social justice warriors. Such people know how to blend in, learn the ropes, and fall within the scope of acceptability for such people with misanthropic tendencies. They can blend in, like a chameleon, so long as they are getting what they want from the people around them, all the while stroking the parts of them which brings out the judgment, criticism, and anger.

Such things, useful tools they are, can be manipulated by our own minds or by others who reinforce them.

Such people perpetuate the judgmental, critical, and angry sources of distrust, dislike, and disregard of other people. Such people are the nexus of misanthropy. I am as susceptible as anyone to its pull, know the landscape well, and no longer wish to participate in this worldview. I will resist this ugliness within me and around me.

I prefer something else.

 

The Beautiful

The idyllic tools we focus on, whether the “good” or the “bad” are just that; tools. The ugly can use the tools to encourage and cultivate feelings which separate us from each other, or they could, perhaps choose another path. Beautiful (or as Brene Brown calls them, “Wholehearted”) people (and here I mean beauty in the sense of internal beauty) will not feel compelled to cultivate the separating sense of being superior or entitled. Beautiful people will choose to cultivate compassion, empathy, and will judge with the attempt to understand rather than create distance.

I wish to be a source of encouraging the beautiful in people. I wish to bring out the feelings of care, compassion, and the best within them. I want actual emotional and mental health, not the false-empowering sense of growing towards “superiority,” “power,” or even “righteousness.” We are not necessarily healthy because we feel superior and powerful. Those feelings are a false sense of maturity and growth which accompany a toxic and often abusive dynamic, one which I have seen up-close all too well.

I’d prefer to note but not focus on the flaws I notice in people and look for the strength, maturity, and potential growth behind it.  Rather than focus on feeling superior, perfect, or even more capable, I’d rather behave with patience, attention, and empathy so that I could be satisfied with being enough, at least for right now,and help others feel the same way. I wish to keep growing; to learn more, understand more, and to be a better friend, lover, and partner to people around me. But the desire to be, or at least to be seen as, superior is a distraction from simply being well, healthy, and open to the beauty in other people.

Actually being healthy now is never about being superior, more healthy than other people, and especially not about “winning” in some imagined competition. Being healthy, day-to-day, is more subtle. Being too focused on being better than other people will surely make it hard to see, let alone achieve.

Am I healthy now? I don’t know, and that may not even be the primary concern for actually being healthy. Have I done enough, today, to love myself and others? Am I honest with myself and others? Am I allowing my true feelings and self to emerge from the mire of fear, distrust, and dislike I may feel? Am I allowing myself to care about, more than feel superior to, other people? Is my focus on how we’re alike, or how I might be superior?

At bottom, I don’t know what the beautiful is. It’s harder than the ugly, it seems to me. It takes more courage, vulnerability, and actual strength than simply dismissing other people are not worth my time. Because whether we actually are better than other people doesn’t matter. Arguments about degrees of intelligence, mistakes, blame, maturity levels, and such are missing the point. The point is if that’s the conversation or thoughts you are having, you are perpetuating whatever inequality there might be rather than creating a safe space to cultivate its change.

Because even if someone were superior (whatever that means), the feeling of superiority only widens the separation rather than encourage the closing of that gap. I’ve been on both ends of this perception, and I don’t like the feeling I have had on either side of it. The allure and addiction of the feeling of power which comes along with illusions of superiority are difficult to see past, but I am not superior to those who can’t see past it. The difference really is that I realize that neither of us is inherently superior, which is itself humbling.

I also don’t like the feeling of someone claiming superiority over me. Because even if it isn’t true, it creates a lack of motivation within me (that’s one kind of manipulation this perception causes). It does not make me want to try harder or to even believe in what strengths I have. And even if it were to motivate me, the tone of this motivation often becomes toxic.

At it’s worst, it can compel a desire to reply with my own feelings of superiority. The feelings of pride, power, and the false narrative of superiority then echoes within me, and I find myself becoming competitive, leading to me to want to prove that I’m the superior one. And thus the cycle can begin, unless I am able to activate my ability to be empathetic, patient, and understand what s happening in order to stop it from starting.

Then, the beautiful within me is able to not need to reply. I am enough, I know. I don’t need to be better than this person, nor does this person have any actual power over me just because they feel powerful and superior to me. When I can struggle past their ability to manipulate me, then I feel healthy, happier, and can go on with my day without feeling affected by other people’s misanthropy.

I won’t play that game. I don’t need to, because it’s not a fun game to play and I don’t grow or find health, playing it.

 

No more misanthropy, for me

Love-and-Hate-love-26960142-332-280Insofar as I don’t like someone, that person has earned it. That should be the standard, I believe. If I don’t like you it’s not that I’m superior, that the world is stupid, or that they have not proven their worthiness to me. If I don’t like someone, they have earned that dislike through their actions towards me or other people. And my like for them will evolve and grow based on how they may change themselves, and so dislike is not universal nor permanent.  I do not desire the toxicity of misanthropy in my life from here on out.

And if you think I’m stupid or clueless for this approach, I guess I’d be interested in why you think that but I would ask you why you insist upon thinking me stupid? Why must your idea be superior to mine? Why must you be right? What’s so wrong about being incorrect? We all do it, and while the truth matters being wrong is not a moral failing and should not be the standard by which we judge a person’s character.

Dislike of people has to be based on specific actions and attributes of those people.  No person knows enough about most people to be able to justifiably, fairly, or wisely judge the characters of so many people, so easily. To be a misanthrope is to judge from the gate, on first impressions, and to assume the worst in people with little to no knowledge or understanding. We should not universalize specific interactions to people in general, and we should err to the side of allowing people to surprise us, just in case our impressions of them are completely wrong.

So, I choose to not allow the feelings of being better, more knowledgeable, more mature, etc to dominate my character because such things are goals (at best) and not the road beneath me. I am not superior to you, but neither are you superior to me.  I do not hate you (the generic you), either.

To all you misanthropes out there, I urge you to try and find the connection you have with other people, rather than what separates you. I have found that even within people whom have hurt me and people I do not like, I find spaces of similarity, commonality, and potential connection. Because of those similarities, I cannot hate them any more than I can hate myself.

Sartre was wrong about at least one thing: Hell isn’t other people.

Other people are reflections of our own selves, and ultimately misanthropy amounts to simple self-hatred hidden behind an attempt to create separation where uncomfortable similarity persists.

 

Misanthropy no more! (part 1) August 22, 2014

Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Skepticism and atheism.
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I’ve had people think of me as a misanthrope, sometimes even a cynic. Some people might see me as unfriendly, shy, or aloof. There are reasons for these opinions; I am a little aloof (I chose to study philosophy, after all), I am a little shy, and I can be, in some cases, unfriendly.

Sometimes this unfriendliness is because I’m in a bad mood, and therefore I’m sorry because you probably don’t deserve it. Sometimes it’s because someone’s being an asshole, in which case go fuck yourself. Sometimes it’s because I don’t, in fact, like someone, in which case do better or get used to me being unfriendly. But this dislike is an exception, rather than the rule. And being a person who used to feel the opposite, I have some thoughts about my former misanthropy and why I now choose to not exercise the misanthropic aspects of myself, when I can help it.

Our views about people, whether individually or as sets, tells us a lot about ourselves, especially our ability to perceive and to judge well.  Whether those conclusions about other people are tentative, well-considered, or reactionary are part of the analysis we should consider. Whether they are fundamentally emotional and subsequently rationalized is, perhaps, among the most important questions we can ask of our views of others. How we see people tells us about what aspects of our perception we focus on.

There is a place for things like anger, judgment, and criticism. These are tools which can be used well or poorly, and how we use these tools is the important factor. We cannot simply claim that anger is bad, being judgmental is wrong, or that criticism is not warranted.  We have to understand the context of those things, because it is often our emotional states, focus, and values which determine how we use such tools. The tools have to be wielded. How we wield them, whether towards liking and trusting others or dislike and distrust, will help shape our characters.

But before we get there, I want to take a look at something else, which is related.  I want to look at some simplified categorizations of attributes which contribute to how we form opinions about ourselves and others.  I will call these attribute sets, for the sake of the habit of hitting on tropes, the good, bad, ugly, and even the beautiful.

 

The “good” ideal

Let’s take a look at a fictional, and yet popular philosophy (which in some cases is actually a real religion in some places), one which started as science fiction. (Not like that ever happens).

This type of philosophy is fairly universal, and has its roots in many real philosophies such as Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and has been utilized in many tropes from various cultural origins such as Westerns, Samurai myths, etc. I am talking, of course, about the Jedi philosophy.

Here is the quintessential Jedi, Yoda, while training Luke Skywalker:

YodaYoda: Yes, run! Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
Yoda: You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.

As we see in the saga that is Star Wars (a flawed execution, so far anyway, of a wonderful universe.  For many reasons), this view is positioned against the Sith, who use the “dark side” of the force which includes manipulation, lies, and the raw power of the dark side of the force to achieve various kinds of goals with little to no appeals to compassion or care of any kind.

The Jedi emphasize an almost ascetic, Buddhist-like, approach to life. No attachment, passivity, peace, and knowledge. This is the worldview of many people who might be classified as scholars, poets, and even religious mystics. It is one that focuses around compassion, empathy, and patience.

Nietzsche might have some comments about this, calling it a morality of “ressentiment” perhaps (cf. Beyond Good and Evil and The Geneology of Morals). And some of those comments might be valuable and true, but that moves too far from the scope here, so I’ll leave that aside for now (but seriously, read more Nietzsche!).

With this perspective on how to live, we are left with patience, kindness, compassion and empathy in how we view people. And this has value because, at bottom, we all have flaws, struggles we’ve overcome (and more we have to work on!), and so the flaws we might see in others are a reflection of ourselves. This view encourages us to reserve judgment, not because judgment is wrong or undeserved, but because pulling out the judgment tool too quickly gets in the way of our ability to sympathize, understand, and see those other people as mirrors for ourselves. By training ourselves to put away that tool, especially early on, we train ourselves to be patient and to allow our opinion to grow with experience, not quickly and with the bias which attaches itself to critical tools.

This approach to ourselves and to others will allow our patience and judgment to form over time, giving us the perspective to make better judgments, so long as we have the courage to actually dig in and use our critical and judgmental faculties in our patience, from time to time. It allows us to look more deeply at ourselves, others, and the similarities which overlaps ourselves.

The problem, however, is when we see this ideal as the only means to health, truth, or behavior. The problem is when passivity leads to complacency, being manipulated, or allowing the powerful to remain too powerful over us. Sometimes, we need to be more than merely reactive to harm. The problem is also when we allow ourselves to accept a self-deprecating view of ourselves as incapable, inferior, or unworthy.

 

The “bad” ideal

Ugh, people are so fucking frustrating sometimes! How can they be so damned stupid? Why can’t they just do things the right way? Why do I always have to explain this to them, again and again? Why can’t they just learn how to think? Why can’t they just grow up?

That’s it, I’m done with them. I hate people. A few, of course, are exceptions, but people are just stupid, the world is stupid, and I’m superior to them.

SithIf you’ve known me for a long time, you very well may have heard me say things like the above. In times of frustration, I may still think such things. Because some people are frustrating. Some people do actually seem to be clueless, privileged, and fractally wrong much of the time. And it’s frustrating to be around, sometimes.

Such ideas don’t spawn out of our minds without a source. They come from the same places as pride, self-worth, and self-confidence. Such things are valuable, and have a place in a healthy person. But when these attributes are not tempered (Aristotle, anyone?), they can become  alluring, stroke our need for validation, and even become addictive.

This set of feelings is just as human as the “good” ideal above, and is not, in fact, “evil” or even necessarily “bad.” (Nietzsche fans are possibly gripping tightly at the potential conflationary association of the two…). They are, in many respects, the yin to the “good” ideals’ yang; as part of a balancing act that human emotions play on our sense of self worth, perception, and self-narrative. Humility and confidence, if we want to be simplistic about it. Both are part of the human experience and valuable in themselves, so long as they don’t become self-deprecation or arrogance.

Unfortunately for us, not all the "bad" are as easily identifiable and Darth Maul

Unfortunately for us, not all the “bad” are as easily identifiable and Darth Maul

A feeling of inherent superiority can come from this path; not as a passing feeling, but as an attribute and part of our vision of our very self. It becomes part of the narrative of our essence, rather than a description of some particular success or achievement. Winning the debate, the game, or the promotion are instances of success, but it does not necessarily mean that we are superior, essentially. Essential superiority is an illusion, one which can only separate us.  Perhaps a misanthrope seeks this separation, but I find this attitude toxic and unhealthy. I now this from experience of having felt this way, previously, and having lived among similarly toxic narratives.

In dealing with the world around us, sometimes we can only take so much. People hurt us, frustrate us, or just bore us, sometimes. There are times when leadership, instruction, or correction are necessary. There are also times when passion and power are needed, so long as they are not abused or excused when they over-reach.

The problem is when we universalize this feeling of being better, not merely at this thing or right now but in general. When we start to feel like we are better than most people, whether morally or in terms of wisdom or maturity, we can sometimes achieve a perception of superiority over people which is an illusion. This power creates a sense of being entitled to make decisions for people and even to disregard their feelings, thoughts, or experience. In time, if maintained long enough, it turns into a kind of arrogance, wherein the thoughts and feeling that we have are inherently better, because other people are inferior.

And why, if we are superior, would we like inferior people? What’s to like about a person who has not done the work (or might even be incapable) to become superior as well? Perhaps they are not even really people at all, or perhaps only trivially so. Perhaps they are merely plebs, without any real content or importance except as pawns, NPCs, or tool in our own personal quests (in fact, RPG’s tend to poke at the trope of the superior hero, relative to the mere characters around them who you can overpower easily). Misanthropy is when we tip the scales a little towards seeing ourselves as an exception to the set of people in the world; we don’t count the same way as they do because we’re the special hero, an exception to the common rules.

It is a tendency which can lead us to lead groups of people towards many things, become leaders, and become respected. But at the same time, contained within this tendency is one which may make us feel qualitatively different from other people, and to look down upon them, and then we might begin to manipulate people, use them, and to abuse them.

For such superior people, self-knowledge and the perspective which comes from patience, empathy, and compassion is a threat to the narrative of superiority. When we allow ourselves down this path, we become critical of people in general, disliking all the flaws that they exhibit, and become too distracted by this perceived superiority to see any in ourselves to see anything else, most of the time.

And, of course, we rationalize this. We see the people we take advantage of as weak, stupid, or in some other way actually inferior.  We create an entire rationalized worldview around the fact that we become so short-sighted, so selfish, and in some cases (though not all) so scared that we end up othering everyone else into mere objects, rather than people.

With exceptions, of course. We will find others who feel similarly, and create societies of superior people, tittering about the poor, the stupid, or the immature all around. (Ayn Rand, anyone?).

We start to celebrate our unique superiority, laughing at all the incapable people. Atheists often do it to theists (and the other way around), some people who view themselves as poly-capable do it to people who, they think, are doing polyamory wrong (or just badly), and humans do it to humans.

And isn’t that the point? Humans do it to humans! By some vain sliver of reality we humans are capable of carving out a whole pie of superiority, turning some small advantage in this space into the whole of advantages.  We turn small bits of being “better” over there to just being better.

And these, the “good” and the “bad,” are the scales upon which we dance. We are capable of each tune, to our varying degrees, and I think most of us have experienced some amount of both sides of this scale. I certainly know the bitter, lonely lows of self-deprecation as well as the seeming highs of feeling powerful, capable, and superior. Whether it’s brain chemistry, treatment by others, or whatever cause, I have known both.

So now we venture into the realm of the attributes of humankind which pull us towards either direction. There is, in short, ugliness and beauty within all of us (I hope, anyway). These attributes will tug us towards the excesses of confidence or humility, and are the true sources of power within us. Let’s move forward, then.

 

On to Part 2, where I will discuss the ugly, the beautiful and sum up my feelings about misanthropy.

 

 

 

The love we deserve August 22, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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4 comments

This is cross-posted from my brand new tumblr! Where I’m hoping to collect tons and tons of stories, pictures, videos, etc that also go under this theme of, “these are some amazing ways people have loved me.”

***

Dear Younger Ginny,

I’m writing to the girl who sat across from her mentor, tearfully talking through issues with the boy you were dating. Your mentor listened for a long time, and then asked, “Ginny. Does he make you happy?” And you thought for a minute and said, “No, not really.” And she said, “If he doesn’t make you happy, you can break up. You don’t need a reason or justification.”

It was a revelation to you then, and based on what’s happened in the last 15 years, it didn’t entirely sink in. So I want to tell you some true stories.

You have always loved opinionated and argumentative men, and a part of you probably always will. One day, you were sitting on the living room floor arguing about a feminist issue with the particular opinionated and argumentative man you were dating. It started as an intellectual argument, but at some point it started to hit you personally really hard, and you began to cry. And this man immediately backed off his point, said, “I’m sorry, hon, what is it?” and listened attentively while you explained through your tears why this issue felt so personal and how you’d been hurt by this thing before. He took you seriously and treated your emotions as a sign that your point was more valid, not less, and he made sure your feelings were being cared for before returning to the discussion. (This interaction, and others like it, was a key point in your decision to marry that particular opinionated and argumentative man.)

One day your friends, who know how important your birthday is to you and how lonely you’ve been feeling, will print up signs and hang them all over campus, so you see “Happy Birthday Ginny!” on doors and bulletin boards all day long, and many classmates wish you a happy birthday.

One day, just after having sex, you will cry in your lover’s arms, and he will hold you tightly until you are done, and he will stroke your hair and thank you for your trust, and invite you to talk or not depending on what you need.

One day, you will brave ice and snow to spend a day with your sweetheart, and you will walk in the door and he will greet you with a giant smile and a hug and a kiss, and then hand you a latte he’d just made, to drink while he finishes making an epic breakfast.

One day, you will hurt someone you love. You will actually do this a lot. And the person you hurt will tell you, tremblingly and sometimes with tears, and you will apologize and they will hear and forgive you, and you will talk together about ways you can keep from hurting them like that in the future, and they will believe that you can do better and will treat you like a good and loving person who made a mistake.

One day you will write about your hesitance to open a bottle of unopened cream in your boyfriend’s house, as a symbol of your general hesitance to make waves or take up space for yourself, and two different people will immediately write to you and tell you you can always open stuff in their house because they love you and you are family.

One day you will plan the perfect birthday party for yourself, which involves ice cream and singing and Buffy, and your friends and lovers will all work with you in ways big and small to make it happen, and your husband who’s not terribly into singing or Buffy will spend his day cleaning the house and setting up a media system for it. And many people will come, and when the first song starts they will all join their voices with yours and it will be just as you had dreamed and your heart will be full to bursting.

There are so many other stories I could tell, but this is a beginning. The point is this: you can and will be loved, and loved well, according to the needs of your heart. There will be many times that you believe you don’t deserve this kind of love, or that nobody exists who could possibly give it to you. Those are lies. There is so much love in your future that is nourishing and sustaining and brings joy to your heart. Seek it. Ask for it. Rise with courage and do the hard work you need to do, not to earn that kind of love, but to become capable of receiving it.

Obligation is a derail: some thoughts on negotiation in loving relationships August 18, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Polyamory.
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You probably saw that spreadsheet of reasons a wife declined to have sex with her husband, a couple weeks back. As these things do, it’s generated a fresh round in the continued conversation about sex and obligation. The conversation goes like this:

Feminist bloggers and commentators: “Nobody ever owes anybody sex for any reason.”

Less-feminist bloggers and commentators: “What, never?”

“No, never!”

“What, never?”

“Wellll, hardly ev– no, actually never.”

All this is well and good and needs to be said and re-said until everybody gets it. But at the same time something’s been troubling me about posts that talk about how the whole concept of withholding sex is flawed. They’re not wrong; the very idea of “withholding sex” implies that sex is something granted by default, something a person can take back as a hostile act, rather than being always and every time a gift each person freely chooses to give the other. But. I also know people who have suffered in relationships because their partner was never choosing to give them the gift of sex, and in a situation like that, repeating, “Nobody is obligated to give you sex” does not really answer the issue. Nor is it just about sex. The post that I linked argues that it makes just as much sense to talk about withholding baking cookies for your lover, cookies being another way of expressing affection and care that is not in any way owed within a relationship. Nobody is obligated to bake you cookies, have sex with you, kiss you goodbye in the morning, stay in touch during the day, or hug you when you’re sad. And because our cultural dialogue is so warped around sex particularly, and because a lot of people do feel that there’s obligation around it, it’s really good that posts like the above are being written and spread around.

That being said, though, when we’re talking about a loving relationship, I think the whole question of obligation is a derail, if not an outright red flag. True, nobody is obligated to provide their partner with sex or cuddles or kind words or a certain amount of time, but in a loving relationship, obligation is not really the point. If my lover says, “I would like X from you,” where X is any form of attention or affection or caregiving or really anything that would meet their needs or make them feel happier, and my response is, “I don’t think I’m obligated to give you that,” that indicates that there’s a fundamental problem in the way one or both of us thinks about loving behavior.

The problem might be on my lover’s end: they might be in the habit of demanding things from me on the grounds that as their partner I am obligated to give those things. Sex. Cuddles. Making dinner. A ride to the airport. Whether they’re doing it knowingly and intentionally or not, if they tend to make requests with the attitude that it is something that I owe them, that is a problem. This is the side of things that the whole “no such thing as withholding sex” dialogue is coming from, and it’s an important one.

The problem might also be on my end: I may be using “obligation” as a handy way to justify not caring about my partner’s needs and wants. Especially if my lover is a self-effacing type who is easily convinced that they’re not worth effort and care (and so many of us have those voices within us), the exchange of, “Baby, I would love it if you did this,” “Nah, I don’t feel obligated to do that,” can completely shut down the conversation, and make my lover feel guilty for even asking.

Putting obligation behind a request is a means of coercion: it’s a way of attaching moral value to a person’s answer, which is a very coercive thing indeed for those of us who like to think of ourselves as moral. Putting obligation (or lack thereof) behind a denial is a way to make someone feel unvalued, uncared-for, and not worth the effort, while retaining the moral high ground for yourself. Nobody could fault you for saying no to something you were never obligated to do! Case closed, no need to consider further. And that does its own kind of damage.

Obligation is a distraction from the real issue, which is, “Do I feel that making you happy in this way is worth what it will cost me?*” Sometimes the answer is no, and that is an acutely uncomfortable thing to say, which is why we shy away from it and use “obligation” as a screen. We are social beings and most of us are taught that caring for others is a virtue, while refusing care in order to meet our own needs is a suspicious act that must be justified. (Women, in general, receive this message about 2-3 times as strongly as men, but everybody gets it.) Just saying, “No, I’m going to prioritize my own needs here” is incredibly difficult for most of us, and we often feel a strong impulse to justify it, by invoking obligation or another concept that gets away from the central question.

Sidebar, but an important one: some people use the “obligation” screen not because they’re uncomfortable with prioritizing their own needs, but in order to mask how little they actually care about the other’s happiness. “Caring for you isn’t worth it to me” over and over is likely to get the other person questioning why they’re even committed to the relationship, why they’re investing so much in a person who is manifestly uninterested in meeting their needs unless it’s convenient. “I’m not obligated” pushes it back on the person making the request, highlighting how unreasonable they are to keep asking for things, and encouraging them to make themselves and their needs smaller and smaller. It’s a tactic for emotional abuse, and I recommend running very fast in the other direction if you see it in play.

Back to the realm of relationships that are sincerely caring, but have some toxic beliefs swimming around (which is most relationships). It is important for everybody in a relationship to really internalize that they get to have needs and wants. That the presence of other people’s conflicting needs and wants does not obliterate their own. That it is okay to prioritize their own needs and wants, even if that means denying the other person something that they want. That my need to not have sex right now, to not make you dinner right now, to not drive out in the cold to pick you up right now, is just as valid and worthy as your desire to have me do those things. This is essential, and it’s hard to grasp.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. It can’t. Because if my needs and your needs are in conflict, at least one of us is not going to get what we want, and the way those conflicts play out makes up a goodly portion of the overall health of the relationship. For some people, bringing in obligation seems like the only way to resolve the standoff. I want X, you want not-X. Let’s ask Obligation to arbitrate and decide which of us gets what we want! But, as I said above, this just brings in an aspect of moral coercion and guilt, which is super not conducive to long-term relational and individual health. (I lived the first 25 years of my life under heavy burdens of moral coercion and guilt. I know whereof I speak.)

To resolve the situation in a way that’s going to strengthen the relationship, you have to look head-on at what’s really going on here: Person A wants something that it will cost Person B to give, and Person B is judging whether the happiness or relief it would bring to Person A is worth the cost. Sometimes the answer will be yes, and sometimes the answer will be no. Sometimes you need to do a lot of talking through the situation in order to reach the answer that will be best for both of you and the relationship. (Because this post started out talking about sex, let me point out that submitting to sex you don’t want to be having is usually very costly; a partner that is comfortable with their partner bearing that cost is likely either uncaring or unaware. On the flip side, for many, going without sex for months or years because they are in a monogamous relationship with someone who isn’t inclined to have sex with them is acutely painful. Again, a partner who is both caring and aware will not be complacent about this situation.)

While both parties may be tempted to control the outcome of this conversation, by bringing in obligation or guilt or consequences (like, “If you don’t do X, I won’t do Y for you in the future), any of these entities are going to do damage. What the conversation needs to center around is both people understanding, as deeply as possible, what the request really entails for the other person. What feelings lie behind the need, and the cost? What fears and insecurities, what unresolved baggage is attached to it? What joys and hopes and satisfactions go along with having the need met? What symbolic meanings does each person attach to this action?

The most productive conflict conversations I’ve had always happen when each of us cares deeply about the other’s happiness, and trusts that the other person cares deeply about ours. When you trust in someone else’s love for you, you don’t have to manipulate and threaten and guilt them into doing what you want. You don’t have to bring in Obligation to arbitrate. You can lay your need or wish before them, and explain to them exactly what it means to you, and you can listen to their explanation of what the cost is for them, and what that means to them. And you can work together to resolve the dilemma in a way that makes both of you feel loved and cared-for.

Another part of this is accepting that sometimes you will do something that causes your partner pain, or decline to do something that would bring them happiness. One of the valuable things about poly is that most of us have to grapple with this pretty regularly. A very few of us are lucky enough to have partners that never feel jealousy, but most of us have to cope from time to time with the fact that our new love is causing another partner some pangs. It is so, so hard to say, “I see that this is hurting you, and I choose to do it anyway,” even when that’s the choice our partner wants us to make. It is much easier to get angry with our partner for feeling hurt (I’ve done that), or to feel guilty for even wanting the other thing (I’ve done that too), or to construct sets of rules that delineate what each person has a Right or No Right to do, thus again bringing in the moral weight of obligation to distract from the reality of feelings (I’ve done that less, because I started my poly life with an experienced partner who stayed away from those pitfalls.) It is easier to do those things, but it is healthier in the long run to be able to say, “I love you, and I see your pain, and it hurts me, and I am choosing to prioritize my need in this case.” (This is made significantly easier when the partner can say, “Yes, it hurts me, but I want you to have this joy and freedom and I am willing to bear that cost.”)

Here is the final piece, and for some of us it’s the hardest: the decision has to be made together, and sincerely together, with both people’s full input. I have been in conversations that look a lot like the one I recommend two paragraphs up, where both people are talking about what they need and want and the feelings that lie behind those and seeking a mutually agreeable solution, and it seems at first glance to be a healthy discussion, but in reality one person is controlling the conversation. They may be telling the other person what they’re “really” feeling, or they may be casting the other person’s feelings as wrong or invalid or harmful, while their own are rational and correct and embody what’s best for everybody. Nae good. That’s another “run very fast in the other direction” situation.

But another, more common dynamic is that one person will look at the dilemma and decide for themselves that their need is not worth what it would cost the other person, without even expressing the need to the other person. I do this all the time, and so do most of my intimates, because we tend to be giving and self-effacing to a fault. “I want to go out tonight with Lover, but that means Spouse will be alone and sad, so I can’t.” And Spouse never even realizes that you’ve given up something you wanted for their sake. Over time, if you’re me at least, this leads to a feeling of resentment and entitlement: “I’ve made so many sacrifices for your emotional comfort!…” And you will at some point become upset when they ask you to absorb some emotional discomfort for their own enjoyment: “…how can you not be willing to make the same sacrifices for mine?” (Because they never even realized you were making the sacrifice, dumbass. Meaning me, on many past occasions.) Or you might decide abruptly that you’ve earned some guilt-free enjoyment, and get frustrated when they still express pain over your choice because OMG, can’t you ever do anything for yourself? (When, again, they didn’t even know you were choosing not to do things for yourself on other occasions, and are likely to feel some nasty whiplash at your sudden, unprecedented, and highly defensive selfishness. And yes, I’ve done that too, and it sucks.) Or, in a specifically poly context when making a sacrifice for Spouse’s sake often involves some sacrifice on Lover’s part as well, your bond with Lover may dwindle because they are never being prioritized.

Asking another person to bear some discomfort or pain or inconvenience for our sake is hard. So, so hard. I can barely bring myself to do it unless I feel completely justified (see again: Obligation and its dysfunctional uses.) But I know my loves love me, and desire my happiness, and that there will be times when they’re more than willing to absorb a little cost to see me happier. After all, I do the same for them all the time, and it’s insulting to behave as if their love is weaker than mine or their ability to handle some discomfort is lower. (Sometimes it is… but not usually as much lower as my private decisions would imply.) And I need to give them the opportunity to do that, by asking for what I want. And I need to do it in good faith, without invoking rules and justifications and obligations. If I am truly loved, the fact of my feelings, my needs, my wishes and hopes and desires, is enough to make them at least consider giving me what I want. And if they decide the cost is too high for them, it’s not because I don’t deserve happiness or because it was wrong of me to even ask: it’s because sometimes, the cost is too high. That’s okay. By talking out our different needs and feelings, we both understand each other better, and can continue to love each other well.

*This sentence is adjusted slightly from the originally-published version, which read, “Do I care enough about making you happy in this way to accept what it will cost me?” Midnight Insomnia Brain threw out the revised sentence, which is a better expression of what I mean.

Speaking of tribalism… August 14, 2014

Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Skepticism and atheism.
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Ingress_logo_512pxSo, due to the pecking and poking of some people I know, I downloaded Ingress yesterday. I’ve known about the game for a little while, but didn’t get it immediately.  

If you don’t know what Ingress is, look it up. It’s a game played with GPS smartphones, and is based upon a science-fictiony story-line based upon some “transdimensional intelligence that may be infiltrating our dimension through XM Portals.”

Aside from all the background story, it’s a game about claiming territory by use of phones in order to maintain control of areas and, metaphorically, people. But instead of playing sitting at a computer, you have to physically go to locations to play.

So, since I love walking through the city anyway, it seems like something which might be fun.

Fictions, Factions, and Fractures

yin-yang-ingressThe first question I asked myself, is what side would I take?

The Enlightenment are defined thus:

Faction attempting to help the Shapers infiltrate Earth.  Followers believe that the Shapers bring a powerful Enlightenment that will lead to an evolution of humankind.

And the Resistance is defined this way:

Faction defending the Earth from the Shaper ingression. They are seen by some as being fearful of change or progress, but the Resistance is firm in its belief that it is protecting humanity.

I admit that I felt some affinity for the implications of both sides of this game, but as someone pointed out to me last night, my love of The Dark Tower might make me lean towards the Resistance.  Anyone who knows the series will know why, but briefly: powers within that fictional universe seem to be using the powers of the Tower in malicious ways, while claiming to be bringing order and peace. Roland and his ka-tet are the Resistance against these attempts. I, obviously, side with Roland Deschain, of the line of Eld.

But at the same time, I have previously considered myself more of a Vorlon than a Shadow, even if ultimately I side with John Sheridan.  And this got me thinking about the forces of chaos and order, and I re-discovered, in a new way, something about myself.

Order out of Chaos

Having had so many tumultuous emotions most of my life, I have craved order, rationality, and structure. For so many years, I sought to bring together the forces, impulses, etc within me into a structured, controlled, and rational whole. 

But you can’t structure chaos, at least not from the beginning. Chaos, when unleashed, is too messy, too complicated, too undefined to be stacked and sorted, and so it’s often best to let it make a little bit of a mess. And then it struck me; all those years of trying to put everything away in their correct places have built up a very strong and useful strength of creating order out of chaos, so why was I afraid of the chaos?

Why not allow my emotions to flow freely? Why not allow the creativity to just flow, unafraid of whether it was good, worthy, or structured correctly? I didn’t need to edit or govern my emotions and creativity as it came out, because I’m really good at doing that after the fact.

My emotions are not dangerous, in themselves, but when they are restricted, governed, and held back they become a problem. My creativity is not bad, but when it’s restrained and given too intentional a shape, it’s not as raw and vulnerable.

In short, I need to trust myself, because what is inside me is not a monster, not stupid, and not unworthy. What is inside me is interesting, caring, and sometimes beautiful. All these years of governing what fell through the portals of myself has been a kind of voluntary censorship. It will take time to retrain my instincts to do less of this restraining, governing, and controlling, but I think it’s a worthy goal.

Oh, right, Ingress….

I went with the Resistance. Not because I necessarily believe that the “Shapers” are trying to take over and enslave us. This is not a conservative reaction of fear against what might be an actual change and enlightenment. I chose resistance because all of my life I would have made the other choice, and this time I don’t want control to win. 

I want a little chaos. I want a little Shadow. I want a little Resistance of the order I’ve enforced on myself for so many years, because I know that if that control is worth utilizing, I already have that muscle toned. I want to strengthen my muscles of resisting that order.

Also, which side you choose doesn’t really matter. The game cares little for the science fiction behind it.

Skepticism: Orthodoxy v. Orthopraxy August 13, 2014

Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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1 comment so far

One of the criticisms which has appeared over the last several years, in response to the rise of the atheist/skeptic community, is that we atheists/skeptics are just like those religious people (as if that were a criticism worth taking seriously). But even while that criticism is silly, we can still step back and take a look at commonalities of human behavior, including how these behaviors inform and compel behavior of people in both religious and non-religious communities.

In the skeptical community in particular, emphasis is often on methodology.  What tools are we using to figure things out? How much emphasis do we put on empiricism? How about rationalism? Most skeptics utilize, primarily, the scientific method which utilizes logic, empiricism, and applies a probabilistic approach to truth.

But these tools are used with the intent of discovering what is true (or at least what is likely to be true). And so once we have those answers, how certain should we be? Should we be willing, once a conclusion seems to be very certainly true, to defend it as the right answer?

This tension, between the best methodology and the best answers, is reminiscent of the tension throughout much of religious and theological history between orthopraxy (correct action/practice) and orthodoxy (correct belief/doctrine). If you look at the history of religion, this tension plays out over and over again and can teach us quite a lot about human behavior.

My general view of religion is that it follows the rules of how culture operates.  If you want to understand religious behavior, understand cultural, social, and idividual behavior. As a result of this view, I could also say that if we were to track some of the arguments between skeptics/atheists about whether it is the conclusions (or definitions) which matter more than the methodologies we use, you might see the similarities start to emerge from the mess.

The Best of Religion and Skepticism

If we were to be forgiving of the many atrocities (both of practice and of beliefs) of religion, we could take a look at the many mystical, introspective, and social boons which religion provides to so many people. At its best, religion provides a perspective of ourselves, our communities, and the world itself which is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. So long as we can avoid the metaphysical bird-catchers* that these perspectives are often glued to, we can walk into and within religion without detriment to ourselves or the world around us.

Of course, we could have those same perspectives and experiences without religion. Science and logic do not strip away such things, although they may often cause our minds to reject them for the sake of what appears to be a cleaner and more precise description of the world (and it often is such, but perhaps not always).

And whether or not we step away from religion, insofar as we are capable of practicing good skepticism, we will be armed with a methodology which can aid us in a plethora of ways and provide us with yet more peep-holes into reality, including the murkiest part of reality; ourselves.

Skepticism gives us a sieve through which falls bias, delusion, and deception. What remains is a jumble of truths, in need of structure and meaning, which we can push and pull with our fingers like children at play with rocks, toys, or sand. 

What may become a problem is what happens when we start to build castles out of that sand. For, in a sense, we are prone to see what we make as the truth. Objects made of truth do not necessarily make larger truths, for truth is also contained within structure, and not merely components.

Getting caught up in constructions

We create narratives, structures, and often monuments of truth. Now, I personally believe that a real world exists, and in many cases our descriptions of this reality are reliable and ‘true’, if by ‘true’ we mean that it coheres with our experience and stand up to scrutiny. Some Platonic TRUTH simply has no meaning, at least not one that we, sentient and subjective beings taht we are, can participate in. 

So I believe that it’s valid to say that we know something, insofar as that thing has survived skeptical analysis, especially if it has done so repeatedly and without significant contradiction. So we can say that our understanding of how gravity works (insofar as we understand how gravity works) is true because the description keeps predicting and explaining results. Similarly, we can say that evolution is a fact which is explained by the theory of natural selection (among the other parts of biological theory related to evolution) because the theory keeps being supported by evidence.

These facts about the world are real things which we can point to and demonstrate why we accept them as true, but this demonstration is dependent upon the methodology. Methodology is the thing that determines the structure of truths, after all. Again, trye structure is as important as true components. The “correct” answers which science provides for us would be meaningless without the methodology by which we discover and construct those answers.

If we are to have a new set of facts replace such an answer, it would be the methodology which would bring it to us.

Deconstructing our sand castles

Let’s go back to religion. I’m going to unequivocally say that the largest failure of religion, in general, is the set of facts it proposes as the truth. This is for two reasons.

The first reason is that when science and religion butt heads, science always either agrees or it wins. In the places where science and religion agree, all religion has done is either used, somewhere in the past, some skeptical methodology to find that answer or it simply got lucky. It is the accidental nature which leads us to the second reason.

The second reason that religion fails in the face of science is that when it comes to belief, the very methodology of religion is backwards. Where religion finds answers that work, it can only do so by borrowing from science or by getting lucky. Religion does not try to prove itself wrong, it looks for support for what it already believes or merely asserts without an attempt to provide evidence, and then calls it “faith.”

In the skeptical world, the tension between method and answer works differently than it does in religion; with religion, the tension between orthopraxy and orthodoxy ultimately revert back to the right answers; to orthodoxy. Even in religious traditions which tend to lean heavier on practice over doctrine, it is the doctrines, or at least metaphysical beliefs, which anchor it as a religion rather than a philosophy. 

Even with religious interpretations which focus on moral action, personal growth, etc, it is the beliefs of that group which act like a gravitational center. Otherwise, you would not have a Buddhist or a Muslim, you’d just have people who value certain ways to live, surrounded by Buddhist or Islamic scenery. The more individuals in religious communities move away from doctrine as their focus, the more they move away from religion and towards secular philosophies.

We humans must be more careful with how closely we attach ourselves to conclusions.  Conclusions create a center of gravity, which does help create a community, but it also can be the parent of tribalism, groupthink, and ultimately the narratives which become doctrine.

Within the skeptic/atheist world, certain centers of conclusion-gravity exist as well, and they define the borders between factions, not unlike what has happened with religion except that so far those lines have not become full walls which define different sects.

Not that some of the distinctions are not important; and not that I don’t think that some factions in the rift are more right than others, but I worry that the focus will become, just like with religion, the conclusions themselves, rather than the method by which they came to those conclusions. Tribalism breeds orthodoxy and diminishes focus on methodology–on orthopraxy.

Over there on this side, they all know that this thing is true that this person over there is like that and so they all dislike that person. This person becomes not part of the other group, and any contribution from them is suspect to them. Next thing you know, all the friends of this person have created their own narrative and then we have factions, tribes, and points of conflict. They have banners to put on flags, for when they arrive at the field of battle. They have identifiers to make sure they don’t kill their own.

You know, “friendly fire.”

And rather than focus on how we got to that battle field, why they chose that banner, or even what the other people with another banner think, the soldiers focus on the narratives, gripes, and injuries that their friends have suffered. And thus skeptics, atheists, and other people who think of themselves as intelligent fall prey to the oldest of humanities weaknesses; rightness.

Righteousness.

What orthodoxy do you cling to? How do you know that thing and what are you going to do, how are your going to live, and what right actions are you going to practice to either confirm or deny that right doctrine. How are you going to justify that righteousness of yours?

Is skepticism or atheism like religion? No

Are skeptics and atheists like religious people? Yes

Because we’re all people.

Let’s focus on why we disagree, more than what we disagree about. Once we have a better handle on why we disagree, the disagreements will still be there, probably. In the end, we may still hate each other, but at least we didn’t merely bow to a flag that may or may not even be true.

Good luck out there.

*”To confront man henceforth with man in the way in which, hardened by the discipline of science, man today confronts the rest of nature, with dauntless Oedipus eyes and stopped-up Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird-catchers who have all too long been piping to him “you are more! you are higher! you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and extravagant task but it is a task” (Beyond Good and Evil,§230)

New GP post! No such thing as safe sex August 13, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
1 comment so far

My long-overdue next post at Grounded Parents is up! Wherein I fisk an article that bemoans the teaching of safe sex. Didja know that sex is only sex if you’ve been married for 20 years, otherwise it’s just masturbating with assistance? And that if you have sex without a Spiritually Sanctioned Union you’re going to need to load up on terrible things like pills and condoms and explanations of your intent? I didn’t, but I do now. Well, and then I wrote a post arguing against it, so now I don’t again. Or something.

Leveling Up August 11, 2014

Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society.
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super-mario-brosBeing a fan of RPGs (Role Playing Games, for all you n00bs), the concept of leveling up is very familiar to me. For the uninitiated, the basic idea is that when solving puzzles, slaying enemies, or using skills in the world (of the game, of course), your character  eventually gains enough experience to go from one level to another. With the new level, comes new powers, attributes, and in many cases the ability to access new things.

In real life, we gain new experiences all the time. The quality of the lessons of those experiences depends, greatly, on how difficult the task was. Are you getting really good at remembering to put the trash on the curb on trash day? Are you learning the streets of your new neighborhood? Did that argument with your friend, partner, or family member teach you something about yourself or even them? Did surviving some trauma make you more resilient?

Obviously, in real life there are not quantifiable levels. I don’t gain more “hit points” as I get stronger, but I may have a noticeably improved ability to withstand criticism, manage difficult feelings, or even to allow myself to be increasingly vulnerable (thanks to a friend for recommending this book to me, it has been a good read so far). And after a particularly difficult ordeal, we may feel such a significant difference that we feel like we are, in some ways, new people. The difference after some growth can feel more than merely quantitative, and in some cases it can have a qualitative feeling.  The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like leveling up.

Recently in my real life, I feel like I’ve leveled up.

 

Different directions

Good/Evil character images from Fable

Good/Evil character images from Fable

But here’s the thing. Experience and growth can go in many different directions. We have many cultural tropes which I could pull from, to make my meaning clearer. Perhaps the most recognizable would be the distinction between Jedi and Sith, as in the Star Wars universe. I could also refer to the game Fable, which has you not only level up, but your actions move you along a continuum from more “good” to “evil.” In this game, if you steal something, kill someone innocent, etc then you lose points, and slide a little (or a lot) towards the “evil” side of the scale. The decisions you make in the story line determine what kind of character you are in the long run (I usually lean strongly towards the good side, in games like this).

Either way, you have the opportunity to become more powerful, effective, and you can win the game. You can win the game as an evil character.

 

(But at what cost! What about the children!!!)

I find this analogy simplistic, compared to real life, but as an image to use it is at least somewhat helpful so I’ll stick with it. In real life, the decisions we make do determine our character. But unlike the game Fable, turning evil will not make you look demonic nor will making good choices make you look more like a wise sage or saint.  As with a saying which we get from Christian mythology (which Fable is obviously dependent upon), the devil may often appear to you in a pleasing shape, but it’s also true that the good may also not be easily recognizable. This is because in real life the experience of leveling up after an ordeal may indeed make you more powerful, but it will not necessarily make you better or healthier.

Power, in some sense, is neutral. Leveling up  does not necessarily make us better people. If the attributes you work on making stronger are attributes which make you less compassionate, more defensive, etc, then you may be stronger, more capable of success in many situations, but perhaps your increased power will be more of a detriment, if not for yourself than maybe for other people. Many a sociopath has become very successful and powerful, after all. Also, many a sociopath can blend in to the crowd, getting away with all sorts of shenanigans unseen.

 

What attributes do you upgrade when you level up?

wpid-skyrim-skills-to-level-100-quickly1I’m a big fan of The Elder Scrolls games, especially Skyrim. I started playing again recently (although I simply can’t play more than an hour or so these days without wanting to rejoin reality, which I think is a good thing).  In Skyrim, when you level up, you get to add points to one of many possible attributes, whether it is one-handed, speech, or smithing. What attributes you choose to upgrade will have implications for how successful you’ll be in making various decisions throughout the game.

So, if we were to try and stretch this analogy to real life, we could talk about what personal attributes we want to focus on improving, as we find ways to take lessons from events in our lives. Do we want to build a wall around ourselves, like armor? Do we want to improve our ability to communicate, like increasing persuasion? Do we want to add a point to archery, so we can do better damage to our opponents from a distance? (OK, the confusion between analogy and reality here makes me sound like I’m doing target practice in my basement, or something…). Do we want to improve our critical thinking skills, in order to tell the difference between truth and illusion? (This skeptic always says yes to this last one, but that attribute does not really come up in a world of magic, dragons, and gods like Skyrim, or Tamriel in general).

In any case, in real life it is the actual practice of said attributes which leads to the leveling up, I think, than the other way around. My ability to communicate my emotional needs better is a means to my becoming stronger. My ability to look self-critically at my mistakes and to work to learn about myself in order to not make those mistakes again have made me stronger. My ability to resist (for the most part) the desire to simply demonize and blame other people for succumbing to flaws which many of us share is a result of that increased strength.

But I could have gone down a different path. I could have taken the lesson that I should just keep more people at a distance, proclaim my superiority, and blamed everyone else while deflecting all accusations coming my way. I could have strengthened the all-too-human impulse to rationalize and defensively push away all culpability, and attack relentlessly anyone who would threaten the illusory shell that this move requires.  I could have made attributes within me stronger which would indeed help me in the world, but they would not help me be a better person. Because sometimes protecting oneself is not one of strength. Sometimes armor makes us weaker. Sometimes maintaining the illusion of strength actually hurts us.

Sometimes, as I have learned over the years, exposing all of our vulnerabilities and standing naked to the world, with all of our scars and imperfections exposed, is the only way to become strong.

vulnerability

And you can’t be vulnerable when you spend so much effort on creating armor and weapons alone. In real life, strength comes from investing in inner strength. The more you hide, defend, and attack, the more you can be hurt. Over-committing to an attack puts you off balance, exposes the holes in your armor, and all that hiding can have only left you atrophied and weak under that armor.

I am stronger, today, than I was a year ago. I am better, today, than I was a year ago. But not all people are better then they were, having traversed the ordeals of time and space. Simply having been through something does not make them better, even if it does make them stronger. A strong sword arm, after all, can only hurt people.

A person can indeed hurt me if I willingly expose my vulnerabilities, but the fact that someone might actually try to do so is what causes me pain. It’s when we forget that we are also scared, vulnerable, and imperfect when we feel justified in attacking others or hurting them even if we don’t want to do so. I’d do better to resist such sets of behavior myself (so would we all), but I am less likely to stop calling out behavior when it is genuinely hurtful to me or people close to me. If anyone wants me, or anyone else, to stop talking about the pain which they have caused other people, then take responsibility for it, do the work to actually grow, and make yourself less likely to do it again. If not, we will have every right to keep calling those people on their shit and being critical of their behavior.

Same goes for me. If I’m not continuing to do the work I need to do, then I welcome compassionate criticism.  I will hopefully be stronger in another year, and I will try to put my efforts into strengthening the attributes which will make me more compassionate, less afraid, and more vulnerable.   I hope, deeply, that we all do the same to the best of our ability.

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