The Con of Trumpism: Fake News and Skepticism February 2, 2017Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: alt-right, facts, fake news, media, Steve Bannon, Trump
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So, I feel silly even writing this. Honestly, I don’t think any of my readers are likely to be people susceptible to the fake news phenomenon anyway, but sometimes when you have a thing to say, as a writer, it just feels better to articulate the thought.
Thesis: The acceptance of fake news, and alt-facts in general, is the result of poor understanding of epistemology, good journalism, and of skeptical methods of determining truth. The larger philosophical goals of people who identify as skeptics, that of caring for and trying to find truth via rational and empirical means, is the cure for the cancer that is fake news and alternative facts in our current socio-political malaise.
Those behind the rise of fake news, such as Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, and many others (a couple of examples; here and here) are running a classic con game. Just like the many cult leaders and charlatans who created things such as Scientology and the Mormons (a B-list sci-fi writer and a known con-man), they attracted people using people’s fears, resentments, and making them feel like they are in on the “real” truth, while everyone else is brainwashed or otherwise deceived. Trumpism is akin to a cult, and it currently controls the levers of power in the United States.
A Bait/Switch: Bias in the media
In the many discussions I’ve had with Trumpists/Trumpkins/AltRight folks in recent weeks and months, I have seen the claim that the media lies, is biased, and that Trump is merely articulating (insofar as Trump is capable of such a task) a feeling of being misled and bamboozled by an elitist and mainstream perspective for far too long. Many people. largely but not exclusively conservative, have felt that their fears about and views of the world have not been taken seriously by many politicians, many people on influence, and the media in general. They really believe that Trump can make America Great Again. Not because they are stupid or evil (though some undoubtedly are), but because they are human.
That is, while there are some truly malignant people, such as White Nationalists, Neo-NAZIs, Klan members who feel an affinity with the Trumpist message, they are not the whole or even the center of the phenomenon. At bottom these associations, while concerning and legitimate to some degree, are missing the bigger picture. We cannot keep getting distracted by historical parallels and comparisons of the Trump phenomenon to things like NAZIs; one thing about history is that every time something like this happens, it’s a little bit different and we have to become inoculated to a new strain of awful, like an immune system exposed to a new pathogen. When we yell “No Trump, no KKK, no NAZI USA!”, we lose the attention of people following Trump because they don’t see themselves as NAZIs or Klan members. Something more subtle and terrible is happening here, than that.
Now, let me start out by saying that there is definitely some legitimacy to what Trump followers are responding to; politics, media and American culture have all sort sof problems that we need to repair, and those in power have no interest in doing so. The problem, however, is that there is a bait and switch occurring. The bait is bias, and the switch is media dishonesty. Because the fact that the media is biased, while undoubtedly true, is not relevant at all to the question of whether the media is lying.
Some thoughts about bias and media deception.
- Bias is unavoidable and irrelevant. Good journalists know that they are biased, that their editors are biased, and that their paper/TV show/etc probably leans one way or another on a number of issues, even if they attempt to remain editorially neutral. A good journalist attempts to edit out the bias, make it explicit, and/or attempt to steelman the arguments of their opponents in an attempt to argue with the best version/interpretation of their points, rather than dismiss or straw-man them. Bias, itself is not a problem if ones arguments are logical, there is sufficient evidence for points raised, and everyone attempts to engage fairly with people who disagree. Claiming that a media source is biased is trivially true, and unless their bias is not counterbalanced with evidence-based claims and logic, pointing out the existence of bias is irrelevant.
- Bias is not the same thing as an agenda. And while even those with an agenda can also have good arguments, facts, and good motivations, that agenda needs to be transparent. Outlets which are clearly partisan, whether it’s (for example) RedState, OccupyDemocrats, etc will be advocating for a specific cause, argument, or political group. And while this agenda does not imply that what they say is wrong or right, the agenda will bend and refract the facts it enumerates and reports. We as readers need to be able to recognize the slant, look at other sources, and use critical thinking to pry under the surface of the agendas. Unless their claims are substantiated by other outlets which are not affiliated with the same agendas we should be highly skeptical of the claims from sources with an agenda.
- Some media outlets do out-right lie, others make mistakes and either clarify them or ignore such mistakes. Reporting the news is difficult, especially when you are reporting on breaking news, leaks, or complicated issues. If you catch a media source in provable (or at least reasonable) error, and they do not retract, apologize, and or at least clarify, then you may be dealing with a dishonest or unscrupulous source.
- But a lie is not the same thing as a competing narrative. And this is where the real problem in the current climate exists. There are a lot of worldviews and political leanings which exist with their own values, stories, and communities. What I’m seeing a lot of, right now, especially from the alt-right and from President Trump himself, are a conflation between an alternative narrative and a claim of truth/falsity. A factual error is not merely an alternative perspective; if your beliefs are not substantiated by logic and evidence, then it’s probably not true.
This is similar to the problem I’ve had with post-modern and woo-woo beliefs over the years from the left, where people have their own truths and there is a de-valuing of critical thinking and objective truth. My instinct, gut feeling, or intuition are not sufficient for me to label something as true; I need an argument with reasoning and evidence, or I’m just making shit up. At best, I’ll be accidentally correct.
But what’s happening with the alt-right, in the last few years up through the recent elections, is more pernicious than that sort of vague subjectivism of truth. No, what Steve Bannon and his allies have done is made black into white, up into down, and gossip/conspiracy/fears into (alternative) truth. Where media with journalistic standards which rely on a network of fact-checking and cut-throat competition which weeds out poor arguments and unproven claims, the alt right gives us conspiracy theories based in fears and an agenda. Then, after weaving a narrative which resonates with people, they claim they are the source of truth, and that the fact-based media is lying.
And you know why it works? Well, as anyone who has ever started a religion (cult leaders), sold a miracle cure (snake oil), or ran a pyramid scheme knows, you can convince many people of most things. Because ‘con’ is short for confidence. It’s among the oldest tricks in the book (including most holy books). Fake news is not new; it’s been a central part of every con ever done, and America has been politically hijacked by people running a massive con game in search for power and money.
It’s not different from things like this: Big pharma is trying to sell you expensive drugs to control you and get rich, but we at (let’s make up a name) Herbaltech have this wonderful herbal tea which will cure your illnesses, and it’s only $25! But act now, before big pharma catches onto us and they sue us with their elitist lawyers. In other words, it’s charlatans fooling people who are not thinking critically about the claims they are hearing. Fake news, alt-truth, and billionaire “outsiders” who care about the people are selling people snake oil, and now run the country. too hypothetical? Fine, take a look at this.
There is no significant difference between the alt-right and any other con that skepticism has been unconvinced by for centuries. Cons feed on fear, disillusionment, and tribalism to create a rift between you and your money, votes, and allegiance (in order to get more of the previous two). For those who claimed that the major parties were corrupt and sought an outsider, they sure picked one who was much worse than the system they lost confidence in.
It’s not all that different from someone who is distrustful of organized religion finding a spiritual leader who end up being a cult leader. In fact, it’s very much like that. If you voted for Trump because he was an outsider not beholden to the political structures you don’t trust, you were conned by someone equally, if not more, corrupt than the DNC or the RNC/GOP.
Mainstream media and skepticism
I subscribe to the New York Times, and read it regularly, as well as some other sources (such as the Washington post, Rachel Maddow, the WSJ, and a number of blogs and podcasts) . I’ve been told that the NYT is biased, and that they lie all the time, by supporters of Trump. Hell, Trump himself has said it more than once. Now, I have no doubt that many of the writers for the NYT are biased; against Trump? definitely. Do they lean, in general, towards the Democrats over Republicans? Yeah, that seems largely true. But so what?
Are their claims true? Is their reporting accurate? Also, is it true that the DNC has become more mainstream and conservative, hence losing their left-wing/Progressive base which once stood up for the working class? That would explain why the mainstream media seems closer to the DNC, rather than the media becoming more liberal.
Now, part of the problem is that so many people supporting Trump are so far to the right that, from their point of view, the NYT looks like a commie hippie rag. But from where I stand, they seem centrist. That is, where the center seems to be depends on where you are on the spectrum. And it seems to me that much of the alt-right has lost site of where the extremes of the political spectrum actually exist. I don’t think the alt-right understands the far left very well, or how much farther left they are than the NYT (or the DNC, for that matter).
Now, the question of where the center actually is, and whether it exists anymore, is a separate and interesting question unto itself, but the issue here is how a media outlet handles the political spectrum in terms of its editorial decisions. That is, how they frame issues, how often they include stories from various political perspectives, and what they report, (not merely where the journalists themselves sit on the bias spectrum).
Whatever bias the editorial staff, reporters, or owners of the NYT has, so long as their standards of journalism are good, they retract mistakes, and they keep their biases transparent, then they cannot be called liars. That’s simply not based in reality. Whatever media we are talking about, their bias should be kept in mind, but the important part not to ignore is whether their claims are supported by *gasp* facts.
Atheists, especially if they used to be religious, are commonly personally opposed to religion. Are they biased against religion? Perhaps, but there is a difference between opposition to something for good reasons and mere bias. They are not incompatible, and one can be both opposed and biased, but sometimes opposition is earned. The New York Times, I believe (but I am probably biased) has good reason to be opposed to Donald Trump and his administrations actions so far in office. To merely call that ‘bias’ and dismiss it (or call it dishonesty) ignores the evidence, logic, and emotional import of their arguments and reporting.
Sometimes what we call bias just happens to look like a skewed perspective from the point of view of the one in error. Kierkegaard once said the following:
“One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’ One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth. Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e., by deceiving them, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion”
Now, I imagine that a Leninist like Steve Bannon could have a field day with that quote, but what it means to me is that when one is in error, the truth looks like a lie; it looks like a deceived, biased, silly way to see the world. We atheists look silly to those believers, and we readers of the media seem brainwashed by people who are actually brainwashed by fake news sources such as Alex Jones and Breitbart.com. The relativism is one of perception of truth, not truth itself. And the tribalism which grows around those who distrust the media helps support and bolster that feeling of distrust. Religion has been using that trick for millennia.
It is possible to absolutely despise Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama and accurately report on facts concerning each. It’s possible to not care for any of them in particular, and lie you ass off in every sentence about any of them. Biased does not imply incorrect or untrustworthy. There is a difference between what you think of a person, their policies, and what happened. What actually happened–the facts–don’t care about your biases. Truth is that which remains when you stop thinking or caring about an issue.
But what I’m seeing in our culture recently is not that the media is making up events, but that they are reporting facts with an attempt to communicate a narrative, based in facts, about the world that the complaining source does not like. Was the crowd at Trump’s inauguration the largest ever? Was it bigger than Obama’s? Was it larger than the Women’s march the following day? It seems like the answers are all no (if you look at the evidence), but don’t tell Trump or his followers that. His voters think that his inauguration was the biggest of all time, say this poll. Alternative facts, folks.
That is where skepticism comes in.
That’s why we need a media driven by facts, and not propaganda, conspiracy-theorists, and people who identify with Sith (I’m referring to Steve Bannon, here) who have been known to manipulate the truth in order to gain power.
Journalism’s standards are similar to those of skepticsm; it relies on fact-checking, the competitiveness of the media market, etc. Yes, there is room for clickbait, media with agendas, and fake news in that market, but that is no different than saying that there is room for Scientology, cult leaders, and (yes) Christianity in a world that depends on science to give us better medicine, technology, and a far greater understanding of reality. The fact that alternative facts, fake news, and lies can exist in media is akin to how religion survives despite it’s complete lack of evidence or logical consistency with the world; it creates a narrative which appeals to people, creates confidence, and then becomes the center of a tribe who support each other’s narratives about how they have the truth.
At bottom, religion, political movements, and pretty much everything that humans argue about is tribalistic. The alt-right is a set of tribes who accept an alternative set of facts and narratives about the world which feeds off of fear, ignorance, and a lack of critical thinking. And the places where that critical thinking exists, which is much of the mainstream media (despite its flaws), is the only source of challenge to that tribal power. That’s why the alt-right, specifically Steve Bannon, sees it as the opposition.
They will frame it otherwise, of course, but to con-artists all skepticism is seen as the enemy.
Liberal elites and Rural White America: a failure to understand or a failure of skepticism? November 16, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion.
Tags: 2016 Elections, divided America, Hillary Clinton, politics, Trump
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The internet is ablaze with various opinions as to whether the lessons that the DNC, and liberal America in general, need to learn is that we don’t understand the struggles and anger of most of America or whether it’s something else entirely. I’ve been sort of moping about trying to make sense of this, and then today something snapped into place, for me.
Now, in some sense I cannot answer this question on my own. I am a life-long East coast liberal elite, and so I’m looking at this through that lens. I am (over-)educated, I’m economically comfortable, I’m a progressive, and I’m privileged as fuck. But what I can do is tease out some complicated questions which are colored by some issues with which I have ample experience and understanding.
White American Christianity, Dominionism, and lack of critical thinking skills are a huge (yuge?) part of this story, and we cannot afford to lose sight of that while ruminating about what to learn from the US election of 2016. From fake news articles spread via social media, the conspiracy theories thrown about by conservative media for decades (including Trump’s chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, who worked with Breitbart.com), to the theocratic fear spread by Christianity since the 1960’s here in America, this past election cycle was a perfect storm of un-skeptical bullshit, perpetuated by a con-man and picked up by millions of American idiots all over the country.
Let’s start here. Read this post by Forsetti:
No, seriously, go read the post now. I don’t have to wait for you, but this perspective is what compelled me to write today. It was this article which sparked something to snap in place in my head.
If you didn’t read the post, (because I know you most-likely didn’t) here’s the conclusion, for context:
What I understand is rural, Christian, white America is entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems, don’t trust people outside their tribe, have been force fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades, are unwilling to understand their own situations, truly believe whites are superior to all races. No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe. No amount of niceties is going to get them to be introspective. No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them. I understand rural, Christian, white America all too well. I understand their fears are based on myths and lies. I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to. I understand they are willing to vote against their own interest if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more. I understand their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians. I understand them. I understand they are the problem with progress and will always be because their belief systems are constructed against it. The problem isn’t a lack of understanding by “coastal elites” of rural, Christian, white America. The problem is a lack of understanding why rural, Christian, white America believes, votes, behaves the ways it does by rural, Christian, white America.
Them be some strong words, and they fly in the face of the narrative which I have seen dominate the liberal blogosphere, social media, etc in the last week. You know, the idea that Hilary Clinton didn’t win because she and the rest of the DNC have failed to understand the plight, fears, and anger of the parts of America which are not the metropolitan, elite, largely-coastal parts of the United States. That if only the elite Hillary campaign could have reached out better, addressed more of the concerns that many Americans have, and stopped being so damned arrogant and dismissive then perhaps Trump’s America would not be so opposed to the messages of those of us who want an inclusive, open, and diverse culture.
And maybe Donald Trump could not have rose to the power he so very much craves, and which threatens the future of so many.
It’s a compelling story. It strokes the introspective and self-deprecating nature of most liberals and progressives. But isn’t that the very problem? Don’t we, liberal, educated, elites who live mostly in larger towns and cities, spend too much damned time making sure we are being understanding and respectful of those who don’t see the world the way we do? Are we too introspective and self-deprecating? Aren’t we failing in the very same way we failed in the George “Dubya” Bush era?
OK, let me breathe here, for a second, and spend a few moments reflecting on that message. For me, the strongest case made for the view that we didn’t sufficiently understand Trump’s America, written by Emmett Rensin several months ago (long before the election or nomination of trump) and which has been making the rounds recently, is the following article:
Here’s the conclusion I draw: If Donald Trump has a chance in November, it is because the knowing will dictate our strategy. Unable to countenance the real causes of their collapse, they will comfort with own impotence by shouting, “Idiots!” again and again, angrier and angrier, the handmaidens of their own destruction.
The smug style resists empathy for the unknowing. It denies the possibility of a politics whereby those who do not share knowing culture, who do not like the right things or know the Good Facts or recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of their own ideas can be worked with, in spite of these differences, toward a common goal.
In other words, we, smug elites will look down upon the rural, angry, and politically powerful (we know now) people but fail to understand them. And it’s true; I do not understand their perspective very well because I’ve never lived it. But I have been arguing, for years, that the tribalism, religious ignorance, and unwillingness to look past one’s own bubble is the cause of people’s continuing religiosity (in this case, white Christian privilege), conservative attitudes about relationships (default monogamy), sexuality (hetero-normativity) and the pervasiveness of gender binary among other staples of the conservative worldview underlying Trump’s message.
I have been arguing, for years, that conservatism (especially the Alt-Right) is anchored in fear, tribalism, and lack of understanding. I’ve seen, from the point of view of a polyamorous, atheist, skeptic, that the lenses through which most of our culture sees the world are skewed and built out of a lack of understanding. So yes, I live in a sort-of bubble, but that bubble is one mostly of privilege and the comfort that comes along with that; the world I live in is safe to be abnormal and marginalization is less severe here. But I do understand that ignorance and fear exist and informs worldviews–and I know what those worldviews are because I have seen pockets of them even here, and I make a point of listening to them when they aren’t.
But do those people in conservative rural America understand my perspective? Hundreds of conversations, over my lifetime, about religion imply that the majority of our culture does not understand the nature of their own religion, let alone other religions or atheism. Similar conversations about relationships and sexuality indicate that most people have never really questioned why they are monogamous or why they are afraid of homosexuality/bisexuality in many cases. And most of the conversations I’ve ever had imply that basic skeptical attitudes are foreign to the majority of people, everywhere.
So, is the problem a lack of understanding? Yes. But I think that the majority of the lack of understanding does not come from those of us who are elite (but yes, some of it does). I believe the lion’s share of that lack of understanding comes from the people who do not understand how their own worldview, beliefs, and anger fits into the larger set of ideas about the world. Whether ignorance, fear, or simple inability to comprehend are responsible, the simple fact is that the majority of people do not understand the arguments of the elite communities everywhere. The privilege of a good education, including the skills of skepticism and doubt, supply some people with a greater understanding of the world around us. And cosmopolitanism provides an environment for that to exist, where rural areas tend to stifle it.
Those of us able to see that Donald Trump is a con man, unprepared for his role are POTUS, and a representation of almost everything wrong with our culture were screaming, for months, how dangerous he is. And a significant number, about half of those who voted, could not understand that. Or didn’t care. Or weren’t paying sufficient attention. I’m not sure which of those is worse than the others, but they are all bad. This was the wrong time for an establishment candidate, so people were tired of it all and either protested at the ballots or stayed home on election day. They failed to understand how bad Trump’s candidacy was. And so we will all be forced to deal with the consequences of that ignorance, apathy, or deplorablility.
But let’s not forget that there is something to take away from Emmett Rensin’s article. Our reaction cannot simply be to call them idiots, morons, ignoramuses, etc and then go about sitting in our comfortable shells, feeling superior, with our “Good Facts,” feeling smug. No, we need to organize, reach out, and at least try to improve education, filter out poor sources of news and opinion (I’m looking at you, social media), and actually do the work to raise the level of dialog in our culture.
You know, like the good parts of the skeptic/atheist movement has been trying to do for years.
The time for blame is past, and now is the time for action. If we want our dialogue to change, so that our culture can change, and so our politics can change, then we need to do a lot of hard work.
We, skeptics and atheists, have been honing these skills for a long time now. Well, some of us have (I’m looking at you MRAs; You are part of Trumps’ America). Now we need to start utilizing those tools in wider circles. We need, in our culture right now, a serious injection of skepticism, curiosity, and (perhaps most of all) empathy and patience.
Because wherever the truth is, introspection, skepticism, and communication will dig it up. Not bigotry and fear.
Dubya, Trump, and social justice November 11, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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Back in 2000, when George W. (“Dubya”) Bush was “elected” President, there was a lot of concern from the Left, and there were a lot of protests. Al Gore had received more overall votes. The shenanigans in Florida which led to some confusion about how the voting cards worked might have been a deciding factor in the electoral college. In the end, Bush II became president, and many of us who saw him as an idiot were afraid for the future of our country.
We, naively, thought that was about as bad as it could get in our democracy.
I was also concerned, and started attending some meetings of some groups who were protesting the election, but more importantly this was around the time I discovered the atheist community. It was January of 2002 (so right after 9/11), when I was starting classes at West Chester University (MA program in philosophy, where I graduated in 2003), where I first met people such as Margaret Downey, Staks Rosch, and other allies in the atheist community that would eventually become friends.
You see, for us at the time, the major concern was religious conservatism in politics. We were genuinely worried about the separation of church and state, women’s rights as they were affected by such incursions, and the close relationship between religion and the military (my article about Battle Cry will provide some context for this).
This was long before the arguments about Social Justice Warriors and MRAs. While those issues were being discussed, they had not hit mainstream media yet. At best, they were mocked in such outlets as the movie PCU (from 1994), but were not part of the larger political conversation.
With my experience marching through the streets of Philadelphia last night, protesting the election of Donald Trump, I believe that has changed. This election, in retrospect, is more about social justice than any previous election. Yes, those issues are always relevant, and they matters in 2000, but with our president-elect being a misogynistic, racist, lying sexual abuser and con-man (among other things), all of the things that we have been arguing about on social media over the last few years are now on display in the split for who we voted for in this election.
It seems clear that those who either support, or are indifferent to, racism, misogyny, sexual assault, etc exist in large enough numbers to elect a man who represents all of them. because whether there is room for blame in the DNC, Hillary’s own faults, and those who didn’t come out to vote, the simple fact that people actually voted for this man, this narcissistic man-child (and don’t I have some experience with such people…), is the fundamental problem.
Yes, the DNC has some major work to do, if it wants to survive. Yes, Hillary Clinton was flawed in many ways. Yes, voter apathy is disgusting and depressing. Yes, there were shitty third party candidates who might have effected some elections. But at bottom, people actually voted for this fundamentally unprepared con-man. That’s the thing we need to be focusing on.
Last night, while marching, the message was that the rights of women, immigrants, POC, and many other marginalized groups are terrified b the implications of this election. Yes, Trump himself is awful, but what scares us most is that there are enough people who either are supportive of, complicit with, or indifferent to anything except their own sense of loss of privilege.
Because let’s not fool ourselves; the disaffected whites, all over the USA, who supported Trump are feeling ignored, irrelevant, and economically pressurized and their fear, ignorance, and hate spoke out Tuesday night. But, frankly, that’s how marginalized people have felt for decades/centuries, so I do not have much sympathy for their fear. Loss of dominance and privilege is not suffering. Such anger, Trump supporters, is what the people you have been indifferent to have had to deal with all their lives.
I, as an atheist, polyamorous, democratic socialist have experienced some small amount of marginalization. But my being white, male, cis, heterosexual, and economically comfortable (at least recently) have afforded me the ability to speak freely without fear for my life or livelihood. Demographically, I’m not all that far from the people who support Trump, and so I can see part of the anger and fear that they have. But I do not respect it, because they fail to see the larger picture.
Your fear, anger, and hate that led you to vote for a terrible candidate and terrible human being are insignificant to the fear, anger, and hate (yes, that exists too, despite our desire to use love, primarily) that you have caused by perpetuating a culture which demeans those whom don’t fit into your white, patriarchal, Christian, heterosexual, “normal” worldview.
You, Trump’s America, cannot be allowed to maintain the cultural dominance you became used to, because doing so means that those you are afraid of will have to continue to be marginalized. This election may feel like a victory to you, but to so many, it’s a source of genuine fear for people’s rights, safety, and lives.
Lastly, I saw a sign (but didn’t take a picture–d’oh!) last night from a Trump supporter which read “Trump won, move on.” So, had Hillary won, that armed revolt we were threatened with would have not happened? The last 8 years of Obama being the anti-Christ, Islamic extremist, and totalitarian overlord who would destroy America and never give up office was the conservative base moving on after he won?
Fuck that. We may have to accept 4 years of a con-man as president, but we don’t have to tolerate your continuing fear, anger, and hate making this culture awful for more generations. We will fight you, and we must win because what is at stake is people’s survival, while you are only fighting for your comfort.
Fight Club, Mr. Robot, and why Trump is a thing November 2, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: 2016 Elections, Fight Club, Mr. Robot, politics, Trump
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I just watched Fight Club for the first time in many years. I forgot so much. I forgot how much I liked that movie. I forgot how much it had to say to a pre-9/11 world about the struggle between rich and poor, the anger underneath much of our culture, and the distrust of the economic elite and the distaste fir the materialistic culture of the bourgeois.
It’s right up my alley; over-the-top symbolism, cultural criticism, and still relevant. Watching some of Mr. Robot (which is clearly derivative, but also awesome), it is clear that the questions asked in this movie, also of course the book, are still pulsing through our culture. Culture, after all, is the very heart of the worldview in which we live.
And as I was watching it, it occurred to me that this was a prediction of a Trump America.
And then I realized that I was seeing patterns where there might not be any, while feeling the pull of a deep fear compelling me to believe it.
And then I realized that was the perfect metaphor for a Trump America, and my love of all things ‘meta’ caused me to laugh at it all.
Because it’s all so terrifyingly real, and I had to laugh in order to not cry.
To be honest, I’m not sure what to say about it all.
Am I supposed to sympathize with the deep fear, anger, and passion of a Trumpish America? It’s close enough to my familial, economic, and geographical (in terms of the part of Philadelphia I grew up in) background to be comprehensible to me, for sure. I can understand it.
When the world is fundamentally broken, what does it matter if the ship sinks? Who cares if he’s a narcissistic bully who will throw our country into disrepute. Aren’t we already there, in some regards? Does it matter to us?
If the system is broken, and refuses to maintain the comfortable priviliege I’ve gotten used to, why try to save it?
What do you mean it’s not broken? What do you mean it is salvageable? What do you mean Hillary isn’t crooked? I mean, she has to be to get along within it. The only way to survive in that system is to play dirty.
So, why not cut out the middle man? Instead of a corrupt politician taking money from the interested elite, why not just elect the elite? At least he’s not lying to us (although he actually is). Why not just have the economic elite control it directly, and let it all fall down? Why not hasten its fall? Why pretend to put in a shill, and just unmask the Wizard behind the curtain?
Why not stand naked to the world, so everyone can see what we are?
Trump is America.
He’s our Tyler Durden.
And perhaps now it’s time to wake up and realize that it was us, the whole time creating this monster, before it’s too late. Perhaps the steady, non-ideal status quo is the only choice right now. when faced with our racist, misogynistic, bully of the America we have been ignoring for far too long.
And with Stein being a terrible choice, anyway, and Gary Johnson being a Libertarian, PolySkeptic.com has no choice but to endorse Hillary Clinton this year.
Let’s hope that future choices are more ideal.
PolySkeptic Game reviews: Bubble Bobble September 20, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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Let’s talk video games!
Growing up, I had an NES. I loved it, and through middle and high school, my friends and I would still play it, even as newer systems came out. But there is one game that stands out, for me. Even above the original Zelda (which I also love), was a 2 player game which I still play, today (via an emulator on my Fedora box in my living room), on occasion when he and I hang out.
So, if you’ve never played this game, it’s basically two adorable dragons, Bubblun and Bobblun, who shoot bubbles at monsters to capture them, then you need to burst the bubble to get prizes and to clear the level.
And as you move along, the levels get harder, you find power-ups, new monsters are introduced, and you discover mini-games within the game, mostly involving finding rare objects which have different effects and prizes.
Not only is the game challenging and fun, it encourages you to play with a friend. In fact, it’s not possible to get the “Happy End” without a second player (well, technically you can, but it’s sort of a cheat). That is, the game is designed to be played with someone; not in competition, but in cooperation.
Also, the final battle, against the boss at the end, is fun. As in, it’s not only hard, but it’s fun to do. It’s really satisfying to get a chain of lightning bubbles in a row, and then escape, unscathed, under the boss who bounces around the screen shooting bottles at you. Trust me, it’s very satisfying.
The game is not sophisticated in the graphics department. It will not leave you breathless with it’s artistic or aesthetic flair. But I still love playing it, and every time we approach level 57 we start to get revved up because it’s one of the hardest levels to get through, and once we do we feel better because we got through the worst of it.
But it’s a great game which you can enjoy with a friend, and it’s among my favorite memories from growing up, which I can still enjoy today.
So, if you still have a functioning NES, and can find this game, well that’s awesome. But if you don’t, find a game emulator and download the Bubble Bobble ROM and enjoy. I even have a couple of USB controllers which look like the original NES controllers, mostly to play this game. Totally worth it.
Damn, now I want to go home and play right now….
Skepticism v. Instincts, round 12 August 4, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory, relationships, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, this blog is about skepticism, primarily. I have said, many times, that skepticism is my primary philosophical orientation, and that many of my beliefs and lifestyle choices emanate, ultimately, from a natural sense of skepticism–of seeking the truth over comfort, with the help of logic, empiricism, etc.
But what about instinct? What about deep feeling and the uncertain world of emotion which drives us? What do we do with that? What do we do when, not having all the evidence available, we have a deeply emotional feeling about something? How much should we listen to this?
Here’s a puzzle. Let’s say that my instincts have made me feel very strongly, about certain situations and/or people, which I have ignored because I thought it fair to not merely allow my emotions to sway me when more objective means of judgment could give me a better conclusion. It sounds rational, right? My mere feelings are not sufficient, and I should, as a good skeptic, demand some more evidence before allowing myself to make a decision or form a conclusion. So, I table the feeling and try to wait for more evidence.
This tendency has ended up scarring me, more than a couple of times.
Upon first meeting a former metamour, whom I have written about before, all my alarms rang in my head that this person was problematic. But I ignored these alarms, these instinctual judgments made at a level not quite conscious, and tried to be open-minded and skeptical. I saw that people around him liked him, he seemed popular and well-liked. So I ignored those instincts and allowed myself to be swayed by the patience required to get all the data. That didn’t end well.
Before I moved to Atlanta with an ex (who ended up abandoning me there) my instincts told me that making the move would be a positive experience, and that those warning me against it were just being overly skeptical. I was feeling optimistic and adventurous with someone I loved, respected, and trusted. That didn’t end well, either.
In other words, my instincts have been wrong and right, and so I have “learned,” repeatedly, to ignore them because they are unreliable as a means towards truth.
Like a good skeptic.
And yet there are times when those instincts are really strong, and I have to wonder whether this is one of the times I need to listen to them or, you know, not this time. Because our brains, while prone to error, also have tools which can alert us to subtle signals which give us information about the world. Sometimes, our instincts are right, and when we have been hurt, we tend to be sensitive to the signals that we have run into before. So, sometimes a gut feelings is worth paying significant attention to.
But where we draw the line between following our gut and holding out for more information is related to how much we trust ourselves. And if one is insecure and has self-trust issues (hey there, nice to meet you!), one might end up erring on the side of ignoring those instincts where we should have given them more consideration.
I think that I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that most of the times I have a really strong feeling about something, I’m at least partially right. And, yet, I more often than not ignore my gut feelings to my detriment, because I feel like giving a person or situation a chance, even though it does not feel right.
In short, I do not trust my own feelings and judgment because I want to be appropriately skeptical. That is, I recognize that my instincts and feelings can be wrong. So, the question is whether this is a form of self gaslighting, or is this healthy behavior?
To what degree is questioning how I feel, at a gut-level, a healthy method of self-reflection and introspection? There are many who would probably argue that doing it for other people is inappropriate, manipulative, and possibly abusive, insofar as doing so is probably gaslighting; questioning someone else’s feelings and perceptions about something is a form of questioning their ability to perceive the world correctly, after all. But I’m not sure where the line is, especially if we are doing it introspectively.
I believe that it is not only possible, but common, for people to have incorrect perceptions, feelings, and perspectives about the world around them. I believe that some level of wondering “how much are my fears, biases, or lack of understanding making me not see this situation correctly?”is not only appropriate, but necessary in order to be a rational human being.
But at the same time, there is a point where we need to accept that our feelings are sometimes, even when we cannot skeptically check them out, valuable and often spot on. There are times when we need to get the fuck out if something feels creepy or unsafe. There are times when we need to force ourselves to look deeper at a situation, person, or idea when our initial reaction is defensiveness, fear, or anger. Because we are too prone to selection bias and reacting negatively to ideas which do not fit well within our current boundaries and bubbles. And sometimes the bubble we exist within is a lens through which reality is skewed and warped.
Sometimes, what we think of as strength and standing up for ourselves is, in fact, bias skewing our perception. Sometimes, questioning our perception of reality is the appropriate method. That is, if we care about the truth.I’m just not sure how to tell the difference between when my instincts are right, and when they are a warped perspective, filtered through fear, bias, pain, etc.
Our instincts, or deep feelings, and our personal perspectives are not truths, necessarily, but they can often be good signposts. The concept of something being “true for me” is deeply problematic and philosophically sophomoric. As we build an instinctual defense mechanism within us, we need to make sure that the springs, levers, etc of that mechanism are not made out of bias, fear, and pain. Because those building tools will not build a skeptical shield.
As I watch my defensive mechanism work inside me, I am forced to admit that more parts than I’d like are made out of fear, trauma, and pain. I will not ignore the alarms that this mechanism set off, but I damned well will not let a non-skeptical and automatic mechanism make conclusions nor decisions for me. So when the red flag is thrown up from that lever, I’ll stop and take a look at it, but I will not be reactionary insofar as I allow my past pain and fear to determine my future path.
I have learned many signs of problematic behavior in the last few years, from many people. But I will not allow the people that compelled me to build my defenses define those in front of me, on this path. But at the same time, those in front of me on my path will have to contend with someone who has seen some shit, and sure as hell will not allow you to get away with any of it.
Because I’m sick of people’s shit.
More importantly, I’m sick of my own shit.
Trying it July 18, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
Tags: manipulation, monogamy, relationships
My partner just recently went through a breakup with a guy she’d been seeing recently. He was new to polyamory, and from what I could tell, he was not handling the newfound relationship territory well. At some point towards the end of the relationship, he requested that she try monogamy for him, since he was willing to try polyamory for her.
You know, in order be fair. Since he tried a new relationship configuration for her, she should try something similar for him. 50/50 compromise, right?
Nope. That’s not how that works.
OK, so I think I understand what’s going on here, in his head. It seems like there is some serious blindness occurring here, which I’m not especially surprised about but which I am somewhat fascinated with nonetheless. The assumption seems to be that he is putting a significant effort into trying to understand polyamory (whether he actually was doing so is another question. She seems to think not), and is not finding that it is what he wants so in order for the relationship to have the equal give and take on both sides, he’s requesting that his partner, who is also my partner, try being monogamous with him.
It’s only fair, right?
I mean, it would mean that she’d have to break up with me to do so. But that’s hardly the important point here. The important point is that in our culture, a person who is polyamorous is almost certainly extremely aware of what monogamy is, how it works, and does not need to “try it” to understand how it is likely to go. The important point is that he either does not understand that we, polyamorously-inclined people, already know what being monogamous entails and how it’s likely to work for us, or he does understand and he is trying to guide his fear, jealousy, etc into a comfortable box within which he can assert control.
In fact, it’s somewhat analogous to when a Christian evangelical tries to introduce non-believers to Jesus, as if we don’t know it, already. They seem either completely unaware that we understand their message and their worldview, or they are so afraid of their own uncertainties about said story that they want to pull others into their little box in an attempt to placate their fear with vindication through company.
Poly people, especially those of us who think and write about it, are aware of monogamy in a way that monogamous people, in many cases, are not. We see it from multiple perspectives, because we are faced with the various facets, assumptions, and problems of the traditionally monogamous world. We don’t need to try it because not only, in many cases, did we come from the monogamous world, but we also tend to have a greater understanding of relationship dynamics in general.
[I’ll add, here, that this is not an argument that we are smarter, more wise, or right, just that we have a perspective which grants us the potential for greater vision of the relationship/sexuality landscape]
So, no. We don’t need to try monogamy for those partners struggling with the shift to polyamory. We certainly can if we choose to, but such a request comes across as more of an attempt to manipulate and control than to lead towards a more healthy and satisfying relationship.
And, to my relief, she said no.
Which is great, because I love her and I wouldn’t want her to leave me for some monogamous bloke, unless it was what she actually wanted.
Polyamory: not the plural of traditional monogamy May 20, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, relationships.
Tags: couple privilege, hierarchy, rules, secondary
So, updates and such
Hey there blog readers, remember me?
So, I’ve been a way for a bit. Was between contracts for a while, enjoying Spring, and playing some hockey. I started a new job this week. It seems like a good fit, and they seem to want to make me full time once I get trough the trial period of the contract, which is great. I find myself with a slow-ish afternoon on the last day of this first week, and I decided to say a few things.
A few things.
There, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can get on with the such.
Have you ever been in a relationship that was just not going well? I mean, the person is great, you love being with them, but something just isn’t right? Maybe it’s not a good match, maybe one or both of you is going through some shit and it’s getting in the way. Maybe their other relationships are effecting your relationship. In any case, it’s just better being done with it, and while you miss the person, you don’t miss the relationship?
You still love that person, and you probably even miss them, but once the situation is gone and done, you can see all the things you couldn’t before and you don’t want to go back unless things would be different. And you know that they probably will not be.
You know what I mean?
Well, whether you understand or not, the fact is that there is actually a meaning there, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.
I was in a relationship with a lovely, intelligent, and very sexy woman for about 2 years, which ended recently (she ended things, to be clear). I miss her, every day. We have not spoken in about 3 months. The reasons for our relationship ending are not really relevant here, but suffice it to say that I understand why it ended and am no longer angry about it. I’m disappointed, mostly.
But after some time away, some things became clear, and I think that this type of situation is common enough in polyamory to say a few words about it.
It concerns a pattern which is very common to people who are just trying polyamory for the first time, and how they set down rules, expectations, etc which become largely unspoken minefields for the people with whom they become involved. Now, this type of thing is addressed in some of the polyamorous literature (including More Than Two, but I cannot cite the chapter because I don’t have my copy with me, and am too lazy to look it up, currently), but I still think that this particular problem is under-discussed among actual polyamorous people, especially among those who are new to it.
I get it. You are established in your relationship, and you want to make sure that your relationship isn’t threatened. So you make some rules, but more than the rules you expect some level of control over who your partner sees, when they see them, and perhaps establish a hierarchy to make sure you are primary; to make sure your place is not threatened.
Yes, this is about couple privilege and imposed rules and hierarchies. Anyone who gets involved with any such established couples will be subject to an agreement they never made, and further will often have similar expectations on anyone else you might see, because such control becomes the default in how they think about relationships.
What is happening here is traditional models of relationships are being smuggled into a polyamorous situation. As if polyamory was just the plural of traditional monogamy. Spoiler; it’s not.
The control and sense of ownership inherent in most relationships in our culture, which is the basis for much of monogamy, is already a problem on it’s own, but it is especially toxic when people try to apply it to a non-monogamous situation. The result is that the control extends beyond the primary relationship, and seeps into the secondary and tertiary relationships. Anyone who gets involved with such a primary couple risks inheriting the rules, sense of ownership and control, and manipulation involved in such a relationship.
From the point of view of the primary couple, there is no problem. They see this as how it’s always been, and possibly how it should be. They, in short, are comfortable with it (or, at least one of them is; probably the one making the rules). But to those outside, it acts very much like a minor form of oppression. You find yourself subject to rules you didn’t agree to, you find yourself having to defer to the primary relationship almost always, and there is a gap in the potential for intimacy, especially the longer the relationship goes on.
You are, essentially, a second-class partner. And, after a while, the relationship can no longer be a healthy one. One feels stifled, and in some cases we can smell the resentment from our metamours who seek to control our access to their partners, as if they sense the struggling from within the chains thrust upon them.
And it’s super hard to see it when it’s happening, unless you are paying really close attention and you have a lot of experience with such things. And it’s hard to talk about these things with the primary couple because they are in a position of privilege, and hence are blind to it. Also, the signs are often ambiguous; it’s really hard to tell the difference between normal conflicts and when you are treating someone in your life like a second-class partner, in some cases.
I think that the most important distinction which is relevant here is this; you should not try to create rules for other people, but you can define your own boundaries. That is, you cannot tell two other people how to go about their relationship, even if you also have a relationship with one or both of them, but you can communicate the edge of your emotional needs, wants, and preferences and allow others to make their own decisions regarding that.
If you aren’t clear, ask yourself this when you come to the point of potential conflict between the needs or wants of two partners;
- Am I doing/not doing this because I’m afraid to hurt one or both of them, or because I do want to do it this way?
- And if I am doing it for one of their sake, is it something I would feel comfortable bringing up for re-evaluation or negotiation?
- And if not, then am I comfortable with the amount of control one person has over my relationship with another?
- And even if the answers to the above are all “yes”, is my other partner OK with all of this? How might I feel in their place?
My relationship with X is negotiable, changeable, etc at the discretion of those directly involved, and not anyone else. And while our more intimate partners, whether through marriage, time, or simple choice, will have some level of influence over our choices, it is of immense importance that we do not leverage such power inordinately, purely out of fear, or merely to save the relationship. We should be focusing on people, not the relationship
Because I know I can influence my partners in how they relate to other people. But should I do so? Is the fact that I may have been with this person longer than them relevant? Is the fact that I may actually be married to him/her, while he/she isn’t, relevant? Is the fact that I believe that I am right about why he/she should act in this way relevant?
We have to be really careful with how we leverage such power, because it’s way to easy to rationalize carrying on old traditional values of relationships into the future of our polyamorous lives. To conserve those problematic relationship concepts, simply because they make us feel safer, more comfortable, etc is no better than to rationalize any cultural concept or practice which seeks to create barriers for each other.
What I’m saying is that I don’t want polyamory to become conservative or traditional, I want it to be radical at least until (that is, if it ever happens that) traditional concepts of relationships are egalitarian and has out-grown those old traditions based in ownership and control.
We have to be careful that we do not cross the barrier between communicating boundaries and creating edicts for other people to follow, because insofar as we cross said barrier, we are manipulating and controlling other people, rather than building trust and intimacy.
I write about his because I have seen it. I’ve seen it from all sides. I’ve been the primary partner who sought to control how my partners were with other people. I’ve been the partner caught in the middle of someone trying to control what I did with another. And I’ve been the third person, subjected to rules I didn’t want and was never asked my opinion on. From every angle the situation is shitty, but it is also immensely human. We all are, hopefully, learning and growing. It’s not so much that if we do such a thing we are doing polyamory wrong (fuck that), but we are, perhaps, creating barriers rather than bridges.
Our culture is so full of expectations about relationships that we cannot, even in the polyamorous community, always grow past the concepts of ownership, control, and fear which lay at the basis of our traditional concepts of love, commitment, and sex. It’s hard to parse the lines between what traditions we cherish and value and are healthy from the ones which might be better left behind.
I am still learning how to parse these things myself, so I am no master here (not by any means). Nonetheless, I will urge you all to pay attention to how the expectations you have about how a relationship is supposed to work and how much influence you have over your partners may be derived from the patriarchal, property-based, and fear-filled concepts of relationships as they are depicted in our culture at large.
This thing, polyamory, is more than just having more partners, it’s also about questioning the concept of what it means to be a partner. It’s more radical than mere addition, it’s a whole new kind of math. Don’t conserve the traditional concepts of relationships in adding more, but instead consider replacing the whole shebang.
Relationships are due for an upgrade, and such upgrades will include questioning everything you believe about love, commitment, and even friendship.
How do you unlearn? April 3, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, relationships.
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Growing up, one of the lessons I learned was that something was not really important unless it was yelled at you.
Related to this, if something is important, you have to yell it. Otherwise, how would the listener know it was important?
Looking back on things, it is clear that people in my life were telling me important things which I should have paid more attention to. But they were not yelling it, so it didn’t contain the emotional import–not sufficient emotional affect–to stand out as a thing to pay specific attention to.
People often tell you what to do, or not to do, if you don’t want to hurt, disappoint, or otherwise do damage to your relationship with them. Most people don’t yell these things. I didn’t know that, until later in life. And I’m still trying to unlearn those early lessons, even today.
We all deal with childhood, and family life, with complications and difficulties. Many of the people I have known have had to deal with some amount of annoying, manipulative, or abusive behavior. We all have our baggage. But understanding the baggage of other people, and how that baggage compels problematic behavior, is perhaps one of the most difficult things to navigate.
It’s even harder to learn other people’s baggage is you don’t have a handle on your own, completely.
Most of the people out there who I have hurt gave me some form of warning, pleading, or simple conversation to point out what was wrong. The problem was that because I learned that intense, aggressive, and often loud emotional communication was necessary to get one’s attention, I just heard it as conversation without import. It was not that I wasn’t listening, it was that I was trained to listen for something else.
Ever since I realized this (and it’s been quite a while), it has frustrated me more and more that the lesson still is not unlearned.
And so the cycle continues.