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.
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.
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.
A poem? Meh, whatever…. April 1, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, Religion.
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[cn: sarcasm, wordplay, someone will hate this, and I suppose I’m ok with that. Wait, what’s the syntax of this content note? Is this thing unix? Can I use python? Isn’t all language merely metaphor and lies? Definitely the wrong syntax]
Is the irony of theater that to do it well one need not act?
Occasionally, one stops acting.
Stop acting, please.
All of us
So say we all?
Well (and let me not be impertinent) that would be a nice start, I suppose.
But I gave up hope for that many years ago, because I don’t think being the Borg is really the right historical influence.
Isn’t that weird?
The Borg, for this type of nerd, has a similar influence that “real” history has, because they are both just narratives echoing off the walls. Is that a sociological question, psychological feeling, or philosophical grant money. Wait, I meant field of study. Hmm, why didn’t I want to get a PhD again?
Scilon cylon, Borg, whatever. That was a little heavy with the word play. I’m amused, I apologize if you think I’m being serious.
Also, if I did offend you, then I’m sorry I hurt you, so I invite all comments and will consider them seriously, all of them. OK, when it’s obvious trolling, I’m peace out, but otherwise. Is this more of a rap or a poem? wait, what’s the difference again? Which one has the holodeck? I’m confused, sorry. I was too busy rocking out to Ziggy Stardust, because someone I once loved very much made it important to me once, but I still love it on its own.
Sorry, rambling again. It’s fun watching the show everywhere. The world is a stage, and all that whatnot. Forsooth!
Signed, your friendly neighborhood dudebro.
P.S. Wait, that wasn’t right. local neighborhood weirdo who writes in the local bar, because he likes to be around people. Dude, syntax again. srsly.
Nevermind, I’ll stop being absurdist. It’s partially escapism, but it’s mostly actually just letting go, unlocking the gates of Hades, metaphorically. Always liked that metaphor. Old one. Still rocks.
Sacred beliefs; being wrong March 29, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, relationships.
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If you were to look at older posts on this blog, you would see me being critical of how defensive religious people are about their beliefs. In the earlier days of the atheist community, there was a divide between those who were openly critical of people’s faiths and those who wanted to build bridges or who simply didn’t see the point in criticizing or challenging personal beliefs.
Now, after some years, the rifts, arguments, and points of contention have changed, but it strikes me that the same fundamental question is still at hand; what do we do with people’s sacred beliefs?
Of course, this is not a question unique to the atheist community. I’d bet it’s pretty universal across cultures, societies, etc.
So, what about people we don’t like? What about people who have hurt us? What about people we refuse to talk with? I am not very certain of this framing, and I am writing this more with an interest to structure my thoughts than to try and compel a specific argument, but allow me to posit an idea.
As a background for this, allow me to summarize my views on how we rationalize, which I have written about before.
Not all of our conclusions are truly rationally derived. In fact, I would say that probably a good number of them are not. Through some unseen bias, trauma, idealism, or even dedication to a person or group (groupthink, tribalism, or even loyalty to a loved one), we come to a conclusion that is more based upon emotion than pure rational thinking (a kind of Critique of Pure Reason, as it were), and we then rationalize that emotional decision.
We all do this, a lot. In fact, I notice that it’s much more prevalent the more rational a person thinks they are; it’s often the most logically-minded people who are susceptible to this. (Yes, myself included).
And then we, the rational paragons that we are, defend our emotional conclusions. And we become defensive around the subject of that conclusion. And then those who differ with us become the other, from another tribe, and then we cannot even hear, understand, or possibly even be around those people. We read them unfairly, we credit them with motives which they might not have, and we are unable, and usually unwilling, to hear them.
Friendships, romantic relationships, business partnerships, and all other sorts of human relations are lost through such means, and it often takes years, if it happens at all, to be able to see past the biases which we build when this happens. This is how enemies and estrangements are made, and it’s utterly ridiculous most of the time.
You’ve been hurt. Someone made a decision which had an unwanted result, from your point of view. Maybe you were friends for years, maybe you have only known them for a few months, or maybe they are a family member. Now, aside from the rare person who is actually malicious (and hell, we can almost never be sure that our “enemy” is ever really that person, because it usually feels that way to the harmed), most people who hurt us were not trying to. Their reasons for what they did are probably complicated, they probably regret their actions (at least to some degree), and they are probably not the person that your angry, hurt, and resentful self sees.
And yet I am willing to bet that in the long run that demonized version of them will be the one which you (and your friends who console you) will remember. Because memory is associated with emotion. No matter how good things were, you remember them through the association of that pain.
And so you create a sacred space of belief about that person, what they did, and any contradiction of that narrative are dismissed, like we do with all our beliefs; they survive on the nectar or bias and demonization. I’ve done this, myself. In the period of healing over the least couple of years, I’ve done it to several people. In recent months, I’ve started to doubt my beliefs, with regard to some of these people, and I have begun to question whether the conclusions I reached were true.
In one case, I realized that a specific person who was vilified among the people closest to me was not, in fact, vile at all. I realized that she was someone who was suffering, who made mistakes, and who I loved very much. The details don’t matter here, but suffice it to say that this realization cost me dearly, because I handled it badly.
But the only reason i realized it was because I was able to question the tribalistic groupthink which was forming around this person. I was able, eventually, to see around the biases which others were trying to compel me to accept. And I made the decision which I needed to make, but in the wrong way.
I have always been a person who has been willing to question the most sacred of my personal beliefs. One could frame this as lack of confidence in myself (and that is also partially true), but I believe that it is also a virtue to not be able to look at my personal beliefs as sacred objects not to be questioned. The traditions, childhood dreams, and ideals we carry sometimes blind us to the possibility of transcendent growth. Sometimes ideals are more a hindrance than a boon to personal enlightenment; beware the person of strong conviction, for that conviction is the lens through which they see the world.
The result of all this pondering is that I wonder if maybe I have been very wrong about some things. Many things, perhaps.
I have read what some have said about me, and know what others think of me, but despite my flaws (and I certainly have them), I am not the person I see reflected in their thoughts. And if I do not give my view of others the same revision which I give to my own beliefs, it would be irrational to expect them to do the same. I cannot expect others to see past their biases if I will not see past my own. I have to be willing to be wrong, about everything.
Too many people out there in the various communities in which I have walked are unwilling to hear what some other people have to say, and really hear it. Too much enmity (some of it is actually deserved, but not all of it), too little willingness to reconsider, and too much desire to be right than to be willing to listen. Too much conviction. Too much comfort and certainty about one’s own values and goals, for my taste. Those things are as likely to be cages as virtues.
I’ve lost people I have cared about because I’ve made mistakes, because others have made mistakes, and because (usually) we both made mistakes. We’re human. But an unwillingness to listen, to hear, to drop down the walls between us all is not helping anyone. We all had reasons for the decisions we made, and if we might be willing to look past our feelings a little bit, perhaps we could see why we might have made the same decision as they did, and perhaps begin to forgive.
Or, you know, we could all just move along feeling self-righteous and comfortable in whatever tribe we’ve formed. That could be fun too, right?
I’ve been wrong, you’ve been wrong, and we will all be wrong more than we’d like to be. Don’t let the potential for understanding, enlightenment, or intimacy be lost for the sake of your stupid sacred beliefs and conclusions. That’s completely silly.
The Republic of The Self January 29, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal.
Tags: Bernie Sanders, growth, politics, revolution
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One of the first philosophy books I ever read, when I was around 14 or so, was Plato’s Republic. It’s a very well-known and influential book, both in the philosophical world but also in Western culture in general. The basic theme of the book is that there is a discussion, including Socrates and his interlocutors, about the nature of the human “soul”, by use of an analogy of creating a perfect “Republic.”
The concept of the “tripartite soul” was derived, in part, from this book (also the Phaedo). Plato saw us as being made up of logical, spiritual, and desirous parts, all having to work together in a hierarchical fashion in order to achieve harmony and happiness. Analogously, the state, in this case an ideal republic, should be made up of the “philosopher kings” (reason/logic), the soldiers (will/spirit), and the citizens (appetite/desire).
Plato’s psychological theory is, of course, unscientific and not used by psychology (and his political one as well, given his inability to build a successful state himself) but nonetheless this idea is embedded in much of Western thinking (for good or ill, probably more the latter). How often do we think of ourselves as having to use reason or logic to reign in our will or desires? Don’t we still see, in some ways, our leaders as a means to control our ability to make war or to give us motivation to work and not to simply eat, drink, and have sex all day?
I’ll leave that for the anarchists out there to discuss.
Revolution v. Incremental change
“God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” (Thomas Jefferson)
Thomas Jefferson, despite his flaws, has been an inspiration to me in my life. I have a cloth-bound copy of his writings which I found in a little used books store in DC many years ago, and I read a bit from it now and then.
In a conversation I paid attention to among some Facebook friends yesterday about the upcoming presidential primaries (specifically concerning the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who I am supporting), a comment exposed some skepticism as to whether Sanders’ political revolution is possible or even likely. The sentiment was that political change occurs slowly, incrementally. The idea is that the “Hope and change” we progressives wanted with Obama only partially happened, but that we want more. Some people think that’s not going to happen, and we need to be patient and work within the system for change to happen slowly.
That actual revolutions are rare, usually bloody, and don’t happen in the way that Sanders’ supporters would like.
And if we look back on history, we don’t see too many successful purely political revolutions. Perhaps the recent election in Canada are an exception (I have not been following Trudeau’s moves, but I’m glad that Canada has moved in a more liberal direction), and perhaps Sanders winning the presidency would be similar in scope. However, would such a feat equal a political “revolution”? Or would it merely lead to more congressional inaction due to Sanders being unable to bring more liberal congressmen to office to help motivate the change? Would Congress be as gridlocked as it has been in the last 7 years?
Would it really change anything quickly enough to warrant calling it a “revolution”?
I don’t know.
But shouldn’t we be trying, anyway?
That’s a good question.
So, taking a queue from Plato, I was thinking about how political mechanization can be analogous to ourselves. If I were to think of myself as an analogy for a nation, although not a tripartite one (because the relationship between reason, emotion, and desire are not actually hierarchical at all, nor are they separate modules in any clean sense), is it possible for a person to have a true revolutionary change in behavior, outlook, and disposition? Sure, we can change, but can we do it overnight, over a few days, or even weeks?
Lord knows I have tried, over the years. But have I succeeded?
No, I don’t think I have. And I am unsure whether I even can. So, is it true that true change can only be incremental?
After all, some people claim to have been born again, right?
I’ve had certain moments where I felt like I had changed. But, upon further reflection, this was really a matter of emotion and mood. A few days later, a few weeks later, I was back to the same song and dance, but with more experience. That experience is key; something from that mood stuck with me, and little by little those moments of clarity, the feeling of something having changed, accumulated into slow, actual long-term change.
And what I’m concluding about this is that while the cumulative change will not happen overnight, we need the temporary, passionate, and radical thrusts towards a better nation and person in order to keep us pushing forward. Whether it is politics or person, we need the revolutionary energy to keep pushing the conversation and the insight into ourselves to keep moving in a direction we want to move.
The United States may never becomes a liberal, Democratically Socialist country like I’d like it to be, but we need people like Bernie Sanders shifting our attention in that direction, even if they cannot implement that change as a candidate or a president. Similarly, I may never be the man I wish to be, but if I don’t allow myself to feel the passion of being that moment today, and from time to time, I will settle into a comfort zone of who I am, rather than keep pushing on.
And I need my temperamental desires, my reason, and my will to work in collaboration in order to get there. I will not make my will, desire, nor my reason to submit to any of the others, but I will let each do what they do best, and allow the process to bring forth growth.
Am I a different person than I was 1, 2 or 5 years ago? Yes. But that changed happened with incremental change fueled by periodic revolutionary moments of trauma, my own mistakes, and intellectual insight. Those revolutionary moments supplied the ideological horizon I should be moving towards it, but often gave the illusion of already having reached it.
Electing Bernie Sanders will not complete the revolution, but it might be a step in the right direction. Making a wise decision about what I will do in my life won’t make me my ideal self, but it’s also a step in the right direction.
Be patient, but don’t allow patience to prevent you from pursuing passionately from time to time. Because otherwise our patience turns into complacency and comfort. When we stop trying for revolutions, be become part of the establishment; we become the conservatives of tomorrow.
Tonight at 11: Bullshit defines reality December 2, 2015Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: bullshit, meaning
I’ve seen this story floating around, recently:
Money shot from the study:
Those more receptive to bull**** are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.
I’m looking at you, Deepak Chopra (who is named in the journal article several time).
It’s a short little book (it’s actually quite physically small, and it resides on my bookshelf atop my study Bible, because I follow directions well, and store it on bullshit.
My mind is strange.
In any case, the article quotes the book is defining “bullshit” as being “something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth.” Not a lie, per se, but without making the effort to be supported by good thinking or skepticism, let’s say.
The article elaborates:
Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker… [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.”
So, it’s like many conservative talking points, theology (I repeat myself!), or much of postmodernist philosophy. It is words that have syntactic structure which conform to normal communication, but one cannot fathom a meaning except, in the best cases, in some vaguely poetic manner.
And poetry (I’ve been reading Tennyson recently) does often occupy a universe where the limits of normal expression get stretched, but bullshit seems to be the point where it breaks. Charting the difference between these two is difficult, for sure. I’m sure some fans of Deepak Chopra would retort that those of us critical of his “bullshit” are failing to see the meaning due to a lack of imagination or something, but I do think there is a line where poetic expression leads nowhere, and that “nowhere” is precisely Bullshitland.
That is, there is a point where the art of language skews into an expression which cannot be mapped to reality. And yet…
And yet there is this:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesDid gyre and gimble in the wabe:All mimsy were the borogoves,And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!Beware the Jubjub bird, and shunThe frumious Bandersnatch!”…
This is one of MC Escher’s many drawings. It exists in 2 dimensions, and hints at a 3 dimensional world which cannot exist…at least not in the way that it’s depicted. It is using the expected tools of drawing, which is usually a representation of the real world in 2 dimensional form, and breaks the form so that it is, in a sense, bullshit.
But we can glean some kind meaning from it. This meaning, a commentary upon perception, dimension, and form, is one that transcends the media. It supervenes and emerges from it, a true emergent property, and teaches us something about our perception and meaning.
Bullshit does something similar. It defines, for us, the shape, limits, and boundaries of meaning. It is a cautionary tale of how to keep within the bounds of what language and reality can do together, and what they cannot do together.
It says to us, in a sense, “beyond here are dragons.” It defines the limits of reality, as we can express it in words, and when we verge nearer to it’s boundaries, with poetry, art, postmodern deconstruction of meaning and perception, we start to better define what is real and what is not real.
In a sense, it is true irony. Bullshit is what defines the edges of reality. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is anything beyond that boundary.
It’s sort of like how death defines life, but there is nothing beyond it. Believing that the bullshit contains anything meaningful is, conceptually, similar to believing in an afterlife.
There isn’t an afterlife. So eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Waits, measures, and standards April 22, 2015Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: confidence, Protagoras, truth
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Who are we to judge? Well, without us (or some other sentient species) the concept would be meaningless, right? Humanity is the source of all meaning (being that there are no gods and the universe is not conscious), and thus the only source for any judgment, criticism, or any analysis at all about anything, right?
So what of Protagoras’ statement on the right? Are we, as people, the measure of all things? Perhaps. But allow me to draw out two possible interpretive directions which we could go with this to tease out a potential problem here.
On one hand, this could be interpreted to mean that human individuals are the arbiter of measurement. On the other hand, we could take this to mean that the collective set of humanity is the scale of this measurement. This, of course, brings about all sorts of potential problems, because the first leads to a kind of solipsism or egoism in terms of our making sense of things, and the other opens up the many problems involved in communication, understanding, and all the related sociological and cultural issues related to agreement and disagreement.
And from either, chaos only can ensue.
Individual power and Groupthink
In some sense, I create my own meaning and value.* But I only can do so for my own life. If I were to try and spread this meaning any further, at best I could only make connections with people of similar perspectives (whether due to physiological similarity, common experiences, or some combination of both) or manipulate or control people (who have less strong senses of self worth, perhaps) towards opinions and behaviors which are in my own interest. The first is simply accident, the second is potentially abusive and toxic.
Strong, intelligent, and/or charismatic personalities have been finding those connections and leading people towards their values for as long as humans have been able to communicate concepts, very likely. The results of this type of human interaction over the millennia are every aspect of culture which we see; concepts, languages, religions, tribes, families, cults, etc. But there are many such people, with varying degrees of ability, intellect, and desire to control. Most of them will have little to no actual control.
And do not get me wrong, I’m not describing evil, sociopathic, power-hungry people solely. In fact, there are many people who have done many helpful and non-harmful things with their ability to control. This ability, itself, is neutral. It is merely a power set which has one type of effect on groups. We must distinguish between the ability to control and inspire people and the message being disseminated. Of course, certain types of messages will spread easier than others, and whether all of those viral ideas are bad or good are well beyond my ability to judge with any authority; I simply don’t have the data to support any hypothesis on the matter.
The bottom line here is that if I were to attempt to impose my own values onto the greater world, at best I could lead or join a group of people with similar ideas. At worst I could find people who would be willing to obediently submit to my ideas for reasons related to lack of self-worth, co-dependency, or simple apathy. In most cases, people end up in some space between those two, and the larger sociological and cultural effect is groups of people who stick with their own. In-group and out-group effects take shape, and the next thing you know is you have would-be autocrats and groups thinking similarly.
And not all of them will get along. It’s pretty universal, sociologically speaking.
So, what are the standards? Are they those of my heroes? My tribe? Are they mine? Are they the standards of my group? Probably one of those. But are they my standards because they are right, or are they right because they are my standards? And how much does the tribalistic and Groupthinky tendencies of all of us affect what standards I’ll think of as right? After all, I likely either chose my group because of our similar values, had my values shaped by someone else who was able to influence me, or influenced others towards my values to create a group of like-minded individuals.
At some point in the past, I would have written some nice-sounding composition about how the scientific method, logic, and critical thinking would step in here to be the arbiter. And, to some extent I believe this still; whatever method eliminates, best, personal bias and errors is extremely useful in determining what the truth is. But this is a naive and, I believe, short-sighted solution to the problem. It sounds nice, it’s technically true, but the simple fact is that it does not actually cut through all the noise.
It’s impotent against our tendencies to get stuck within our webs, whether those webs are of our own making, our hero’s making, or if we worked together on it as relative equals.
So, perhaps I should not be talking about patience. I, as those close to me know, struggle with patience. It is, in many ways, the point at which I am weakest. But, perhaps because of this, I have a somewhat privileged perspective over how powerful patience is. I see people who are, by nature, patient and I see how powerful it is. I also see how it’s lack (usually upon later reflection) can be a detriment.
OK, so what does that have to do with finding meaning, measuring the truth, or how to behave?
To be honest, I am not exactly sure yet. But that has been a thing I think about, recently. And I am not sure if I’ll ever figure it out, precisely. I have some thoughts which are partially formed, immature, and growing, but I do not want to spell that out yet. To do so would be to impatient. I need to allow myself to settle back, let the thoughts mature, and keep watching, listening, and when I better understand maybe I’ll come back to this.
For now, I don’t have a lot of answers. I have a lot of questions, uncertainties, and (certainly) insecurities. I have a lot og unknowns. They are becoming less terrifying to me, recently. They are still scary (and perhaps they always will be), but perhaps they will no longer compel impatient fearful reactions.
But, in the end, these are my values, my meanings, and my struggles. I can only hope that some of you recognize what I;m talking about and maybe you can identify with me in that sense. And if this leaves you cold or confused, then this is not for you.
So, what about Protagoras’ saying? Are we humans the measure of all things? Well, trivially yes. But right now I doubt that it’s any one of us, any group of us, or even any one philosophical system which is the scale upon which to make such measurements. That measurement, I think, comes more from those small, subtle moments of uncertainty and questions which are the connective tissue of growth and maturity.
My recommendation is to be wary of not only absolutes and certainties, but also over-confidence. Those who appear certain may not, in fact, have anything to offer you except their own certainty.
*That is, the extent to which we actually can choose our meaning and value is somewhat dependent upon whether our will is in any meaningful way free. In either case, the creation of this meaning happens within me, so free or not is is of my creation.
Happy Darwin Day! February 12, 2015Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: Charles Darwin, Darwin Day, evolution, natural selection
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By pure accident, I published my first blog post on Darwin day back in 2009; 6 years ago today. So, for readers who may not know much about Charles Darwin or Darwin Day, Let me point you to some resources.
First, let’s start with the website dedicated to Darwin Day itself, DarwinDay.org. Here, you can find all sorts of things, such as local events, including this, happening in Philadelphia tonight at National Mechanics–which I may decide to pop into (if I have time after the laundry that really needs to get done). There are also educational, activism, and news resources there, so take a look.
There’s also a Facebook page for Darwin Day.
But there’s also a plethora of excellent resources all over the internet about Charles Darwin. I will not even try to summarize them all, because they are too extensive. There are, of course, organizations and site dedicated to misinformation, misunderstanding, or outright opposition to Darwin and to the theory of evolution itself (it does pain me to post those links…).
Among my favorite evolution/Darwin specific websites is the Understanding Evolution website hosted at Berkeley. There’s a series of articles about the history of evolution, which includes some details about Darwin which start here. among my least favorites would be places such at Answers in Genesis, whgich is a group dedicated to the Biblical “truth” of creation. Hacks, and idiots, really.
Let’s not forget that you can get all sorts of bumper stickers, decals, and other DarwinFish to put on your car, forehead, or computer screens. They are a good way to show the person driving behind you in traffic that you are educated in the scientific method, understand at least some of the complexities of the concepts within evolutionary theory (such as natural selection), and that you will not submit to bronze-age pseudoscience or creations myths.
That, or you really love your fish named “Darwin.”
I will not even begin to try to summarize the influence of Charles Darwin myself, mostly because I’m not an expert but also because there are already so many good resources on this subject. I’ll simply say that reading the Origin of Species was a positive experience, and what I do understand about biology is both fascinating and often beautiful.
If you don’t know much about Charles Darwin or if you just want to know more, take a look at some of the links here. Or, if you just want to celebrate his birthday with some like-minded people over beers, food, or just conversation, check out the events page and find some local people.
Happy birthday Darwin!
I hope you don’t rise from the grave as a zombie to eat all of our brains, because that wouldn’t be very nice. So, let’s not do that.