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Philosophical rifts are to be expected November 15, 2017

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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Way back in 2002, I was in grad school, in West Chester University and saw some flier about a 10 Commandments plaque that had been on the local courthouse for many years, and some local atheists were making a stink about it. So I attended a meeting related to that, and met some local atheist activists and started learning about the atheist community. This was in the early days of the post-9/11 atheist community expansion, but before any of the major atheist books were published or the community took off in size and scope. And it was long before the rifts became apparent to us all. They were there, of course, but they had not yet become flaming internet arguments and YouTube channels raking in money for…well not all of them are terrible human beings.

Having a lack of belief in any gods, or being convinced that no gods exist (the difference of which is actually a minor philosophical rift in itself) is a pretty specific and singular data point of who a person is, and so knowing this about a person will not tell you very much else, if anything at all. PZ Myers has been arguing for years that such a worldview should lead one to a progressive worldview. And while I might agree with many of his progressive worldviews, I don’t agree that one must necessarily reach those positions, logically, from the starting point of atheism, per se.*

 

 

The cultural divide becomes polyamorous, and takes on the polyamorous community as a new partner

If you look at the atheist world today, you will find a myriad of political views, opinions about feminism, and both wonderful and awful people. There are people I tend to agree with, people with whom I may share almost no conclusion except for the lack of gods, and there are people with whom I have much in common, but disagree on small points, or on certain issues. The rifts which have occurred over the years have led to situations where some people simply cannot talk to certain people, because of vast differences in opinions. In some cases, I think the nature of the disagreement is important, in others, it’s mostly hot air and emotion preventing an actual conversation. Such is life as a human being on planet Earth.

So, will you be surprised when I point out that I’ve seen much of the same phenomena within the polyamory community? No, I don’t think you will be that surprised.

But, before I go there, I want to take a step back because I don’t think that the analogy of the atheist community maps all that precisely to the poly community itself. Rather, I think that the atheist community is a better analog for the non-monogamous world in general; some people have come to the conclusion that monogamy (more specifically, sexually/romantically exclusive relationships, since monogamy is not quite the right word. monoamory works, in some cases) is not the best way to go about relationships the way atheists have come to the conclusion that god is not real, or at least that they are not convinced that it is real.

In the atheist community, there are more traditionalist/conservative people who tend towards libertarianism, Trumpism, and are opposed to much of the feminist movement as it currently exists; mostly the “shitlords” with whom I share almost no philosophical worldview (I qualify that because inevitably some shitlord would see this and point out that we might share some opinions here and there, which would be technically true but missing the point, completely). There are also many liberal, progressive, or even downright anarchistic revolutionary people in the atheist community; people with whom I share many more data points with, philosophically. But the fact is that I’m not tied to any specific ideology, so even though I overwhelmingly agree with the more leftist, progressive worldview, there are places where I disagree on some points, even if I accept the general schema of the worldview of the progressive movement concerned with social justice and so forth. To be clear, I am not identifying with the centrists, a la Sam Harris (whose podcast I listen to, because he has interesting conversations, even if I agree with him only about half the time at best. I don’t agree that he’s especially racist, except in the technically true sense that we all participate in a racist culture to some extent). I’m definitely very far left, and the shitlords could call me a SJW if they like, but I disagree with many other social justice oriented people on some points related to the worldview, even if I accept the general schema.

The non-monogamy world, including swingers, poly folks, etc, are similarly all over the map. In general, swingers tend towards more traditionalist/conservatism. In fact, the swinging world is itself an extension of a kind of conservatism insofar as the environment is overwhelmingly couple-centric, often unfriendly towards male bisexuality, and often unwelcoming to trans people. Swingers may, individually, be OK with these things in theory, but they still tend to be much more comfortable with staying within their rules which defend a more conservative worldview about relationships and identity. Poly people tend towards the progressive side, and are generally much more open to all shades of the LGBTQ rainbow. A focus on listening to marginalized people, consent culture, and a plethora of discussions of all sorts of things which will expand your mind and worldview exist at polyamorous conferences, and I would highly recommend what the poly community has to teach to all people, and support the vast majority of the lessons they have to teach. In short, the communities to which I belong tend to be made up of people who have overwhelming support for progressive values and politics. The shitlords would certainly call it a den of SJW cucks, or some other myopic prattling.

But within polyamory, there are definitely rifts and disagreements, which is similar, in many ways, to the arguments going on in the progressive world in general. That is, even among the idealistic, Relationship Anarchistic, touchy-feely, progressive group of people, there are differences in opinion on many questions. Let’s take one example, shall we?

 

“Poly” is not cultural appropriation

About a year ago, there was a bunch of conversations about the term Polyamory being abbreviated to “poly,” and whether it was a cultural appropriation from Polynesian people, who apparently sometimes call themselves “Poly.” Now, I won’t get into the minutia of the arguments, but the gist was that if we want to be sensitive towards people who have been historically treated pretty badly, perhaps we should not use the same term; we should not appropriate the term. Now, I agree with the first part; we should be aware of such things and seek to do less harm, when possible. We need to be aware of the effects of history and try to be aware of how we use language, borrow from cultures, etc to make sure that we are not doing it in an unnecessary and offensive way. But I came down on the other side of this argument; I do not think that using “poly” for the polyamorous community is a form of cultural appropriation from Polynesian people, and so I still use “poly”, rather than “polya,” which has been adopted by some people recently. I’m not against doing so, I just think that it’s not based on sound reasoning. In other words, I came to a different conclusion.

I’m not insisting that people say “poly” instead of “polya”, but I do sort of roll my eyes a little when I read “polya,” because I believe that the argument for doing so is nonsensical, even if I agree with the sentiment.

Here’s the thing; I’m a skeptic first. I want to have as many true beliefs, and as few false beliefs, as I am able to have given my cognitive abilities. In short, I care what’s actually true, and I try to use logical and rational means towards figuring out what is true. I also care about justice, but I will not sacrifice the truth on the alter of avoiding offense. I will not offend intentionally (at least, I try not to), but there simply are times when the truth might be offensive or not in line with a desire to be culturally sensitive. In this case, the argument for using “polya” is a bad argument. So even if the intent is to be aware, sensitive, and non-offensive (which I think is a good thing), the argument that it actually is appropriation falls flat. That is, the argument is not true. The fact that somebody is offended by the term “poly” in a polyamorous context is unfortunate, and their feelings are still valid. The thing is, their argument isn’t valid. One can be offended, have that emotion be legitimate and important, but still be wrong.

Others disagree with me, of course. But I’m not convinced by their arguments. The problem came in when it’s pointed out that my argument is coming from a place of privilege, where my attempts to be rational about the question at hand are a function of that privilege. And yes, I am privileged. Over the last several years, I have been listening. I have learned quite a bit about how privilege works, and have come to recognize that it’s a real force in the world, with real effects. I believe that people have a range of privileges, dependent upon historical, cultural, etc factors which make certain things much easier for people like me. I understand that there are things which are much harder for me to understand, and that I have to listen first, especially when talking about an issue related to historical, cultural, or political marginalization. That is my responsibility. But that does not erase rationality. A rational argument is not subject to privilege. Rational arguments, skepticism, and logic transcend social justice concerns. A person can be privileged, use motivated reasoning (*cough cough* Sam Harris *cough cough*), and thus make mistakes in utilizing reason, but reason itself is not subject to the effects of the theory behind privilege.

Thus, in terms of answering the question whether “poly” is cultural appropriation, if the argument for it being so is nonsensical, then all the concerns about cultural sensitivity and historical/cultural structures become irrelevant. They are still relevant when discussing the Polynesian people in terms of their cultural circumstances, of course. And, of course, if the arguments in favor of calling such a use of “poly” were not nonsensical or logically flawed, then it becomes relevant to discuss whether the appropriation is problematic or not. As it stands, I’m convinced that the arguments are nonsensical. If someone disagrees, they need to address the logical concerns first, if they want to be taken seriously.

 

How long does one need to listen, before their questions become relevant?

Over the last few years, a question kept swimming to the surface as I thought about things related to social justice, privilege, etc. In the beginning I saw this question as a internal emotional reaction against the information; as a emotional reaction more than an actual philosophical problem. For a long time I dismissed it as a side-effect of privilege and part of the very problem I was trying to learn and understand, so I didn’t follow it to any conclusion. I was still listening, and the listening will never stop. But after a while this question persisted, and so I kept reading, listening, and hoping to find this issue addressed in a way which satisfied the question, but no answer ever satisfied me. Further, I found no way to voice this question because the question is always reacted to with dismissal and often with anger (No, I’m not tone-policing; I have no issue with the anger per se). I became terrified to ask about it, because every time I saw anything like it broached it was met with dismissal, hostility, and was never seriously addressed. The question is something like the following:

If privilege is a blinding force, which prevents those with it to see certain things about culture, in particular people’s lived experience, to what extent is this blinding force merely an obstacle or an impenetrable barrier? In other words, does ones privilege merely make it much harder to understand a set of ideas, born of a marginalized or non-privileged experience, or is it one of complete obscurity, such that the privileged person can never hope to understand or have anything to add at all?

And as I started to think more about this, the question began to have subsequential concerns and questions, which I was similarly afraid to voice in social justice circles. Because if privilege merely makes it harder to see parts of the world, that would imply that if one listens enough and comes to understand, then it is possible to come to a rational conclusion that may or may not be the same as the person who is marginalized, no? In other words, it might be possible to, from the point of view of one who is privileged, disagree with someone’s opinion who is marginalized, and still potentially be factually right. Because it’s possible that any person, in any set of circumstances, might be wrong. That’s part of being human.

If a Polynesian person, or someone on their behalf, is offended by the use of “poly” by the polyamorous community, their feelings are important and valid. We should be kind to them, and we should hear them, and we should do our best to understand where that pain is coming from and seek to minimize it as much as we can. But, again, if someone listens and comes to a different conclusion because they think that the arguments in favor of it being problematic don’t add up, or if there is no argument at all, but merely a focus on the offense, then what is a person supposed to do? Is it really wrong to have a different conclusion? Is it wrong to say so? And if so, why?

And this is where the “red-pilled” shitlord comes in and says “Exactly! The SJW cucks are all a bunch of groupthink sheeple who insist upon allegiance to feelings and will insist upon ideological purity over the truth.”. And this is the part where I tell that shitlord to go fuck themselves and find something else to do, because I’m not talking to them right now and I’m certainly not taking their red pill.

Because I’m not throwing out the larger theory by disagreeing here. Disagreeing with a conclusion or a small detail of the theory is not the same as disavowing the whole left, progressivism, or social justice. In fact, such disagreements and questions are the only way to keep those theories strong, vibrant, and not dogmatic. The dogmatism that the idiots who call us SJWs, talk about being “red-pilled, and who troll all over the internet is based upon this dismissal of any questions from people who are not convinced, either in whole or in part. No doubt potential allies who accept most of the worldview concerned with justice in society have been pushed towards the red pill (because tribalism is often dualistic) because they disagreed with some small bits here and there and were dismissed. Erased. Sound familiar?

 

Skepticism to the rescue, I hope

I do share one thing with those red pill people; I care about what’s true. Well, they say that they care about that, but I don’t think their application of reason is very good at all. It’s true that many shitlords, anti-feminists, and other anti social justice people grew out of skepticism. But was their skepticism properly applied in all of their opinions? I would say most certainly not. It seems to me that the anti-feminist, pro-Trump, sexual abuse “skeptics” (there are so many kinds of shitlords) on the right are holding onto notions of human rights, consent (or lack thereof), and freedom of speech which are overly tied to tradition, misunderstandings, or (in some cases) obvious trolling and lying to manipulate towards their own goals (I’m looking at you, Scott Adams)**. Some who have been red-pilled might share more opinions with their cultural interlocutors (he says euphemistically) than either side would want to admit. The tribalism at the core of this divide is obvious to me, and is actually the fault of people on both sides. I believe that one side’s worldview is generally correct, and the other is problematic, but individual people on both sides, or caught in the middle, are all over the map in terms of their specific responsibility for being decent skeptics.

So, right off the bat here, skepticism as a community is not the best example of where to turn, and being overly “skeptical” in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct is technically skepticism, but it’s also technically being completely clueless about the realities of how our culture teaches us to interact when it comes to sexuality in our culture. Or maybe it’s just that those people want to keep having the excuse to not ask for or be concerned with consent. I did hear one guy say, in response to hearing that situations such as being intoxicated, in a position of relative powerlessness (like being an employee), etc as a circumstance where consent might not be fully possible, that if that were so then he might never be able to have sex with that woman he wants to have sex with. No shit, asshole, but you’re really missing the boat here. Social justice theories about privilege, consent, power structures, and so forth are something you really need to understand, because they are real. Holding onto traditional ideas because they work for you (privilege) is a shitty way to be skeptical.

I think that social justice theories are wonderful at making important cultural, political, and historical observations, and it’s a wonderful method for understanding how various personal identities effect power structures, but it is not the best method for determining what is actually true, philosophically, in every situation. Reason, wielded by skepticism, is the best method we have for determining truth, and where social justice theories of privilege conflict with reason, we need to value reason first. That is how I rank my values, and I understand that other people do not do this, especially many people working for social justice. I simply disagree with this approach.

And I’ll be clear, I think that a social justice set of theories armed with skepticism would be a powerful tool, the problem is that not all social justice activists are always clear thinkers, and (because they are human) therefore make errors in thinking and come to bad conclusions, sometimes. And, again, while our feelings are immensely important, and things like micro-aggression, racism, sexism, transphobia, body shaming, etc are all things that actual people live through and have legitimate feelings about, in the cases where their conclusions are not rational, we should feel free and comfortable to express this when and in the space in which that person is willing to hear it. 

The problem is that I rarely feel free or welcome to do so, and am am merely dismissed as being privileged. There needs to be room, sometimes, for marginalized people to hear this criticism. I know, I know…that space for criticism is the dominant narrative, right? But, is it? Are you really going to try to argue that the dominant narrative of our culture is reason and skepticism, properly applied? I’m not talking about listening to privileged people, because I know you already understand their perspective pretty well. I’m talking about when a privileged person, who has been listening, and who cares about the truth and who has tried hard to understand but has a question, a criticism, or a disagreement and they are dismissed merely because they are privileged. That is not rational.

Maybe that person is wrong, and maybe they’ll change their mind, but we, as human beings, need more than your experience, at some point in the process of listening. We need actual arguments, and sometimes the arguments you have are not sufficient because sometimes even marginalized people make errors in judgment and thinking. Those arguments don’t have to be on the terms of the person asking, and they don’t have to invade the spaces you make for yourself to feel safe (I, for example, am writing this on my own blog), but philosophical conclusions cannot be merely asserted in the name of lived experience, because there is no “my truth” or “your truth”; there is only truth, and we all have it and miss it’s mark on the merits of our arguments. I’ll take your word on your experience, and your feelings, but your philosophical conclusions are everyone’s territory, because you’ve left the realm of experience, and are claiming something to be true. So if someone in your community disagrees with your conclusion, you cannot merely play the privilege card against a genuine disagreement because reason transcends that theoretical concept.

My point is that there needs to be room for disagreement within our communities, whether poly, atheist, or whatever, because truth is the realm of philosophy and is not subject to theories dependent upon historical or cultural realities. If someone does the work, listens, and tries to understand but simply comes to a different conclusion, the response has to be better than something like the following;

Of course you disagree. You’re speaking from the most privileged position of anyone here. You’ve got a personal investment in being able to look down, talk down, and still deem yourself as logical and correct. It’s a matter of perspective and you’ve got it.

Because that’s not an argument. That’s merely dismissal. We must do better, if we want to be role models.

 

No, I don’t have any answers which cannot change

The bottom line is that I don’t have answers to my questions, yet. I may never have them. But I will not merely conform and agree, because I’m supposed to. I cannot choose my beliefs, because they will form themselves in my mind based upon the strength of argument made in their favor. If I disagree with you, then it might be the case that I’m missing something, and I’ll keep doing my work to see if that’s the case. But if I’ve had the same nagging question and concern with some specific aspects of the worldview you espouse after several years of attempting to understand, then at some point the responsibility becomes less mine, and more yours to have better explanations.

Perhaps my point of view occasionally allows me to see something that you cannot see, even if only extremely rarely. I admit that it’s quite possible I’m completely wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But so far I disagree with many people in the progressive community concerning specific beliefs and details of the worldview we generally share. But I need to feel free to have these disagreements without being dismissed and erased. Perhaps that’s something I learned, initially, from you. Perhaps you need to listen sometimes, as well.

 

 

So, thanks for reading, those of you who used to be friends (perhaps as of this reading. I’ve already lost FB friends recently articulating similar points in comments sections), those of you who might agree or disagree but are ambivalent towards me specifically, or people who agree with me here (I’ve heard from some people in the poly community the last few days who might agree with much of what I’ve said here. No, none of them were also white, hetero, cis men). Something finally compelled me to write after some time. If you disagree with me and feel like dismissing me because of my privilege, then I guess we’re at an impasse.

*Skepticism might, in itself, have more logically derived conclusions, but that’s a conversation for another day

**Listen to the podcast episode at this link only if you really feel like yelling at your earbuds a lot

 

 

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The Con of Trumpism: Fake News and Skepticism February 2, 2017

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

news-infographic

People on the right think that this graphic is biased. I think it’s generally accurate in terms of editorial leanings.

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, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion.
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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:

On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem

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:

The Smug Style in American Liberalism

TL;DR:

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.

Fuck.

 

The Future

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, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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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, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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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, 2016

Posted 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.

Word.

Sacred beliefs; being wrong March 29, 2016

Posted 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.

Rationalization:

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.

 

Sacred Space

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.

 

Being wrong

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, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal.
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tripartite

Plato’s tripartite soul/state

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)

(source)

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.

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

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.

 

I, Plato

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, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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I’ve seen this story floating around, recently:

Why People Think Total Nonsense is Really Deep

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).

onbullshitWhat is “bullshit”? The article starts by referencing a small book(which i own), called On Bullshit, written by philosopher Harry Frankfurt.

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 toves
      Did 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 shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”
This is the first two stanzas of the famous poem, “Jabberwocky.” It exists within a similar universe as bullshit, except is swaps actual words in syntactic formation without any coherent meaning for (to some extent) coherent meaning with words which almost seem real, but are not.
That is, where bullshit seeks to pull us towards the realm of meaninglessness and obscurantism while using real words, Jabberwocky somehow pulls us towards a semblance of meaning while not even using real words. This, more than anything else, unearths the true absurdity of bullshit; it’s deception lies in its ability to use the parts of the real world to try to construct impossible shapes.
And yet…
escher-relativity

 

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.

herebedragonsIt 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, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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ProtagorasWho 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.

Standards

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.

Patience

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.