There is a newish metaphor in our culture, appropriated from a movie which is now old enough to drink alcohol, legally, in the US.
In a world where a dominant power has taken hold, there is need for a resistance. Of course, it’s technically possible to live in such a world and not see, or perhaps not agree, that such a resistance is necessary. Also, depending on your role in such a world, you might be the rational voice against radical insanity or you could be a “literal NAZI”.
Also, we may disagree about which power has taken hold. And we may both be…right? We may all have solid arguments, at least. The truth is further away.
Such are the interesting times in which we live.
Ok, so I’m obviously making a reference to The Matrix, and the newish metaphor is red-pilling, but what’s my point?
Well, that’s complicated. Which means it’s too long for even a tweet thread. Which means I’m totes using antiquated technology here to influence anyone. I gave up influencing anyone years ago, so this is mostly for me, the few who still bother reading, and perhaps for a future that might survive this historical period (and given last night’s presidential debate, the likelihood of “history” surviving the present is decomposing).
Let’s start here. I have not been red-pilled.
In fact, I have watched the various red-pilling of people over the last several years with a combination of curiosity, horror, and amusment. It’s not that they are completely wrong, it’s that they have fallen for one of the most common human failings; binary thinking. And despite what Eve Sedgwick might have you think, the concept of binary thinking is not a creation of recent history, related to homosexual discrimination. In fact, binary thinking might be one of the fundamental physiological constructs of how we perceive the world.
Those who have been red-pilled are, in many cases, people who fail to understand that because one side makes a mistake, it doesn’t mean its antithesis is right. Haven’t y’all read your Hegel? Or even Marx, for that matter?
So, I started thinking. What if, instead of red-pilling, I were to start talking about “purple-pilling”? But that’s crass, and still folds into our analysis the problematic 2-party system of intellectual thought. OK, so “black-pilling”? Well, that opens up way too many cans of worms, so no. White-pilling is right out.
And then it came to me; fuck all the pills. Stop taking fucking pills. Stop adhering to parties, ideologies, and tribes. Because all that happens is that we end up pilloring each other. And that leaves us, metaphorically of course, bloody red.
I’ve been reading about things like Critical Race Theory. I’ve been reading about the rise of Christian Nationalism with the Trump administration. I’ve been re-reading Kendi’s How to be and Anti-Racist. I’ve also been reading science fiction, but that falls outside of this, so nevermind. I have too many thoughts, conflicting thoughts, and I have no answers.
I’ve been listening. But perhaps the problem is that I have been listening to the wrong people? But, again, which are the wrong people?
If I were to travel to the future (and this is where I pull in my sci-fi reading) and seek out which of the cultural meta-narratives won, would that help me resolve my dilemma about truth?
Oh, wait, I missed a step. I still think that truth is a thing which is real. I’m not sure it’s attainable, but I still think it’s real, so perhaps I’m biased by the fact that I’m still attached to a “Western” and “Colonial” meta-narrative of objective (I would call it inter-subjective) scientific truth. It’s, of course, probabilistic and not absolute, but it’s still truthy science. #RealTruthScienceBitches
Ok, so if I traveled to the future I would probably be able to determine who “won” the culture wars, but just like a person who traveled from, say, 100AD to 1200 AD, the fact that Christianity (or some severely altered version of it) “won” wouldn’t address the truthfulness of it as a philosophical position.
What I’m saying is that I still care about truth, and I’m not convinced that any of us, on the various sides of the culture wars, have it. And I’m afraid that we are setting aside, for cynical reasons, the methodologies we use to differentiate between truth and not-truth.
And I think that we all need to step back from ourselves and ask whether 1) we care and 2) if we cared it would matter in this media environment.
For a few years, several years ago, I played a lot of a game called Ingress. The details don’t matter here, but it’s essentially a game played on smartphones/tablets which is GPS-based and involves two factions–the Resistance (blue) and the Enlightened (green)–which compete for territory via the game mechanics. If you’ve played Pokemon Go, Ingress was sort of a basis for that, technologically. The game is played all over the world, and has a fairly complex story/lore involved which is similar to a lot of sci-fi, and over time (if you followed the lore) it becomes clear that neither faction is right nor are they wrong. One could make a rational argument for either side’s philosophy, goals, and actions throughout the games history.
But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that people on both sides of the game really hated the other side, and found ways to demonize other player based the fictitious lore and philosophy behind it. It led to real-life confrontations (including me being personally, physically, threatened by someone from the opposite faction which led to a police report being filed), enmity, and people switching factions purely based on in-fighting etc.
I have not played the game in a couple of years now, and while I enjoyed much about the game, I could have very well chosen the opposite faction and had a very similar experience, different friends, and a different narrative about the fights. Real fights, hatred, and silliness.
Over a game.
One of my favorite TV series of all time is Babylon 5. This show is about many things, and is even prophetic in that it essentially predicts Fox News (in the presentation of ISN, the Interstellar Network News during one of the story arcs). I won’t spoil the details, but the show is largely about factions, wars, and narratives/propaganda, and there is one episode in particular–The Geometry of Shadows–which focuses on a one-off story which makes a point about factionalism exceptionally clearly and in a very amusing way.
Green versus Purple.
That’s it. No philosophical differences, no historical grievances, and no pre-existing political parties. Just randomly drawn colors which divides two teams who end up killing each other based upon what color they drew from a container. That was enough to create tribes.
So imagine what happens when the tribes do have actual, real, historical and philosophical disputes. Imagine how ingrained the enmity and desire to destroy the other team becomes when the stakes actually matter.
And then remember that no group, political party, philosophical school, religion, or organization has ever been completely right.
Further, throughout history, people outside of our in-groups have, of course, always been treated well and listened to. (That was sarcasm).
It’s ridiculous because no matter how just your cause, how right your ideas, and how good your people, there will always be valid criticisms from people outside your group. And many of those people are outside your group because of disagreements and because you push them away because of those disagreements. And if you view the world in terms of with us or against us, then any criticism makes you the enemy in some sense.
It is our human, all-too-human, unwillingness to hear criticism that prevents critics, in many cases, from being part of your group. In many cases, especially because we tend to think tribally, this will push people to other teams when they would have otherwise been allies.
All over idiological (sic) purity.
Letters and Entitlement.
The other day, a group of people, some who are considered problematic (and many of them I don’t personally always respect nor agree with), signed a letter. Here’s the text:
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Beautiful. And yet, somehow, people disagree. How? Why? Well, for allsorts of reasons.
Here’s Alexaxandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet which seems to be, at least in part, a response to that letter and the underlying point:
In general, I really like AOC, and want more people like her in positions of power, but I disagree with her here. The irony here is that she is distorting, probably unintentionally, the complaints about cancel culture and why a bunch of intellectuals, writers, etc would sign such a letter. She has been distorted by many political enemies in many unfair and often disgusting ways, but she, being human, is doing something similar.
In fact, the overwhelming number of responses from people responding to the letter have misrepresented the point of the letter, as if it’s about being silenced or ignored only (because that happens too). I don’t think they understand the point being made.
I think there is a miscommunication happening here.
And before we continue, I want to draw attention to what I just did there. I am disagreeing with AOC. I still like her, and I definitely still want her in her congressional seat. If I were able to, I would happily vote for her (I can’t because she’s not my representative). But I am now being critical of a point of view that she has, and I’m about to explain why. That’s all the letter is asking for; I disagree, I say why. You don’t have to read this, you don’t have to agree, but this criticism should be viewed as part of a healthy conversation. It should be welcome, even if it is ignored.
A lot of people don’t feel safe to voice disagreement openly, because of bullying tactics by people who self-righteously think they already have the right answer and are not open to criticism.
Let’s break apart AOC’s tweet, and see where we diverge.
The term “cancel culture” comes from entitlement – as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience,& one is a victim if people choose to tune them out.
Disagree. This is not about entitlement. I’m not entitled to be listened to. Anyone may ignore me so long as they like. AOC is simply missing the point here by misrepresenting/misunderstanding the point of the letter. It’s not about being heard, and except in a few extreme cases, nobody is literally being silenced. People are definitely being put in a place to fear saying what they think, however. The issue is that people who may criticize or disagree with even a small part of some ideologies are being associated with their enemies, when in fact we just want the idea to be a valid target for criticism. And so many people are keeping quiet out of fear. The 150 or so people spoke up because so many people have been made afraid, by ideological bullies who might threaten their livelihood or standing in a community merely for voicing disagreement.
In what universe should it be acceptable to react to mere dissent with anything except curiosity, disinterest, or disagreement without consequence to group-standing?
Many are being labeled as a racist, a misogynist, etc if we don’t agree with every facet of a narrative of theories about racism, sexism, etc. When we look at what racism is supposed to be according to Ta-Nehasi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, etc and someone enumerates a set of flaws in their definition or solution, such people are shunted off to the same section of the universe as Stephen Miller or Richard Spencer, and people are being bullied, losing their jobs, or being vilified as an enemy rather than as a person who is also concerned with racism but who might have a legitimate criticism and are dismissed as problematic or told we need to account for our errors.
But they think that you are the one in error, and they are trying to explain why. What if they are right? What if you are wrong? What if neither of you is right? How would you find out?
The point is that dissent not only should be acceptable, but that it is essential for the strength of the group trying to solve cultural problems such as racism, sexism, etc. Such dissent, so long as it is in good faith, should be welcome. It’s not about being silenced, it’s about not being welcomed due to criticizing an idea. The fact that so many people think it’s good to label someone as problematic or even bad because they disagree with some part of your ideology is the problem.
Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.
Maybe in some cases, this is precisely what’s happening. But if you treat people with legit questions and concerns the same way you treat actual bigots or people arguing in bad faith, you are effectively shutting down criticism. You are making your ideology sacrosanct in practice, even if not in theory. You may not think of your theoretical idea as sacrosanct, but if you treat those who disagree as problematic, you are doing something functionally equivalent.
And this is the issue that is being missed, here, By AOC. It’s not that we are saying you must listen to anyone, we’re saying that if you see what we say, don’t like what we said, and cannot treat criticism or disagreement any different than you treat actual bigots, then all you’re doing is chasing people who are trying to apply critical thinking to your worldview away from your in-group, and all that will remain are ideologues who agree with you, or who at least are willing to nod along with you while they might harbor some qualms but who will not speak them out loud. So-called yes-men (I suppose yes-people is better)
Isn’t that precisely the problem with the Trump Administration? All the people who openly disagree are pushed out. The only people left are the boot-lickers. And whetehr you like the comparison or not, that’s what your effort, in pushing people out for needing to be “accountable” or “likable,” is doing to your very tribe. The cronyism and corrupt people around Trump is the result of a similar process of you making people accountable.
You can make people accountable without dismissing or ostracizing them, let alone by threatening their job or making them feel unwelcome wuthin your group. It’s childish behavior and your rationalizing it as making people accountable does not come across as good faith. This is puritanism, whether done intentionally or by accident, and you need to be held accountable for it. The difference is that I’m not saying anyone is bad or needs to lose their job over it, I’m saying they also need to listen.
Because, again,you might be wrong, even if only a little bit.Your worldview might be mostly right, but maybe not all-the-way right. And if you dismiss, block, and demean those who are willing to challenge you, then all you are doing is making your echo-chamber more and more insulated and homogeneous. Is that your goal? Because if it’s not, that’s going to be the effect by this behavior.
The goal should not be agreement or ideological homogeneity, but a culture of accepting critics. You might frame it in terms of making sure that there are no bigots or dangerous people in your midst, but in practice all you are doing is demanding ideological purity in practice.
And I really don’t think that’s your goal. And if it is, then maybe you actually are the problem. Wouldn’t that be ironic.
Sometimes, I’m on Twitter….
There are people who do have really bad ideas. How do we know they are bad? Well, we have used argumentation to identify actually bad ideas and those which are debatable. Of course, where we draw the line seems to be what’s at issue here.
It’s like the Overton Window, except where the edge is differs from person to person. For one person, acceptable criticism might be further afield than for someone else, and when we have a person, such as myself, who feels very strongly for social justice issues but might have some issues and disagreements with some of anti-racist theory, is my criticism, as a white man, valid?
To many, the answer is no. They think my criticism as a white man is not welcome, relevant, not appropriate under any (or perhaps they might say most) circumstance. To others, the answer might be yes. They would say that I have a right to be critical of a theory about race.
The problem of conflation arises when we start to identify different types of people who might argue that I have this right. Some of those who say yes will do so because they are actual racists themselves. But others who say yes, I do in fact have a right to be critical of some ideas about race, think so because they (for example) disagree with critical theory in general, and have a different approach to solving the cultural phenomenon of racism in the world. Both of these types of people will be dismissed, labeled as problematic, and ultimately conflated to the racist camp, when the basis for their opinions are vastly different. Both will be cancelled without much noise about how one of those groups is definitely on board with solving racism while the other definitely is not.
If you dismiss Coleman Hughes or Thomas Chatterton Williams (the man who spear-headed the Harper’s letter) in the same way you dismiss Tucker Carlson or Richard Spencer, then I’m afraid you have lost me. If you cannot distinguish between Sam Harris (who I have some personal disagreements with) and Ben Shapiro (I’m looking at you, Cody. Also, I actually really like Cody, so there’s that too….), then I think you are having trouble distinguishing between significant differences in criticism and worldviews. Theirs are not equivalent perspectives on the relevant issues, yet your dismissing of their criticism is functionally the same.
Coleman Hughes’ arguments against Black Lives Matter and anti-racism theories based in critical theory are not racist criticisms. Richard Spencer’s arguments are most definitely racist. Yet both are dismissed by those within the people who tend to do the canceling, and almost never even acknowledge that there is a difference between their disagreements.
We have to be able to recognize, by being fair, charitable, and steel-manning interlocutors’ arguments, the difference between an actual philosophical opponent to a potential ally that has some tough questions to challenge your worldview. And with few exceptions, that’s not what I’m seeing in the world.
We must do better, lest we be reminded of Nietzsche:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
I’ve already been cancelled, so….
I’m an atheist, socialist, nonmonogamous, philosophocally-inclined, social justice-desiring, freedom-of-expression supporting, liberal, hedonist. And yet even I have to be quiet around many people in my life if I have a criticism of some of the Black Lives Matter ideology, because to do so is to be labelled a racist. It doesn’t matter that I think that the BLM movement is overall a very good thing, in terms of what it might be accomplishing and in terms of its ideology. I am genuinely afraid to voice criticisms in certain circles, because I value the relationships I have with many people (I’m guessing most of them don’t read my blog, but if they do….well, here we are).
No ideology should be beyond criticism. And this is what the letter in Harper’s is all about; we need to be able to criticize a movement based on the content of its ideas. No idea should ever be so sacrosanct as to be beyond criticism.
And while I have already named some people of color (and could name more) who are critical of some of the theories about race predominating news and books (especially of White Fragility, which I have found to be really really bad writing and logic), the fact that I would have to make this move is precisely the problem some of those writers, philosophers, etc have with the foundations of the idea of anti-racism at the ideological foundation of the movement. An idea is either flawed or it isn’t, and the fact that a person of color can criticize an idea about racism but I cannot is a flaw in the idea. If I’m capable of understanding an idea as being flawed, and my argument makes sense, why should it matter what the shade of my skin is?
I know I know…I’m expressing my white fragility….
I dream of a day when ideas will be judged not by the color of the advocate’s skin but by the strength of the content of their arguments. And this is one of the many reasons why this letter is important. Ideological purity is a dangerous foundation for a cultural movement, because any idea will be carried by a wave of tribalistic enmity of partisans, so if you start with purity as the foundation you have nowhere to go but authoritarianism.
Any authoritarianism, whether right, left, center, up, down, blue, yellow, small, grande, or whatever simply is a bad place to start.
For the 1/1000th time, Stop treating your beliefs as sacred. Nothing should be sacred.
And if I’m wrong, and you think me bigoted, racist, or whatever, then I suppose you can ignore me. But if you want to convince the world to change, then you’re going to do better than ignore dissent. You’re going to have to grapple with disagreement or be happy within your echo-chamber which will only change those who already agree with you, which seems like an ineffective way to achieve meaningful social justice.
Especially Polydelphia, who booted me almost a year ago for a mix of (admittedly) good and corrupt reasons. And who made no attempt at restorative justice, despite your paying lip service to this very powerful and important concept.
OK, so right off the bat for the sake of clarity, I’m not becoming monogamous. My long-distance girlfriend, who is married to someone else and who is quite dedicated to sexual and romantic freedom, might have something to say about that. Not that she could prevent me if I decided to do so, but she would likely just laugh at me and think I’m being silly again.
(Side note; she somehow didn’t know I was silly until she was already dating me. Somehow, she got the impression that I’m very serious and lacked mirth from my years of writing. I wonder why she concluded that? In any case, in real life I’m extremely silly, irreverent (I think that might have been clear), and I definitely do not take myself very seriously at all.)
Anyway, back to (not really) shedding the thing that is half of the portmanteau which is the URL of this (increasingly irrelevant) blog….
So, a number of years ago, while still a member of polydelphia, I started to notice the rifts and factions forming in the polyamorous community, especially online. Facebook has been awful for a while now (I’m barely on it, now), and polydelphia in particular has become increasingly awful since they decided to make up that I was threatening people within the group and banned me (which was annoying, but the place is a shit show so whatever? A number of my friends had already left, previous, for the same reasons I was being critical of the group). But like just about everything in our culture, now, we are more divided than ever, and each faction sees itself as righteous and the others as bad.
Remember when that happened in the atheist community? Yeah, look at it now. David Silverman, Rationality Rules, The Atheist Community of Austin, oh my! (I’ll leave my opinions on those particular people to the side, for now, as they are not pertinent to this post).
Well, the poly community is very much the same, and the various factions continue to fight and dismiss one-another, and have become toxic.
And I’m so done with that community in general. Polydelphia won’t have me back, quite likely (and I would be very unlikely to want to be back), but I’m done with the community in general. So done, that I’m contemplating just dropping the “polyamorous” identifier from my life. This was spawned during a conversation with one of my closest friends, with whom I was having drinks last Saturday. A long-time member of the lifestyle (swinger) community, and a person I met through the local poly scene several years ago, we have bonded over many things, including both of us being total geeks. But the silliness and toxicity of the poly community right now is among the things we bonded over.
And I have to ask; is there any benefit from calling myself “polyamorous,” anymore?
So, this is the point where my amazing girlfriend, as brilliant as she is, would remind me that labels are mere descriptions. And as she has argued that no matter what the association of the word ‘atheist’ has, and no matter how annoyed any of us would be with the community, the fact that she does not believe any gods exist means that she simply is an atheist, and that declining the word would be absurd (Someone tell Neil deGrasse Tyson!) and meaningless.
Which, well, is true. Insofar as I continue to maintain multiple sexual and romantic relationships, or at least intend to, and do so in a transparent way, then no matter my thoughts on the connotations of “polyamory,” I simply am polyamorous. Conceded.
And yet my friend, who definitely does not self-describe as polyamorous (but who definitely transparently maintains relationships with multiple women), finds the whole damned thing to be ridiculous. He looks at our former friends in that community and just shakes his head. He gave up on you all a long time ago. Us re-connecting was a chance encounter, and one that has led to one of my closest friendships. And I can’t say he’s without a point in wanting nothing to do with any of you.
He is unimpressed and amused with all of the conferences, the self-righteous posturing, and especially the social mud-slinging over theory and control over such groups. And when he articulates such thoughts, all I can do is say amen, brother.
Shit, I think I just understood why Neil deGrasse Tyson refuses to adopt the label atheist.
Yeah, labels describe, but sometimes it describes who you are associated with. And I don’t wish to be associated with most of you. There are a few in there which I still love and will miss, but the community is too much of a mess to want to be associated with it, anymore.
Here are some reasons why.
The Republic and the thing about people….
get it? Res+Publica? Gah! Nevermind…
So, we might think of the leadership of the poly world as, in a sense, representatives of a set of ideas and the groups which form the groups which form the conferences, social events, and orgies which constitute the poly world. Such people are as potentially amazing and corrupt as anyone else (and are often both), but they are, at bottom, merely people (like I said, both awesome and corrupt).
But those people have a kind of power. Influence? definitely. Control? In some cases, especially of the rules of groups, choosing who speaks at conferences, etc. But most importantly they control the narratives. Those who speak first control the narrative, so I’m now very suspicious of certain people who are doing this loudly. We are on the eve of a time when those who manipulate will either be knocked from their pedestal or will solidify their influence with different tribes within the community, and those tribes will be ossified into tribes, with canyon-sized rifts between them, just like the atheist community. You will stop listening to each other (Many already have), you will point fingers and blame, but it will be all of our faults (mine included, in case you wonder if I think I’m innocent here. I’ve waged war, and we all lost).
When individuals or political alliances form (sort of like parties in the poly republic, vying for control of the larger community) and are faced with individuals or parties with which they have disagreements, bad blood, or mere power-struggles based in nothing but a desire to be in control, then the rest of us are left siding with our friends, the first narrative we heard, or who aligns with our worldview more. People will fall into different factions or tribes. Those factions will not be divided by people with the truth and good ideas over here versus people with bad ideas and abusive pasts over there. Instead, it will be multiple, in some cases overlapping, factions who will all have good and bad ideas, people with various levels of harm caused to other people, and better and worse (and separate) conferences. Some might be better than others, but they will all think they are that one.
Just like in all politics. And right now, those vying for control of polydelphia, in particular (not the steering committe, per se, but those who drive the narratives) are a lot more akin to the Democrat and, perhaps more appropriately now, the Republican party than I’m comfortable with; dismissing evidence that doesn’t favor them, defending people they know are guilty within, and holding sway with many well-intentioned people who go to the rallies conferences to cheer for their idols. Idols who are as problematic as any of us who found themselves on the wrong side of a narrative-promulgation.
The general community are overwhelmingly lovely, funny, and cuddly people who I adore. They are the people out there just getting freaky with their many loved ones from day to day without concern for the politics around them, with little understanding of how the sausage is made. They may have opinions or allegiances but what most of them want is just to find people with whom they share one slice of their worldview, and maybe get invited to the cuddle party. They just want a community.
They don’t generally care about ideological purity or the definition of solo poly (for example). They get annoyed by squabbles and just stay out of the line of fire. And when wars erupt (and one is coming), they tend to tune it out, stop attending events as often, or leave groups. Many are left without a community, in that case. Many are left wanting that community, but see it as so toxic that they refuse to re-join. Many of them were hurt by those screaming the loudest about how the community needs to be safer, ironically.
And for what?
Well, all sorts of reasons. Let’s look at a few of them, shall we?
Ideological purity: We have to make sure that the people in our group have the right ideas, are educated in the complexities of goodthink better ways to do poly, from people with experience. Never mind that people with experience disagree on these things. Never mind that we all fuck those things up. Purity is important at the level of ideas, if not action. I’m bothered by this, but have addressed this elsewhere (here and here, for example).
Safety: These communities need to be safe for those who decide to participate, so we need to keep bad actors out. Agreed, in general. Of course, where the line is is a point of contention. Also, pretty much everyone hurts people, and if you make that line in such a way that minor issues become cause for removal, then nobody, especially those screaming for safety, are immune from accusations. I know, for a fact, that those screaming for safety in the local poly community in Philadelphia (polydelphia) are protecting their friends from accusers who have been bullied out of the community. Many of those hurt people are genuinely terrified to speak out. One of those people who have acted inappropriately is giving a keynote speech at Poly Living tonight. Yup, I’m talking about you, Kevin Patterson. You are no role model. Not because you made mistakes and hurt people (we all do. I certainly have), but because you take advantage of your popularity, charisma, and celebrity to brush off your mistakes while vilifying and push out others who do similar things. You do not deserve to be talking to a community about responsibility, sir. You need to take responsibility first. (I won’t be naming accusers because they asked for anonymity. It is up to them to come forward, if they decide to do so. But as I was told, the accusation is sufficient to hold the accused accountable, right?)
Friendship: We know our friends make mistakes. But we love them, and they have wonderful attributes, so we are willing to over look or dismiss the accusations against them as overblown (and, perhaps they are). Just like the friends of the people that you pushed out of the community, like me (and perhaps you may have overblown our sins, as well). This is how in-group/out-group works. You defend your friends and vilify those with whom you have beef. It’s usually the bullies who gain control. That’s what has happened here, in Philadelphia. You are all amazing, talented, smart people who have made yourselves into bullies. I know you don’t see it that way. Bullies never do. Remember; how you see yourself is how Donald Trump, and his fans, see Donald Trump.
Control: At bottom, some people just want power. They get drunk on it, and that power breeds righteousness and a large megaphone (in Trump’s case, a MAGAphone?). A very few of you just like the power it gives you. Most of you are trying to do the right thing and are making mistakes. But those who seek power and attention often find it.
There are others, but that’s enough to make my point.
It’s all for vanity. People being human, all too human.
And, in the end, those in control of the narrative, who have the masses on their side because they are charismatic and have a good story to tell, are equivalent to the GOP right now, in relation to the impeachment and Senate “trial” we just watched implode. You stick together, you vilify dissent, you remove people from your organizations for vastly inflated or made-up reasons (I’m not the only one), when (some of) you are guilty of the same things. And then you think of yourselves as defending the safety of the group. Good intentions, very poor execution. You are failing at the one thing you are screaming about. You are making the community toxic, and calling it social justice. It’s not justice, it’s tribalistic in-fighting. Youa re failing at justice because you are as unjust as those you vilify. You are human, and you’re fucking up. We all do it, but some of us know we are doing it and try to do better. You need to do that too.
You have done corrupt and unjust things and spun narratives which benefit you. The politics of the poly world are no different than the politics of the US government. And the people defending the “safety” of polydelphia, as well as other groups throughout the poly world, are acting just like the Senate Republicans. You have, are, and will likely continue to hurt people all the while screaming about “safety” (“what about the children!”). It’s a distraction. Clean your own friend-group first.
I hope that those you have hurt decide to finally rise up and speak out against you. Many of them are terrified, traumatized, and beaten down. You’ve stolen control of a group with your self-righteous bullshit. So, retaliate, against me, if you like. Become the Donald Trump of the poly world. It will hurt me, it will continue to traumatize me, and it definitely will cause me sleepless nights and anxiety (I’ve barely slept this week), but someone needs to call you out. Since I’m already a pariah and boogeyman, fuck it. Have at me, hypocrites.
I’ve made my mistakes. I’ve hurt people. I’ve been abusive, manipulative, and I’ve ruined relationships with good people who I cared about. I’ve struggled with mental health issues (there has been therapy and growth) which exacerbated problems in relationships and compelled problematic behavior . I have allowed my temper to terrify people, I’ve manipulated people (it was never intentional, but I’m still responsible), and I have acted irrationally in ways that chased many people away. I understand why many of you are former friends, and I do not blame you for distancing yourselves; you made rational decisions, in many cases (though, not all). I have allowed my mental health issues (recent therapists don’t consider me diagnosable as a Borderline anymore) to cause likely irreparable harm to many many people in my life, and I am so very very sorry for all the hurt I have caused. To anyone who has been hurt by me who hears of this, I offer my sincere apology. I was awful at times, and those moments have haunted me for many years. If any of you want to reach out to me, I will extend the offer to talk. Otherwise , I will leave you alone.
But the irony is that some of the people who hurt me, and people I’m allied with, the most are the ones vilifying me the most. Many of them likely don’t even know that there are people out there for whom they are the abuser. It’s frustrating to me because they talk publicly as if they are the pinnacle of moral behavior and victimhood, but have done awful things themselves.* The accusation is enough, right? Well, then it is the case that either:
You are also an abuser who should be banned from the community, like all the people you point finger at. or…
Your algorithm for who should be banned is self-defeating and ridiculous, because nearly everyone would have to be banned, and then there is no community.
Your “community standards” for safety are broken, toxic, and are the very foundation of the problems in the community as much as any Shaun McGonigal is. You all have, at some point, hurt, been abusive to, or manipulated people (myself included). Clean that log out of your eye before you bring out that ban hammer again.
I’ve done the work. I’ve improved myself. I’m healthier. I don’t know what work you have done, some of us have never felt as if you even acknowledge that you did anything wrong. I know you can do better, because you are all also intelligent and amazing people in other moments. We don’t want you banned or prevented from speaking, writing, or leading. We, the pariahs, the dismissed, and the banned just want you to stop pretending you are innocent when you aren’t. If you want safety, start with yourselves.
Much of what you have been doing in recent years is toxic and unhealthy, in my opinion (not that you care about my opinion, of course). I know you are better because I’ve seen all of you be amazing. Absolutely, brilliantly amazing. I loved all of you, I saw you all shine, and you are not doing so as well as you could now because you’re caught up in creating and maintaining a culture which also toxic, even if it’s not as toxic as that which you fight.
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
You’re likely laughing at me and my arrogance, right? How dare I criticize you, right? I get it. I’m not expecting to convince you any more than I’d convince someone cheering for Trump at his rallies. I expect to be ignored, dismissed, and retaliated against. I know that’s what you do.
I, however, will not back down from you. Not because you are wrong and I’m right, but because we are both wrong and both right in different respects, and we’ll never know in what respects by dismissing each other. I’m not dismissing your opinions of me. I’ve, in fact, spent many a therapy session, sleepless night, and personal writing in order to work out what I can learn from you and what, I think, you are getting wrong. I know you are right that I have done many bad things and hurt people, and yet I have grown and done the work. If you actually believe in restorative justice, and I know many of you do (in the community in general, I mean here), then actually practice it. Many of you have no idea who I am now or what I have done in the last few years. I know you think you do (which is not to say I haven’t made mistakes and hurt people in those years, but–again–I’m human I we all fuck up), but you have blocked me and dismissed me at every intersection so your information is old and your intel colored by a lenses of your tribe. If you insist upon continuing to do so without actually finding out what I’ve done in the intervening time, then your opinion must be considered suspect and factionally biased.
People who fuck up, do the work, learn, and get better is the goal of restorative justice. What you seem to want is punishment, banishment, and to crystallize an image of our worst moments into a definition of who we, pariahs, are. That’s not justice. I did, am doing, and will continue to do the work. I still have more to learn and to master, but I’m working every day to be better than I was the day before. Isn’t that what I was supposed to do? You have every right to ignore me, but if you come at me still, then you best be sure you know of what the fuck you speak.
We will never be friends again. That’s not my goal. So, I’m not asking you to do it for my sake, though I think you might want to consider doing it for the people you might continue to hurt, as I decided to do for my own life. Goodbye, my former dear friends. I have missed you from time to time. Take care.
So, to the poly community in general, and Polydelphia in particular, I’m leaving you behind because you have failed to create a safe, fair, and healthy community. Not for a lack of stringent enough rules or number of ban hammers, but because you fail to realize that safety is not achieved through fear, banishment, or mere demonization of people who fuck up, disagree with you, or who you just don’t like. All you have done is create an environment of fear in which anyone who has fucked up (and you all have done so) must say the right things in support for the goal of “safety,” keep quiet and hope nobody considers them important enough to out them, or preemptively attacks their “enemies” by labeling such people as problematic in order to define the narrative before those “enemies” can do it first. Maybe a few of you are actually without fault, in this regard. Cool. But are all of the people you defend also innocent? Would you react differently to an accusation against your friend than you would someone you don’t especially know or like?
There is a culture of fear in much of the poly community, and in our culture in general (shout out to ContraPoints). If you don’t see this phenomenon around you then consider that in this case it might be you who is in the position of privilege and power and are oppressing people around you without seeing it. Take it from a cishet white dude; it’s really easy to miss, even if you think you are seeing it. Those structure are, indeed, real, but they can act in communities by anyone of any background, no matter their place in the larger systems of oppression. Access to control over systems of power and oppression within communities is available to anyone if they reject the possibility that they have the ability to be blind to it. And we are all, at times, blind to our own power and control over people. Everyone. No exceptions.
Many of you are blind to your own power in this community, right now. One of you is about to give a keynote address at Poly Living 2020. Taking responsibility, indeed. Will you, really?
I’m seeing this all over the polyamorous community, and it will lead to ruin of the entire enterprise. I hope you are able to fix this going forward, while you still can.
I no longer have any hope for the polyamorous community to thrive. I know you are capable of it. Many of you are fucking it up right now, despite your good intentions, but you are also (all of you) smart, talented, and beautiful people who have the power to make the world a better place if you have the courage to do so. But you have to start with yourselves, your friends, and your tribes. Just like all of us as a species, nations, etc, we have to fix our own houses first before we start offering advice for how to build a bigger house for us all to live in a happy poly commune of love.
I wish you all the best. You’re going to have to do it without me. I’m sure you are relieved that this “abuser” is gone (wasn’t he gone like a year ago? Who is this nobody, anyway?). Now, you just have to deal with the ones in power in your community, doing lip service to safety.
-Shaun McGonigal, former abusive partner, current pariah, future unknown (but optimistic)
*I was very close to publicly outing some very bad behavior of some former very close friends and lovers, here. I believe I have every moral right to, given what that have done to me, but have decided it’s wiser to leave that aside, for now. Sorry for the disappointment, drama-lurkers.
I have been saying, for many years now, that I care about what is true. And, I do. But in reflecting upon some of the events over the last few years, there has been a splinter in my metaphorical appendages which has been annoying enough to make me re-evaluate this tendency, because I’m beginning to believe that this is too difficult a task to ask for without a strong awareness of how truth is so often tribal dogma or goodthink, rather than Actual Truth™.
Actual Truth™ is not so much a goal, ideal, or entity we can hold and share, because that would imply that we already have it, or at least its coordinates, to indicate. And this, I believe, is the focal point of the error that so many people make (myself included). And so I want to take some time, today, to make a distinction between truth as a metaphysical concept versus framing it as a process, because I think this would solve many problems we run into while attempting to convince people of the “truth” of something.
Whether in politics, religion, or inter-tribal warfare, the “truths” we carry with us are designed to be defenses and weapons, more than reality. But if you’re interested in reality, you may have to leave some of yourself aside for a bit, and take yourself much less seriously.
First, some definitions.
Reality as a metaphysical construct
Back in the old days, especially with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who defined much of what would be considered “philosophy” for centuries within the Western European traditions, truth was (in a sense, anyway) a thing. Depending on how literally you took some thinkers of this tradition, truth was literally a Form or Ideal in the universe, immutable and (possibly) discoverable. Philosophy and science were just a means of uncovering truths in the universe through discourse, investigation, and (eventually) the scientific method.
In the philosophy of mathematics, for example, there is a debate which goes back quite a long time as to whether numbers, and mathematical relationships in general, are real things that we discover or if they are in a sense created as tools for our understanding the relationships between things. The nuances and grey areas within this debate are beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re interested in such things, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article which can serve as an introduction to this area of study.
For our purposes here, the point is that some people think that the truth is actually real, in some sense. What is the densest material on Earth? Well, that’s a question with an answer which we can find (it’s Osmium, according my my Google-fu), and that answer is a real, true, fact about the nature of the world. If we wanted to know the densest material possible, well, that might be a different question which may or may not have a real answer, based upon how good our tools are to investigate such a question. Follow the same link as above to see a short discussion of neutron stars, for example.
So, in short, such a question has an answer which we can point to. What’s the densest material found on Earth? Osmium, duh. And you can point at your heavy osmium jewelry so that everyone can be very impressed. That is until you die from exposure to osmium tetroxide, which is a compound formed when osmium is exposed to the air. You know, that real stuff which is all around you all the time. Maybe settle for Iridium, if you’re seriously rich (it’s extremely rare). I, personally, wear a ring made of tungsten carbide which is like half as dense but still pretty heavy, but nobody is really impressed. Fucking haters….
Anyway, back to reality.
So, you can find a real truth to a question, but you have to make sure that the terms are well defined and have rational and empirical (when available) evidence to support the relevant facts. And many people believe that this is an indication that there is some actual reality which our language uses to describe, and by use of this idea the word “osmium” refers to a real thing which is, in fact, the densest (mass/volume, a real relationship, obviously) found on this planet. And then you can point at your collection of osmium (hopefully contained in some sort of sealed vacuum container, this time) and impress everyone with your strange collecting hobbies.
What I’m trying to get at here is that even if we have a definite answer to a question, the definiteness is the operative word. That is, we need to define the scope of the question to isolate a concept in such a way that we can make some sense of it and define the logical structure of the thought such that the answer makes sense rationally. The definition acts, for us, as some sort of lens through which we can “see” the real object. But do we? Is our definitional lens the thing itself? Do we ever really pierce the phenomenal barrier to reality and see the thing itself, the noumenal? (Kant says no, and he may be right). Aren’t all the things we perceive just simulations in our head of a thing which may or may not actually be out there, in reality? That seems to be the case, to me. But the definitions, the context, and the framing by which we perceive the real objects literally shape the world around us, and thus there is a sense in which it is true that we create the world we perceive, even if that construction is based upon something real “out there.”
And when we’re done with such construction, we have something to indicate, refer to, and interact with. We have reality, even if it’s just a simulation. It’s a construct of language, definitely (see what I did there?), but is it actually real outside of our conceiving of it with words and neurons firing? Is it more than a linguistic and cognitive construct?
Are we in some sort of Matrix?
I don’t know. But let’s take a look at another way to conceive of this question, for context.
Truth as a Process
Now, if you were paying attention to my clever section above, you may have noticed that I sort of hinted at this part already. Because even if there is an actual reality beyond our language and thought, the process to define, isolate, and logically structure the true thing is dependent upon, well, a process. Thinking is a process, logic is a process, language is a process, and science is most definitely a process.
All too often we will find people describing science in terms of “science says” or “we learn from science that” followed by a fact or set of facts. Science tells us we evolved from earlier primates. Science says water is made up of two parts of this and one part of that. Science tells us that stars are giant balls of fire very far away. These facts are just more examples of conceptually defined and structured words and thoughts, and by focusing on these conclusions we are missing the really important part of what science (and intellectual investigations in general) is all about.
What matters is the process. What tools are we using, how do we use them, why are those tools better than other tools, and are we using our tools well enough? And this is true in the history of ideas in general, not just the physical sciences. It’s also true of our worldviews, beliefs, and personal narratives about ourselves, friends, and enemies. Everything we hope to understand will be dependent upon what processes we use and how we use them. The reliability of any conclusion will hinge upon how we use such tools.
It’s much more valuable to have a strong handle on the process than the true fact/conclusion, because with the former you can get the latter, but not necessarily the other way around. Give a man a fish versus teach them to fish, blah blah blah.
And we are processes too. In a physiological and cognitive sense, we are a jumble of inter-related processes which serve a myriad of functions, rather than a static being. We are perpetually changing, growing, and cycling through processes we don’t have full conscious access to, but which are unavoidable. Our assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions themselves are dependent upon these processes and defined by them. The truths we hold, therefore, are secondary to the processes themselves.
The more we pay attention to the processes (both external and internal, assuming that distinction is meaningful) which we use to understand the world, the less we’ll be transfixed by the truths we accept, and we’ll be better prepared to replace those conclusions which have previously been put on pedestals or made into Platonic Ideals or Divine Reality with newer, better ones. Further, if we are able to improve our processes, we are less likely to get stuck in modes of thoughts and also better see past the faults in our truths and our methods. That is, not only can the truths we accept be upgraded, perhaps our processes can be as well.
If you believe Jesus is Lord or that psychic powers are real, these conclusions are based upon existing processes. If, upon further introspection, investigation, and skeptical analysis we discover that our processes can no longer support these conclusions, all the better (if the processes are good and used logically). But the further improvement would be to improve, reform, or replace your processes. A person whose epistemology consists of “God said it, I believe it” has a bad process installed, and so it’s no surprise when they conclude that Jesus is Lord. Skepticism is just a better process than presuppositionalism, for example, and can lead to more rational conclusions. That is, our processes are not merely relative, but some are better at others in terms of making sense of the miasma of phenomena we have to contend with.
What’s important here is to see that the process itself is a lens through which we construct the world. It literally shapes perceptions and defines our thought. It shapes the process doing the simulation of the world. The hard part is being able to identify your lens, in order to compare it with alternatives for the sake of upgrading or replacement; if you can’t understand how you see the world, you certainly will have a rough time correcting irrational truths and conclusions, and your beliefs will stagnate in errors.
And, this is the point in my writing that I am suddenly very aware that I’m trying to make a similar point I made in my MA thesis (a criticism of the illusion of ontological dualism as being an artifact of projecting a faulty tendency of thought onto reality itself), and that I’m about to start talking about Alfred North Whitehead.
(And yes, for once this was actually a spontaneous realization, and not a baked in “surprise” to my post, as I often do)
So let’s take a very brief pause and talk about process philosophy.
Make Whitehead Relevant Again
So, when I was in graduate school at West Chester, I had just discovered Alfred North Whitehead, or ol’ Whitey as I’ll call him (OK, no I won’t).
Whitehead was a contemporary of Bertrand Russell, with whom he collaborated in the 1890s on the subjects of mathematics and logic, but the two later moved in different directions, philosophically. Whitehead is not a well-known philosopher today largely due, I think, to his rather unorthodox metaphysics. But when I first read his work (especially his seminal Process and Reality, published in 1929), I was struck by it in a profound way. I wasn’t convinced by it, exactly. I didn’t become an acolyte like David Ray Griffin or John Cobb, both of whom went on to talk about theological implications of Whitehead’s process philosophy. But I did find something very valuable in shifting the way we think about reality, and process philosophy became a valuable metaphor for doing so. (In fact, part 2 of my MA thesis commits to seeing his metaphysics as a metaphor rather than a literal ontology, which I still think is a valuable take on Whitehead’s work unlike the essentially worthless Process Theology of his said acolytes, with whom I am still quite annoyed)
The essential thing is this; rather than focus on reality as a set of definite stuff interacting with other stuff (whether the simplistic ancient idea of tiny “atoms” and the “void,” as articulated by Democtritus in the 5th century BCE or later ideas of atoms as protons, electrons, etc), Whitehead invited us to imagine the world made up of processes. The perception we have of stuff is, in his theory, a kind of snapshot of the process. What he called prehension was, in some sense, us perceiving a moment of the process and creating the illusion of concrete stuff.* That is, the perception of the solidity and “stuffness” of reality is an illusion we create, but that all things are just a complex process and not actually things in the sense philosophers of old tended to think of it.
The implications on quantum mechanics, metaphysics, and science are interesting, but there are reasons his theory never really grabbed hold of the philosophical world the way that his contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein (who was also a subject of my MA thesis and part of my criticism of Whitehead), had on later philosophical thought. The reason is that his ideas were bad, if taken literally. I still believe that, as a metaphor, they are an interesting tool to understand aspects of the world.
Read his work if you’re curious about the details, but that is enough to move on with.
We are the warped lens through which we see all possible worlds
Do you see yourself as a person moving through time and space, taking in information, making judgments, and coming to conclusions about people, things, and ideas?
Me too. But let’s look at a shade of that idea which might either elucidate something or merely annoy you. Perhaps both.
Think about someone you love. Or like a lot. Or can tolerate for small periods of time, at least. Think about how you think about them, as well. What are the emotional associations with that person? How would you feel if you see them, or merely imagine them, being cruel to someone else, undeservedly?
Now imagine the same for someone you hate or dislike.
What’s the difference?
Now, what’s the truth? What kind of person are those people of whom you just thought? Is the first one having a bad day, and is the second person confirming your dislike of them? Or maybe you love or like a bad person, and have misjudged someone else who is just having a bad day? When did the truth of each of those people, and all the other people you could think of, become a real, definite, thing? When did you decide to love the first and hate the second, and why do you still do so?
When did you first deify or demonize them? When I asked you to think of someone you loved, you probably had at least one person in mind. Why that person? Why didn’t you get confused and accidentally think of your worst enemy? Didn’t you already have a lens, a filter, of your perception set up, for each of those people? And didn’t your new observation or imagining of them being cruel pass through that filter, rather than come to you uncolored?
Why was one on the good side of your filter, and the other on the bad side?
In order to save time, we humans tend to use general concepts (stereotypes, really) as place-holders for more nuanced and accurate perceptions. We have quick and dirty schema to make sense out of the people, objects, and concepts which surround us. One of these conceptual shortcuts is the tendency to define dualities or continuum, which leads to binary thinking, in many cases. In some religious traditions, such as Zoroastrianism, there are opposing supernatural beings pulling us in two different directions. The Light/Dark side of the Force, from Star Wars, is a fictional example of this (but aren’t they all fictional? ZING!). In the Christian world, it’s God and the devil, which derive from concepts more akin to something being placed in an idealized pedestal and something thought of as evil, harmful, but still powerful.
Gods and Demons, loved ones and enemies. Simple, effective, and rarely accurate at higher resolutions, but fairly universal of human perception and worldviews.
These examples of how we categorize people, ideas, places, etc are very natural and easy ruts for us to fall into, and doing so doesn’t make us weak, broken, or wrong in any moral sense, but I believe we have some responsibility to be aware of this tendency and to lift ourselves out of this rut when we see it happening. And I have written about tangential issue to this before, I know, but today I want to focus on seeing ourselves, our friends, and our enemies as processes so that we can, perhaps, allow ourselves to see people for what they are in the process of doing, rather than merely what they did that time when we froze our image of them in a timeless box. If we want to know what is true, we need to compensate for our tendency to sum up our surroundings up quickly and simply, in an analogous way to how video is a better tool than pictures to capture the reality of some thing we are investigating. Seeing people as processes is more accurate than seeing them as a defined and idealized objects, or static pictures.
Because if every one of us, you and I included, are stories we are telling ourselves in real time, then that story may change and have moments of mistakes, successes, and many more of boring, everyday, actions of little moral significance. A snapshot of any of these moments is only part of the whole process, and we need to be able to look at patterns over time rather than one tweet or moment of emotion (for example). It’s all too easy to allow such moments to define someone and to therefore decide to cut them out of our lives (“cancel” them), rather than the harder effort to understand them as complex human beings with possibly nuanced behavior and beliefs.
But more importantly, we need to remember that the story we are telling about ourselves is also a lens through which we see the rest of the world. It distorts ourselves as much as our surroundings, and if we want to define the lens, then we have to pay specific attention to the warping and distortions of our worldview. That is, we need to be very attentive to how we deceive ourselves before we can be sure we are beginning to see an accurate picture of the rest of the world. If you are unaware of the shape of your own lens, then you have little hope of being certain about the reality of anything around, or within, you.
You can love people who casually and normally do harm because they endeared themselves to you in the right way and at the right time, and you can despise someone who is kind and considerate because they did (or you heard they did) something that specifically irks you. And for some third person, with their own perceptions and opinions, those two people whom you love/hate could be reasonably swapped, and the person you love they will hate while your enemy is their trusted friend. And they may hate you, despite your good qualities, to boot. A little perspective goes a long way towards love, hate, and indifference.
So, how can we start to discover the shape of the tool through which we perceive reality? You have to start by being willing to question the most valued and sacred things; not your beliefs, per se, but what you are. You need to re-evaluate yourself, your processes, and the beliefs that those processes have wrought.
And it’s so easy to get that wrong, and therefore very easy to turn incorrect perceptions into deified truth because you revere your warped lens. For some people, their values are sacred parts of their identity, but I believe that those are the things we need to be most skeptical about.
If you want to see the world correctly, you need to start by seeing yourself correctly. And we are so good at lying to ourselves.
A correctly shaped lens has a depression
I’m going through a bad bout of depression, currently. It’s that time of year, and it’s been compounded by factors in my personal life, and I know it will pass. But in the meantime, I’m struggling. Depression lies, as the Bloggess says. But is that all it does, and is it the only liar here?
Some research has shown that depression has a tendency to offer some amount of cognitive clarity, rational thought, and nuanced reflection (the so-called “Depressive Realism,” see here and here) such that the rose-tinted view of the world is less prevalent, and we are able to see things are they are, to some degree, better
From the New Yorker, in 2014, in an article making reference to a famous set of experiments about depression and perception of reality:
Not only were depressed individuals more realistic in their judgments, they argued, but the very illusion of being in control held by those who weren’t depressed was likely protecting them from depression in the first place. In other words, the rose-colored glow, no matter how unwarranted, helped people to maintain a healthier mental state. Depression bred objectivity. A lack of objectivity led to a healthier, more adaptive, and more resilient mind-set. (source)
So much for self-help and the power of positive thinking as a means to seeing the truth.
In the quiet moments of self-reflection, I can tell myself that I am my worst mistakes. All the things that my enemies say about me are true. I deserve ostracism, enmity, and distrust. In times of confidence I can, alternatively, tell myself that I have done so many great things, maintained so many good relationships, and have done work to learn from those mistakes, and all the people demonizing me are merely unable or unwilling to see the distance between their crystallized image of me and the real me, which makes them wrong and possibly cruel in continuing to attack, defame, and ostracize me. So fuck them, right? They are assholes, and not worth my time.
These are just two different shapes of the lens I am capable of creating for myself. Neither is true, in any real or absolute sense. They are different framings that I project, and they will make the world look quite different from the other. Depression lies, but so does self-empowerment and pride in some identity. All our lenses lie, to some degree. The key is to figure how how and how much each lens lies to us, and not to become transfixed by any of them whether self-deprecating or self-empowering. The truth lies elsewhere.
I don’t believe the sad thoughts my mind whispers to me when feeling down, but I’m similarly skeptical of things such as “The Secret” or optimism as a means to empower ourselves, because it seems like a self-deception as well. And in some sense it is most definitely a lie. I have a close friend who swears by it, and believes that his optimism and attitude towards success are what makes him successful. Perhaps it does have that effect, but it is still, in some sense, a lie. It’s a lie of control, and arguing with someone who believes that they will succeed would be fruitless, mostly because they are insisting upon their deception and proud of it. They begin to shape not only their own lens, but the lenses of people around them and thus creating the power structure that wasn’t there previously. So it’s not only a lie, but it’s one that creates a new kind of truth which is then accepted socially, and thus has power.
I’m not confident most people will use this power for good, so I am not a fan of this approach.
But, more importantly, this teaches us that we can create a shield-lens around us which creates an intersubjectively real social field that effects our behavior because it defines our perception. The tall man walking confidently down the street in his obviously well-tailored suit, nice shoes, and expensive briefcase carries himself with self-empowerment, and this confidence effects not only his perception of the world (which is a lie), but it effects the shape of the field of others around him (whom are telling themselves a different kind of lie, perhaps). These social shield-lenses are the social structure in which we live, every day, and it helps define the culture, economics, and local identities which seem as real to us as the car he’s getting in or the homeless person he just ignored.
Because, again, we construct reality. The simulation of the car, the man, and the social status happen in the same mind, and have similar real effects on our behavior. And if these constructions are lies, even if only in part, then shouldn’t we be more skeptical about them?
We create our own reality, right? We define and create the truth, correct? Like-minded people, who view themselves as powerful, in control, and successful band together to create a tribal lens, and rival groups push and pull the reality around them leading to a world of competing tribes with their own realities, each of which is the lens through which they see the world. Other tribes will look warped because both sets of tribal lenses warp the reality as perceived intersubjectively, and the next thing you know there is no possibility of getting to any agreement, let alone Actual Truth™, because everyone is invested in their individual or group lenses which are defining their own realities, and warping all the other realities. It’s a vicious cycle.
It’s very possible (super easy, barely an inconvenience) to be a genuinely intelligent, well-intentioned, and honest person living your life as part of a community while trying to make the world a better place while simultaneously participating in the demonization and harm to other people. It is, in fact, the norm. I think everyone thinks they are, even when acknowledging errors and mistakes, generally good and doing the right things. Actual psychopaths are rare. The rest of us have normal good people as our enemies.
I believe, after some years of deep contemplation, that I’m almost certainly wrong about a lot of things, especially the things with the most emotional weight. The people I’m hurt by and dislike the most are not monsters, but flawed humans who just happened to hurt me in the right way and at the wrong time. And I know that people exist for whom that person is a trusted friend or partner, but who absolutely hate me. Do any of us deserve that? Like I said, actual psychopaths are rare, and it’s possible that I’ve known one or two, but in general I must conclude, unhappily but rationally, that I hate people who are decent in many ways. And so do you.
It’s very easy for me to fall into the rut of demonizing people for the ostracism, untrue accusations, and attacks I have received from factions within the polyamorous community (for example). Because despite the fact that I know most of those people are smart, honest, and well-intentioned, they are also corrupt liars just trying to protect something. And I think I know what they are protecting. It’s the same thing we are all protecting, in the end; ourselves and our lenses.
Because as a lens perpetuates in a person, group, or culture, that lens becomes a mythology, a narrative, and part of an identity. And this is how misperceptions, deceptions, and lies become part of who we are and what is sacred to us. And this is why I try to hold nothing sacred, because for me all is subject to scrutiny and criticism. And we all, in every group, have our sacred ideologies. It’s time to pull them down off their pedestals and re-evaluate.
It’s time to drop the shields
Remember how I was lamenting how we lose track of the fact that we are complicated, and that if we stopped deifying and demonizing people and saw them as complicated processes, then we might be better off (or whatever my point was)?
We’ve moved from the analogy of a snapshot image of a person, thing, or concept as being worse than a video of them. See them in real time, as a process, and we see more of the context and more of the truth. Except this is the wrong analogy. It’s the wrong analogy because it seems to imply that what we need to do is more actively pay attention to the lenses we are deceived by. It implies that we may need to take control of the shape of our lenses, talk with other people about their lenses so that we can start to understand one-another better, and finally start to talk with one another.
This, quite frankly, will not work very well. The reason, I think, is that this lens which we create, as individuals and as groups, is a projection from our (sacred?) values and beliefs about who we are. It is like a spell we cast around us, actively made stronger by the illusion, referred to above, of control. It is the very thing we see as a positive thing–confidence, empowerment, and identity–which creates it. If there is anything I have benefited from, in times of depression, it is the moments of quiet, passive clarity which allows me to drop the pretense of control and the identity it may provide.
Having actively meditated for many years helps this, as well. I have trained my mind to focus on its own processes, and between moments of sadness and self-pity and surges of confidence is a quiet space of stillness and authenticity in which even my most hated enemies are human and understandable, and my most loved and trusted human and imperfect. It is during these rare and valuable moments when I realize that the only way we can understand each other is by recognizing that we are not what we think we are.
We are not as self-aware as we think.
We are not in control of the vast majority of things
we are not right about most of what we believe
None of us. And it’s not our fault; this is the human condition. It’s just that all of us are almost always transfixed by a set of distortions of reality and ourselves, created by our attempts to better control and understand ourselves and the world around us.
We are, at best, semi-aware bits of matter filled with stories and concepts shaped by lenses we can’t see. The more we focus on any of it, the more we create the illusions in which we live our every-day lives. Just like how money is an illusion which we create, so is everything else we see. Whether the illusions are good things or not is besides the point, because if we recognize that they are not real, then we can’t become affixed by them and defined by them. And, finally, we can’t create gods, demons, or even truths if we aren’t willing to lend reality to the phenomena we’re projecting.
I’m not suggesting that we just give up and live as nihilists, but I’m suggesting that we all, as individuals, groups, cultures, and as a species (and potentially as a member of all possible semi-sentient beings) kill all of our gods, demons, and even our very identities. If we do so, we will begin to understand that we don’t know anyone, really, especially ourselves. Then we can stop defining people so easily and quickly based on limited information and context.
Only then can we start to glean the truth.
What is the truth? I don’t know. And neither do you. Perhaps if we realized that, we would yell at each other less on social media, and realize that people in power are really projecting a narrative that probably won’t be helpful to you. The one yelling the loudest is creating the biggest lens for themselves, and they won’t be able to see you as well as you can see them.
I see you out there. I don’t know who you are, but I’d be willing to sit quietly with you and maybe try to let my shields down, if you will.
None of this means that there isn’t actually any true things. This is not a nihilistic screed. There are still better and worst ways to govern, behave, and things that are more true than others. The point here is that we need to realize that the beliefs and behaviors which allow us to succeed in accomplishing things in life, whether self-confidence, empowerment, or group identity is also a source for self-deception. In terms of achieving practical success and accomplishment, the useful lies are helpful. But those very same perspectives and skills are detrimental in terms of seeing the truth.
I believe that much of religion and the history of mystical thought has realized this for thousands of years, but the mistake is attributing this to some more real world or more real being. This, ironically, is exactly the problem, rather than the solution. Just like how Trump supporters err in believing Trump-like “strongmen” are the solution to corruption, lying, and incompetence in government, mysticism and religion are wrong in believing that a supernatural or magic reality is better than the mundane/sinful world it tries to overcome. It is the very projection of a solution which is the source of the problem. I think there is a reason that many Trump supporters are evangelical Christians; they are both transfixed by the same fundamental error of not seeing reality because they are believing, so hard, that their savior is real when it’s all a deception. And it’s one they could stop projecting, if they weren’t so self-interested in maintaining it.
We need to stop mistaking our lenses for reality.
I don’t know the solution to this problem. I’m just no longer impressed by our human bullshit.
And I’ll continue to do my best not to get hyped by my own bullshit.
I’m not only out of fucks, but I’m convinced that the fucks aren’t even real to begin with.
*anyone familiar with Whitehead just winced, because I simplified that to painful extents. In reality, Whitehead believes that our consciousness is that process of the stuff we are made of being aware of itself, as all matter is supposed to do. According to the theory of Process Philosophy, all matter does this prehension at different levels of complexity, and the level of complexity adds up to different levels of consciousness. This leads to what some followers of Whitehead call panpsychism, which is, in many ways, the foundational idea to much of the ideas of universal consciousness (a la the annoying Deepak Chopra and so forth). The idea, popular with many spiritual traditions throughout cultures and history, that consciousness is part of the nature of reality itself, often leads to the belief that the entire universe would be aware of itself, and everything below it is in a hierarchy of awareness, including ourselves, animals, plants, rocks, etc, are all concious in some sense. This self-awareness of the universe is what God is for some Process Theologians. I’m not a proponent of panpsychism or process theology at all, but it’s an interesting philosophical attempt to make rational many spiritual and religious ideas, which I still run into when talking with many “spiritual” people. In short, Whitehead created a metaphysics which was influential on a lot of woo mysticism of the 20th century, which would make him my natural philosophical opponent.
The current trend of the “woke” left is slipping more and more into the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, is increasingly non-skeptical, and is in danger of alienating the left, in general, through it’s self-righteous behavior. We, as progressives, need to emphasize individual skepticism and enthusiastic willingness to accept authentic criticism from people who want to be our allies, or wokeness will become just another blip in the history of cultural progress which will, in time, become as normal, dogmatic, and oppressive as any of the cultural norms it was conceived to resolve. Authoritarian, rule-based thinking is what makes an ideology oppressive. Shaming, ostracism, etc, which many radical progressives have been doing to people they perceive as “problematic,” is just another form of inquisition against heretics, and can only lead to a a world of authoritarians, Left, Right, and Center, where the Right (and possibly Center) is better at coalescing and thus will be able to win in that fight. The anti-skeptical Left is dooming itself by seeking ideological purity through fear of consequences rather than through agreement through encouraging a community capable of actual freedom of thought.
We all fuck up, because we’re human. But all too often the distinctions between “problematic” people and people in good standing in communities, exemplified here in the local Philadelphia group Polydelphia, are based more upon who you are friends with than what you actually did.
Let’s talk about keeping up with cultural progress within an increasingly toxic and fragmented world.
Popper, Kuhn, and the demarcation problem of cultural progress
A new sort of philosopher is emerging: I venture to baptize them with a name which is not without danger. As I figure them out – to the extent that they let themselves be figured out, for it belongs to their type to want to remain something of an enigma – these philosophers of the future may have a right, perhaps also a wrong, to be described as attempters. This name itself is finally merely an attempt and, if you will, a temptation.
–Nietzsche, BGE #42
For those of us who think of ourselves as progressives, there is a shared value of improving our lives and the world in general by finding ways to make things better. Our goals may be different, and out tactics certainly differ, but we at least share the overall goal of making things better through change, and hopefully improvement, of one kind or another. In some cases, the change is largely a reactionary table-flipping in response to the perceived dangers of the traditional culture in which we grew. In some cases it might be improving of, or slow replacement of, those traditional structures to make sure we’re doing it right. That is, even within the larger umbrella of “Progressive,” in terms of the political spectrum of the United States in particular, there is a tension between those who seek to burn it all down and those who seek to improve by tinkering with some things. And, of course, all the grey areas in between.
But these efforts exist within a cultural milieu, meaning that whatever political goals or tactics become popular must start somewhere outside of politics; they are a function of people making attempts to make sense of and to improve our understanding of the world, ourselves, or to redefine what it means to be human. People who live on the various fringes of society, whether artists or just younger people who grew up with newer information about the world, will continue to expand the logical space of what’s possible, find fault with what has been traditional, or redefine the questions through cultural criticism of all kinds.
Thus, so long as we keep learning and challenging ideas as a species, every generation will push our culture in various directions which will seem uncomfortable or merely unfamiliar to previous generations or those not close to the fringes. This is not to say that these cultural shifts don’t cycle, because they often do, but anyone paying attention now must admit that the cultural tensions, conflicts, and wars are dealing with topics which were not conceivable to the vast majority of the world just 50 years ago. And yet the logical structure of the cultural struggles seems to historically rhyme, as it does from time to time.
The biggest mind-fuck, for me, is the question of whether most fringe cultural experimentation is an analog of Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm shift, or is it one of tentative and slow excavation of the limits what it can mean to be a human in a group of humans, more like what Karl Popper had in mind (if we’re taking the analogy of the Kuhn/Popper tension to it’s limits, here). In short, the question is whether cultural progress is (or should be) a question of completely overturning old ideas and creating new ones or whether it is a slow, deliberate, process of separating the wheat from the chaff, in terms of what’s actually true. Is it revolution, slow deliberation, or a combination thereof?
And this is a difficult puzzle (and perhaps it’s a true “problem”) because if there is a legitimate paradigm shift happening right now, the new paradigm would not only look incorrect to those outside of the know, but it would actually appear dangerous. When you hear Christian conservatives warning their followers of the dangers of (as they tend to call it) “liberalism”–that “liberals” want to destroy the traditional family–they aren’t really wrong in some cases; I, an example of who such people think of as a “liberal”, would be fine with the destruction of the traditional family structures in our culture, at least as the default or norm. But what of the distance between the radical woke left and the more cautious, moderate, incrementalists? Here we have a similar dynamic, which (if you pay attention to places like Twitter, Facebook comments, etc, you might understand) illuminates a potential stark difference in not only the goals, but whether grey areas are even possible.
And then the question becomes whether the new paradigm is “true”, and which methods or definitions we could use to determine such truth or falsity. The very nature of a paradigm shift is one of overturning truths, making this more problematic. Of course, if one’s preferred methodology of achieving progress is not analogous to table-flipping, then one is advocating for the incrementalism of the moderates, or at least some skepticism of the validity and applicability of all of the theory behind a paradigm-shift of (for example) woke politics. Because if even any of the theory or particular conclusions of the woke are in need of skepticism or criticism, then slowing down and making sure that it is well thought out would be wisdom, not conservatism or compromising with actual NAZIs.
In short, just in case woke ain’t all right, we might need to slow down and make sure we haven’t taken a wrong turn somewhere instead of yelling about NAZIs. Yelling about “actual NAZIs,” when faced with internal criticism, is a very good example of the red herring logical fallacy. We’ll return to that issue later, but first we need to address a tangential issue.
Top down or bottom up?
I want to have a better understanding of whether cultural change is better effected by top-down, legal, rule-based methods or by organic bottom-up structures. In other words, does culture change and/or sustain because of rules, or because individuals make decisions which supervene upon the whole through a culture of individual decisions and relationships?
(Side note. Readers within the larger non-monogamous world may recognize a reference to the tension between hierarchy/couple privilege and anarchism/individualism here, which is part of the ideological splits within the poly world and has a similar mapping to this conversation. But that’s a whole post unto itself, and I don’t want this to become another Master’s thesis…)
You may have already guessed my answer, but rather than maintain the dramatic suspense which I’m sure you are all riveted by, I will get to the point.
Rules don’t work as a means to change. Rules are what we create after the change has started and we need to define what’s happening and need to create some boundaries for moral behavior and logic of the ideas. Along with rules come a vocabulary and some redefinition of truth or at least facts held together by some tentative theory to tie them all together. It’s very similar to science (hence the Kuhn/Popper analogy above) in that new ideas are tested and the results start to form a picture, a proto-theory, to describe it all. While it’s happening, at the cutting edge of cultural progress, we can never be too sure about how certain to be about our developing worldviews.
And yet I’m noticing a lot of woke people being disproportionately certain about the world they are in the process of creating, while admonishing and shaming those who either aren’t keeping up, disagree, or are still more tentative than those who are certain would like. And I think that the reasons they have being so confident aren’t justified, and thus their certainty, admonishments, and shaming are unwarranted consequences for not being sufficiently woke, in at least some cases. (I want to distinguish this phenomenon from those on the right claiming, for example, that feminism and the like are mental illnesses or dangerous delusions, which are not, in my opinion, valid criticisms nor interesting, philosophically. I’m talking about disagreements within people who agree with the underlying power-dynamics, but might disagree about tactics or fringe applications of the theory).
People don’t behave because a rules exists, unless there is a fear of punishment by some authority (and then in some cases, not even then, necessarily). In terms of religion, it’s the punishment of some god, either in this life, some imaginary afterlife, or potentially both. In politics, it’s state power; if you break the law, you go to jail, get ostracized, get executed, etc. In the case of relationships, you risk losing a relationship and/or trust which would be otherwise salvageable. In a community, the driver of fear is loss of reputation or even participation in the group. You behave because, if you don’t follow the rule, you’ll get smacked down. Especially if you disagree with the rule and decide to question it.
In other words, rules only work because of fear. And while fear can be a motivator, it also leads to cheating, dissent, and rebellion. And it’s extremely common. Basic game theory here, people. Loosen your rules and they will be thwarted, to the chagrin of leadership, moderators, and members alike. Ruling with an iron fist will make people afraid to rebel or be a dissident, but it requires some level of autocratic or at least top-heavy control to maintain subservience to a strict rule, and makes the community hierarchical and a self-selected binary of the decision makers and those who don’t want to stir the pot, when dissenters are ostracized or removed. When woke people take control of communities, and heretics are removed for not adhering to their ideals, the community self-selects for certain people and the group, as a whole, distances itself from people who have valuable things to add to that community due to mere disagreement and unwillingness to not rock the boat. It creates insular echo-chambers and bubbles where criticism will eventually be invisible and anathema.
This is how authoritarian regimes form, and how dictators or oligarchies come to be. Just look within the bounds of Trumpistan, and you’ll see the same thing. But if you look within certain communities on the left, you’ll see the same behavior and result; even among anti-hierarchical, anarchist-leaning groups you’ll find that there is an orthodoxy, and a few people who defend it at the loss of contrarians and critics who were problematic for the goals of the group, as it is rationalized. It’s so much easier to control because it’s much more efficient for those who seize the levers of power. That is, I don’t think that such leaders actively seek to create such orthodoxies, they are genuinely just trying to keep the group remain civil and weed out trolls and such. But sometimes telling the difference between a troll and a person bringing legit and authentic skepticism is difficult and time-consuming, and eventually personality conflicts will enter into the equation of which this person is. For the sake of simplicity, it’s easier to make rabble-rousers feel unwelcome or to remove them. Completely human and understandable, but with dire consequences for communities of all kinds in the long run.
Thus, eventually what was a cultural conversation and conflict of goals, tactics, and so forth becomes a political one, when the average person is put in charge of moderating, steering, or leading a community. And, if we aim to use politics, laws, or policies to solve our problems within communities, a strong personality who is willing to take a no-nonsense approach to a problem might be needed if we want to minimize drama and conflict. Such a person will be human, be subject to manipulation from other members (lobbying), and some of those people have specific agendas and interpersonal conflicts. And, in the end, the best lobbyists win even while such lobbyists are often guilty of the same, if not worse, behavior. This is how corruption forms, both in small communities and in governments. It’s just an accident of human behavior and how it effects group dynamics, and is rarely intentional or an actual planned conspiracy.
Take our current political climate with this president, this congress, and the continued presence of lobbyists and special interests at war for control and influence. My problem with our current cultural climate is that the tension is pushing us towards either a dictatorship by a narcissistic, inept, and corrupt millionaire (Trump and the like) influenced awful people versus a set of progressive ideas by a community who is similarly incapable of self-criticism and seems allergic to pragmatism (often for good reason, but the question is when it’s NOT a good reason to defy being practical). On the left, especially by woke elites, most criticism is handled as if it were indistinguishable from a snide comment by Infowars, Fox News, or actual Nazis. Anyone remember that argument between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck? Yeah, Ben Affleck is an idiot. Sam Harris, despite his own flaws, is correct here.
And the larger point is that even if Sam Harris and Bill Maher were wrong here, that doesn’t mean they are equivalent to actual islamaphobes or other right-wing bigots. There is a difference between being critical of someone who holds Affleck’s view and someone who wants to destroy all leftist ideologies. Sam Harris, and also I guess I, want to create a world where it’s still OK to have arguments and disagree, but not be considered apostates or -ists of various kinds just because we disagree with your conclusion. The attempt to legislate laws or top-heavy hierarchies of control is not creating an open, just world. Rather, it’s just another form of authoritarianism. And if the left wins this cultural fight (it seems unlikely to win the political one, partially because of this problem), then it is just another kind of orthodoxy and heresy to divide us even further, and make us more inneffectual and perpetually powerless.
But at least we can feel self-righteous.
The narrative of ‘The Right v. The Left’ is too simplistic; but insofar as it has any meaning, each facet of the current social/political/cultural divide is subject to tearing themselves apart from within. And in such an environment, it’s the one which coheres around a narrative which will survive. Right now, the narrative gaining strength is the one on the capitalist/fascist/Trump end of the spectrum, while the Left is arguing itself into oblivion over nuances so allusive and arcane that I can’t even follow the threads. But what I have seen within the many communities I have been a part of is an increasingly authoritarian tendency, creating the above-mentioned orthodoxy and the heretics that become pariahs. We can, and need to, do better.
Authoritarians, both Left and Right. But the right tends towards obedience better, so they will win that fight, unless we make some serious cultural changes within the left, now.
I’m not optimistic.
Political Power and the Cutting Edge of Cultural Growth
So, is politics the art of compromise and pragmatism? Isn’t all politics, especially the notion of practicality the center of realpolitik? Therefore, aren’t the fringes, including the radical “woke” left and the proto-fascist (alt-)right (among others) of our current political conversations merely a means to make any actual political movement impossible except via power struggles?
Isn’t the failure to realize that politics is not the cutting edge of cultural growth the very failure responsible for the political tribalism, factionalism, and ineffectualism of our current state? Isn’t the inability to compromise the reason we’re falling apart in an #AmericanDecline?
I’m making the point too strongly. I don’t actually believe that change and progress are impossible within the political sphere. I don’t actually think that practicality, or the willingness to compromise with one’s opponent, is the only valid move within politics. I don’t actually think that (for example) Nancy Pelosi’s incrementalism or Joe Biden’s willingness to work with segregationists in the past, as compared to the more radical efforts of the Congressional “squad,” is better or more wise. I don’t actually believe that idealism and real progress is impossible in politics.
But I do believe that no matter how much idealism and radical change exists within the purview of people in positions of political influence, it will always, by necessity, lag behind whatever cultural progress people are cutting into the vague, undefined, space of the universe that human intuition, intelligence, and imagination are charting. The more one lives in the halls of power, the more they lose track of the ideological cutting edge out there in the world, mostly because of time-management and exposure to such things makes it harder to be near that cutting edge.
Having to work within the framework of any system necessitates some level of compromise to such a system. The question then becomes to what extent one compromises. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” compromise minimally (perhaps), and Nancy Pelosi compromises a lot more. It’s a question of quantity of compromise, not whether one will compromise. The only way to not compromise would be to become a dissident, off the grid, not intertwined with the political system at all (except, maybe, as a prisoner within it).
Total anarchy, right? For that, maybe check out this guy (who just put up the attached video, below, today about getting too woke, for a different perspective on this issue), who seems to pretty minimally interact with political power and does not advocate for doing so, and makes great videos with a very interesting point of view. But I’m not advocating for anarchy, exactly. Not at this point, in my growth as a political thinker, anyway.
To reiterate for emphasis, I believe that the more time a person spends in politics, they will necessarily lose the narrative of that charting of new ideological space. Digging into policy and whatever compromise with realpolitik, which such positions necessitate, ushers one’s attention from the cutting edge of all human experimentation. And I think that we need to keep in mind that all of this exploration of what is possible–from all the artists, cultural critics, and daring explorers of what it means to be human–is a space of testing and not yet conclusions.
Because sometimes those attempts fail, or at least need some significant reconsideration before implementation. We need a way to test these ideas in a way that will figure out if they actually work, sort of like what Adam Gopnik argues in this book recently published (and which I just started reading) about the concept of liberalism; liberalism not as a centrism, but as a methodology rather than community membership. It’s a method, not a clique.
To sum up, those who cut into the unknown fabric of logical space around our culture, language, and social mores occasionally fuck up, as all experimentation will inevitably do. We need to apply an effectual set of tools to figure out how and in what way they have fucked up, and this self-criticism needs to be built into not only the policies of the ideas but into the very culture of the people who take part within expanding our view of it. Because sometimes it takes decades or centuries for us to figure that out, thus we need to defend against creating orthodoxies or sacred laws which we’ll just have to fix in the future.
Even entrenched political, cultural, and social rules were once revolutionary, radical, ideas. As we continue to chart the expanses beyond the status quo, remember that what is radical now may one day be an oppressive status quo for some future generation. So we need to be extra skeptical and critical of what we are creating, for their sake. Wouldn’t it have been great if our fore-bearers did that better?
Religion as an example
Whatever the origins of religion, and it’s utility for society, it was certainly one that allowed human genius and creativity to make many wonderful and terrible things. The insight that there was a source of inspiration for moral improvement and a space to explore the meanings, origins, and goals of human life is one that, at least metaphorically, was necessary for our human development, I think.
And yet, the insights of religion, especially the notion of gods, spirits, and all the other supernatural beings, were simply incorrect ideas about the world. In addition to being wrong, they have caused as much (perhaps much more) harm than it has assisted us in our exploration of what it means to be a thing in the universe aware of itself.
Religion was both a source of creativity and growth, while simultaneously a delusion and a mistake. It is, in fact, the same mistake that the philosopher’s made in the mind of Nietzsche, who’s insight into how profound this mistake has been has been one of the most earth-shattering realizations of my own life. Here’s Nietzsche:
“To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task”
We have fooled ourselves with our own genius. We, throughout history, have had revelations of both sacred and profane matters, and the light from these realizations have both blinded and led us to new horizons of human possibility. Walking into each of our sunsets, unable to see either our future nor the true source of our inspiration, leading to the error of placing gods in the place of minds reaching blindly into unknown space.
And throughout history there have been critics who stand by, willing to look the sun directly in the face and stare it down until it resolves into shapes, and have been willing to say “uh…what?”
We are in a cultural moment, historically, where there are a lot of things up for grabs. Religion and unskeptical thinking concerning the nature of reality is still dominant, in both organized and unorganized spiritual forms. Various forms and levels of economic slavery, and general manipulation of the masses by people with power, money, and influence is still as common as land and water. And millions of people affected by these realities still follow and chant in favor of the foundational political orthodoxies and cultural dogmas responsible for their position, genuinely ignorant of the underlying problem. People are overwhelmingly unskeptical, easily manipulated, and ignorant. Some people, some of them smarter, wealthier, or at least luckier get to take advantage of this for their own benefit. Nothing new, really. It’s just scarier to lots of us right now because we see Trump’s rallies continue to get more and more ridiculous and potentially dangerous, and so we are anxious, scared, and want to stop it before it’s too late.
Subsequently, some people are waking up and seeing potential ways out. People are using their intuitions, intelligence, and imaginations to find ways out of this mess, and coming up with all sorts of ideas, explanations, and worldviews to make sense of it all. We have red pills, woke, people, and Brights all over, trying to lead others out of the morass of lies and manipulation. And they all have conflicting answers.
We have been a species desperately trying to figure this out for at least 6000 years of civilization, 3000 years of philosophy, literature, and oral traditions, and decades of sharing this historical information through technology. And we’re making the same goddamn mistakes over and over again. Because even in our genius we are blinded by our own insights.
And just like with every other era, there are people standing on the side, watching it all, and saying “um….what?” from every direction.
And you know what’s worse? Those contrarians, cynics, and grouchy commentators are just as easily subject to the same fundamental software bug that all humans share, and they have ideologies of their own. So there’s no simple way to say “it’s fine, just look to the contrarians and skeptics for the truth” any more than there is a way to say “no, it’s fine, because the young people, on the cutting edge of defining what it means to be human, will figure it out.”
Nope. It’s never that simple. The kids might not be completely alright, just like we weren’t all right.
Skepticism and the Left
I, primarily, identify as a skeptic. This is not a community identifier, it’s a methodological one. Again, method and not tribe. That is, I use skepticism as a methodology of belief and inquiry, but don’t think of myself as a part of any skeptic community any longer. This qualifying distinction is necessary because within the atheist/skeptic community, to be called a skeptic is often associated with a group of people who, according to some others, are “problematic”. And, in many cases, they are right.
Michael Shermer, for example.
Right. So, in case you don’t know, Michael Shermer, who leans right politically and largely identifies as a Libertarian (which, in the US, is a person who is a capitalist who wants a small government and lots of personal freedom, free speech, and freedom of thought through dissent). He’s also the founder of the Skeptics Society and publishes Skeptic magazine. In addition, he’s also been accused of rape, racism, and a bunch of other things which are largely anathema to the Progressive “woke” world. I met him once or twice, and was not especially fond of him. But I like some of the things he values, in the Venn diagram sense where I will overlap with pretty much everyone on something. Thus, while we share some values I’m not a fan of him personally. Concerning the accusations referred-to above, I’m unconvinced of the extent of PZ’s vilification. Let’s say I’m skeptical.
So, there’s a difference between being a skeptic and a Skeptic. An unfortunate consequence of the association of skepticism with personalities such as Michael Shermer is that the word ‘skeptic’ itself is largely met with derision by some within the woke left, which has led to a lack of the practice of methodological skepticism within those circles in recent years. Perhaps incidentally, there has been a rise of practice of things such as tarot, astrology, and pagan “magick” within the left, especially among younger queer people. I have no idea if there is a causal connection between these facts, but it has always struck me as interesting and depressing for the communities I am closer to, in terms of their not valuing critical thinking and truth.
One more controversial facet of this conflict lives, I believe, within the #MeToo movement. The idea that we need to believe accusers (“believe women”) and support them is in philosophical tension with the core of skepticism, which has led to many arguments between people within the larger skeptic community and the woke world that sides with people who claim to be victims.
The issue is complicated, and I don’t want to spend too much time with it, because I don’t feel qualified to do so and because it’s largely tangential to my primary set of points, but I cannot completely gloss over the topic, either. The truth is that for decades (centuries, millennia, etc) men have gotten away with all sorts of sexual misbehavior towards women, and we exist in a time when feminists are leading the way towards a future where this can be ideally minimized and, hopefully, a cultural change can make this a bad historical memory rather than a perpetual reality.
The general goal of the feminist movement, in this regard, a very good thing and I certainly support a world where a woman (or anyone, really) feeling safe to step up and talk about their experience in an effort to identify problematic people, behavior, and social mores concerning sexuality, consent, etc is a good thing. But the tension exists precisely where we have been instructed that it is morally superior to believe women immediately, which includes to not speak in favor of any skepticism about the accusations. Because a skeptic, qua methodological skepticism, should require evidence before believing a thing. The fact that we exist in a world where a non-consensual sexual behavior can be hidden behind the wall of the lack of evidence has pushed us into a cultural moment where believing women appears to be a necessary act to protect people. I understand this perspective, and I want to believe women when they make their accusations because I understand how pervasive the problem is.
However, where the line of skepticism is placed depends on who you talk to. In some cases, the false accusation problem is considered so minor that it shouldn’t even be factored in, so such people will argue that we need to believe the accusations in all cases. I’m uncomfortable with this, as are many people who hear this narrative. Where the line should be? I am not sure, but absolutism is not the answer.
And, let me be clear, I do think that false accusations are rare, but I also think that this is a false dichotomy. I believe false accusations, as in claims of events which never occurred, happen,* which is why I think that this progressive value of believing victims is in need of some skeptical criticism. I accept the underlying reality that sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, etc are serious matters that need to be addressed with restorative justice, as opposed to transitional justice or any sort of “justice” which amounts to assumed guilt, ostracism, etc.
But then we need to deal with the fact that this false accusation/belief narrative is a binary which needs to be put aside, because that is not the real problem. The real problem is the tendency in recent years to equivocate regret, resentment, bad breakups with abuse, impossibility of consent, and predation. The reason it’s a problem is that it equivocates actual predators and mutually toxic relationships or situations where people who did very little wrong, in my view. In other words, the arguments that many people make concerning the definition of abuse and particular instances of it have not, in my mind, made their case well. I’m not convinced, in very much the same way and I’m not convinced a god exists. My disagreeing with you is not a form of enabling or giving cover (we’ll get there), because I just think you haven’t made a strong logical case. Am I supposed to pretend I agree because it will get me woke points? That’s what critics on the right call virtue signaling. The result of such equivocation is that many people who read about a situation with a lot of grey areas will apply that equivocation to the times when they read other stories about actual predators, and thus conflate them.
In short, we need to stop equivocating bad or regretted relationships with abusive ones. Because any “justice” system which equivocates (for example) any power imbalance with an inability to consent, and therefore concludes that any such power imbalance is equivalent to abuse or rape automatically, is not what I mean by the term “justice.” Both may be bad and may need to be addressed through work and so forth, but we need to be careful with our new attempts to redefine these words and rules designed to police such behavior within our communities. Such ideology and subsequent rules seem, to me, to be attempts to grow culture in a direction that is emotionally compelling, but doesn’t stand up to skeptical scrutiny in many cases. We need to be able to criticize when we see this policy-making go badly, as it sometimes does despite best efforts of people trying to do the right thing.
There are way too many people being vilified, accused, and generally made to feel unwelcome because of a combination of petty personal politics, exaggerations of actual events, and flat-out fabrications that can be fit into the letter of the law, but which would never hold up to actual scrutiny by most people. My removal from the secret Facebook group, Polydelphia, could be included as an example. Not only was I informed I was threatening people (which was the reasoning given for my removal; I most-definitely was not threatening anyone), any request for evidence of any kind was brushed off. I was treated the same way an actual predator was, with as much recourse to appeal as they would have. And I know of many other similar situations of other people both from this group and others (of which I cannot, or will not, speak publicly at this time).
There. Now I’m outed as a problematic person to everyone. It’s already become clear to me that much of the “woke” left is incapable of handling nuance or critical thinking in any effectual way, so even while I overwhelmingly agree with their worldview when it comes to systematic racism, sexism, and all the systematic problems in our world, I’m already a pariah so I won’t be heard nor taken seriously by their leadership. All because of a few bad apples playing political games, and manipulating some people who have never even spoke to me, but who have the levers of power within their local groups and have unskeptically believed what they have been told by people with bad blood against me, but with whom I have not spoken in years.
So, for those people here’s what I have to say; I’ve done a lot of awful things in my life, and hurt people. I’ve also had years of therapy, self-reflection, and growth. I like who I am, have healthy relationships, and my experiences have led me to a place in my life where I’m not only not a danger to your community, but may be a person your community needs. I have heard that you feel like your actions and opinions of me are justified, but very few of you have ever actually spoken to me, and the ones who have haven’t done so in years. So, all I can figure is you still consider me anathema because we disagree and I have challenged some of you in comments? I still haven’t learned to stay in my lane as a privileged person? Or do you actually believe I threatened people in the community? (if so, where are the screenshots? I unequivocally deny those charges). Perhaps you should look to the people who have been the most powerful lobbyists against me, and consider what I may know about them and their behavior? (cards I haven’t played because I know everyone fucks up, and I believe they are generally good people, as I am myself).
I think you need to apply some skepticism towards your decisions, your policies, and perhaps some of your friends. Because if all of our skeletons were removed from our closets, I think just about everyone would be considered problematic
And this is the thrust of my essay, here. The Left, in general and specifically those small groups I’ve seen this pattern emerge within, needs to clean their own houses. And not clean as in remove problematic people, but by taking a hard, self-critical, skeptical look at it’s values and group policies and make damned sure that your own shit makes sense before trying to self-righteously remove people, lecture to the world about moral behavior, and define social justice. Because nobody is going to listen to you if you aren’t making any goddamned sense and you allow personal enmity to drive who is problematic. Because we’re all problematic; we’re all humans who fuck up.
Personal politics doesn’t equate to truth, although that is effectively what it happening.
As a former acolyte of the extreme wokeness, I am willing to say, publicly, that many of y’all have lost your damned minds. And no, I’m not red-pilled. I’m not an MRA or an incel. I’m not a NAZI and I’m not even a centrist (I’m pretty far to the left, politically), but I simply reject some of the values and arguments popular in much of the communities on the left (including the atheist community, poly community, political organizations, and even just some friend groups) where most disagreement, especially by contrarians and skeptics is treated as heresy. Because much of the left has become authoritarian in its thinking and is drunk on their own self-righteousness and power. They have created, for themselves, a kind of proto-privilege which could, potentially, become oppressive if they win the culture wars. So no, this isn’t a white cishet male claiming I’m the victim, this is a person recognizing the same logical structure of what you want with what you are fighting against. You have emulated the enemy, and while their conclusions are worse (at least, I think so), it’s not the only dimension that matters, in terms of calculating what’s problematic.
And that’s the issue. Because in the classic 4-quadrant political diagram, there is a left and a right, but there is also a top and a bottom; authoritarian and libertarian (the above mentioned “Libertarians” in the USA exist on the bottom right). And, in recent years, those on the Left have been divided by those on the upper end of the spectrum from those, like me, on the lower end.
The authoritarians have been advocating for sets of rules. A lot of groups require that the leadership must have people who are not white, cishet males, for example (Polydephia has a rule, like this). We must believe victims. We must use pronouns of people’s choice. And whether these rules are good things or not is not the issue. The issue is what happens if you violate one of these rules? What’s the punishment?
Laws and rules are impotent without a consequence, and so such rules are really about creating fear. That is, this effort of setting rules of behavior, language, and safe opinions seems to be less about building up a culture of understanding why we don’t do these things, and more about creating consequences, such as ostracism, being labeled as a heretic (“problematic”), and considered equivalent to the enemy (you know, actual NAZIs) for breaking the rules. It creates an us/them mentality where anyone who doesn’t accept the rules is a “them,” and thus, in this binary thinking, the “them” become functionally the same as the actual fucking NAZIs.
Remember; rules don’t work without fear. So, the rule that we must believe “victims” will only backfire the more we learn that some people are making shit up and other people are equivocating a power/age imbalance with sexual assault or predatory abuse. If you are not willing to have a real conversation about the important nuances, then you are simply practicing a form of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which is a top-heavy, legalistic, rule-based system which seeks to change the world through law rather than actually working on ourselves as individuals who are willing and capable of questioning the orthodoxy. You force people to become dissidents, which then trigger the us/them responses in our brains, and expands the rifts between people rather than understand why they disagree; after all, any of us, at any time, might be wrong.
There’s no need for orthodoxy. If you’re right, then your values and arguments will survive criticism. But the woke left is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with criticism, as I have seen, personally, time and time again. Criticism makes one problematic. A relationship regretted becomes a power imbalance, and therefore abuse and possibly sexual assault. And heterodoxy makes one a threat, and subject to ostracism.
And, locally, Polydelphia has become an example of all these things. I’m sure you all have people, communities, and ideologies that fit the same bill. I’m done playing nice. Y’all aren’t woke. You’re just self-righteous. If y’all were really woke, you would be skeptical more and comfortable having your worldview challenged from within, rather than remove or isolate people with differing conclusions or who you heard stories about. I know several people who have left Polydelphia in recent years (most of them female, incidentally), in some cases with messages left behind telling the leadership that they are akin to Mean Girls (you know, like the movie about cliques), and the political games played within is a microcosm of the problem that may end the United States as a country.
Our road to becoming Gilead (the name of the country that replaces much of the USA in The Handmaid’s Tale) is being paved by people incapable of introspection and self-criticism to be willing to coalesce into a group powerful enough to defeat a community led by a corrupt, narcissistic, inept person named Donald Trump. Let me emphasize; Donald Trump will continue to win, politically, because the woke Left insists upon rules of behavior, 1984-style, backed up with consequences. This dynamic is pushing people away who think that you, defenders of the right truth, are incorrect or corrupted by personal politics. And it’s possible that they are, sometimes, right. Your self-righteousness is part of the reason we are in this place, because without it, we could coalesce into a leviathan with reality and science on our side, except that you insist upon ideological purity to a set of ideas which are so new, so cutting edge, that we can’t rationally even be sure are yet well thought out enough to be worth your certainty. Because even if you are, ultimately right (and I think you, at least generally, are right), as a person who could be wrong, you should dial back your certainty.
If Donald Trump wins again (and I think that’s likely, at this point), it will be because y’all woke motherfuckers won’t wake up to the reality that you are pushing millions of people away from your cause because you are so far up your ass that you can’t actually grow among disagreement or nuance. We can’t have revolution if the leaders of the potential revolution can’t even see their own plank in their own eyes. We need everyone to have a revolution within themselves, first. We need communities where people are able to safely be skeptical of the whole enterprise, and these mini-revolutions can create a culture of enlightened, awakened, wise people who don’t need rules to be decent people because they have worked it out for themselves why woke is right and how woke is right, rather than feel the fear of being ostracized for mistakes, disagreements, etc because they had some questions or concerns about whether and to what extent woke is right.
Criticism is not uncivil, and it should also be part of being woke. Right now, in many places, it’s not.
The false-equivalency argument, “Centrists”, and actual fucking NAZIs
I know, I know….actual fucking NAZIs, white supremacy, and systematic injustice.
I’ve heard y’all screaming about it. I get it. I agree with you. There is a significant problem with the rise of the right, of fascism, and autocracy in much of the western world, formerly the great democracies of post-WWII. There are real bigots, racists, and a lot of people are worried about their cultures and communities no-longer having the privileges they are used to. True, they frame it as a kind of reverse-racism or a threat of being erased, but what it really is is a loss of privilege.
It’s the same with religion, especially Christianity in the west, which sees itself as being under threat. Millions of Trump supporters see him as a savior, a Cyrus-like great leader who will save Western Christian culture from the hordes of secular, liberal, and family-hating nihilists who will stop at nothing to destroy their values and bring about a demonic world of ash.
Think I’m exaggerating? Then you aren’t really paying attention. Because much of the Right is cohering around a narrative. Now, their’s is a narrative much less based on reality than that of the woke Left. They are much worse at believing bullshit, usually peddled by their insular media outlets (Fox News being the moderate voice in their world). Their worldview is conspiracy theory upon lies upon paranoia, and it’s truly terrifying and absurd and represents an existential threat for millions of people, and needs to be stopped.
So, why am I not directing my rage and criticism at the Right? Well, 1) I am 2) They view me as part of the demonic/atheist (they often don’t understand the difference), secular, and perverted (they may be right, there) world they think is unreliable and dangerous, 3) they very likely aren’t even reading this and 4) because I think that the progressive left is potentially reachable and fixable before it’s too late.
See, I’m not totally cynical? A touch of optimism.
The Right and the Left are both suffering internal problems, but I’m part of the Left. I’m interested in cleaning up my own house, even if most of the people there hate, distrust, or consider me problematic. And while I don’t have the readership I used to (a couple years of inactivity and the drama from a few years ago fixed that), I have some readers, and some who are probably keeping an eye on me to make sure if I misbehave they can tell their friends that I’m still being awful (hi there, former friends! Hope you’re well….)
So no; this isn’t an argument for some moral equivalency or relativity in which I state that the values of the alt-right are just as valid as those of the radical left. Nor am I saying that the woke Left is just as bad as the proto-fascist Right, because it isn’t. But just like small injustices are still unjust, small errors are still errors. I’m not a moral relativist. To be clear, I think the woke left is largely on the right track, but I see them as too prickly and defensive to criticism, especially from a cishet white male, such as myself.
I just hope to be judged by the content of my argument.
Again, I’m not optimistic.
What am I saying?
I’m saying that all of the woke people fighting for social justice, historical awareness, and a better world have their hearts in the right place, but are blinded by their own ideologies to see when they are occasionally fucking up and giving ammunition to our cultural opponents and enemies. I’m saying that all those red-pilled, alt-right, or Jordan Peterson admiring people also have their hearts in the right place, but are similarly blinded by their own biases to be able to see how silly they look. And I’m also saying that the cautious, skeptical, incrementalist liberals are too far up their own asses to see that they are similarly fucked up. Literally every one of us is subject to this, without exception.
Especially me (just in case you might be wondering how narcissistic I am)
It’s not that the truth is relative, or that all is permitted because of the death of gods, but is is true that we’re merely specs of semi-sentient bits of carbon taking a ride on a big rock orbiting a ball of fire in a universe so immense we cannot conceive of it, and someday we’re going to die–we’re going to simply blink out of existence–to be replaced by trillions of future bits of semi-sentient pieces of matter all over the universe, each with their own perspective, worldview, and tribe of friends, family, and co-ideologues to exist for a little while, all signifying nothing.
The Truth exists, it’s just that none of us have it. What truths we do have are based upon biased perspectives and narratives shared among people with similar experiences, and are at best statistically defensible based upon limited evidence. We know evolution happened but we aren’t so sure that your conclusion about your ex is going to hold up to scrutiny. And yet we yell at each other over the meaning of “concentration camp” and “racism” and “patriarchy” and “freedom of speech” and on and on and on to no other effect than demonizing each other and creating safe tribes for ourselves.
Let me be really clear. You don’t know shit about the vast majority of everything. You don’t mean shit to anyone except maybe a few dozen other people who don’t mean shit to most of humanity. You’re ideas are, merely from a probabilistic point of view, probably stupid and incorrect. And you are yelling at someone else in the same goddamned predicament as you, because they got a different question wrong from the one you got wrong. That’s all the culture wars are, at bottom.
And it doesn’t matter that one side or the other may be more wrong or right, because insofar as you ignore your own shit, you will never effect change in any meaningful way by merely yelling at other bits of semi-sentient carbon. You cannot convince your enemies to side with you, excepting rare individual cases, by sticking to your narratives and orthodoxies and not trying to understand the orthodoxies of others. So, unless you are willing to wipe them out, you’re going to have to work on making yourself better and hope that in the process you inspire more people outside of your peer groups to pay attention more and dismiss you less. Ideological purity and self-righteousness just magnifies any differences between bits of semi-sentient carbon, and only hastens the coming apocalypse which we should be trying to avoid.
Your beliefs about the world, again statistically, are hung upon a thin string of hearsay, from a small segment of people who happen to cohere to your experience and community, and it’s almost certain that the vast majority of every thought you have ever had is in some way wrong, biased, and informed by other wrong and biased people.
And yet all you do is shame, ostracize, and dismiss other people making different mistakes. It’s absurd.
But sure. You heard a thing about a guy, and because it fits with a narrative which you have accepted based on cognitive and emotional factors which you barely understand or even have access to, that thing is true.
Have fun with that. Continue to spread your memetic narrative of what the world is most definitely like along with your tribe, and feel self-righteous. Refuse to challenge yourself, or listen to the problematic person who broke the orthodoxy and made some mistakes, because what has conflict and mistakes ever taught anyone? What could that person, with whom you disagree about much, possibly teach you? They are obviously wrong about that one or few things, so they can’t have any value to you, right?
And I’ll be sitting along, on the side, saying “um…what?” while you sneer at me saying “um…what?” and then we’ll all die, letting the next generation to continue the dance, for as long as our species manages not to kill all of ourselves.
But sure, you’re woke. Or sure, you aren’t one of the sheeple. Sure, you are enlightened. You know what’s real. You know what’s right. You know that throwing a milkshake is not comparable to actual violence, so fuck all them. Or you know that abortion is murder, so fuck all them. Or you know that atheism is devil-worship, so fuck all them. Or you know that men who say that it’s #notallmen misses the point so fuck that guy and possibly all men. You’re perspective is special and right, and you don’t need any more perspective at all.
Last question; Why do you think that the direction you want culture to go isn’t a mistake at least in some ways, just like every worldview that every human being in all of history has promulgated?
And neither do I.
All I’m hoping for is that as we try to create a better world, we have enough humility to build into our cultures the enthusiastic willingness to prove ourselves wrong. If we, as a progressive segment of our culture, have any chance of making the world better, we better make damn-sure that we are making ourselves better individually, and include in our next culture patch the enthusiastic willingness to consider that our newer attempts to make rules, guidelines, and means towards justice are all correctable and open to criticism from grumpy contrarians, centrists, and other crotchety progressives such as myself.
The alternative is that we risk being mostly right, and mostly and perpetually powerless.
*It happened to me; some Facebook friends may have received a message from a woman (no need to name her) back in February accusing me of abuse and sexual assault, but nothing of the sort ever happened with her (I can provide screencaps to show that she was, in fact, pretty awful to me when we were living in the same house). I do not believe she is necessarily lying (that is, intentionally telling a falsehood) but I do believe she is not only capable of lying, but I think she actually might have rationalized it being right to do so in this case for political reasons related to people trying and succeeding to get me removed from the secret Facebook group Polydelphia, who trumped up charges that I was threatening people through the group (I wasn’t) within a day or two of her messaging people on my Facebook friends list. I was informed by a few female friends who received these messages, who either blocked her or responded skeptically. I subsequently blocked the woman and limited access to my friends list only to friends. I also lost some friends who unskeptically believed the claims, because that’s the “right” thing to do. I don’t blame them, nor am I surprised, because who would make that shit up? This experience has heightened my skepticism of this worldview, where previously I was on-board with believing “victims” on face value. More, similar circumstances I have become aware of has also raised my level of skepticism. I hate that this is the case, but nonetheless, here we are. I don’t want to disbelieve women who come out publicly, but now I have reason to be skeptical.
Have you ever felt like you were existing in two parallel universes, both branched out from a decision that simultaneously destroyed you and brought you home?
Yeah, I guess that such a question might be better understood with some level of context.
Several weeks ago, I made a decision. The very same decision lost me a person I love very much, and gained me a relationship with someone I have had immense respect for for many years. And in my mind, I’m existing in parallel universes where my heart is both shattered and swelling with potential, where some temporal flux–perhaps the kind of thing that a Star Trek episode might be based upon–is holding some tension where either it will dissolve into constituent atoms or grow three sizes.
I think it’s both.
True growth, the kind that sticks and matters, comes through pain and loss. And where, in the traditional/monogamous world, this usually happens in series, when one orients themselves towards a nonmonogamous lifestyle, occasionally you find yourself mending a broken heart while simultaneiously falling in love.
The wisdom of giving yourself space to mourn is still present and true, but you have to do it along with the other things. You need to allow yourself to reflect and miss the lost person while making plans and talking with the person you are building a relationship with, and it’s exhausting.
I miss her, so much. There has not been a day on the last 5 or 6 weeks when I haven’t thought about her. I truly, genuinely, loved her and wanted to build a life with her. Spending time with her was magic, and I wanted it so much.
But she was not adjusting well to sharing. Also, I fucked up. My reasons for doing so were understandable and human, but it was still a fuck up that I could have avoided. In addition to all of that, I’m not sure that the result wouldn’t have come about anyway.
When I met her, there was a moment when I said to myself, genuinely, that I could possibly give up nonmonogamy for. In retrospect, it’s quite obvious that this was just extreme NRE (new relationship energy, for you n00bs), talking, and I knew, even then, that this feeling wouldn’t last, but the feeling was real in the moment .
This is something that people new to this lifestyle need to understand; feelings will fuck with your head. You need to know yourself, like really well. Because relationships (especially ones where communication is key) will expose all the shit you aren’t dealing with. And a certain amount of life-experience is required to have this.
And, I hate to say it but…being married to the same person for 10 years or so then opening up is a receipe for disaster because the confines of that type of relationship dynamic is crippling for real adult growth. This is only one dynamic of why “unicorn hunters” are missing why they are so reviled; they are stunted by a type of relationship worldview which has dominated their relationship, and can’t see something crucial.
Traditional relationships are also bubbles we live in, isolated from reality.
And this is the world from which she came, and I should know, at this point in my life, that expecting a n00b, no matter how lovely and wonderful, to adjust to the worrldview shattering world of mature nonmonogamy is expecting too much.
And so the pain is mine, two-fold; the pain of the loss of someone I still love, and the pain of knowing that I chose to put myself in that situation again.
Shara is amazing. You, dear reader, may know her by a different name if you are a part of the poly community at all.
I feel like I have been playing a game on hard mode all these years, and I now have a gaming partner who has been mastering the controls as long as I have, and now we can roam the wastelands of the world together understanding the terrain and the mechanics in a way that is a relief.
Yes, there is still work. Yes, we still have to figure out the distances between our expectations, boundaries, and fears. But we have a common language, and there’s no fear, this time, of whether she’s going to try to steal me away towards that fictitious happy ending of two people choosing each other, happily ever after.
Because there is the sexual chemistry, which happens with someone regardless of whether they want to own you or not, but then there is the mental chemistry. A polyamorous, atheist, intelligent, sexy, and absolutely lovely human who also loves me.
What else could this poly skeptic ask for?
And so I miss her. She who I will not name out of respect for her privacy. But I love Shara, and am very lucky to have that requited.
*note: This was a post I intended to publish from my phone back in February. For some reason, it never posted, and the next time I posted from my phone, it went up after that with a delay which makes no sense to me. Nonetheless, it was intended to be posted.
So, I’ve decided to write more. It’s a way to keep my mind engaged during the months when I want to retreat within myself a lot. Winter sucks, and I’ve developed a way to reach towards mindfulness which is sort of a hodgepodge of methods of meditation, exercise, and creating environments to allow my creativity to stretch itself.
So, as I sit here, I have no plan for what I’m going to write about, which is the opposite of my normal routine.
Usually, an idea crystallizes in my mind, then I spend time throwing a flurry of thoughts onto some screen, then (sometimes) editing it later before publishing it. It’s safe. Because I have anxiety about writing, as I have about most things. But my project for now, and so long as it is working for me, is to write more spontaneously.
Where I am.
I’m at a favorite local spot. Local 44. No specific plans tonight. Decided not to make any. But because I would otherwise stay in and be alone, I have a beer or two and read, or wrote, and sometimes I get into conversations with people.
Being an introvert, that’s sometimes a challenge. But I like it here. Good beer, good food, interesting people. If you’re a Philly person, look for the guy writing on a portable bluetooth keyboard with his phone in from of him.
How I am
I’m…ok. This time of year is hard. Always has been. I think it is for most people. The Winter has a way to simultaneously chase you into yourself and occasionally force you to seek warmth. One must seek a personal heroes journey, in the midst of depression and it’s neighbors, to separate oneself from their caves and transform their circumstances into the potential for experience, understanding, and hopefully a step of change in the ongoing education of being alive.
Somewhere along the way, you might find something inspiring, or at least interesting, along the way which will unlock a piece of the world. Treasures are hidden out there.
Damnit. I’ve been playing too much Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. I have metaphors of heroic treks through a world of magic, legend, and a lot of killing from behind.
But–an I know it’s cheesey–it’s also true, sort of. There’s a reason that myths hold sway over psychology, culture, and history. There is something compelling about a narrative, and over the millennia we have unearthed certain patterns of narrative that stick better. It’s a sort of natural selection of stories.
Didn’t I write a paper about that in grad school? Something about applying Darwinian natural selection to language games (a la Wittgentein), if I remember correctly.
That was a long time ago. Speaking of which…
This bog will soon be 10 years old. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’ve changed so much.
So many mini-journeys in my past. So many failures, mistakes, and lessons.
A week ago, I embarked on a new path with a person who I have respected and looked up to for many years, and whom I am beginning to love in a new way.
These things are related. Confused? Yeah, me too.
I’m not monogamous. No shit. But being actively polyamorous–or a relationship anarchist or whatever I am–is different from merely not being monogamous. Over the last several years of my life, I’ve dated women who were not nonmonogamous, but were willing to give it a shot. In some cases, it worked out at least for a while. In others, it flamed out spectacularly. Most recently, I lost a person who was very special to me because I made the decision to invite a polyamorous person with whom I’ve had a growing relationship and flirtation to spend the weekend with me, despite the fact that the first relationship was already in jeopardy.
And, you might say that such a decision was not wise. And you are right; it wasn’t wise, and it cost me that relationship. And when I made the decision, it was a last minute, need to decide this now situation. And I hadn’t slept the night before. Excuses? Explanations? Rationalizations? Yes.
And, didn’t I know, deep down, that that would be the result? I mean, if I had really thought about it? I mean, if I had the time to think about it, maybe. Hadn’t I learned that the learning curve for previously monogamous partners is too steep to handle real life, in your face, not owning your partner nor their time?
I understand, from the point of view of the traditional set of relationship rules and expectations, that what I did was too much for her to handle. More than a few people out there would read this and be like “what a dick!” And, from their point of view, it was dickish. I feel a little like a dick, honestly. It’s hard to unlearn those cultural rules.
I understand that accepting that your lover has other lovers is a thing most people can sort of understand; we all have those carnal desires, and deciding to be ok with the people you love actually pursuing those desires, so long as you are open about it, is reachable for a lot of people. It sounds hard, but many people get it and can possibly give it a try. I understand that if most people can keep those things at a distance, it can be fine.
But my mind doesn’t live in the world of traditional relationship expectations and rules.
I understand that from the point of view of polyamorous theory from which I center myself, what I did was a little selfish and sudden, but it was a decision I should be able to make without ending a relationship in doing so. I also understand that theory and real world feelings and expectations do not often mesh. I understand that in doing so, I took a risk which I didn’t need to take. But I also knew that doing so would only be kicking the can down the road, rather than dealing with it now.
And it also meant putting off another thing I’ve wanted for some time, and so when life handed me an opportunity I took it. I don’t believe in gods nor fate, but I know that life is short and truly amazing opportunities do not come around often. If you don’t grab a hold of those rare opportunities, then you may miss them forever.
And now, I have to live with the consequences. One woman I care very deeply for, and now miss, is mad, hurt, and she’s probably gone from my life. I’m sad, and I miss her.
And then something amazing happened.
And I don’t think I’m able, even several days removed, to comprehend what has changed, and how significant it could be.
And I feel guilty for also feeling good about what I gained in making that selfish decision. I feel guilty for taking a chance which paid off fantastically (for me). I feel bad that my heart is simultaneously aching from loss and from the pangs of a new love which has been years in the making. It’s too much.
And yet I know it was the right decision to make. And I would make it again, even if I might have handled some of the details differently.
I don’t want to go on, and the truth is I cannot anyway. The gist is I have started a new relationship with a woman who is not new to polyamory. In fact, she is one of the people who, over the years, has been an inspiration to me as well as a person whose wisdom and experience within the community has given me perspective on my own views about the nature of relationships, love, and sex.
And I’m scared. Terrified, in fact. Because new relationships are always a combination of scary and amazing, but also because she’s someone I esteem so much, in terms of her knowledge and experience, that I’m afraid I’m not good enough. Because that never goes away. Not fully.
I don’t have any philosophical point to make here. I don’t have any great lesson or insight here, because I know I’m in the middle of the storm and I’m too emotional and cluttered to make any sense of it all right now. I lost someone I really love because I was selfish, and then I spent a weekend with a woman who was everything I thought she was and more.
And it’s all been surreal.
Perhaps I’ll have more to say when I’m not in the eye of the storm, and can reflect on it with more clarity. For now, I will need to weather the double storm of loss and gain, simultaneously. I think it’s a set of feelings that many polyamorous people have experienced over the years.
Is it Spring? Fall? Is the concept of season meaningless?
Think about the world you would create, if you had the ability. Maybe Thanos gives you his glove, and you can snap any universe into being. Or maybe you would just make one world, continent, or square kilometer just as you would want it.
Perhaps it would be empty, excepting yourself. Perhaps it’s full of family, friends, loved ones, and perhaps some friendly animals. Then again, perhaps it would be full of potential friends (strangers), each more alluring than the last.
The exercise is not to find out what actual, objective, paradise would be like. That’s probably a futile effort, anyway. The exercise is to show you that whatever your paradise is, eventually it will be hell.
Have you ever been a believer in a religion which preaches the promise of heaven? It’s not relevant if the same preaching includes a hell, because it’s the promise of heaven that I’m interested in, here.
Have you considered shopping around, and trying to find the religion with the best heaven? Sounds prudent. The alternative–avoiding the worst hell–is a similarly futile endeavor. It’s futile because if you accept something as a story you’ll “believe” in, or at least live within, whether in some metaphorical sense or with some regard for rigorous orthodoxy or orthopraxy (hey, your kinks are ok, I suppose), in the end you have not even considered the question, most likely, of whether truth matters to you.
I mean actual truth. Not your truth. But let’s not get distracted by that, already. I know…it’s not in fashion today, to consider truth. Trends, as they are.
Ok, so you’ve found your designer religion, with its bellini sunday brunches or Friday night whippings or even both simultaneously (like I said, your kinks are yours), and you are comfortable, occasionally gazing into a passing thought about the heavenly reality that you either look forward to or are emulating in real time. Hey, whatever paradise is for you. I can’t decide that.
But here’s the thing. I’m not sure that any paradise, whether we are talking about an afterlife, whether eternal or not, a set of ideals, or even a code of laws (logic included?), is ever going to be sufficient or necessary at all levels of scale, both in terms of space and time.
What I mean by that is that I don’t think that any ideal world, values, or laws are worth sacrificing ourselves to. I’ve never seen a religion, political philosophy, or code of ethics that always worked, in all situations.
So, I’ve given up on ideals.
Everything is a work in progress, and the targets are temporary stops, at most, along the way.
Remember: heaven is a place, where nothing ever happens. The world is a place where everything happens, but we keep missing so much of it because we’re so distracted by a blur of heavens everywhere.
Half way through my trip. I just arrived in Rotterdam, after a long last night in Ghent, Belgium. I stayed with some new friends who showed me around a city I had barely known anything about, but in which I had a tremendous amount of fun and enjoyed far more than the other three cities I visited in Belgium. Bottom line; if you visit Belgium, go to Ghent. It’s lovely, less touristy than Bruges (which is also lovely), and if you like a night life, it’s pretty amazing.
Belgium is a lovely country with nice people. Cosmopolitan and international. Excellent beer and it’s very easy to get around. But last night I arrived in Rotterdam and checked into a lovely hostel (truly the way to stay, especially in Europe). Almost immediately, I befriend 3 travellers from Toronto and England, and we play cards, drink wine and beer, and talk about Game of Thrones.
Finding common cultural connections is the best way, I have found, to circumvent the social anxieties which haunts my mind, and it is a good thing when we can find those who share the lust for life and experience. It is, after all, why I travel. Those who travel find, in the willingness to not concern oneself with destinations, a companion which can be the best of friends and also the bringer of chaos.
And chaos, not unlike Folly, is perhaps under-appreciated. Especially by myself.
Brief note; yes, I am in Rotterdam. And yes, I did re-read some of of Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly this morning. and yes, Erasmus lived here in Rotterdam. And yes, those things, in concert, suggest not a coincidence. I regret nothing. Let me have my folly.
But back to chaos. (Or, perhaps, are the repeated tangents germaine to the theme here?)
Chaos has cast a shadow behind me for most of my life. Ironically, it was the anxious yearning for order that cast it. A shadow with such darkness and with such crisp lines of contrast to the terrain behind me can only indicate a close and brilliant distraction before me, perhaps blinding me.
Beautiful, like an angel–a Vorlon indeed–its manipulated sense of deification and desire for obedience is the call of a self-righteousness that , I believe, one should shed if one seeks any sort of wisdom. And I’ve known this for many years. That is, I have understood it, but I don’t think until quite recently did I breathe it, and feel it, and feel humbled by the illusion of understanding.
Perhaps all understanding is illusion? Is that too stark? Is the contrast cast by this image, this fire sun outside my personal Platonic cave, too black and white? Too binary? Not enough grey-highlighted detail?
It doesn’t matter. All that matters, at this moment, is that I remember that time is fleeting, and all of this is for nothing, ultimately. And that while this reality is not preferable, it is also not a reason to cast such a bright light upon it all.
Shadows are inevitable and necessary, but perhaps we should not keep any of our sources of light and folly so close that we create such deep, abysmal, shadows.
And remember the admonishment (or was it encouragement?) that Nietzsche left us; Staring into the abyss will invite the attention of the abyss.
Now, if only we could point that beam of certainty and ordered light into that abyss. The problem is that we are in our own way, too often. So move yourself out of the way and allow your lights to illuminate your shadows.
I’ll be home in less than a week.
Maybe I will leave some of myself back here, and only bring home that which serves the happiness of those I love, including myself. I should have less shadows following me, mostly because I’ll stop allowing other people’s lights (and their subsequent shadows) to land on my skin.