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

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, I feel silly even writing this. Honestly, I don’t think any of my readers are likely to be people susceptible to the fake news phenomenon anyway, but sometimes when you have a thing to say, as a writer, it just feels better to articulate the thought.

Thesis: The acceptance of fake news, and alt-facts in general, is the result of poor understanding of epistemology, good journalism, and of skeptical methods of determining truth. The larger philosophical goals of people who identify as skeptics, that of caring for and trying to find truth via rational and empirical means, is the cure for the cancer that is fake news and alternative facts in our current socio-political malaise.

Those behind the rise of fake news, such as Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, and many others (a couple of examples; here and here) are running a classic con game. Just like the many cult leaders and charlatans who created things such as Scientology and the Mormons (a B-list sci-fi writer and a known con-man), they attracted people using people’s fears, resentments, and making them feel like they are in on the “real” truth, while everyone else is brainwashed or otherwise deceived. Trumpism is akin to a cult, and it currently controls the levers of power in the United States.

A Bait/Switch: Bias in the media

In the many discussions I’ve had with Trumpists/Trumpkins/AltRight folks in recent weeks and months, I have seen the claim that the media lies, is biased, and that Trump is merely articulating (insofar as Trump is capable of such a task) a feeling of being misled and bamboozled by an elitist and mainstream perspective for far too long. Many people. largely but not exclusively conservative, have felt that their fears about and views of the world have not been taken seriously by many politicians, many people on influence, and the media in general. They really believe that Trump can make America Great Again. Not because they are stupid or evil (though some undoubtedly are), but because they are human.

That is, while there are some truly malignant people, such as White Nationalists, Neo-NAZIs, Klan members who feel an affinity with the Trumpist message, they are not the whole or even the center of the phenomenon. At bottom these associations, while concerning and legitimate to some degree, are missing the bigger picture. We cannot keep getting distracted by historical parallels and comparisons of the Trump phenomenon to things like NAZIs; one thing about history is that every time something like this happens, it’s a little bit different and we have to become inoculated to a new strain of awful, like an immune system exposed to a new pathogen. When we yell “No Trump, no KKK, no NAZI USA!”, we lose the attention of people following Trump because they don’t see themselves as NAZIs or Klan members. Something more subtle and terrible is happening here, than that.

Now, let me start out by saying that there is definitely some legitimacy to what Trump followers are responding to; politics, media and American culture have all sort sof problems that we need to repair, and those in power have no interest in doing so. The problem, however, is that there is a bait and switch occurring. The bait is bias, and the switch is media dishonesty. Because the fact that the media is biased, while undoubtedly true, is not relevant at all to the question of whether the media is lying.

Some thoughts about bias and media deception.

  1. Bias is unavoidable and irrelevant. Good journalists know that they are biased, that their editors are biased, and that their paper/TV show/etc probably leans one way or another on a number of issues, even if they attempt to remain editorially neutral. A good journalist attempts to edit out the bias, make it explicit, and/or attempt to steelman  the arguments of their opponents in an attempt to argue with the best version/interpretation of their points, rather than dismiss or straw-man them. Bias, itself is not a problem if ones arguments are logical, there is sufficient evidence for points raised, and everyone attempts to engage fairly with people who disagree. Claiming that a media source is biased is trivially true, and unless their bias is not counterbalanced with evidence-based claims and logic, pointing out the existence of bias is irrelevant.
  2. Bias is not the same thing as an agenda. And while even those with an agenda can also have good arguments, facts, and good motivations, that agenda needs to be transparent. Outlets which are clearly partisan, whether it’s (for example) RedState, OccupyDemocrats, etc will be advocating for a specific cause, argument, or political group. And while this agenda does not imply that what they say is wrong or right, the agenda will bend and refract the facts it enumerates and reports. We as readers need to be able to recognize the slant, look at other sources, and use critical thinking to pry under the surface of the agendas. Unless their claims are substantiated by other outlets which are not affiliated with the same agendas we should be highly skeptical of the claims from sources with an agenda.
  3. Some media outlets do out-right lie, others make mistakes and either clarify them or ignore such mistakes. Reporting the news is difficult, especially when you are reporting on breaking news, leaks, or complicated issues. If you catch a media source in provable (or at least reasonable) error, and they do not retract, apologize, and or at least clarify, then you may be dealing with a dishonest or unscrupulous source.
  4. But a lie is not the same thing as a competing narrative. And this is where the real problem in the current climate exists. There are a lot of worldviews and political leanings which exist with their own values, stories, and communities. What I’m seeing a lot of, right now, especially from the alt-right and from President Trump himself, are a conflation between an alternative narrative and a claim of truth/falsity. A factual error is not merely an alternative perspective; if your beliefs are not substantiated by logic and evidence, then it’s probably not true.

This is similar to the problem I’ve had with post-modern and woo-woo beliefs over the years from the left, where people have their own truths and there is a de-valuing of critical thinking and objective truth. My instinct, gut feeling, or intuition are not sufficient for me to label something as true; I need an argument with reasoning and evidence, or I’m just making shit up. At best, I’ll be accidentally correct.

But what’s happening with the alt-right, in the last few years up through the recent elections, is more pernicious than that sort of vague subjectivism of truth. No, what Steve Bannon and his allies have done is made black into white, up into down, and gossip/conspiracy/fears into (alternative) truth. Where media with journalistic standards which rely on a network of fact-checking and cut-throat competition which weeds out poor arguments and unproven claims, the alt right gives us conspiracy theories based in fears and an agenda. Then, after weaving a narrative which resonates with people, they claim they are the source of truth, and that the fact-based media is lying.

And you know why it works? Well, as anyone who has ever started a religion (cult leaders), sold a miracle cure (snake oil), or ran a pyramid scheme knows, you can convince many people of most things. Because ‘con’ is short for confidence. It’s among the oldest tricks in the book (including most holy books). Fake news is not new; it’s been a central part of every con ever done, and America has been politically hijacked by people running a massive con game in search for power and money.

It’s not different from things like this: Big pharma is trying to sell you expensive drugs to control you and get rich, but we at (let’s make up a name) Herbaltech have this wonderful herbal tea which will cure your illnesses, and it’s only $25! But act now, before big pharma catches onto us and they sue us with their elitist lawyers. In other words, it’s charlatans fooling people who are not thinking critically about the claims they are hearing. Fake news, alt-truth, and billionaire “outsiders” who care about the people are selling people snake oil, and now run the country. too hypothetical? Fine, take a look at this.

There is no significant difference between the alt-right and any other con that skepticism has been unconvinced by for centuries. Cons feed on fear, disillusionment, and tribalism to create a rift between you and your money, votes, and allegiance (in order to get more of the previous two). For those who claimed that the major parties were corrupt and sought an outsider, they sure picked one who was much worse than the system they lost confidence in.

It’s not all that different from someone who is distrustful of organized religion finding a spiritual leader who end up being a cult leader. In fact, it’s very much like that. If you voted for Trump because he was an outsider not beholden to the political structures you don’t trust, you were conned by someone equally, if not more, corrupt than the DNC or the RNC/GOP.

Mainstream media and skepticism

I subscribe to the New York Times, and read it regularly, as well as some other sources (such as the Washington post, Rachel Maddow, the WSJ, and a number of blogs and podcasts) . I’ve been told that the NYT is biased, and that they lie all the time, by supporters of Trump. Hell, Trump himself has said it more than once. Now, I have no doubt that many of the writers for the NYT are biased; against Trump? definitely. Do they lean, in general, towards the Democrats over Republicans? Yeah, that seems largely true. But so what?

Are their claims true? Is their reporting accurate? Also, is it true that the DNC has become more mainstream and conservative, hence losing their left-wing/Progressive base which once stood up for the working class? That would explain why the mainstream media seems closer to the DNC, rather than the media becoming more liberal.


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

Now, part of the problem is that so many people supporting Trump are so far to the right that, from their point of view, the NYT looks like a commie hippie rag. But from where I stand, they seem centrist. That is, where the center seems to be depends on where you are on the spectrum. And it seems to me that much of the alt-right has lost site of where the extremes of the political spectrum actually exist. I don’t think the alt-right understands the far left very well, or how much farther left they are than the NYT (or the DNC, for that matter).

Now, the question of where the center actually is, and whether it exists anymore, is a separate and interesting question unto itself, but the issue here is how a media outlet handles the political spectrum in terms of its editorial decisions. That is, how they frame issues, how often they include stories from various political perspectives, and what they report, (not merely where the journalists themselves sit on the bias spectrum).

Whatever bias the editorial staff, reporters, or owners of the NYT has, so long as their standards of journalism are good, they retract mistakes, and they keep their biases transparent, then they cannot be called liars. That’s simply not based in reality. Whatever media we are talking about, their bias should be kept in mind, but the important part not to ignore is whether their claims are supported by *gasp* facts.

Atheists, especially if they used to be religious, are commonly personally opposed to religion. Are they biased against religion? Perhaps, but there is a difference between opposition to something for good reasons and mere bias. They are not incompatible, and one can be both opposed and biased, but sometimes opposition is earned. The New York Times, I believe (but I am probably biased) has good reason to be opposed to Donald Trump and his administrations actions so far in office. To merely call that ‘bias’ and dismiss it (or call it dishonesty) ignores the evidence, logic, and emotional import of their arguments and reporting.

Sometimes what we call bias just happens to look like a skewed perspective from the point of view of the one in error. Kierkegaard once said the following:

“One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’  One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth.  Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e., by deceiving them, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion”

Now, I imagine that a Leninist like Steve Bannon could have a field day with that quote, but what it means to me is that when one is in error, the truth looks like a lie; it looks like a deceived, biased, silly way to see the world. We atheists look silly to those believers, and we readers of the media seem brainwashed by people who are actually brainwashed by fake news sources such as Alex Jones and Breitbart.com. The relativism is one of perception of truth, not truth itself. And the tribalism which grows around those who distrust the media helps support and bolster that feeling of distrust. Religion has been using that trick for millennia.

It is possible to absolutely despise Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama and accurately report on facts concerning each. It’s possible to not care for any of them in particular, and lie you ass off in every sentence about any of them. Biased does not imply incorrect or untrustworthy. There is a difference between what you think of a person, their policies, and what happened. What actually happened–the facts–don’t care about your biases. Truth is that which remains when you stop thinking or caring about an issue.

But what I’m seeing in our culture recently is not that the media is making up events, but that they are reporting facts with an attempt to communicate a narrative, based in facts, about the world that the complaining source does not like. Was the crowd at Trump’s inauguration the largest ever? Was it bigger than Obama’s? Was it larger than the Women’s march the following day? It seems like the answers are all no (if you look at the evidence), but don’t tell Trump or his followers that. His voters think that his inauguration was the biggest of all time, say this poll. Alternative facts, folks.

That is where skepticism comes in.

That’s why we need a media driven by facts, and not propaganda, conspiracy-theorists, and people who identify with Sith (I’m referring to Steve Bannon, here) who have been known to manipulate the truth in order to gain power.

Journalism’s standards are similar to those of skepticsm; it relies on fact-checking, the competitiveness of the media market, etc. Yes, there is room for clickbait, media with agendas, and fake news in that market, but that is no different than saying that there is room for Scientology, cult leaders, and (yes) Christianity in a world that depends on science to give us better medicine, technology, and a far greater understanding of reality. The fact that alternative facts, fake news, and lies can exist in media is akin to how religion survives despite it’s complete lack of evidence or logical consistency with the world; it creates a narrative which appeals to people, creates confidence, and then becomes the center of a tribe who support each other’s narratives about how they have the truth.

At bottom, religion, political movements, and pretty much everything that humans argue about is tribalistic. The alt-right is a set of tribes who accept an alternative set of facts and narratives about the world which feeds off of fear, ignorance, and a lack of critical thinking. And the places where that critical thinking exists, which is much of the mainstream media (despite its flaws), is the only source of challenge to that tribal power. That’s why the alt-right, specifically Steve Bannon, sees it as the opposition.

They will frame it otherwise, of course, but to con-artists all skepticism is seen as the enemy.

Skepticism v. Instincts, round 12 August 4, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory, relationships, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, this blog is about skepticism, primarily. I have said, many times, that skepticism is my primary philosophical orientation, and that many of my beliefs and lifestyle choices emanate, ultimately, from a natural sense of skepticism–of seeking the truth over comfort, with the help of logic, empiricism, etc.

But what about instinct? What about deep feeling and the uncertain world of emotion which drives us? What do we do with that? What do we do when, not having all the evidence available, we have a deeply emotional feeling about something? How much should we listen to this?

Here’s a puzzle. Let’s say that my instincts have made me feel very strongly, about certain situations and/or people, which I have ignored because I thought it fair to not merely allow my emotions to sway me when more objective means of judgment could give me a better conclusion. It sounds rational, right? My mere feelings are not sufficient, and I should, as a good skeptic, demand some more evidence before allowing myself to make a decision or form a conclusion. So, I table the feeling and try to wait for more evidence.

This tendency has ended up scarring me, more than a couple of times.

Upon first meeting a former metamour, whom I have written about before, all my alarms rang in my head that this person was problematic. But I ignored these alarms, these instinctual judgments made at a level not quite conscious, and tried to be open-minded and skeptical. I saw that people around him liked him, he seemed popular and well-liked. So I ignored those instincts and allowed myself to be swayed by the patience required to get all the data. That didn’t end well.

Before I moved to Atlanta with an ex (who ended up abandoning me there) my instincts told me that making the move would be a positive experience, and that those warning me against it were just being overly skeptical. I was feeling optimistic and adventurous with someone I loved, respected, and trusted. That didn’t end well, either.

In other words, my instincts have been wrong and right, and so I have “learned,” repeatedly, to ignore them because they are unreliable as a means towards truth.

Like a good skeptic.

And yet….

And yet there are times when those instincts are really strong, and I have to wonder whether this is one of the times I need to listen to them or, you know, not this time. Because our brains, while prone to error, also have tools which can alert us to subtle signals which give us information about the world. Sometimes, our instincts are right, and when we have been hurt, we tend to be sensitive to the signals that we have run into before. So, sometimes a gut feelings is worth paying significant attention to.

But where we draw the line between following our gut and holding out for more information is related to how much we trust ourselves. And if one is insecure and has self-trust issues (hey there, nice to meet you!), one might end up erring on the side of ignoring those instincts where we should have given them more consideration.

I think that I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that most of the times I have a really strong feeling about something, I’m at least partially right. And, yet, I more often than not ignore my gut feelings to my detriment, because I feel like giving a person or situation a chance, even though it does not feel right.

In short, I do not trust my own feelings and judgment because I want to be appropriately skeptical. That is, I recognize that my instincts and feelings can be wrong. So, the question is whether this is a form of self gaslighting, or is this healthy behavior?

To what degree is questioning how I feel, at a gut-level, a healthy method of self-reflection and introspection? There are many who would probably argue that doing it for other people is inappropriate, manipulative, and possibly abusive, insofar as doing so is probably gaslighting; questioning someone else’s feelings and perceptions about something is a form of questioning their ability to perceive the world correctly, after all. But I’m not sure where the line is, especially if we are doing it introspectively.

I believe that it is not only possible, but common, for people to have incorrect perceptions, feelings, and perspectives about the world around them. I believe that some level of wondering “how much are my fears, biases, or lack of understanding making me not see this situation correctly?”is not only appropriate, but necessary in order to be a rational human being.

But at the same time, there is a point where we need to accept that our feelings are sometimes, even when we cannot skeptically check them out, valuable and often spot on. There are times when we need to get the fuck out if something feels creepy or unsafe. There are times when we need to force ourselves to look deeper at a situation, person, or idea when our initial reaction is defensiveness, fear, or anger. Because we are too prone to selection bias and reacting negatively to ideas which do not fit well within our current boundaries and bubbles. And sometimes the bubble we exist within is a lens through which reality is skewed and warped.

Sometimes, what we think of as strength and standing up for ourselves is, in fact, bias skewing our perception. Sometimes, questioning our perception of reality is the appropriate method. That is, if we care about the truth.I’m just not sure how to tell the difference between when my instincts are right, and when they are a warped perspective, filtered through fear, bias, pain, etc.

Our instincts, or deep feelings, and our personal perspectives are not truths, necessarily, but they can often be good signposts. The concept of something being “true for me” is deeply problematic and philosophically sophomoric. As we build an instinctual defense mechanism within us, we need to make sure that the springs, levers, etc of that mechanism are not made out of bias, fear, and pain. Because those building tools will not build a skeptical shield.

As I watch my defensive mechanism work inside me, I am forced to admit that more parts than I’d like are made out of fear, trauma, and pain. I will not ignore the alarms that this mechanism set off, but I damned well will not let a non-skeptical and automatic mechanism make conclusions nor decisions for me. So when the red flag is thrown up from that lever, I’ll stop and take a look at it, but I will not be reactionary insofar as I allow my past pain and fear to determine my future path.

I'm not 42 yet, but I'm starting to feel this meme coming on...

I’m not 42 yet, but I’m starting to feel this meme coming on…

I have learned many signs of problematic behavior in the last few years, from many people. But I will not allow the people that compelled me to build my defenses define those in front of me, on this path. But at the same time, those in front of me on my path will have to contend with someone who has seen some shit, and sure as hell will not allow you to get away with any of it.

Because I’m sick of people’s shit.

More importantly, I’m sick of my own shit.


Tonight at 11: Bullshit defines reality December 2, 2015

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

I’ve seen this story floating around, recently:

Why People Think Total Nonsense is Really Deep

Money shot from the study:

Those more receptive to bull**** are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

I’m looking at you, Deepak Chopra (who is named in the journal article several time).

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

It’s a short little book (it’s actually quite physically small, and it resides on my bookshelf atop my study Bible, because I follow directions well, and store it on bullshit.

My mind is strange.

In any case, the article quotes the book is defining “bullshit” as being “something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth.” Not a lie, per se, but without making the effort to be supported by good thinking or skepticism, let’s say.

The article elaborates:

Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker… [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.”

So, it’s like many conservative talking points, theology (I repeat myself!), or much of postmodernist philosophy. It is words that have syntactic structure which conform to normal communication, but one cannot fathom a meaning except, in the best cases, in some vaguely poetic manner.

And poetry (I’ve been reading Tennyson recently) does often occupy a universe where the limits of normal expression get stretched, but bullshit seems to be the point where it breaks. Charting the difference between these two is difficult, for sure. I’m sure some fans of Deepak Chopra would retort that those of us critical of his “bullshit” are failing to see the meaning due to a lack of imagination or something, but I do think there is a line where poetic expression leads nowhere, and that “nowhere” is precisely Bullshitland.

That is, there is a point where the art of language skews into an expression which cannot be mapped to reality. And yet…

And yet there is this:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.


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


This is one of MC Escher’s many drawings. It exists in 2 dimensions, and hints at a 3 dimensional world which cannot exist…at least not in the way that it’s depicted. It is using the expected tools of drawing, which is usually a representation of the real world in 2 dimensional form, and breaks the form so that it is, in a sense, bullshit.

But we can glean some kind meaning from it. This meaning, a commentary upon perception, dimension, and form, is one that transcends the media. It supervenes and emerges from it, a true emergent property, and teaches us something about our perception and meaning.

Bullshit does something similar. It defines, for us, the shape, limits, and boundaries of meaning. It is a cautionary tale of how to keep within the bounds of what language and reality can do together, and what they cannot do together.

herebedragonsIt says to us, in a sense, “beyond here are dragons.” It defines the limits of reality, as we can express it in words, and when we verge nearer to it’s boundaries, with poetry, art, postmodern deconstruction of meaning and perception, we start to better define what is real and what is not real.

In a sense, it is true irony. Bullshit is what defines the edges of reality. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is anything beyond that boundary.

It’s sort of like how death defines life, but there is nothing beyond it. Believing that the bullshit contains anything meaningful is, conceptually, similar to believing in an afterlife.

There isn’t an afterlife. So eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.


Happy Darwin Day! February 12, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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birthdaydarwinBy pure accident, I published my first blog post on Darwin day back in 2009; 6 years ago today. So, for readers who may not know much about Charles Darwin or Darwin Day, Let me point you to some resources.

First, let’s start with the website dedicated to Darwin Day itself, DarwinDay.org. Here, you can find all sorts of things, such as local events, including this, happening in Philadelphia tonight at National Mechanics–which I may decide to pop into (if I have time after the laundry that really needs to get done). There are also educationalactivism, and news resources there, so take a look.

There’s also a Facebook page for Darwin Day.

darwinQBut there’s also a plethora of excellent resources all over the internet about Charles Darwin.  I will not even try to summarize them all, because they are too extensive. There are, of course, organizations and site dedicated to misinformation, misunderstanding, or outright opposition to Darwin and to the theory of evolution itself (it does pain me to post those links…).

Among my favorite evolution/Darwin specific websites is the Understanding Evolution website hosted at Berkeley. There’s a series of articles about the history of evolution, which includes some details about Darwin which start here. among my least favorites would be places such at Answers in Genesis, whgich is a group dedicated to the Biblical “truth” of creation. Hacks, and idiots, really.

Darwin_Small_mediumLet’s not forget that you can get all sorts of bumper stickers, decals, and other DarwinFish to put on your car, forehead, or computer screens. They are a good way to show the person driving behind you in traffic that you are educated in the scientific method, understand at least some of the complexities of the concepts within evolutionary theory (such as natural selection), and that you will not submit to bronze-age pseudoscience or creations myths.

That, or you really love your fish named “Darwin.”

I will not even begin to try to summarize the influence of Charles Darwin myself, mostly because I’m not an expert but also because there are already so many good resources on this subject. I’ll simply say that reading the Origin of Species was a positive experience, and what I do understand about biology is both fascinating and often beautiful.

darwin-change-201x300If you don’t know much about Charles Darwin or if you just want to know more, take a look at some of the links here. Or, if you just want to celebrate his birthday with some like-minded people over beers, food, or just conversation, check out the events page and find some local people.

Happy birthday Darwin!

I hope you don’t rise from the grave as a zombie to eat all of our brains, because that wouldn’t be very nice. So, let’s not do that.

Objective Judgment? February 2, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , ,
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Wait, which way is north on this thing?

Wait, which way is north on this thing?

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about objectivity. Or, as some call it, “truth.”

(oh crap, he’s about to get philosophical….)

Oh, shaddap, you!

Anyway, back to what I was saying. I like believing things. It’s often nice if they happen to be true. It happens once in a while. Or, you know, at least once. It might have happened.

There is a part of my mind which just insists that there must be true things, out there, which are true regardless of whether anyone effectively simulates those ideas in their heads or not.  I recognize this as my ego desiring that my view of the world is true, and this feeling is much stronger the more emotional I am. And then, well, I analyze that statement and I realize the whole thing collapses on its own weight.


I hate that. Disillusionment is a serious harsh to my mellow. Yes, I just used that phrase, which means it’s now 1995. You’re welcome.

Truth has never been more adorable. Or sleepy.

Truth has never been more adorable. Or sleepy.

Minds are, by definition, subjective. There is no objective point of view (this was one of the central axioms of my MA thesis, which I will not try to summarize here because I like you, dear reader, and I want you to keep reading). All we can do is come together and try to construct reality out of the bloody remains of our experience which survives all that bias and interpretation. Our personal experience, in other words, is like a hot dog is to reality’s cow. Don’t think about that analogy too much, because you will die from an aneurysm.

So if that is the case, then how can we talk about anything being “true”?

There is an idea within the skeptic community, which has been articulated in a few ways. The basic idea is that the “truth” is what remains after we remove all (or, at least, as much as possible) personal bias. It is the thing that continues to exist whether we believe in it or not. It is “reality.” It does not care what we think, it just is. And the best way to apprehend such a thing would be by use of the tools of philosophy and science; logic and empiricism.

And I agree with this idea. But how could I? Why not just give over to the anti-realists? (cf this analysis and this article at the SEP). Why not go even further and become a mystic or neo-vedantic philosophies which reject the concept of reality all-together? Why not just admit that all of this “reality” is merely an illusion–maya-and forgo this western concept of progress, understanding, and materialism? Why not just admit that everything is mere opinion, and that what “really happens” is a nonsensical idea?

Why not just give people flowers at the airport and change my name to Sunbeam…again?

Stubbornness, I suppose. Also, pragmatism, to some degree. Mostly, it’s Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the Goa’uld for whom I am but a host, apparently.

Science fiction and dead Germans aside, this is a tension that sits on the edge of my mind frequently, and one which is sometimes glossed over in conversations about scientific realism and hippies. But that specific argument is not the focus of my attention today. Today, I’m concerned with how we form opinions about ourselves, other people, and circumstances which I believe has some epistemological commonalities with this philosophical question of whether the world is real.

Is my worldview actually based in reality?

If I believe that I am a good person, or that I’m telling the truth, or even if my memories are based in anything outside of my own desires and biases writing themselves to my brain (or to my cosmic consciousness, if I were to accept the neo-vedantic interpretation), how would I be sure that this idea has any coherence with what is real or true?

possibly what my brain, in a vat of piss, looks like in another universe. Yes, I'm Jesus in all universes except this one.

possibly what my brain, in a vat of piss, looks like in another universe. Yes, I’m Jesus in all universes except this one.

I mean, how do I know I’m not a brain in a vat? Or (possibly worse) a brain in a jar of piss in some other universe’s postmodern art installment? I could merely be some lame artist’s attempt to piss off (see what I did there) some establishment which worships brains. Although, probably not mine specifically. Yet.

I could just be a piece of hardware being ignored by 6th graders on a field-trip!


When we start thinking about things such as how we view ourselves, the narratives groups maintain through interpersonal relationships, and even vast and complicated cultures we have to take into account not only what is preferable or comfortable to us, but what is uncomfortable and foreign.  Who we are at any moment is dependent upon our environment, and our environment is an organism which feeds upon itself and those who foster its creation and maintenance (much like the role that Shiva has in some parts of Indian mythology). So, the question is who are the people feeding that beast, and what attributes, motives, and capabilities do they have?

Also, are they total dicks? Because that’s honestly the worst.

Further, what are the walls between your worldview and the worldview of others? Is that wall merely a thin transparent material holding in piss and/or brain-vat liquid (mostly Gatorade, is my guess)? So many questions. So many disturbing, but artful, questions.

Anyway, why do I care? Is it because I am being paid by the Gatorade lobby? Possibly. Alternatively, it might it be because who speaks for a group, what they believe, and what kind of character they have will have implications for that group. And maybe I care about groups of which I am a part. And, eventually, that family, organization, or culture will start to reflect the people that make it up, which is bad if those people are dicks.

That is, there is a very complicated relationship between the things we do, say, and believe and the social/cultural environment in which we live. Our ability to create a worldview is (in part) a combination of insight, self-knowledge, and willingness to be honest with others and ourselves. Any small inherent deviation from honesty, respectability, or consideration for feelings and boundaries of others has large effects on our lives, relationships, and culture because that inherent tendency defines the vast majority of the decisions, actions, and beliefs which define a group of any size or complexity.

What scientists actually do, for example, has an effect on the scientific community. How people in polyamorous relationships behave has effects on the poly community. Not that everyone needs to be flawless; there is no such thing as perfection, after all. But what we believe about ourselves, our families, our communities and ultimately the ideals we strive for or at least proclaim are questions not merely for ourselves and our closest allies, but also those distant from us or even opposed to us.

We should learn from our enemies, as much (if not more) as we learn from our friends, lovers, and even ourselves. Because even where our enemies might be wrong, they are not always completely wrong. And insofar as they may be right, that correctness is a source from which wisdom (or at least its potential) can be gleaned.

It is the fundamental processes of our character which shapes us more than any occasional mistake, misjudgment, or mess we make. That character is like the fluid in our brain-vats; it’s either pissy, delicious, or merely nourishing. It is the ether in which our consciousness (cosmic, vatted, or merely in skulls) propagates. And that character, no matter what direction it flies, will inform how we respond to mistakes, handle conflict, and maintain relationships. Having made a few doosies of mistakes myself, I know of what I speak.

But I do not speak from a point of superiority or of condescension, but simply from experience and growing understanding. And I have learned from my mistakes, my friends, and my enemies.


I don’t believe in any cosmic karma or universal balancing of the scales to have good people rewarded or bad people punished. I believe we have to make our own fates, as it were, and so we need to be paying attention to not only ourselves, but also to others. Not that we need to be watching, with bated schadenfreude, other people’s lives for mistakes. But there is some wisdom in understanding the motivations, actions, and characters of those with whom we share our community, space, and life. And we need to look honestly at those things, because (as I have found) sometimes the people closest to you are not who you thought they were.

More importantly, sometimes you may find that you are not who you thought you were. Which is a disquieting thought, even compared to merely being an art-piece in universe X-5473’s art museum. It’s one thing to not be sure of your very nature, it’s quite another to find that maybe you can change that nature, ever so slightly. Somehow, to me at least, the freedom to make myself be who I am is more terrifying than the uncertainty of what I am. That probably says a lot about me, I know.

I’m working on it.

And so we must rely on a communal system of punishment in order to guide our mistakes through the raging storm of culture, family, and individual characters. The unfortunate fact is that some of us will punish ourselves more than we should while others will not even recognize the need for self-correction at all. We are complicated, and means of figuring out what the right way–the true way–of handling a situation is a very complicated and delicate task which requires wisdom, patience, and a willingness to listen to ourselves and to others. It is, in short, an overwhelmingly difficult task, and one which nobody will likely master.

Ethics is Futile

Ethics is Futile

We have to come forward with our vulnerable hearts opened to the world, and declare not only our errors but our strengths.  It is an intersubjective path we walk, one which attempts to take all of our collected experiences and shape them into a “reality” which we can judge better together than alone or segmented into cliques. Truth, therefore, is a kind of transmutation of subjectivities into an attempt to create an objective alloy.

What I’m trying to say is that ethics is like the Borg, except with better fashion sense. At least, I hope so. Aesthetics can’t completely go out the window when coming together into  Communist communal eradication of individuality coming together for the sake of world domination growth and support.

And in the end, no agreement will suit everyone. The leaders of our worlds, whether macro or micro, will be idolized or hated by some, rather than seen as humans struggling with difficulties, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It is when we idolize or demonize that we fail to see nuances. I, as guilty of this as anyone else, understand that only through nuance can we get to any useful judgment. And sometimes we will find that someone is worth watching and learning from, while others not so much.

Some people, I think, really do just exist in jars of piss.

OK, OK….get to the super cosmically wise point already, bro.

Judgment, like science, is probabilistic rather than absolute. It’s why science does not “prove” anything, but merely makes the best case it can based upon evidence. It’s rather tempting to finally judge someone personally, but that judgment must be ongoing, replicated, and alive if it is to have any meaning. We must watch to see what people do going forward, and stop merely focusing on the past. That is what I hope for myself, and it is what I insist upon my judgment of others.

It’s why we need nuance, and why we must remember that our emotions shade the truth from us.  When others err, we need to remember that we also err. And when it’s time to correct those transgressions around us, it need not be an absolute judgment, but it is a judgment.

And when you find yourself judged, it’s time for insight, reflection, and perhaps some empathy. And it’s may also be time to recognize that perhaps some things will never be forgiven, especially by those who were harmed, but perhaps you can make something better of yourself. That’s the goal; not to be superior or dominant. We don’t achieve moral greatness, we process moral growth.

The truth is that we all fuck up. Some of us more than others. But the kicker is not what we did, but how we responded. It’s less about he initial infraction than it is how we go forward. And sometimes, if you keep refusing to accept what you did and you make it worse and worse, eventually nobody is going to accept any amount of apology or change.

Behavior unchanged is the closest thing, from a judgmental standpoint, we have to absolute truth. Patterns of behavior, habit, and stubbornness are the roots of a personality caught in its own web. For anyone to be judged “objectively” or absolutely, they must be static and unchanging people. They have to be (to go back to the old Latin meaning) perfect, or even Platonic.

And just like with Plato, who was so convinced that his Good, his Ideal, and his Forms existed in perfect (objective) reality, so those who get caught in their own webs will find that perfection, superiority, and their own undeserved confidence (i.e. arrogance) will also be wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. But there is something wrong about stubbornly or blindly holding onto that error for the sake of reputation.

I’ve been stubborn enough in my life, and I’ll strive to be less so in the future.

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing September 17, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , , ,

[TW: rape, sexual assault]

I still follow a number of atheist blogs, which I sometimes read and sometimes skip past depending on the topics they explore. In recent months, one of the raging conversations has been the ongoing issues related to skepticism, rape culture, and “radical feminism.” I’ve written about these subjects previously, and don’t want to deal with those issue directly (there’s already a lot of that being discussed, and I don’t feel like I have anything significant to add), but something about these conversation has felt very familiar to me recently.

No, I am not trying to snidely imply that this is an old conversation that we’ve all heard before and should be tired of. It has been one which has been happening for a while, but it is one that needs to happen because some people are still not getting it.

No, In this case, the familiarity has more to do with seeing parallels of much of this “drama” in my own life. The familiarity is one of “oh, that thing they’re arguing about concerning skeptic/atheist leaders being sexual predators, possible rapists, and general dingbats whose supporters attempt to smear you for pointing out their dingbattery…that looks really familiar!”

All too familiar…

So how about the polyamorous community?

Hiding in plain sight

Thinking about all of this got me wondering about how many people fly under the radar, not only in the mega-communities of all kinds, but all of the local communities. How many people who consistently lie, manipulate, and take advantage of people for their own benefit (among other terrible behavior) are there all around us? I mean, it’s a behavior set which operates best in the shadows, and the very success of such behavior necessitates hiding, creating a false facade, and having sympathetic advocates. The perpetrators of such things are usually not simply loners waiting in alleys, they are people within your own community, hiding in plain sight and pretending to be something they are not.

ColbertfriendThere are strategies which some people use to hide their awfulness. If you are racist, it helps to have non-white “friends” or co-workers to keep around to make any accusation of racism seem absurd, except for those who know better. If you are a misogynist, keep your female friends and partners close, so that if someone says you treat women badly you can have them speak up for you. Similarly, if you have problems with sexual consent, make sure you have your feminist friends and partners willing to speak up for you, so that when you do decide to just do what you want with a woman who you think you can get away with it with, the accusation will look ridiculous (especially to your partners who you emphasize consent with!).

How many people are there like this around us all the time? Well, the terrifying answer is that we don’t know. That’s why it’s so scary. Often, they are around us all the time and we have no idea who they really are, because they hide it so well. This is compounded by the fact that many people who have had bad experiences with someone may choose to be quiet about it, and only close trusted friends will know. A desire to not stir up drama, unwanted attention, or possible backlashes are among the many reasons that people who behave poorly don’t get outed more.

Yes, backlashes. Because sometimes victims get blamed, by both bystanders and those guilty of the infringement.  If someone knows they are guilty or wants to hide a mistake, sometimes the best way to hide is to redirect attention or to just ignore it and hope it goes away. Some people faced with accusations will not only refuse to accept any responsibility (or really acknowledge the accusation at all), but will go further and re-direct the accusations elsewhere. A good defense is a good offense, I suppose.

Other people will just depend on the background noise of normal every-day life to drown it out, knowing that some people who get hurt will just slide into the crowd and not pursue more conversation or desire for some recompense. Others may simply believe they didn’t do anything wrong in the first place, and will view accusations as absurd, annoying, or an attempt to sully their reputation (you know, rather than a description of the violation of another person).

Advocate Camouflauge

But there’s a deeper, and more disturbing, set of strategies I have seen employed as well.

Some people are especially skilled at pretending, hiding, and creating support networks to vouch for them. It’s much better to have advocates than to appear defensive by responding oneself, after all.  As a close friend said, in reference to someone neither of us trusts, “if you rape 1-in-5, you will still have 4 to vouch for you.” That is, if someone talks about consent often and practice it with most people, the exceptions will be easier to hide in the shadows of consent’s facade. If a person gets off on being in control, having influence, and doing what they want to other people while ignoring consent now and then, such a person is much more likely to keep getting away with it by talking a good consent game.

Sometimes the best way to appear innocent is to clothe yourself in the garb of, and to mimic, those who would be the first to convict you if they knew who you really were. The terrifying idea I’m describing here is to hide among those that would be your greatest critics (if they were to see the other kind of behavior) while saving that other behavior for people who seem unlikely to fight back or actually matter to you. It’s essentially being careful who you victimize, while making sure that you surround yourself with advocates of (for example) social justice who you stay within bounds around, so they can be your character’s alibi and voucher.

Here’s one example I’ve seen. If you are a guy who wants girls to like you, then start by calling yourself a feminist, talk and write about consent and befriend and partner up with feminists who you treat mostly well, then occasionally feed that deep desire to take control and power over people with some other people who you perceive as being “safe” to ignore those feminist consent lines. If anyone calls you on it, all you need to do is turn it around on the accuser and then sit back and watch your feminist partners defend you while you can sit back, feeling…well, I have no idea how that would feel. I have no inclination to find out, either.

itsatrapOn top of that, you get to be around attractive feminist women who you might get to sleep with and whom will act as ways to attract other women to you, since those women will vouch for you. You get to treat most of the women in your life relatively well while creating a situation where you can occasionally get away with some power trip (or perhaps it’s just a deep desire which cannot be denied all the time. Either way, it’s manipulative and deeply troubling). You get to occasionally treat people like crap all the while maintaining a flock of feminist women who will pronounce you safe to other approaching women.

Except you aren’t safe. You are a predator, camouflaged among feminists so you can get away with your crossing consent lines when it suits you. And it does happen, doesn’t it? Perhaps not very often, but when it does happen you don’t have to atone, apologize, or even acknowledge it because you’ve created a believable facade of a person you are not. You have created a facade of a decent human being.

And what’s worse is when such people do a little of both with other partners, all based upon what blind-spots each partner has. Such a person will know that some can be manipulated and influenced and still be an advocate, at least for a while. After the influence starts to wear off and it becomes clear that they see you more as a means towards their own needs and desires than someone interested–or capable–of a genuinely mutually beneficial relationship, all such a mind needs to do is move onto another person.  In extreme cases, such a person might (for example) assassinate the character of the disillusioned person and gaslight them, attack them, and write them off because they aren’t useful to you anymore.

The above description* is a recipe for coldly calculated patterns of using other people for one’s own purposes rather than creating genuinely mutually beneficial relationships in which the needs and desires of others are considered. Creating healthy relationships is not a game about what you can get away with while trying to appear acceptable by the community in which you participate while doing so. But this is only one of many descriptions of problematic behavior. It just happens to be one I’m more familiar with because I saw it up close.

Victims of such behavior will look at the advocates of these manipulative people and can only shrug their shoulders and crawl back into their hole of self-doubt, fear, and trauma which will never be dealt with on the advocates’ end because he would never do that. Except, he did and many will believe.

Celebrities as proxies

I’ve met Michael Shermer. It was years ago, and I remember that everyone in the room wanted to talk with him. He’s smart, engaging, and tells fairly good stories.  He’s also done really excellent work in the skeptic community, written some good books, and has some really important things to say. He’s also a douchebag. He may, in fact, be a rapist and a sexual predator. There have been a number of accusations, arguments about responsibility, and many have come out in support of him in light of these accusations.

There is no contradiction between a person having very good qualities, friends, and advocates and someone who is just terrible. People like Michael Shermer are popular examples, and in a sense stand as a lightning rod for conversations about things like sexual predation, rape, and rape culture. But these celebrity examples of these conversations are community proxies for conversations about the kinds of people and issues we are surrounded with in our own lives, perhaps every day.

Our local communities have people who are known to be problematic in specific ways.  That group of people is known for being really tribalistic, dismissive, and gossipy unless you agree with them about whatever they care about. This guy over here is known to get into heated arguments, and sometimes fights, especially if he’s drunk. That girl is known to make racist comments and jokes, but mostly she’s pretty cool (I guess). Oh, and that guy? Oh, he’s a known to take advantage of women when they’re drunk or just to do what he wants to them unless they specifically ask him to stop. You know, maybe he’ll stop if you ask, so just don’t get paralyzed by fear because silence is totally the same thing as consent (pro-tip; no it’s not). You know….he’s probably a sexual predator. But you know, whatever. He’s smart and fun to be around and he throws good parties, so as long as he cuts that out, you know most of the time, we’ll look past it and pretend it’s not happening.

Also, there are askholes (which is among my favorite new words).

There is an idea that one reason celebrities are a thing many people talk about with each other is that since communities have become so large, most people (especially if they live in other parts of the world) don’t have a common set of concerns and people to gossip about. Celebrities, whether they beat their fiance, did something really awesome and generous for someone, or got married, are a proxy for the old village gossip about the locals. Michael Shermer, being well-known in the skeptic community, is the person we talk about when we talk about things like rape and rape culture, but in smaller communities perhaps have their own Michael Shermers.

We have our local examples of such people, and a lot of the same infighting, smear campaigns, and tribalism which takes place on the blogoshere and at conferences is also happening on the local level, on smaller scales.

And it’s hard! It’s hard because unless you see certain behavior you can’t be sure about the veracity of an accusation, especially if the accused behaves normally or acceptably most of the time. It’s hard if the person in question is someone you work with, hang out with, and maybe even generally like. It’s hard because sometimes you aren’t sure if you should believe it, and if you want to be a good skeptic you need more evidence than an accusation.

And shadowy people are really good at covering their tracks with the aforementioned facades, advocates, and mostly good behavior (especially with certain people) which is what most people will see.The distinction is not what they do, it’s about how they proceed after the deed is done. A decent person will take responsibility and try and use it as a lesson for growth and potential change.

We all make mistakes. I have certainly made many myself and I have worked to not hide them, but instead to make them part of my motivation to grow and change. I have hurt people in the past, I have been a poor partner, and I will probably make more mistakes in the future. The issue is how we move on from mistakes and misdeeds, and it is quite tempting to try and shift the narrative to shift the focus on our mistakes onto something else, or to avoid the responsibility which is ours.

Accusations can have repercussions for our standing in a community, but it is ultimately our actions which matter. Michael Shermer, might never recover (professionally and within the skeptic community) if he were to admit to any sexual assault, but it would be the right thing to do (assuming the accusations are true). But such a guilty person would recover far better if they didn’t shirk their moral responsibility from the beginning, and rather just admitted their misdeeds.

If such a person, celebrity or not, is guilty, then worrying about reputations and community standing rather than the affect upon victims is behavior which demonstrates a lack of perspective on what is important and moral in scope. The people around us who behave poorly need to be given room to atone for mistakes, but in some cases the mistakes were more like decisions. Sober, calculated, and intentional decisions are harder to forgive.

The sad truth is that maybe some people cannot be redeemed. One has to be able to recognize error in order to be redeemable.

See also rabbitdarling’s contribution

*Yes, it is based on real experiences. I will not name him [yes I will. His name is Wes Fenza], but many of you know exactly who I’m talking about.

Lane reading Screwtape August 23, 2014

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

Some choice quotes from recent entries in the series:

Part Nine:

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

Part Ten:

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

Part Eleven:

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

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

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

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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

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


The ugly

The devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a disquieting thought, for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I prefer something else.


The Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


No more misanthropy, for me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , ,

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

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

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

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

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


The “good” ideal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The “bad” ideal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Speaking of tribalism… August 14, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , ,

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

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

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

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

Fictions, Factions, and Fractures

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

The Enlightenment are defined thus:

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

And the Resistance is defined this way:

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

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

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

Order out of Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, right, Ingress….

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

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

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