jump to navigation

How the Bush years foreshadowed the Trump years February 13, 2019

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

Back in the George W. Bush years, and as a person very active in the atheist community, I took note of how the GOP and the conservative Christian world continued to be wedded. And, today, the same thing is true of Trump world, and it’s just more of the same. Well, more terrifying.

There was a time, well before my time, when the GOP was a quite different party. Remember, this party was originally the party of Lincoln, and while it certainly was never ideal (as if any group of people could be), it was a laudable party which managed to defend the Union during a crisis which almost tore the nation apart.

Although, in some senses, it did. Because here we are, a country divided, and the points of division are, in many ways, historically connected to the ones that had us shooting at each other a century and a half ago. There are reasons why a lot of Trump supporters wave the rebel flag, after all.

 

The Bush Years

I did a lot of protesting, reading, and some writing about the growing alliance between the GOP and the evangelical Christian world which became more and more obvious after September 11th, 2001. At the time, most “liberals” (the term “progressive” had not caught on yet, if I recall correctly) thought that George W. Bush was the dumbest, most embarrassing, and most damaging president America could have had. His administration was highly problematic for many reasons, but the Christians loved him.

He was one of them, after all.

Super-patriotic and conservative Christian jingoism started to appear in popular political narratives in a way that most Americans had not ever seen before. The existing culture wars ramped up to a degree that we had not seen before. We didn’t think it could get much worse. We thought that our nation was on the brink of collapse. The Christians thought it was because of the impending apocalypse, and other people foresaw endless wars which would leave America a wasteland.

We were so naïve…

Back in 2006, there was a series of events called “Battle Cry” which were run by a Christian organization called Teen Mania Ministries (which closed in 2015). They would rent out large stadiums where thousands of Christians would listen to bad Christian rock, patriotic music and images would be everywhere, and a message warning their audience about the dangers of secular media, culture, etc. And, as I observed in an article I published in a local Communist newspaper at the time, and later published at the Rational Response Squad (and which I host a copy of here), it really came across as a way for hungry Christian media to deal with its secular competition.

In other words, it was a way to control where such largely white, evangelical, suburban/rural, conservative, middle class people got their information, and to make sure it was from the Christian media, artists, etc. 

Is this starting to sound familiar?

 

Building the Base for an Alternative

I don’t have any data to support this idea, but I think that a lot of the teenagers I saw at this event (I attended the one in Philadelphia, upon invitation from the organizers), as well as their parents who drove them to it, are predominantly Trump supporters today.

Ron Luce, the organizer of these events, saw his purpose as influencing a generation. In other words, he wanted to create a generation of people who would get their information from wholesome, Christian, and patriotic sources. His book talks all about this. In other words, many evangelical leaders, associated with conservative causes and therefore the GOP, have been making a concerted effort to groom a generation or two of Americans to ignore a large segment of media sources in order to control the narrative that those people hear.

In the case of the Bush years, it was the “secular media” and it’s demonic influence on our children (“won’t somebody please think of the children!”). Ron Luce and his organizations, including these Battle Cry events of 2006 (which were only a few of many similar efforts in American culture at the time) were a way to advertise the various Christian alternatives to music, news, and other sources of entertainment and information.

From the episode of South park called “Christian Rock Hard”, we see Cartman being awful, but simultaneously demonstrating something true; a lot of Christian music is just stealing from the secular alternatives, and that Christians would figure this out and make a lot of money from it in America.

What’s worse is that their offerings were a pale alternative, blithely and badly copied in form but not in content in order to be “righteous” and godly.  Just think about how much Christian music is a lot like secular music. In the South Park episode referred to above, the plot is lampooning the fact that changing love song lyrics to say “Jesus” rather than “baby” or whetever was how Christian music worked, in many cases. But so long as the kids were listening to that, and not the devil’s music, then they might not be tempted by Satan.

The fact that the Christian marketing companies had a bunch of things to sell them and which were present at such events was, well, just convenient I guess.

Seth Andrews has talked about this as well:

 

It’s a brilliant strategy, from a marketing point of view, and it largely worked. There is a whole alternative universe which Christian kids grew up in which has a lot of parallels to the one I grew up in, but it’s isolated and insulated enough to keep the home-schooled evangelicals pretty ignorant, at least until they reach the outside world. I’ve met many of these people who grew up in said environments, even dated a couple of them after they escaped.

What this creates is a template for creating quite distinct sub-cultures, fed by very different sets of media, worldviews, and even facts.

And since those years we have seen the division of where Americans get their information widen, until we get to the last few years which will likely be known, to historians, as…

The Trump Years

You know, the age of “alternative facts.”

For decades, conservative radio, the evangelical Christian sub-culture, and many conspiracy-theory laced sources have been cultivating more rural, conservative, and largely older people to distrust the admittedly problematic corporate and mainstream sources of news and entertainment which dominated places like where I grew up.

As the internet grew, there were all sorts of weird corners for such people to gather, and as they started to coalesce, meet, and work together, some realized that there was a market here. Hence such people as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Alex Jones became household names. There is an impulse and maybe even an instinct that such people, and their messages, link onto in an unskeptical and uncritical mind.

So, you know how The Daily Show, back when it was hosted by Jon Stewart, spent years making fun of Fox News and other conservative outlets of information? You know how it lead to a spinoff of Stephen Colbert, for 9 years, mocking Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly? And you know how conservatives totally watched those shows, and subsequently became self-aware that they were being duped?

Yeah, that last part probably isn’t true. But we libtards surely got a kick out of laughing at them dupes. I wonder why they are mad at us….

And you know how it seems like people who hate trump and people who love trump seem to get their information from different universes? It’s almost like there has been a concerted, overtly-stated, effort to get conservatives who lean towards the evangelical side of the culture to learn how to ignore a large swath of sources (whether “secular” in the Bush years or “mainstream” later on) in favor of trusted, reliable, “fair and balanced” sources? Or, you know, to resent those mainstream and liberal sources for laughing at them all the time and feeling elite about it all?

It really seems as if a large segment of American culture has been groomed to be controlled and manipulated, while being told it was everyone else who was being manipulated. It’s a classic technique used by abusers of all sorts, to control the narrative and point at other people for doing what they, themselves, are doing (even if they aren’t aware they are doing so). Many of my family who are conservative consider me to be the one who is brainwashed. Perhaps you think so too. 

If you do, I don’t think you know me very well. 

And, as many of us in the atheist community used to try to argue (before we were distracted by rifts related to feminism and such), it’s the tools of religion; faith, sacredness, righteousness, etc which are at fault. Wielded by the right people, these tools are great at controlling large amounts of people, as the history of religion has taught us. And over the last few decades, conservative Christians have had a lot of practice honing their skills at utilizing marketing techniques and religion to influence politics and culture. And here we are, now, in a world where Donald Trump is considered, by many evangelicals, to be sent by God to lead us through these times. 

The Battle Cry seems to have worked. Ron Luce’s efforts seem to have come to fruition. Congratulations, I guess, but I still feel a little like crying.

I cannot prove that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between these movements during the Bush years and now, but it seems a reasonable line of argument to entertain, and it fits in so many ways. It exemplifies what is worst about the religious instincts:

  • Tribalism: in-group/out-group separation of people. (whether it be Christians/sinners or MAGAheads/”Libtard cucks”)
  • The preference for sacred or trusted sources of information while simultaneously shunning other, contradictory, sources (whether it be the Bible/secularism or Fox News etc/”lamestream media”)
  • the cult-like defense of and adoration of a central figure (whether Jesus or The Donald)
  • The lack of ACTUAL skepticism, as opposed to lip service to rationality. If you’ve ever read “sophisticated theology,” then you know what rationalization looks like, as opposed to rationality, logic, and skeptical analysis. Similarly, if you’ve ever talked to a Trump supporter use logic, you know what I mean, as well.

 

Where we are in history, right now as Americans, cannot be a surprise if we look back at the culture in which we have lived. And to the people out there who didn’t, and perhaps still don’t, see the effect that faith and religious conviction is having our culture, and how it will continue to effect our politics and history, then all I say is you are probably helping it to repeat, or at least rhyme, in the future. In other words, your respect for religious traditions in the face of their harm is fucking us over.

Please, more skepticism. Those teenagers at Battle Cry 13 years ago are now adults. And insofar as the efforts of people like Ron Luce and the many other Christian organizations who saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between people and a secular, rational, and potentially better future were successful in their efforts, we now have a significant percentage of people who unfailingly support this historical disaster.

I overhear Trump supporters often. They are not cartoonishly evil or stupid people. They are just convinced they are right, like everyone else, and are largely uninterested or unimpressed by what other sources say, because they think they already understand. This is one of the reasons when I hear anyone, especially myself, sounding self-righteous or overly certain, I’m skeptical. This is one of the reasons I am critical of even people on “my” side, because I don’t want to be part of a tribe in the same way.

I want to make sure I’m not subject to the groupthink that takes over groups, so I’m critical of people I’m allied with.

It’s easy to mock creationists, flat-Earthers, or people who believe that the reptilians control the world. But what if the people in your tribe start talking about how dangerous vaccinations are or how the new lady congresspeople are all stupid feminazi drones?

And remember, even if Trump is impeached, we still have to deal with Mike Pence. 

Let’s stop this historical rhyming, already.

 

Advertisements

10 Years February 12, 2019

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
comments closed

So, this blog had it’s first post 10 years ago, today.

5 years ago, I posted a summary of the first 5 years, which included links of favorite posts from the early years. But 5 years ago I was also about to dive into some of the worst times of my life. We won’t speak of any of that, today.

I won’t provide any links to recent posts that I especially liked from the last 5 years, today. There have been some lovely posts over the last few years, and also a couple of years where I didn’t post much of anything at all. If you’re curious, feel free to peruse the tag cloud on the right side of the page. It should be not too far below this text.

I also don’t have any deep thoughts about 10 years of growth and change in myself, my life, etc. There have been all of these things, but I’m not feeling especially sentimental about any of it at the moment. In fact, the reason I even realized this was the anniversary was because while reading some posts from other sources this afternoon, I saw a mention of “Darwin Day”, and I remembered that I intentionally waited to post my first post on Darwin day, because 10 years ago I was very involved in the atheist community, for which such a day was a kind of holiday.

Man, how much has the atheist community changed in 10 years!

In short, the blog is now 10 years old. It’s readership has declined, it’s owner has grown older as well, and I no longer have additional writers adding their thoughts. I don’t think I’ll ever be as prolific a writer as I was around 7 years ago or so.

But I do carry a portable keyboard around with me in case I’m suddenly inspired, so I’ll keep jabbering. Maybe a few of you are still around to check it out.

So, happy birthday, blog!

frustrated by unrequited ideals February 4, 2019

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
comments closed

Do you ever get the sensation that you exist in the wrong universe?

It’s a common cultural trope that we find ourselves living in the “wrong” time, place, or family. Man, how did I miss the 1960’s, someone might say.

I’ve felt that way, but I think something else is going on here, and I think it might be related to a bunch of other relevant questions our culture is wrestling with. I think that there is a sort of pain, cognitive dissonance, or at least ennui which permeates the distance between the world we want to live in and the worlds we are faced with, and in some sense compelled to choose between.

We are thrown into the world, screaming, and then just left to figure out what the fuck is going on. And along the way, we create families, cultures, and national identities–tribes–which overlap in bizarre ways. At some point, some people, or perhaps all people to varying degrees, we start to notice gaps between the narratives. Grey areas in culture. Moderate positions between your Capulets and their Montagues.

We’re going through another cultural shift, in America right now. And in some sense, we are also teetering on the edge of a chasm that our widening narratives have created. We may not survive this next 20 years as a country of power and influence, and we’re having an ideological fight disguised as a moral one. The problem is that the several (and probably more) factions get shuffled into essentially 2 teams, and the bedfellows on each side are left to in-fight in their own particular ways, creating the illusion of a bicameral rift, when it’s really a shatterprint not unlike the damage done to a windshield when impacted with a large pebble at high speed.

Unpredictable and it weakens the surrounding substrate that allows the pattern to exist.

In other words, when the United States falls apart, the factions will no longer have a common culture in which to express itself, because there will no longer be the mechanisms of communications to express these differences.

And no matter who “wins”, the people who rise to power in such situations are usually monsters.

I weep for our future, because I can see the grey areas between our factions, and it will matter less and less who is right the worse it gets.

Stream of Consciousness January 25, 2019

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
comments closed

There’s something odd about white people of wealth. I perceive it as weird because I share so much in common with them, yet when I’m around them in a social setting, I feel like an ethnologist. But that’s not quite right either, because I speak the language and understand the customs. I know the rituals, the symbols of authority, and if I need to I can blend in.

Sort of.

I can pass, for sure. But I can’t take it seriously. I have that privilege.

One of the weirder aspects of being able to see your culture as if you were playing a role playing game, is that the NPCs (Non-Player Characters, for those of you not up on gamer lingo) are ever so slightly more complicated in groups, in real life. Sure, if you catch them one-on-one, they can demonstrate some nuance and humanity, but groups are weird.

Families, friends, neighborhoods, towns, cultures, and species are strange epiphenomina.

Then you start to ruminate, meditate, or zone out while stoned (and where are the differences there?), and you start to wonder if you are actually one of the NPCs. And then, on some occasions, you are almost certain that you are.

OK, so granted; from everyone else’s point of view, you’re sort of a NPC. But what happens when you start to become aware that you are one from your own point of view as well? Not all the time. Well, actually, yeah all the time. But you’re only aware of it some of the time. Then you sort of forget.

Why is it easier (for me at least; I cannot speak for other weirdos) to build a conceptual map of groups of people but not the groups of proto-people in your head? All the potential thoughts, decisions, and other psychological phenomena are, in some metaphorical sense, fighting for control. I mean, they aren’t actually fighting, because they are not aware of each other. At least I don’t think they are….

What would it be like to be a set of patterns in the brain which were trying to compel you to eat that whole carton of ice cream? What if that set of patterns became “aware” of another set of patterns, which, in this case, is trying to compel you to take a walk and stretch your legs, this evening? Does it hate that set of brain patterns? Is it jealous? Is it in love, with a love necessarily unrequited, because they can never merge?

How many people are in your head? I’ve got a few, at least. I have a feeling they don’t tend to like each other very much. And isn’t that the weirdest way in which you have ever heard someone admit they might hate themselves?

But that’s not all that weird, right? Everyone does, sometimes, right? Perhaps the word hate is too strong; a word with so much linguistic meaning, that to invoke it usually indicative of a feeling being too strong. Way to emotion-shame, brain.

We are legion. Perhaps the royalty figured this out years ago, and have been trying to explain it to us through the “royal we” (who are definitely not amused) in a way that we have been hearing as some aristocratic arrogance which turns us off and makes us susceptible to wanting too eat the rich, behead them, or at least try to make them feel bad by talking about the realities of poverty in the world.

That got dark quicker than expected.

And that, ladies in gentlemen, is why I shouldn’t refer to myself as we; I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I’m not sure that eating the rich is the solution. I know, I know…I’m such a bad Leftist.

What does it mean to be right if a part of your mind disagrees?

Hell, what does it mean to have an opinion, if a part of your mind disagrees?

I’l have to think about that. Translation: I will let the proto-people in my head fight that one out.

How are you?

Yes, all of you.

Postcript:

I wrote this without thinking about it at all. I just let thoughts fall out of my brain, and only mildly edited for typos (I almost certainly missed one or two). New project; write even when you don’t know what to say. Let’s see what’s been shaking around in there, while doing life shit.

I’m out

Death January 15, 2019

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: ,
comments closed

So, I’ve been thinking about death a lot.

Not in the sense of thinking about committing suicide, but more in the sense of the stereotypical mid-life crisis sense. As in, I’m feeling absolutely terrified about dying and simultaneously thinking about how death might be one of the ideas we literally can’t think about, and yet I am thinking about it a lot these days. Absurdity is the word of the day, folks.

As a person who rejects the reality of souls, gods, and all that nonsense and  is therefore seriously skeptical of any possibility of life, consciousness, or awareness after bodily death, I am aware that death is literally nothing. Nobody has an awareness of their own death, once it happens.

One day, whether through horrendous accident, slow sickness, or quietly in my sleep after a long, happy life, I simply will no longer be. And that, I think, is both among the more simple and more difficult to comprehend concepts.

And it’s that which I want to try to articulate today.

 

Sleep

After work yesterday, I took a nap. I was really tied, such that basic focus was difficult, and I just needed to rest for a while. Now, I’m often really good at power naps, and this particular nap lasted 15 or 20 minutes, and I awoke from it recharged, as I often do, and ready to be productive again.

But what about the nap itself? What was that like? If you’ve ever fallen asleep, and I’m assuming you have, then you have had the experience of drifting off. You are decreasingly aware of your surroundings, your body, and perception starts to dissolve and become more fluid, and as you approach sleep, there is this dreamy, non-linear, almost not real sense of reality. Then, well, nothing.

But doesn’t that “nothing” only take shape, and actually become something, after the fact? I mean, upon reflection, I can try to pierce the timelessness of the lack of consciousness that was the time I was not aware (or, at least, not forming memories I can now retain), but all I can do is sort of bracket it and place a label of “nothing” or “lack of awareness” upon it. It becomes something upon reflection, so it’s not even nothing, right?

It’s not completely undifferent, conceptually, from trying to imagine what it was like before the universe existed,  north of the north pole, beyond infinity, or any concept which tries to point towards a barrier which, by definition, is impenetrable.

And so the question becomes this; was I alive during those times I don’t remember, while sleeping? Do I die every time I sleep? Do I die every moment, and the next a new person exists, momentarily, simply to then die a moment later handing off the shell of processes, parts, and perceptions in which it lives ever so briefly?

How many Shauns have existed?

 

And now, for the obligatory Star Trek reference

There’s a philosophical question which has taken many forms over the centuries, but which is perhaps best exemplified by the transporter problem as it is often referred to. It’s also related to, in the history of philosophy, as the problem of the ship of Theseus. Google it, because philosophy is cool and people will be impressed with this reference at parties.

So, Commander William Riker of the USS Enterprise (NCC 1701-D, to be precise) has to beam down to the surface of some planet to do some thing or other, because Riker is awesome and he knows how to handle shit. He steps onto the transporter pad, Scotty (sorry, more likely some random ensign or maybe Miles O’Brian) beams him down to the planet.

The transporter does something like the following; it scans every particle in the body of Riker, says damn that man is sexy, then in some way stores all of that information, transforms his molecular pattern into some form of energy, then transmits that energy to a spot on the surface of the planet below and then reassembles the energy into exactly (hopefully) the Riker that stepped onto that pad.

In other words, it kills Riker and makes a copy on the planet below. Right? Sure sure, the thing on the planet looks like Riker, talks like Riker, and probably fucks like Riker, but is it the same person? The body was vaporized by some computer, then the same computer made a copy of Riker as he was right before he was vaporized. Sounds nice for Riker 2.0, but what about the original Riker? Well, he’s no longer aware, or around, to care. So, it”s fine, right?

How different is this from me before my nap and me after my nap?

Before the nap, I have my predilections, memories, etc, but is it functionally any different than being faxed to some planet somewhere (preferably Risa)? And, if so, then why would this kind of death scary? I won’t be aware of it, and then I pass the torch to some twin of mine who gets to go on doing things, at least until their next nap or transporter suicide.

What terrifies me, in the wee hours of the morning, or moments of existential dread while sitting at my desk, is the fact that one of those deaths won’t have a copy of me to remember it. And no matter how irrational this is, it scares me in a way I’m unable to articulate. 

So, let’s try to articulate it.

 

Finality

But death, as we usually think about it, is quite different in comparison to being transported or an epic post-work nap. Because not only will the me stop perceiving, buy there’s no copy. There’s no more versions of me to keep interacting with the world, writing overly cynical and depressing blog posts, and also no me to reflect upon the nothing or fuzziness of transport to label as part of the continuation of “me.”

Because if it is the case that I die at every nap or transporter trip, at least with those, so far, another copy of me gets to wipe of my brow and be glad to “still” be alive. And if I contemplate the possibility that, as I step onto the transporter pad, I’m about to die, but it’s fine because “I” will only bracket the nothingness of that death as a memory after the fact and go about my day. My day.

And this is where those who don’t view the transporter problem as a death step up and remind me that all that matters is that you keep going on. All you are is the pattern, so even if, in some way which we cannot pierce epistemologically, we die whenever we fall asleep, transport, etc, functionally we continue in any way that has any continuing meaning. So it doesn’t matter. 

For them, William Riker stays alive throughout all his transporter adventures (and, to make this all more complicated, in one case another Riker actually gets created and another, separate, person is created who we remember as Thomas Riker), and the only death to be concerned with is the final one. You know, the real one.

Some day, hopefully decades from now, I’m going to lose consciousness and never have it return. I won’t be able to reflect upon that. I won’t be able to reflect upon that. I just won’t be, anymore. The same is true for you, and every living thing that has any level of consciousness. Even if we find a way to stop aging, cure all disease, etc, there will be a time when eventually all conscious things will die, even if they die with the end of the universe itself.

And I have no basis in experience to contemplate that. And recently, it’s haunting me. But, it’s not a Hell I”m afraid of. It’s not the fact that I’ll look back after I’m dead and regret things. It’s the finality of it. All of my experience is a memory of what either happened some days, years, or milliseconds ago, and one time there will not be that memory. There will be no prediction, reflection, or even boredom. It will just be over.

I’m staring into the abyss, and despite what Nietzsche said, there will be a time when it won’t stare back any longer. I’m terrified of the moment when the dark, terrifying abyss gazes elsewhere forever. I’m terrified of no longer being able to be terrified.

 

Inspiration?

Now, most of my life, when I would think about this, it would motivate me. Go out and live. Fuck convention and cultural norms, because they are just games we play, worldviews we are chained to, and mentalities which are not worth spending too much time bogged down in. Enjoy this life as much as possible, because one day it will be gone, it won’t matter, and you might, towards the end, look back in regret at missed opportunities while you are still able to regret.

Yes…I’ve thought about that since I was around 13 or so. Does that elucidate me a bit more?

Perhaps. But more recently, another edge to this realization has crept into my thoughts, and I meditate on the question of the finality of death only to perpetually be faced with an impenetrable wall. 

I become aware that I won’t be able to see how people react to my death. I won’t see those who love me grieving any more than I’ll see my enemies raising a glass to my demise. 

All of my experience comes from being alive and remembering something, or simply being aware of my own mind and the world around me. And the analogy of sleep is impotent here, because sleep, from the point of view of the sleeper, is defined by its being bounded by awareness on each end. Death can best be described as oblivion. An eternity of not being aware.

So why is that scary?

Is it because I don’t want it to happen? Yes. But it’s more than that. And I recognize that at some point, ideally when I’m much older, I may welcome oblivion. But I’m not there, at this time. Now, on top of compelling me to gather experiences of the world and enjoy it, it’s adding a true existential dread that, while I read about it from various philosophers, thinkers, etc, I was not intimately surrounded by in previous years.

I think there is something inherently terrifying about not being able to conceive of a thing you know will happen to you. From one point of view, knowing that I won’t be aware of it means I won’t be potentially suffering, so it’s not suffering I’m afraid of, here. And while I am afraid of dying painfully, it’s not that either. 

The image that comes to mind is the feeling of consciousness drift away, and screaming, somewhere in my fading mind, to not go. I don’t want to go. Please let me stay, is what it says, aware that nobody is listening. The desire to cling to life, and feeling it going away forever, screaming being replaced by silence, and then nothing forever, to be eulogized by those that remain to face their own subsequent oblivion.

I think it’s a fear of loss of autonomy, in some strange way, because the fear feels more like how I feel when I’m being controlled, manipulated, or compelled by another power than like falling asleep. It’s the inability to resist it which makes it the ultimate unpleasantness.

And yet I don’t think free will is real. I know I’m not in control of much of what and who I am, and I’ve known that for a long time. But with much of that, wherein I do have some control, I have at least a fight. With the fight against bad government, laws, or other people’s attempts to control me and the world around me, there’s the possibility of victory. In the fight with death, the inevitable loss is the ultimate nihilism. 

And all I can do, in the meantime, is not think about it, because thinking about it only means I’m not living now, but rather living within the fear that takes so much away from life. And yet I know that these thoughts will persist, even if only occasionally, until the finality of death finally makes it impossible.

It’s almost funny. No, it actually is funny. It might be the funniest thing I have ever conceived of. And yet I’m not laughing. I think I will need to learn how to laugh at death, while I’m still alive.

Choice, Belief, and Cognitive Dissonance November 9, 2018

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

A thought occurred to me today while having a conversation on Facebook.

I know, I know…why am I wading into Facebook conversations? It never solves anything, right? Right. Nonetheless, here we are.

So, the question was whether we choose our beliefs or not, and my position is that we do not choose our beliefs, and gave a brief explanation why. But something that someone said made me wonder whether cognitive dissonance is related to the feeling of having chosen a belief, and then something clicked home for me.

Let’s set the stage….

 

Choosing Beliefs: free will

So, whether we choose what we believe is related to the question of free will. I mean, if free will weren’t real, then of course we don’t choose our beliefs because our beliefs would be a function of our will which is not free, right? This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which essentially states that if the action or cognitive state reached is consistent with the desires and aims of the entity which performs said act or concludes the said idea, then the act is said to be “free” insofar as as it is what the entity wants.

In other words, if you eat ice cream and you wanted to eat ice cream, even if it were the case that you could not have done otherwise, then because the act was what you wanted to do then the act was chosen “freely.” Alternatively, if you were coerced or forced to do so by another person, then it is not a free choice. If someone force-feeds you ice cream, whether or not you wanted to do so the act was not “free.”

Let’s put the larger question of general free will aside. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our will is free in some meaningful sense. So that when I pick up my phone to look at it, I chose to do so (and am not merely addicted to my phone, like some haters might argue). Where does this leave us in terms of beliefs?

 

What is a Belief?

If you believe something, you are accepting it as true that a thing is real or true. One does not need absolute certainty to believe something, although perhaps it’s good to have a good epistemological foundation upon which to support that belief.

Of course, an astute reader might stop me there and say “Hold on! If you’re claim is that we don’t choose our beliefs, wouldn’t saying that we should have good reasons to believe something pull the rug out from under you, from the start? Wouldn’t it imply that you should only choose the well-supported ideas as your beliefs?”

And that astute reader may have started to see where I’m going with this post. We’ll get there.

For now, what I want to define is what I think a belief is, and not how we should get there. If I say that I believe there is a cat in that box, then I’m saying that I accept it as a real state of the universe that this particular box has a cat in it. It does not mean I can prove that there is one, necessarily, or even that the available evidence is sound or even available to be evaluated. It merely means that I have accepted it as a fact, or a true proposition, but it does not necessarily mean that I know it. (Knowledge is another can of worms, completely).

It has no necessary connection to the truth of whether there actually is a cat in the box; I could be wrong, but I currently believe that there is a cat in the box. My reasons are not relevant to the mere question of belief per se.

 

Epistemology

Epistemology is the philosophical study of why I’m right and you’re wrong. OK, it’s not quite that, but it’s the study of how we know, why we know, and ultimately it studies the tools we use to create justifications for the truth of propositions.

So, you believe there is a cat in the box. Why do you believe that? How did you come to that conclusion? Does it feel true to you? Can you see a cat in the hole in the box? Is there a meowing sound coming from inside the box? Did you open the box and see a cat in there?

There are gradations of evidence for the belief, and some of them will be more rationally justified, and convincing to people, than others. If you merely feel like there is a cat in the box, but when we shake it it feels light and no hissing and cat noises ensue, then maybe your feeling is wrong. Maybe the meowing sound is a recording being played on a speaker in the box? Maybe it’s a fake cat you see through the hole in the box. Maybe you’re hallucinating both a cat and a box, and in reality there is not even a box at all. Maybe you’re in the matrix, and there is also no spoon.

In short, epistemology is the study of whether the belief is justified but it is also the study of how we come to conclusions which are justified to different extents.

So, how did you come to this belief?

Are you even consciously aware of how you came to believe in your theory of cats in boxes? Did you earn a PhD in cat-in-box-ology? Did you try to open the box and pet the cat? Did you take the cat out of the box because you were trying to put something else in it when your cat decided the box belonged to her? What was the method you used to come to this belief?

And that leads into the next question.

 

What would it be like if you were wrong?

If it weren’t the case that a cat was in the box, what would that imply about other things you believe and would it affect you in some significant way? If the cat were an illusion, or otherwise just not there, would it shatter your worldview? Would it be painful or somehow life-altering if it were the case that your belief were not true?

How does it feel, and what thoughts do you have, if someone tells you there is no cat in the box? Does it make you curious? Angry? Do you feel pity for the poor deluded fool who can’t perceive the cat? Also, can you actually perceive the cat yourself, or are you inferring it from something else? Maybe you were raised in a home where everyone believed there was a cat in the box, and so you just sort of accepted it from an early age and so the idea seems natural, automatic, and, well…did you ever really choose to believe that the cat was in the box?

I mean…of course you did. Right? You looked at the box. There was something moving in there. You thought you heard a meow. Besides, the box says “cat inside,” and why would someone write that on a box with no cat in it? You really thought about this, and you decided that a cat was in the box. You’re sure. Mostly.

Ok, let’s forget about the damned cat for a minute, and let’s talk about something else. You decide to pick up a newspaper, and you see that it says that your local baseball team won the game last night. Great! that’s awesome. And you believe it, because the newspaper said so. I mean, newspapers make mistakes, but not often of more trivial and easily provable things like this, so you accept it as true, even if only provisionally, because there is evidence which is generally reliable to support it.

But what if someone said “hey, the newspaper made a mistake about last night’s game, and they actually lost in the bottom of the 9th”? What happens then? Did your belief in the outcome of the game waver or change? Did you choose that wavering or shift in belief? Did you, consciously, say to yourself that the question of the result of the game is in the air, epistemologically, and you now choose to believe that they in fact lost? Or did the belief just sort of shift, without you seeing the process take place, and appear in your consciousness without any actual conscious process driving it?

Or this. You see a man steal a candy bar from a convenience store. Did you consciously choose to accept this as reality, or were you convinced by the direct evidence that you saw with your own eyes. I want to emphasize the word “convince” here, because it indicates something happening to you, not you doing something. You became convinced by an experience.

It’s possible you mis-saw what happened; maybe the man actually paid for it already and is just grabbing it now. Maybe he’s the owner of the store, and it’s really his candy bar. But you believe he just stole it, because you saw the evidence (even if you might be wrong). Could you choose to believe that he didn’t steal it? You could conceive of alternative explanations, but until you actually become convinced, whether through rational analysis* or through new information that he didn’t steal it, you will believe that he stole it.

Did you choose to believe that you cannot fly like superman?

You did? Great. Now choose to believe that you can fly like superman.

You can’t, can you?

What’s the problem? You did choose in the first place, right? You were convinced by the evidence of the possibilities of such things, and then chose to believe it, right? Or was it that the belief appeared in your consciousness because of the evidence in its favor? And the only way you could believe otherwise is to see new evidence of your newfound ability to fly.

You do not choose your beliefs. You become convinced of things due to feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Your inability to simply hop from genuine (as opposed merely asserted) belief to belief at your mere whim demonstrates this.

So how is it the case that people believe things that are wrong? If beliefs are the result of evidence, then shouldn’t we only believe things which are evident? Ideally, yes, but there are all sorts of cognitive biases, errors on thinking and perceptions, and deceptions (both external and internal) at play here.

 

Being Wrong

You believe that someone at work hates you, and is trying to ruin your career. You have seen all the evidence and it worries you. They are always short with you, snippy even. And you had that idea at the meeting which they shot down immediately in front of everyone. She didn’t come to the after work happy hour you organized, even though she came to the other one last month. She never talks to you. She probably plots and schemes at home on how to ruin your life. The evidence is obvious, right?

Well, maybe she doesn’t like you. Maybe she despises you even more than your worst fantasies could ever conjure up. Or, maybe, all of these pieces of evidence have other explanations, and she actually thinks you’re a good employee and thinks highly, or maybe just neutral, about you. It’s very easy to have beliefs that are incorrect for all sorts of reasons.

But you’re convinced anyway. Another co-worker says that you are reading into things too much, and she’s short with most people most of the time. She is always speaking up in meetings with ideas and being critical, even with her best friend who she sees all the time after work for drinks. That’s just who she is.

No, you believe she has it out for you. You’ve become convinced and invested in this belief, and if the belief is challenged then a part of your brain sort of reacts against the other evidence and rejects it, perhaps almost imperceptibly. It’s not quite painful, but it’s uncomfortable. The claim just bumps up against your belief and bounces off. You are experiencing cognitive dissonance.

And the more contradictory information you receive, perhaps the more your belief sticks. And maybe, just maybe, as the evidence starts to mount against your belief the feeling of believing it starts to feel more and more like a choice. The more evidence that she likes you–she invites you to lunch with some people, she compliments your work, she nods her head at the next meeting in reaction to your idea–the more the belief that she actually hates you and wants to destroy you starts to feel like you are choosing to believe it because you are actively maintaining it, even if only unconsciously.

And if I came to you on a day or time while you were thinking about your co-worker and asked you whether we choose our beliefs you say yes; you do choose your beliefs. Perhaps not all of them, but this belief feels like a choice right now, and you are a free, curious, and intelligent person not merely subject to the random whims of random chance in terms of what you believe about the world. Your beliefs are rational, reasonable, and you have given them thought, so of course you choose them.

But that doesn’t address how you came to believe it in the first place. Because the initial question is not “are you choosing to believe this now,” it’s “how did you come to this belief?” It’s well-known that many of our reasons for our beliefs are post-hoc rationalizations, and not the reason we originally came to the belief itself (as I have written about before) ; not how to hold onto, rationalize, or explain your beliefs, but how you came to accept it as true. In other words, we need to be able to distinguish between the origin of a belief and our mind’s ability to maintain, defend, or rationalize a belief after it has made a home in our brain.

And in most cases, I don’t think we know how we started to believe something, especially when it comes to things like religious, political, or larger worldview beliefs. If you really think about where your beliefs come from, you may often be left without a clue. All the justifications that start to perculate up are an after-the-fact rationalization of the thing that’s already there, even if your belief is actually true, rational, and strongly evidenced. You didn’t choose it, you became convinced for good, bad, or mixed good/bad causes and reasons.

 

Beliefs: Rationalizations versus origins

As I reflect on some of my more certain, core beliefs, I don’t feel a sense of defending or actively maintaining the belief. I feel no cognitive dissonance when I think “this computer is in front of me” or “the world seems like a collection of material things interacting in complicated ways.” But I do feel some cognitive dissonance if I think “Nas’ Illmatic is the best rap album of all time”.

See, I love that album, and I have a fair amount of emotional investment in thinking it’s the best rap album because of my love for it. But I’m also aware that there is evidence out there that it’s not the best rap album. There are some pretty damned good Wu-Tang albums, for example. Also, there are a lot of good albums I probably don’t know about which may be better. I feel, while thinking those words, that I’m actively rationalizing the answer in real time, mostly unconsciously, and it feels more like I’m choosing that belief. I feel the power of having made that choice, but the feeling of having made the choice is not the origin of the belief, it is the experience of rationalizing the belief.

I’ve been fooled to think I chose the belief because of the process of rationalizing the belief, which probably isn’t the reason I came to that belief, is associated with the origin of the belief in my mind. Now, it might be the case that Nas’ Illmatic is in fact the best rap album of all time, but that’s not really relevant here. What’s relevant is that this belief came about through processes I’m not conscious of at all and perhaps could never understand, so it couldn’t possibly be a choice. The rationalizations I come up with later, consciously, may have nothing whatsoever to do with the initial reason. But even if it did, there is no way for me to know this, at least not completely.

And while it’s important to be able to justify our beliefs and be open to allowing those beliefs to change (notice that this is, again, something that happens to us and not something we do) based upon further information and experience, we should be aware that this process is separate from how the belief came to exist in the first place. So, if we have free will and can choose the rational processes by which we justify our beliefs, because we don’t have access to the processes by which the belief formed, we can’t have chosen the belief.

 

OK dude, what’s your point?

Perhaps it is the case (and I’m not convinced of this yet, and therefore do not believe it, but it’s a compelling thought) that there is a correlation, and mayhap even a causal relationship, between the sensation of choosing a belief and the presence of cognitive dissonance. Therefore, the strength of the feeling of choosing a belief is a sign of the belief itself being in jeopardy.

If I hold a belief, but the evidence seems to contradict or at least challenge it, then as I think about the challenge I have to actively justify the belief. This may cause the sensation of choosing it because I’m being forced to justify my belief fresh, which feels like a choice. But, maybe, if the challenges to my belief result in no sensation of choosing the belief, this might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is not present, and maybe I’m not seeing any conflict with my belief at all.

It could also mean I’m dense, stubborn, or simply not understanding the counter-evidence, but I’m finding it compelling that there might be a relationship here, which I will have to give more thought to.

When a challenge comes to a core belief, such as the earth being relatively spherical, from (let’s say) a flat-Earth proponent, I certainly do have to bring to mind the justifications for my belief, but he feeling of choosing this belief is weak if not nonexistent in this case. The attempts at counter-arguments simply don’t have enough power to bring about the sensation of choosing to believe the earth is round, it’s just there, unperturbed.

But how about whether psychic ability is real? I’m convinced it’s not, and I belief it’s a fraud or a delusion when people claim it’s real, but there is a sensation of the belief being chosen as I really think about it. It’s not inherently impossible, after all. I could imagine ways it might happen, given the right kinds of biological hardware and processes. There is enough room for doubt, that as I think about it the sensation of choosing this belief is more present. But, again, this is the sensation of the justification process, not the origin of the belief. To touch the core belief, the evidence would have to be overwhelming and that, if it ever happened, would be the cause of a new belief (a belief in psychic abilities) which would be new and never completely understood, but only later justified.

So maybe we should keep in mind that the belief that belief is a choice is a sign of cognitive dissonance? Or at least a sign that the belief is being justifiably challenged?Maybe I should try to believe that, and see how well it pans out.

I don’t know, I’m not quite convinced, but it’s an interesting idea to keep in mind and pay attention to, going forward. If it were true that the feeling of choosing a belief were related to a belief being exposed, threatened, and potentially subject to replacement, then it might be worth paying more attention to when people claim they choose their beliefs as possibly more open to having their minds changed.

Then again, someone who says they choose their beliefs and who are also convinced that they cannot be wrong are probably not worth talking to. In other words, I should stay off of Facebook.

 

 


*One might be tempted to point out that this internal rational analysis is the point where one chooses to believe. But even if we accept that the rational analysis itself was chosen, the belief comes as a result of the analysis, automatically, based on the soundness of the analysis and your ability to understand it. If you think 1+1=2, and you understand what all those symbols/words mean, then you have no choice but to accept it as true. You don’t choose to believe 1+1=2, you become convinced by the meanings of the symbols and their relation to each other, regardless of whether you chose to think that specific analytical thought.

Tribes and Worldviews: why I’m largely an outsider in today’s Progressive world September 11, 2018

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

Step right up! That’s right folks, step right up!

Have we got a deal for you! Today only, come get yourself some worldview! And if you get one today, we’ll throw in some values, causes, and issues free! No need to wonder why these free extras come along with your worldview today, just know that you aren’t being charged extra for them, and that if you don’t take them, the people around you will question whether you really are one of them!

OK…that’s a little too overt and heavy upon your head, I think. No subtlety or nuance here, so far. Let’s take a different approach….

 

Progressivism

I grew up in a progressive world, at least in terms of education. I went to, for 13 years, a Quaker school full of LGBT-friendly activists concerned with social justice and peace, where values such as compassion, tolerance, and diversity were held in great esteem. It was a good education, compared with many other schools, and it gave me values that are overall good, and I liked the Quakers. Mostly.

Part of my family is rather conservative, traditionalist, and even reactionary. My father would throw around the ‘N’ word as casually as I would throw around “fuck” or “the,” and I once made a joke at dinner (when I was an adult, mind you) that I couldn’t eat the ham because I had become a Muslim. My father’s reaction was quite serious and memorable; “No son of mine is becoming a Muzzie.”

This was a few years after 9/11 (fuck…that was 17 years ago, today), and he definitely identified with the pro-Bush (“Dubya”) camp, politically, and wanted to kill all of the Muslims and turn the deserts of the Middle East to glass, as I remember. At the time, all I could think was “Jesus, dad, you really don’t know me; I’m an atheist. I find Islam as silly as your Christianity, and would be very unlikely to become one”. In my world, being a Muslim wasn’t a bad, evil, scary thing, it was just another thing to be. For him, Islam was the enemy.

Neither my father nor I were going to become Muslims, but for quite different reasons; he was afraid of, and therefore hated, Muslims because they were a threat to his idea of a Christian America, and he saw this enmity as defending his traditional view of what that America was and is supposed to be. I, on the other hand, was a member of the early atheist community,* and my opposition to Islam was a mostly rational and educated opposition, rather than an emotional and jingoistic reaction to the presence of an alien religion attacking my tribe.

As the culture wars started to become further defined in the years that followed 9/11, how people saw Muslims became attached to a political identity. People on the political Right, the conservative and traditionalist people who are overwhelmingly Christian and often evangelical (think of the Battle Cry events, and similar proto-nationalist, Christian, and politically conservative events like it, that dominated the Bush years), started to oppose Islam, Mosques, and Muslims encroaching upon American culture and space. The rhetoric was of an invading culture, and the Right was opposed to it vehemently

On the other end of the spectrum, the Left started to take the opposite strategy, and started to defend Islam, and welcome the cultural change that involved more Muslims being welcomed into communities. The values here are the same as those I was raised with in my Quaker school upbringing; compassion, tolerance, and diversity. And, in at least one respect, these values are ones I share; I support the rights of Muslims to live in our culture just as much as I support Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Pagans. That is, I recognize all of their rights to exist, legally, while I would very much prefer that they all become rationalists and atheists, because ultimately I think religion is not worth our time, as humans, and we should just leave all that behind as the toys of our species’ childhood.

Welcome

These signs are very common in progressive neighborhoods, in many parts of the United States

And this is where the problem begins, for me. The world I live within, specifically West Philadelphia, is one dominated by political Leftism, tolerance, compassion, and diversity. There is a strong sense of wanting to welcome people to their communities, whether they share their religious or ethnic backgrounds, where more conservative areas would be more likely to feel uncomfortable with people of color or minority religious traditions moving down the street.

This is just one of the many particular examples of how the differences in political worldview has real world consequences on how we feel about other people and their ideas, and usually you can tell someone’s political identity by how they would think about Muslims; either they are not comfortable or tolerant of them being neighbors, or they are welcoming. Because conclusions, opinions, and support for issues is largely an indicator of one’s identity or inclusion in a worldview, or the tribes which hold such worldviews.

But what happens when you disagree? What happens when you, for example, are uncomfortable with Muslims? Not because their religion is different from yours, but because they are part of a religion that has many problematic beliefs and traditions which are at odds with your values? What if you are uncomfortable with Muslims in the same way you are uncomfortable with people who still practice Catholicism, despite the fact that it has been shown, again and again, that the Catholic church is a criminal organization?

Well, that’s intolerance, right? It’s at odds with one of the fundamental progressive values, and it is too much like the intolerance, fear, and hate coming from the Right of the political spectrum. In other words, it doesn’t fit in with the worldview of most progressive people, so holding such opinions places you in a precarious position, politically and culturally.

Where does that leave you?

 

The Center

The problem with the tribalistic nature of worldviews and the cultures they create is that if you don’t belong in one place, you must belong somewhere else. For many skeptics, atheists, and other people who attempt to use rationality as the framework for making decisions, this leaves them in some middle ground, the political “center,” and you are stuck next to Sam Harris.

Now, don’t get me wrong; Sam Harris has some really interesting things to say about metaethics, and I am on board with how he talks about morality with his analogy of landscapes. When I first read The Moral Landscape, I found a strong argument that was very similar to how I viewed the problem of morality in a world arguing over whether morality was absolute, relative, or objective (no, objective and absolute are NOT the same thing, here). I recommend the book for anyone interested in the subject of ethics.

In fact, the distinctions between those who accept some authoritative moral framework (the Christian Right, for example), those who accept a relative framework wherein we need to tolerate different views are valid (the Progressive Left, for example) is a fair analogy for the Left/Right worldview split I was talking about above in some ways. And if one does not find either satisfactory or convincing, one is left with having to find an alternative. In the case of Sam Harris and myself, that takes the form of objective morality. In fact, watch Matt Dillahunty’s video (below) where he argues for the superiority of a secular (and in his case, objective) morality. Like Sam Harris, Matt and I are mostly eye-to-eye here, and it is a nuanced, middle, position between two views on morality I find equally problematic.

 

 

Just like how we view Muslims in America, how we view morality is largely attached to the political and cultural worldview we identify with. All too often I run into Leftists (which I largely am) who become infuriated or offended if I suggest that, for example, some cultures, religious views, or moral values are better than others. To ask a progressive-minded person if they thought that (for example) Islam might be a more problematic religious worldview than Buddhism, to answer yes would be tantamount to seem to agree with the “racist” and “intolerant” Right, and to be seen as having something in common with a political/cultural worldview they are opposed to. They might ultimately agree, but the suggestion is one met with resistance, in most cases.

This is why people like Sam Harris are seen as racist and conservative to people on the Left, and it is why Sam Harris will never think of himself as a Leftist, but rather a “classical liberal” (a term that means, for the Left, he’s actually just another racist and intolerant right winger). There is a disconnect on values, here, which makes Sam Harris not seem doctrinally pure enough to be part of the Leftist tribe, even where Sam Harris largely is a progressive (to be fair, he is resistant to what he calls “identity politics, which would place him more in the center, but he’s much closer to a progressive than a Republican and definitely not a Trump supporter). All it takes is to be critical in a way that alienates him from progressives for them to dismiss him as a racist and conservative, and thus ignored and ostracized by most people on the Left. Tribalism at work.

But these issues are not digital; One is not either completely accepting of Islam, Muslims, and all the cultural, historical, and ideological baggage that can be attached to those sets of worldviews or intolerant and hateful of them. There are nuances here, and in an age of Twitter, soundbites, and knee-jerk reactions to not being confused for the other side of whatever political spectrum you identify with, you are wise to be careful about expressing an opinion that doesn’t fit in with the worldview of those in your tribe. Better to stick to the party line, and keep up appearances.

It would not go over well, in a conversation in the back courtyard of Dahlak where everyone is an anarchist, progressive democrat, or radical waiting for the revolution to finally come, if you were to suggest that 9/11 happened (even if only in part) due to genuinely held religious beliefs consistent with a fair reading of the Koran and the Hadith. No, it was definitely American foreign policy, military action, and colonialism.  And this isn’t to say that people all over the world don’t have legitimate political grievances against the United States for decades of bad behavior which might cause people to want to retaliate militarily and with terrorism. But it is simultaneously true that Islam is a great ideological tool to implement such actions, and one could get from Koran to terrorism without any need for political grievances as an intermediary.

Yes, that last paragraph was inspired by a real conversation I had in exactly that space.  And yes, my interlocutor insisted that religion could have had nothing to do with 9/11, because Islam is a religion of peace, and it would be intolerant and racist to imply that Islam might be violent and dangerous as an ideology. He stuck to his guns, ran the party line, and maintained consistency with his worldview which values of compassion, tolerance, and diversity. Just not truth. It’s not like the guy ever read the Koran or studied the history of Islam, or anything, but he knew that conservative jingoists hate Islam and he’s not like them, so he has to accept Muslims as a non-problematic addition to the culture in which he lives, without sufficient criticism.

The Left is too afraid to be critical of religious and spiritual beliefs, where criticism is not only valid, but perhaps necessary.

 

Where do I belong?

My issue, here, is that I’m largely a progressive. If you sat me down with a bunch of Social Justice advocates who wanted a tolerant and diverse political and cultural society, I would get along with them and agree on many things, but I’d be at odds with them on some others. And I get myself in trouble when I disagree with some issue or position. Many rationalist and secular people find themselves in this position. I see people around me, politically, defending religious nonsense and even genuinely believing in paganism, tarot, or psychics. More and more, recently, I hear people talking about magic, reiki, and nature spirits in my progressive circles, and it’s becoming worrying to my skeptical heart and mind.

In some sense, I get it; it’s a reaction to the authoritarian and patriarchal religious identities of conservatives. Rather than a vengeful and authoritarian Jesus, we have the nature loving and progressive gods and goddesses of pagan lore (let’s ignore the fact that Islam’s Allah is a lot more like Yahweh/Jesus than those pagan artsy spirits). It fits with the political and cultural worldview better, but it does not fit my worldview at all. I’m left with the choice of a tribe who accepts that God is judging you or one that believes crystals or healing hands on your body might be able to heal cancer.

They are both laughably absurd, and I will not accept them as legitimate. I do recognize that they are equally protected under the law (at least in theory), so I definitely am closer to the Left than the Right here in terms of tolerating religious beliefs, where the right tends to defend the privileged status of Christianity, but it’s hardly an association I’m happy about.

Again, it all boils down to skepticism for me. We need to be able to not only challenge particular issues, beliefs, and people within our tribes and worldviews, but we need to be able to question the height of the pedestal we place our values upon. Values are good to have, but they are not absolute.

The Left has values, the right has values, everyone has values. And whether they are authority, purity, compassion, tolerance, diversity, etc, we all have these values to greater and lesser extents. In short, we value them to differing degrees. They are not worthy of worship or unquestionable, they are guidelines at best. Tolerance is a good value, but what are you tolerating, and why? How much do you know about the thing you are tolerating, and would there be a point where you would stop tolerating it?

Muslims are people. As such, they deserve legal protection, a willingness to hear their concerns and experiences, and the freedom to live their lives as they want to so long as they are not harming others. But we also need to be aware that there are many terrifying and dangerous ideas that are contained within the many ideologies called “Islam,” and insofar as people have those beliefs, their actions will be compelled accordingly. And similar to how many Christians oppose women’s right to choose how to live their lives and make decisions, gay rights, and many other progressive issues, Islam is no friend to many of those things in similar ways. We need to be as wary, as Progressives, of Islam as we are of Christianity.

The fact that Islam does not currently have political power here is a fair point, but if we actually seek to give Islam a seat at the cultural table, we need to be aware that if Muslims were to earn their legal right to that political power, the ideas they bring with them would be as problematic as those of Christianity or any other religion.

And if the Left, with it’s tolerance and practices of paganism, new age religion, Buddhism and all the other ideas that contain problematic views about reality, continues to not be skeptical about these things, then we will continue to live in a world where we’re forced to choose between anti-gay Jesus and vaccine-avoiding Progressive morons who will endanger us all by rejection of medicine, science, and reason.

I’ll end with an old favorite video, because it’s still relevant today.

 

More skeptical, rational, progressives please.

___

 

*this may have been before the various books were written and the community started to gain some traction, but my memory is not clear enough to remember precisely when this was. My guess is around 2005

Total Eclipse of the Heart August 21, 2018

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, relationships.
Tags: , ,
comments closed

A year ago, today, I was in South Carolina to see the solar eclipse in its totality. I had travelled down there with a woman, Marilyn, I had decided was someone I wanted to spend my life with, and with whom I’d also travel, later that year, to Europe. The difference between then and today is as different as the illusion of daylight of one moment, and the eclipsing, surreal and beautiful, darkness which follows.

What happened?

If I were to accept the idea of karma, at least as it is poorly understood in our Western appropriation of the concept, I would think that I was experiencing the backlash of my own mistakes, hurled at me by a universe who needed me to learn how my own poor behavior made others feel. I would likely conclude that I deserved it, had it coming, and that perhaps the score was evened out a little bit.

But I don’t believe in any cosmic force of moral tit-for-tat, so I’m left to explore the lessons I should draw from this failed relationship without appeals to any supernatural or spiritual causation. And yet, I am left with the notion that my various mistakes in some of my previous relationships were more significant than I previous understood. Bottom line, I have been a dick on more than one occasion to people I cared about, and I have felt this more keenly in the last few months than I have previously.

So, in a sense, karma, if only metaphorically. And as I exit the mourning period of this loss, I am feeling philosophical, thoughtful, and regretful.

But that isn’t what this post is about; that’s merely the foundation upon which I wish to explore a set of ideas which I have been toiling over for quite a while, but which have taken on a new set of facets in recent months. Today, I want to explore self-righteousness, especially as it pertains to how we view people who have hurt us.

 

So, here’s a narrative for you to digest;

My ex, Marilyn, was abusive. She was sometimes extremely loving and affectionate, and often a lot of fun, but there was a pattern, a swinging pendulum, of behavior which left me feeling loved, happy, and hopeful some of the time, while other times I felt afraid to speak, felt the need to leave (which I did, once or twice), and the relationship was rocky, off and on, and in the end it was extremely painful when it ended.

Others (though not all) around me saw it. They tried to get me to see it, but I dismissed their warnings, and as a result 2 other relationships faltered. And, in the end, when it was all over, I was left to sort it out alone. And, having been mistreated, yelled at, lied to, and periodically pushed away and pulled back, it was very easy to have a sense of being the victim. She was an asshole, and I dodged a bullet I would say. I could walk away feeling good about myself and move on to someone better, knowing that I’m in the right, this time. In other words, my friends and those who heard my side of the story would have supported me in feeling self-righteous.

And they would have been wrong in doing so, because self-righteousness is nothing but a function of a combination of myopia and tribalism–which is itself a from of collective myopia.

The above narrative, which I held onto for too long, was nonsense because even if it is the case that she was abusive (and I believe she was), it is also the case that she was in pain, afraid, and lashed out due to trauma from things that I could never hope to understand nor do anything about. And I, knowing this, kept coming back to her knowing that this pain was causing her to keep me at a distance. It didn’t matter that I was not the one who hurt her. It doesn’t matter that she was the one who kept reaching out to me when she needed to take her time to deal with those things, probably alone, because I knew that she needed that time and I kept coming back because I loved her and wanted to be with her. I was being selfish, irrational, and I made poor decisions (hey, it’s what I do…).

The failure of the relationship was both of our faults. We’re both hurt by each other, we both made mistakes, and the fact that one of us might share the greater share of the blame this time is not especially relevant or interesting unless me and my friends (or she and hers) are trying to rationalize who should feel like they are in the right.

And yet, for a while, I did feel self-righteous, and my friends agreed that I was the one who was the victim, in this case. Of course they do, because that’s what friends are for, right? Perhaps, but I want to set a higher standard in my life, and I want to actually figure out what’s true, and not what’s merely comforting to me and my tribes. And the truth is that she has reason to be angry and hurt with me and I have reason to feel hurt. The calculation of relative blame is sort of pointless, and is too prone to subjective narratives, myopia, tribalism, and re-writing memories to be worth-while.

I’m fairly sure that something similar is happening on her end, with her friends. I’m sure I’m the awful ex who she’s glad she got rid of. It’s a useful narrative which we all use to be able to vent, feel good about ourselves, and move on to something better. But much of this process is a lie, and even while I’m doing it, I know it’s a lie. But I do it anyway, and in time the lie becomes the truth, unless we are willing to be more honest. But, as I like to say, we don’t get to have our own truth; there is only the truth, and the convenient lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better (whether it’s gods, our own self-righteousness, etc).

This pattern of narrative-creation is true on a larger scale, as well. Every group I have belonged to, when rifts emerge, becomes tribalistic and becomes completely unable to see the mistakes and shortcomings of the people they ally with. I’ll bet that someone you love and respect, in whatever community to which you belong, is right now being unfairly awful to someone else (perhaps someone you dislike), because they are on the wrong side of some rift or disagreement. I’ll bet you aren’t especially bothered by that. I’ll bet sometimes you cheer them on, and like their scathing comments. For a while, most of the leadership of the local Poly facebook group was doing precisely this, and they had all kinds of cheerleaders. It was ugly, and it made me feel disgusted and unwelcome.

This is the world we live in now, and it’s getting worse.

How about politics? Many people who voted for Hillary Clinton, especially in a state like PA who ended up being close in 2016, thinks all the Jill Stein voters are idiots and awful. Many of the Jill Stein voters think the same of those who they often call “Hill-bots.” Many have not-so-nice things to say about “Bernie-bros,” and I’ve had some pretty awful things to say about “Trumpists,” myself. Trump voters hate the elitist liberals, As do many anarchists and Communists, who similarly tend to hate Clinton, and it goes on and on.

This is not to say that people don’t often have good reason to feel the ways they do, in these cases. In fact, that is precisely the point; they all do have reasons to feel the way they do. Because in every group, every walk of life, every political party, every clique, etc there are people. I was tempted to say that there are assholes, but the fact is that this is all too normal to frame it that way.

I’m guilty of this, you are guilty of this, your best friend is guilty of this, and your current partner(s) are all guilty of this. We all do it. The problem is that we keep excusing it. My friends excuse me blaming Marilyn for her bad behavior, and when I was calling her an asshole, they patted me on the back, and were like “yup, she was.” She probably vented to some of her friends after we broke up, and they said the same about me. Who’s right? Who cares.

I think that we need to take a hard look at ourselves, and make a distinction between trying to honestly evaluate what happened, what is our responsibility, and what we need to learn and making this about a judgment of a person’s moral and social worth. Also, we need to try to look past the lens and filter of our tribes (friend groups), and try to see why those people over there (the other people) are giving emotional support for the people who hurt us, with whom we disagree, or who actually did something easily identifiable as wrong.

It’s all to easy to dismiss people, and I’m going to continue to try to resist this impulse for the people who have hurt me. Instead, I’m going to aim for the truth, at least as best as I can see it. Marilyn was a lovely human being who was hurting, but I was not as good a partner as I could have been in order to be who she needed while she was hurting. Her patterns of behavior were, at times, abusive. But so were mine in more times than I would prefer to admit. A year ago today, we were happy, in love, and we spent a lovely day together. But I erred in the latter stages of the relationship, and because of that she has decided she doesn’t want to hear from me anymore. If we were to have an omniscient judge to declare who was more right or more at fault, who would it be? I don’t care.

Well, more precisely, I do care, but it is this caring which is the source of the problem. I need to be less yanked around by the fears, hurt, and anger at the foundation of this caring who is right, and more concerned with the truth of what I can do, now, to do better next time.

Once I fully heal from the pain that this loss has cost me, I have to take the lessons that are real, and not the ones which make me feel, and look, better.

 

 

Once upon a time, I wrote for a blog… August 20, 2018

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
comments closed

And then life happened.

I decided I should start writing again. And I’ve decided to make some changes to the blog. From here on out, I will not be perpetuating any of the previous silliness about silly people, as I have long moved on from that part of my life, and am in a far better place. This paragraph will be the last I make reference to any of that, on this blog.

So, if any of you are still reading this blog (and I wouldn’t blame you if you do not), going forward this will largely just be a space to sort out thoughts that I’m having while reading, thinking about issues I find interesting, or sorting out my continuing thoughts about the nature of religion, sexuality, and critical thinking in a world that is still pretty shitty.

And I’m quite aware that I’m just some over-privileged white, cis, hetero male in a culture that is increasingly focused on the voices of the marginalized. And to that I say, well, good!. I am glad those voices are focused on more. I’m glad that small, incremental changes are happening is some places, and am saddened that the skeptic/atheist world has been overtaken by so many awful people opposed to the world becoming more diverse and critical of privilege. People such as the “Sargon of Akkad,” Some “Amazing Atheist,” and “Thunderf00t” (among many others) are, frankly, just awful human beings not really worth listening to, anymore. If they are your people, then kindly go elsewhere.

But this will be my space, and I will not shy away from my own thoughts, and nobody has to read it. Frankly, I’m doing this more as an outlet for myself than for any readers. That said, if you are reading this, welcome, and feel free to comment, share, or navigate elsewhere per your preferences.

For anyone who used to read my blog and has come back, I’ll provide you with the briefest of update as to what I’m up to:

I live in West Philly, alone, with my two cockatiels, and I work at Penn Medicine as a System Administrator (running some software called Maximo and building intranet sites). I’m currently single, as of recently, and am dating. Not currently seeking a polyamorous partner, per se.

I’ve been playing guitar more in the last couple of years, and bought 2 more of them (for a total of 3), and have been known to sit on the porch and play with some neighbors or friends. I continue to expand my experience with music via Spotify, where I try to listen to new music and continue to discover bands I’ve missed over the years.

I have done a lot of travelling in the last year or so, and plan to do more travelling going forward. I’m mostly off of Facebook, occasionally tweet a thought, but my Instagram (@ShaunPhilly) is pretty active. I read a lot, I walk a lot, and still like to grab a beer in the evening (usually with a book) and listen to one of the many podcasts I subscribe to (and, in many cases, support on Patreon.com. Favorites include On the Media, The Scathing Atheist, Cognitive Dissonance, and (of course) Hardcore History.

Still an atheist. I argue with people less, as I find it largely a waste of time. I am more prone to the methods of the various people who have been doing street epistemology in recent years, although I will leave it to them, as I’m pretty much done with debating people at this point. I’m more interested in enjoying my life than trying to convince other people of anything, anymore.

So, what will this blog be? Well, I suppose it will just be my own personal mental masturbation gymnasium.  If that’s your kink, then have a seat.

Later

 

The tendrils run deep. February 26, 2018

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
comments closed

And, so here we are, again. Hey, remember 4 years ago? The mess with a former polycule to which I belonged? Yeah, I try not to think about it either.

But, well…..

I became aware, recently, that Wes Fenza has not slithered off into the netherworld from which he was spawned, and is once again trying to become active in the non-monogamous world, taking over for another predator within a nonprophet for geeks, or someshit.

Listen….I’d be more than happy to let all this shit behind me, and not post things like this. But Wes is unrepentant, and he does not appear to have changed or even care about changing. If he had appeared to do some personal work to improve himself, I’d at least be willing to remain neutral, or at least quiet.

I have done personal work to overcome my flaws, and I am a quite different person than I was 4 years ago. Nothing he could say about my past can hurt me, anymore. I have transcended that shitty period of my life and become a better person. Can Wes say the same? Not that I have heard.

Source

Be careful out there.