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Why I can’t be a conservative June 17, 2013

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

I was sitting at my desk the other day and was thinking about what conservatism means.  Ginny was at her desk, next to mine, so I bothered her by asking what she thought conservatism was, fundamentally.  I don’t remember her wording, but it seemed to agree with how I was thinking about it; an attempt to conserve the current social, political, and cultural norms.  The implication is that those who are conservative generally believe that the world, as it is, is fine.  The world is fundamentally right, and as old Pangloss said, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Yep!

Yep!

Now, I don’t think that the primary motivation, especially consciously, of conservatives is the mere preservation of their current cultural values (or what they think of as the best values of some past golden era, perhaps).  I don’t think that conservatives generally think about it in these terms. But in many cases, especially in relation to social justice issues, conservatives seem to side with preserving a status quo, at least in the sense that they maintain traditional definitions concerning mores, values, etc.

So, the question arose for me, in context of this question, as to whether there could be a possible world where I could be comfortable calling myself a conservative.  What I mean is that given the fundamentally broken nature of our current culture, society, and political atmosphere, I cannot be a conservative now (why would I want to conserve this?), is it potentially feasible that a future world might exist that has a culture I’d want to conserve?

But this question gets complicated really quick, which is related to two different questions:

1) Is my personality naturally contrarian?  That is, is my fundamental personality architecture such that no matter what culture I live in, I will be critical of something? If I was raised in what I would call an ideal culture, would I still feel so radical? I don’t know.  I would like to believe that I would follow the evidence, that I would only be critical where criticism is deserved.  That is my goal now, and I hope taht I’m at least close to being good about that.

But perhaps the more interesting question (especially to all of the people who are not me), is this one:

2) Is the value of freedom of criticism, of challenging the culture in which one lives, more important than conserving an ideal culture? That is, if humanity were to achieve some ideal culture, where no unnecessary (logically, that is) inequality exists and no social justice activism is necessary, then would it be more important to maintain that culture, or would it be more important to maintain the right to criticize, challenge, and question?

Because if the world is right as it is, then any challenge is simply a means to make the world not right.  And this, I believe, is how many conservative-minded people must see liberals or radicals; as acting to destroy something that isn’t broken.

This issue is related, at least in part, to The Crommunist’s recent series of posts about the culture wars, using the idea of the dueling myth hypothesis, which I summarized here.  The fundamental question is whether the world is fair or not, and the implications of those views.  I do not think the world is fair, and I think that this is because of the social constructs, derived from faulty individual cognitive and behavioral biases, which we live within.  In other words, I’m almost never a fan of traditionalism, because our history carries so many terrible traditions based on very oppressive ideas (hetero-normativity, patriarchal power structures, monogamy, etc).

I’m concerned with things such as gender equality (for an example which has been all the rage recently) because there are cultural constructs surrounding concepts of gender which are poorly conceived, and which we could make better with education and perspective.  There is a potential culture which would be much less unjust, concerning gender, than we have now and so I care to help implement those changes.

But if someone genuinely believed that the way that the majority our culture views gender (as being more or less digital; male and female and no room for gender-bending let alone actual transitioning), and that this is the right way to think about gender, then trying to change that would be an attempt to destroy a good thing–a correct thing.  From this point of view, conserving the traditional gender roles, including the many personality attributes associated with those gender roles, is defending what is “normal” or right.  And from the point of view of such a person, there is no significant philosophical difference between the rightness of those gender roles now and my hypothetical future world where an ideal social world exists that I might decide to defend.

This, I believe, exposes the fundamental flaw of what I call conservatism, and what Ian Cromwell was calling “the fairness myth.”  And yes, I know that Ian’s concept of the fairness myth does not always correspond with conservative politics (in The USA or elsewhere), but in the sense I’m using “conservative” here it overlaps quite well.  The problem is not that one is defending an idea they think is right, but in defending an idea that is entrenched in culture in such a way that they may be blind to how it is harmful.  Those who defend traditional gender roles don’t think they are causing harm (at least I hope not), because those roles seem natural, normal, and right to them.  That is the nature of mainstream ideas; they seem right to mainstream people (and often to non-mainstream people, which is another problem related to staying in closets and feeling guilty).

As you may have guessed, I think that the value of criticism, skepticism, and the ability to be contrarian (even if not for its own sake) is superior to the value of maintaining traditional ideas, even if those ideas happen to be defensible.  Thus, I do not think that the fairness myth, at least in the world I see, is a defensible myth.  I don’t think conservatism is good per se, even if it might be right on a case-by-case basis.  I cannot be a conservative in this world now, and for the sake of the possibility of my being wrong about what I might potentially try and conserve, I cannot be a conservative in any potential worlds where social justice “wins”.

I think there will always be room for critics, guardians of honesty and the pursuit of truth, and all others who seek to maintain the pursuit of ideals, rather than the defense of them.  True ideals don’t need defense, as the truth does indeed point to itself.  Thus I think that liberalism, radicalism (at least when things are very bad), and skepticism are the superior values in any culture, and thus I can never be a conservative.

Here’s a related article I wrote 2 years ago.  The Tea Party doesn’t want America to change:  I do

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The atheist culture wars; applying moral foundation theory to the great schism May 13, 2013

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

This morning I found myself pondering the idea of cultural relativism, tribalism, and how it relates to the various fights which have emerged in the atheist and skeptic communities.  Cultural relativism is a concept in anthropology which developed as a reaction to a kind of tribalism which is called ethnocentricism.  Just think of Bush-era conservatives with their nationalistic, jingoistic, and what they called “patriotism.”  Ethnocentricism is exemplified by the idea that America was getting it right (well, at least their red-state America, anyway).  Those of us on the political Left, those who voted for Al Gore and who saw Dubya as an awful president surrounded by an awful administration (which dragged us through scandal after scandal) would sometimes point out that perhaps we were not doing it all right.  Perhaps some relativism was necessary…which led to us being told we hated America.

culture_warsIn other words, the culture wars.

As writers such as Jonathon Haidt and the (discredited, but largely for different work) Marc. D Houser have pointed out, much of these political and cultural differences are based in differing value-sets.  There are different ways that we perceive information, in emotional and moral ways, which change how we draw conclusions about reality.  In short, what values we have will influence our intellectual opinions.

Both of these writers have emphasized two primary narratives which lead in two major directions concerning how we think about our tribe, other tribes, what kinds of rules our tribe should have, etc.  In American culture, this translates into the conservative “red state” America and the “blue state” America.  You know, the culture wars distinctions we have been talking about for more than a decade now.

I think this is what’s happened to the atheist community.  I don’t think that the main differences are precisely the same as they are in the larger culture, but I think this is the type of thing that has happened to us, and I am not sure anything can be done to fix it, just like with the larger culture wars.

How can you change someone’s values? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do things like criticize other people’s values (I, for example, think that liberal values–such as care and fairness–are actually superior to largely conservative values –such as loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  But of course I would say that; I’m a pinko ‘Murica-hatin’ liberal).  The question is  how, assuming that I am in any meaningful way objectively (or at least inter-subjectively) right that my values are better, can I convince a loyal, authority-loving, sanctimonious…sanctified conservative of that?

That’s a harder thing to do.

imagesEver talk to a creationist? How about a “pro-life” (or pro-choice, if you are on the other side of that fence) activist? There is more than a distance of facts (although there often is that), but there is a distance of language-games, values, and worldviews.  Such a conversation needs more than a good moderator, it needs a cultural anthropologist in order to shake out the worldview distinctions.

Ever read a blogger who uses the term FTBully not ironically? Ever read a post by PZ Myers or Rebecca Watson? I do, fairly frequently.  And guess what; I think one side of that fight is crazy, and I think that they are fundamentally wrong from the bottom up (guess which).  The problem is not the factual disagreements (that is a symptom, not the cause), the problem is the fundamental worldview distinctions.  The problems are fundamentally about what values matter to us.

That is, they are not wrong because of their bad logical argument itself, but of their assumptions, worldview, and moral values. This is because logic is only a tool.  It can only manipulate information given to it.  Just like a Bible-toting evangelical conservative Christian can use logic to make their points, so can the atheist they are arguing with.  And while both may make logical errors (guess which I think is likely to make more), the source of the problem is at the level of things like values, assumptions, and biases; not mere facts.

Those who oppose the efforts of inclusion in the atheist community are not wrong because they are opposing inclusion.  In fact, the very framing of that statement was (intentionally) worded to lean one direction (hey, Fox News does it, so can I…).  They are wrong because they are valuing the wrong things.

Value divisions in the atheist community

Surely, there are both political liberals and conservatives in the atheist community.  But how the foundational values we have get expressed in the larger political sphere will differ from how they will create splits in our smaller atheist culture.  The values which split us here; values such as authority, loyalty, and sanctity being expressed in the atheist/skeptic communities as opposed to liberty, care, and fairness will illuminate the foundations of our disagreements.  In other words, I’m applying moral foundation theory to this split, and I’m claiming that it is largely analogous to the conservative/liberal split in the larger community.

Let’s take a look at the third moral foundation, for a clue:

3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

I will bet that both sides of this split will identify with this, but in different ways.  Clearly, some people feel bullied by others in the community, and claim that those people are trying to wrangle authority over everyone else.  Those people trying to define what atheism, skepticism, etc mean when it’s clearly not what it means (to them).

But on the other side, the argument is that mere philosophical or semantic precision are not what matters.  PZ Myers’ concept of the “dictionary atheist” was not an attempt to redefine atheist in the philosophical sense, nor to force this definition on anyone, but to recognize that those philosophical senses are secondary to many people.  And he’s right.

See, we are not primarily rational beings.  We are emotional beings who believe things for largely non-rational reasons, and then we rationalize (or explain) the causes of our beliefs.  Hopefully, we are willing to change our minds based on new information, but believing (or not believing, in the case of atheism) is an emotional phenomenon which we later rationalize.  Some people are not aware of this and get overly focused (as I have, in the past) on the semantics and philosophical side of the question.  This is, I believe, Justin Vacula’s primary fault, as a thinker, and why he fails to get it so often.

In other words, rationalized arguments about semantics when the difference is one of values.

Let’s get back to moral foundation theory to see more facets of this disagreement.

Some people want to employ fairness:

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

If we interpret this in the sense of giving everyone a fair chance to participate, then there are at least two ways that we can go.  The question concerns the issue of whether we should treat everyone the same or whether we should treat people in the way which produces equal outcomes.  The question of privilege, which has become a lightning rod in recent years, is relevant here.  Treating people the same, irregardless of their place relative to privilege, often leave people in different outcomes (says this liberal pinko).  This is part of an old argument which is reminiscent of not only recent atheist discussions, but culture war arguments over the last few decades.

In the atheist community, this has been most obvious in terms of the treatment of feminism, which some see as exclusive of the rights of men, but which other’s see as learning from the experience of women to make it better for everyone, regardless of gender.  If we seek to include more women, do we treat them like men or do we try to dig deeper and understand that the assumptions about gender need to be revisited so that we stop perpetuating gender roles and expectations, hopefully leading to a more gender equitable community where the varying perspectives are better seen and understood? Seems simple to me, but other people have different values and view equality either secondarily or as a simple function of treating everyone the same, even if that means people get to different places.  One of these values is superior to the other.

Then we can ask whether this foundation is more or less important than purity, or sanctity:

6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

But don’t let the description fool you; this is not a strictly religious behavior pattern.  This pattern of behavior, in my opinion, is not religious per se, but was usurped by religion just like morality and rituals.  The feeling that something does not belong; social justice is not relevant to atheism (for example) is a deep and important value for many people.  The question is whether this or the desire to include those affected by social injustice, and trying to counteract that, is more important.

For me, the sanctity of pure skepticism or atheism (as it is seen by some, say Jamy Ian Swiss) are not more important than addressing the intersectionality of skepticism with atheism, racism,gender inequality, etc.  But if someone else feels disgusted by that degradation of the purity of the cause of skepticism (or atheism), they will reject movements such as Atheism+.  They will feel that to include gender issues, race issues, etc into the larger cause is a form of contamination; it just is not what atheism/skepticism is about! (says our sanctimonious friends).  Again, this is a difference of values more than a difference of facts. Again, one of these sets of values is superior.

Accommodationism

Remember the old argument about accommodationism? One of the issues was whether it was important to care about people, despite their beliefs.  How nice were we supposed to be? Well, that’s all about the care/harm foundation:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

Take that in balance with other values, such as the liberty/oppression foundation:

3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

and we can see why the anger at oppressive religious institutions and doctrines might override the care/harm value.  Some people were so angry, justifiably so or not, that they were not concerned about being sensitive to people’s feelings. Who cares if some Christian’s feelings are hurt when their beliefs are criticized when you balance that against the harm Christianity is doing to so many people! On the other hand, argued others, if we do not accommodate their beliefs, we will never change their minds and we will simply push them further away.  Whether this is true or not is relevant too, but at an emotional level it exposes how our values are the origin of such arguments, not the facts per se.

Big Tent Atheism

What about our desire to create a large umbrella organization or a big tent? The goal of coming together as atheists no matter our differences, for the sake of our shared rights? Well, that’s the value of Loyalty/betrayal:

4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

Here, anyone who is perpetuating the drama is a traitor.  They are betraying their larger cause in the name is stupid arguments over secondary concerns.  This is, I believe, the motivation behind my long time friend Staks’ anti-drama pledge.  It is a value I understand, but which I do not share as a primary moral concern.  I am more interested in making our community better than making it bigger and closer.  That is, I would rather be a part of a smaller, more inclusive atheist community than one which is more concerned with what I see as a false sense of community around the answer “no” to the question “do you believe in any gods?” I’m more concerned with addressing social justice and the intersection of issues around atheism than focus on merely getting along for the sake of what I see as short-term atheist rights issues.

As I see it, any movement that focuses on its own civil rights over the intersectionality of all human rights is participating in short-term thinking, and will eventually be left behind with the conservatism of history.

As our community continues to grow, transform, and gain political and cultural influence, we will become institutionalized, inevitably.  How we think of ourselves now will effect how we will leave our mark on history.  I would rather leave a smaller, but more inclusive mark on history than a larger but more conservative and exclusive mark.  With this in mind, I want to address the fifth, and as of yet unmentioned, moral foundation; the Authority/subversion foundation:

5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

Five years ago, this foundation would have had no place in this discussion.  Five years ago, we were all subversives, pulling away from a larger tradition of hierarchical religious institutions which dominate our culture.  And, of course, this is still largely true.  But in another sense, this has become a point of division within the atheist/skeptic community, now that we have at least established, at least internally, some traditions (or at least tendencies) and some leadership.

No, there is no atheist pope.  There is, however, some hierarchy and some power.  Richard Dawkins saying something about atheism carries weight.  Not for all of us, but he is a symbol of our movement and his opinions carry some weight.  We can and do disagree with him (some more than others, of course), and his words are not officially conclusive, but because so many people respect him his words have an effect on our thinking.  He’s just one example.

If you love PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, or Justin Vacula, then their words carry weight.  The people you are willing to listen to will influence your thinking, and those whom you vilify you will, tribalistically, either ignore or hate.

If you have written off someone like Rebecca Watson or PZ Myers (as bullies or whatever), then you will only see her words when someone you like quotes them, and your view of them is skewed.  If you hate Justin Vacula, the same is true from the other side.  Personally, I make a point to read the words of those I disagree with as well as those I tend to agree with.  I never agree with anyone all the time, but there are certainly people with whom I agree more often than not, and those with whom I rarely agree.  I am aware that this is more about values than mere facts.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m on board with Atheism+, that I am very appreciative of Skepchick for exposing me to many ideas and perspectives I did have 3 years ago, and that I abhor Men’s Rights Activists.  I’m a third wave feminist who makes the attempt to be aware of the privileges I have, and to understand my cultural blind spots.  I have chosen my side, not because I think my side is always right and the others wrong, but because I share values with them.  Just like I am not a Republican or a conservative politically (even if I might occasionally agree with them), I voted for Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama (twice), and I think that Fox News is pretty awful, I have a side in this atheist schism.  But I still listen to the other side.  I try to understand their values and arguments, and understand that I may never be able to get them to see what I see.

But, most importantly, I think that my values are superior.  Not such that I will force them on anyone, but insofar as I think that they lead to a better world.  Am I objectively right? Well, I don’t think that’s a meaningful question.  Am I intersubjectively right? I think so.   The difference between the two is that the former assumes an objective perspective, while the latter only assumes that such a perspective is always abstracted from a subjective one, and is thus not universal or authoritarian.  This is what I think many political conservatives do not see; liberals may think their views are superior, but they are not actually trying  to demand authority over others based on it.  We want you to see that we are right and join us, are frustrated when you don’t, and we are amused when you call us bullies or totalitarians.  We find it funny because the values which make totalitarianism or bullying possible are conservative values, not ours.

bulliesThe same is true for those in the atheist community who call people such as PZ Myers bullies, to whom the remainder of this post is addressed  The values we have do not include authority as strongly as do yours, so we are not natural bullies.  But since you have those values in stronger measures, you think everyone feels the same and so you project the authoritarian attitude onto us.  We’re not telling you what to do or what you should think, we are just saying what is better (and hopefully why they are better).  And we are sad when you don’t understand it and pull away from us, creating the schism.  We don’t create the schisms; we identify the sources of them and offer a bridge to join us where things are better, which you subsequently see as a demand, a redefinition, and as some sort of totalitarianism (a Horde, if you would).  We don’t seek to control you, we seek to have you understand that the controls already exist and that you are subject to them because you don’t see them.

We are not bullies.  The bullies are your projected values onto us.

The Crommunist’s myth metaphor for the culture wars January 24, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

I have been thinking about the philosophical, emotional, and historical underpinnings of the culture wars in recent months.  I have been try to come up with a way to categorize it in such a way that will make sense to people who don’t understand that it  is a matter of different values, and I have not been particularly successful at it.  I did write this post last month, but it felt like an incomplete attempt to articulate my thoughts.

Ian Cromwell

Ian Cromwell

In the last few days, Ian Cromwell, over at The Crommunist (one of my favorite FtB blogs) has been writing a series of posts utilizing the concept of myth (which he defines here) in a quite interesting, and I think useful, way.  He continues with his next post to define, for this conversation, the concept of  fairness and justice–but in a way I have a subtle, but perhaps important disagreement with.  Briefly, I think that fairness is a concept which is objectively (or inter-subjectively) definable, but we don’t have access to all the relevant information at any given time, so what appears to be fair may not actually be fair.  Because we don’t have sufficient information, or we are under a delusion about the facts, we will not recognize the unfairness of the circumstance until we understand more.  I’ll leave that aside for now.

I also appreciated the disclaimer that Ian gave to who his intended audience is.  I have come to write for a similar audience recently, realizing that I don’t really care what the others think most of the time.  There does come a time when you simply have to ignore some potential readers as being irrelevant to what you are saying, although the irony here is that we are writing about how to think and talk about fundamental mythological and value differences.

On his fourth post in the series, he comes to the meat of his thought, which he calls The dueling myth postulate.  here is the gist:

I wish to postulate that it is useful to think of many disagreements as the collision of two opposing myths. The first myth, what I call the ‘fairness myth’ (and will heretofore refer to as f-myth) is very simply stated: the world is a fair place. You will undoubtedly have heard this described as the ‘just world theory’, ‘just world hypothesis’, or ‘just world fallacy’. I prefer the term ‘myth’ for the reasons I spelled out in yesterday’s post – it is a story that we tell about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Those things we have were obtained fairly, and our position is justified according to our understanding of moral axioms.

The countervailing myth is, of course, the ‘unfairness myth’ (u-myth) – that our position in the world is not in accordance with moral axioms, and that we (or others – more on that later) are being arbitrarily deprived of access to a state of harmonious existence.

In the past, I have described this as a clash of values, and while I still think that is true, I think that this approach has merit, and I will gladly steal it in the future, where I find it useful.  I don’t think he’ll mind, especially since I will credit him for the idea.

He then goes onto flesh out the idea some more, and comes up with the Ethical dimensions of the dueling myth postulate, which looks like this:

Morality within the Fair Myth framework

If one starts from a position that the world is fair, then any attempt to change the world would bring it into a state of unfairness. It is morally reprehensible, for example, to arbitrarily deprive someone of something that ze deserves. Indeed, it is highly morally reprehensible to take goods or status from one who has earned them and give those goods to someone who has not.

We saw an example of this when people believed that tax money was being used to bail out large banks and give bonuses to wealthy executives whose risky practices had caused a financial collapse. The taxpaying public (largely blameless for the economic troubles) were having their goods and services curtailed in order to reward a class of people who a) didn’t need the bonuses to live, and b) did not face any criminal charges for their malfeasance. It was monstrously unfair to redistribute wealth in a way that rewards irresponsibility and excess.

Indeed, in many cases it is morally laudable to fight to protect a fair system. In the last American election, when new laws were brought in that would disenfranchise voters, a public outcry went up to preserve the existing system (whatever its flaws might have been). The belief that the current system was fair, insofar as it allowed people to vote regardless of their skin colour or age (with the caveat that there is a legal voting age), motivated a strong resistance to change, fueled by a general agreement among proponents that people deserved to vote, and were threatened with having that status taken away from them for reasons that were seen as arbitrary.

Morality within the Unfair Myth framework

Conversely, there is a similar moral dimension to the u-myth. If one has the ability to intervene, it is morally reprehensible to allow an unfair system to persist. The u-myth invokes the image of the ‘Good Samaritan’ parable, where it is morally laudable to take action to either prevent an unfair thing from occurring, or to stop an unfair thing while it is happening.

For example, there are a number of people who believe that the state has a moral obligation to provide health care to its citizens. A state, with its wealth and power, is in a ready position to construct, administrate, and fund a system wherein all citizens receive at least some rudimentary level of care. Most industrialized nations, and many with different economic circumstances, recognize the duty of the state to ensure a level of basic health, and consider it a moral failing when a state does not. The fact that it also makes financial sense for the state is worthwhile including in a discussion of policy, but I wish to focus solely on the moral dimension.

As above, it is morally reprehensible to defend an unfair system. We have precious few people today who would jump to the defence of South Africa’s apartheid system (though there are many alive today who have defended it). We recognize the unfairness of a system that stratifies human beings by an arbitrary characteristic such as skin colour, and would roundly condemn anyone who argues that such a system was fair and/or necessary.

I think this is a pretty good set of frameworks to start with.  I am not sure that any one person will fit cleanly into either, and I’m sure we use both of these to some extent depending on the issue, but I think this a is a fair categorization of how many of these issues are, in fact, rhetorically spun.  In his four consecutive posts, Ian addresses this framework in terms of the issues of welfare, #IdleNoMore (a movement concerned with First Nation rights in Canada), religious persecution (or privilege), and then feminism.  I’ll quote a snippet from the post about religious persecution.

So let’s see if we can break down Mr. French’s [of WND] argument within a competing myth framework. I would identify it as springing from a f-myth belief, and will analyze it thus:

The world is fundamentally fair when it comes to the place of religion in public life (or at least has been up until recently). Overt displays of religiosity are protected free speech under the Constitution. The use of religious invocations, symbols, and practices are part of American history – a tradition that stretches back for generations.

Because the world is fundamentally fair, the attempts to change such a system are morally reprehensible. Conversely, it is morally laudable to resist the changes that threaten to remove religion from public life. Religious people should not have their rights taken from them in order to appease the growing chorus of anti-religious voices.

By opposing these changes to tradition and to American identity, the FRC’s actions/positions are morally laudable. By fighting to change a fundamentally fair system by abridging religious freedom, the actions of the ACLU and the U.S. government are morally reprehensible. By opposing the core of the American identity and long-standing tradition, the beliefs of the ACLU and the U.S. government are morally reprehensible.

For fun, we can also parse Ms. Feinberg’s argument in a u-myth framework:

The world is fundamentally unfair when it comes to the place of religion in public life. Overt displays of religiosity on behalf of state actors is specifically precluded by the Constitution. The use of religious symbols, while popular, is a reflection of an unfair system of religious hegemony and preference – a tradition that stretches back for generations.

Because the world is fundamentally unfair, the state has a duty to intervene and increase the amount of fairness. Fairness, in this context, looks like no religious preference for any group. Public schools are state entities, and as a result they must not be used for religious promotion. Any history of such promotion does not abrogate the duty of the state to ensure that it lives up to its obligation to be fair to all groups.

By acting to ensure that the Constitution is upheld, the actions of the NYCDE are morally laudable. By attempting to uphold or restore a fundamentally unfair system of religious privilege, the actions of the FRC are morally reprehensible. By asserting a right to preferential treatment that would propagate an unfair system, the beliefs of the FRC are morally reprehensible.

So we can see from the above analysis of the example that the specific statements of ‘both sides’ of the argument can be expressed as a function of an underlying myth about the fairness of the system in which the dispute is happening.

I have seen this type of argument between people on one side or the other concerning church/state separation over the last decade, and I think that this, in conjunction with Jon Haidt’s recent work (which I am not in complete agreement with, but I find his  Moral Foundations Theory extremely helpful) is a very good way to approach thinking about the culture wars, values, and the myths (or worldviews, as I might call them) we use to construct our concepts of the world.

So, in summary, I think this postulate of the dueling myth postulate, described in the recent series of posts by Ian Cromwell, is at least a useful, if not powerful, tool to use in talking about these types of issues.

In the future I will be thinking more about the relationship that this tool, this dueling myth postulate, has on the conversation about privilege.  For example, is privilege the circumstance of being stuck within the perspective of a “air myth framework,” at least in most cases? Do people who argue against shifting our behavior and views about what normal is, what is expected, and what efforts we should make to fix such things a function of feeling like the world is fundamentally fair, and by pointing out the effects of privilege we are trying to upset the apple cart?

In any case, a nod and a thanks to Ian Cromwell for thinking about this and sharing.

—-

I’ll add that Ian added, a few hours ago, a follow-up post entitled The usefulness of the dueling myth postulate, which I am about to read now.

American Politics, old and new. January 6, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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Here is a quote from John Ferling’s Adams vs. Jefferson, page 153-154:

The Federalists also fixated on Jefferson’s religious beliefs, maligning him as an atheist.  This was grounded on what Jefferson had written in Notes on the State of Virginia, drafted in 1782 and first published in the United States in 1788.  Jefferson had lauded the Virginia Declaration of rights of 1776, which provided for religious toleration, but, wishing to go further—he hoped for a law that would separate church and state—Jefferson had dilated on the “rights of conscience,” about which individuals were “answerable [only] to…our God” and never to the state. He then added  that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.” These two sentences were reprinted endlessly in Federalist newspapers as proof of Jefferson’s impiety.  In addition, Federalist scribes cautioned that Jefferson viewed the clergy as “curses in a country.” Primarily, however, they depicted him as a “howling atheist” and “infidel.”  Filled with contempt for Christ, Jefferson supposedly embodied iniquities that would bring on the moral decline of the United States.  In New England people were told to hide their Bibles should Jefferson be elected, and the warning went out that his election would call down God’s vengeance on the United States.Though more from the pulpit than the press, lurid tales were told of bizarre worship services at Monticello at which Jefferson supposedly prayed to the Goddess of Reason and offered up dogs on a sacrificial altar.  One Federalist newspaper advised its readers to vote for “GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT or impiously declare for JEFFERSON–AND NO GOD.”

How many current cultural tropes did you notice there?

Thomas Jefferson, never self-identified as an atheist, as far as I know.  The conflation of religious tolerance and freedom with repression felt by the dominant religion was as real then as it is now.  We are not dealing with anything new, in talking about this religious privilege and the association with separation of church and state with impiety and even lack of patriotism.

There are simply some people, whether in 1800 or 2013, who simply cannot see that asking for religious neutrality from our government is a good idea.  Those that declare the United States to be a Christian nation have the precedence of idiots from the 18th century who did not grasp the importance of said separation then, and who wanted a Christian president rather than a supposedly godless president.  And those who see the legal foundations of the United States as secular, as its founding documents state, have the precedence of people like Jefferson and Madison on their side.  It’s not simply that we were a secular nation and people forgot, it’s that some people simply could not grasp it at the time, and that tradition seems to have run parallel to the actual law and history.

In short, there are always idiots in society, and it may be the case that they will never go away.  One of the weaknesses of democracy is that those idiots also get to vote, and thus we have Michel Bachmann and Rick Perry.

The Culture Wars will continue November 8, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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So, Obama won pretty big the other day, and overall the Democrats had their day of victory.  Now, in my opinion the Democratic party is not very liberal, but they are certainly the better option of the two major parties.  I like Obama, think he has been a fairly good president, and realize that having a truly progressive president is not a reality in today’s cultural climate.

Is Florida really still counting?

We live in a culture which is largely conservative and pragmatic.  Even many of the liberal friends and acquaintances I have are pretty moderate, much like Obama is.  And of course there are some radically-minded people I know, who argue for socialism, communism, etc, but I only sometimes agree with them.  I think our culture needs some radical change, but that change does not have to be political in nature.  That is, we don’t have to become a socialist nation, but we need to be more aware aspects of history, philosophy, and psychology which most people are almost completely ignorant of.

What do we need? Well, to name a few things I think are important, I’ll list skepticism first.  Skepticism is the methodology which we should be using to determine the truth of some claim.  We need science, critical thinking, and a willingness to listen to perspectives from outside your own to grow beyond our narrow views.  That is, we need to be aware of things like privilege, biases (whether cognitive or ideological), and tribalism.  We need to educate ourselves in pragmatic ways as well as in academic or philosophical ways.  Mere pragmatism is not sufficient to offer us a means towards improving our culture, as it takes the most efficient and traditional routes, rather than the best routes.  We need our pragmatism tempered by skeptical inquiry into the harms and benefits of that pragmatism.

But how can we do this in the context of such comments as this, from a comment from someone named ‘Doc’ over at a post called “Dresden in DC“:

Being the opportunist that I am, I started the night at a Romney party – because I hoped he would win. But when it became apparent he wouldn’t, I headed over to an Obama party that I knew of, met a sweet young thing who was happy to have turned 18 early enough to vote in this election. I took her home so that I could add to her night of firsts…

I learned long ago – hope for the best, but always take advantage of the situation. So I’ll continue to take advantage of the situation which is this train-wreck.

Over the last 4 years, I’ve moved more and more of my assets overseas – taking advantage of every tax loop-hole this administration created to be sure I paid zero in the US due to “losses” and “expenses” – of course all of my real profits were “elsewhere”… I’ve done quite well, although in the US I’ve been losing money left and right… I will continue this, but now I think I’ll leave the US at some point for good.

It is no longer “my country” since I believe in hard-work, opportunity, and succeeding by your own effort – rather than looting others. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to take advantage of the stupidity of this administration (Government) – so if I can get guarantees that I can go bank-rupt on to hurry the inevitable destruction along, I will – especially if it is beneficial to me. :) Just like the young lady last night, whom I’ll be seeing this coming weekend to continue enjoying what she can “give me”…

Ugh, that poor woman….

This guy is my enemy? This is going to be easy….

Granted, this is just one comment from a conservative blog, and it is certainly non-representative of conservative ideas, but it’s also a fairly common worldview which stands in the way of progress.  And it’s not going anywhere soon, so the culture wars will continue.

The post itself, from which that comment was quoted, was not much better:

The Obama economy, poised to hit the young in urban population centers very hard, might be their Dresden. Make it rain. . .fire.

How lovely.  There is a real cultural war out there in American culture (also elsewhere, I know), and those who side with this guy are my enemies.

But there is reason to believe that the future will be an improvement.  Younger people lean towards the liberal as well as non-religious end of things, the last election brought in gay marriage, legalization of marijuana (not my thing, really, but it really should be legal), and Arizona has a bisexual atheist representative!  (Too bad about Pete Stark though…).

So, yes, we have a lot of work to do yet.  But in the free marketplace of ideas, skepticism reigns and progressive social policy wins.  I am not afraid of going toe-to-toe with such people as hiddenleaves, pictured above, or his misogynistic cronies.

The Tea Party does not want America to change: I do July 5, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Today I am going to do something which I rarely do, especially here.  I am going to talk about politics.

More specifically, I want to address an idea that has taken root in the Tea Party.  It is probably not universal among them, nor do I expect it to be the most important aspect of the Tea Party movement.  However, when I ran into a rally at Independence Mall, near Independence Hall, on Independence Day, it was a theme that was mentioned more than a few times, especially by Presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who spoke among others.  The key note speaker was John Bolton, who has no chance as a candidate, and whose speech I found silly and uninspiring.

It seems as if one of the problems that the Tea Party is trying to combat is the ‘liberal’ desire to change America.  This was said in context of the “ripping up of the Constitution” (supposedly by people like me).  Herman Cain said several times that there are people who want to change America, and many said that this is the greatest country in the world.  Perhaps.

So, what is wrong with changing America? And why is ripping up the Constitution associated with this, as if one could not change America and follow the Constritution?  Best nation? In what way; culturally, economically, politically, or some other way?

And yes, I do want America to change.  I would like to be part of what changes it, as well.  But I do not want to rip up, either literally or metaphorically, the US Constitution.  I have read the Constitution and  appreciate my rights as well as defend the rights of others even if I disagree with them. Further, my understanding of the process by which we create Constitutional amendments implies that change is an inherent part of our Constitution and therefore our country.  It just seems that this idea is empty rhetoric without real substance.

Despite the empty rhetoric of many of the speakers and apologists I heard from there yesterday, I (as a liberal, at least in most political senses), am not trying to destroy our Constitution.  I am trying to use my constitutional rights to influence the public towards a better America, by use of speech, protest, and litigation in some cases.  Our nation is ripe with cultural problems from sex negativity, poor education, and political naivete which helps cripple our growth to a better nation and a better world.

Me talking with one Ron Paul supporter

I want citizens who are more educated, mature, and willing to challenge their own worldviews.  I want the legality of gay marriage and polyamorous marriage.  I want better healthcare, whether through a single-payer system or some other option.  I want the divide between the rich and the poor to be addressed in a meaningful way.  I want discrimination, breaches in the wall between government and religion, and other effects of poor education and indoctrination to disappear.  All of these goals, and many others, can only be reached by changing America.

The idea that we should not change America is conservative by definition.  And as one conservative-minded person I know told me, there is a difference between wanting to retain traditional ideas per se and simply opposing progressive ideals.  Granted.   However, whether you want to conserve traditional ideas per se or not is not the point.  The point is that our culture, and therefore many governmental policies, need to change if we are going to improve.  Arguing that America should not change sounds a lot like a person telling there therapist that they don’t need help.

In other words, this ideal within at least some Tea Partiers that we should not change, and we should fight change, is a sign of denial of real problems within.  We, as a culture and as a nation, are sick in many ways.   We need to change, if we want to survive and thrive.  Right now, we are not thriving, and more of the same will not help.

So, in 4 years will "2016" be over the "2012"?

Finally, concerning what one Ron Paul supporter told me, which was that the Tea Party movement was started in 2007 to protest the corporate ownership of the two major parties, and that it is trying to remain independent from such influences.  But the recent motions of people associating with the Tea Party, such as Sarah Palin, have taken the name brand and changed it.  My prediction is that what remnants of the Ron Paul revolution that want to stray from corporate interests will die out completely, having been over-taken by the interests of those who have the money to make more noise.  And while I don’t support Ron Paul, I appreciate the attempt by some of his supporters  to remain unaffected by corporate interests.

I just don’t believe that changing (or restoring, as they call it) our government will make the corruption disappear.  I’m too much of a cynic, I suppose.

So, yes, Tea Party leaders, some of us do want to change America.  The fact that you don’t see anything worth changing is one of the many reasons I cannot get behind your cause.