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Liberal elites and Rural White America: a failure to understand or a failure of skepticism? November 16, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion.
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The internet is ablaze with various opinions as to whether the lessons that the DNC, and liberal America in general, need to learn is that we don’t understand the struggles and anger of most of America or whether it’s something else entirely. I’ve been sort of moping about trying to make sense of this, and then today something snapped into place, for me.

Now, in some sense I cannot answer this question on my own. I am a life-long East coast liberal elite, and so I’m looking at this through that lens. I am (over-)educated, I’m economically comfortable, I’m a progressive, and I’m privileged as fuck. But what I can do is tease out some complicated questions which are colored by some issues with which I have ample experience and understanding.

White American Christianity, Dominionism, and lack of critical thinking skills are a huge (yuge?) part of this story, and we cannot afford to lose sight of that while ruminating about what to learn from the US election of 2016. From fake news articles spread via social media, the conspiracy theories thrown about by conservative media for decades (including Trump’s chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, who worked with Breitbart.com), to the theocratic fear spread by Christianity since the 1960’s here in America, this past election cycle was a perfect storm of un-skeptical bullshit, perpetuated by a con-man and picked up by millions of American idiots all over the country.

Let’s start here. Read this post by Forsetti:

On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem

No, seriously, go read the post now. I don’t have to wait for you, but this perspective is what compelled me to write today. It was this article which sparked something to snap in place in my head.

If you didn’t read the post, (because I know you most-likely didn’t) here’s the conclusion, for context:

What I understand is rural, Christian, white America is entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems, don’t trust people outside their tribe, have been force fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades, are unwilling to understand their own situations, truly believe whites are superior to all races.  No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe.  No amount of niceties is going to get them to be introspective.  No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them.  I understand rural, Christian, white America all too well.  I understand their fears are based on myths and lies.  I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to.  I understand they are willing to vote against their own interest if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more.  I understand their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians.  I understand them.  I understand they are the problem with progress and will always be because their belief systems are constructed against it.  The problem isn’t a lack of understanding by “coastal elites” of rural, Christian, white America.  The problem is a lack of understanding why rural, Christian, white America believes, votes, behaves the ways it does by rural, Christian, white America.

Them be some strong words, and they fly in the face of the narrative which I have seen dominate the liberal blogosphere, social media, etc in the last week. You know, the idea that Hilary Clinton didn’t win because she and the rest of the DNC have failed to understand the plight, fears, and anger of the parts of America which are not the metropolitan, elite, largely-coastal parts of the United States. That if only the elite Hillary campaign could have reached out better, addressed more of the concerns that many Americans have, and stopped being so damned arrogant and dismissive then perhaps Trump’s America would not be so opposed to the messages of those of us who want an inclusive, open, and diverse culture.

And maybe Donald Trump could not have rose to the power he so very much craves, and which threatens the future of so many.

It’s a compelling story.  It strokes the introspective and self-deprecating nature of most liberals and progressives. But isn’t that the very problem? Don’t we, liberal, educated, elites who live mostly in larger towns and cities, spend too much damned time making sure we are being understanding and respectful of those who don’t see the world the way we do? Are we too introspective and self-deprecating? Aren’t we failing in the very same way we failed in the George “Dubya” Bush era?

OK, let me breathe here, for a second, and spend a few moments reflecting on that message. For me, the strongest case made for the view that we didn’t sufficiently understand Trump’s America, written by Emmett Rensin several months ago (long before the election or nomination of trump) and which has been making the rounds recently, is the following article:

The Smug Style in American Liberalism

TL;DR:

Here’s the conclusion I draw: If Donald Trump has a chance in November, it is because the knowing will dictate our strategy. Unable to countenance the real causes of their collapse, they will comfort with own impotence by shouting, “Idiots!” again and again, angrier and angrier, the handmaidens of their own destruction.

The smug style resists empathy for the unknowing. It denies the possibility of a politics whereby those who do not share knowing culture, who do not like the right things or know the Good Facts or recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of their own ideas can be worked with, in spite of these differences, toward a common goal.

 

In other words, we, smug elites will look down upon the rural, angry, and politically powerful (we know now) people but fail to understand them. And it’s true; I do not understand their perspective very well because I’ve never lived it. But I have been arguing, for years, that the tribalism, religious ignorance, and unwillingness to look past one’s own bubble is the cause of people’s continuing religiosity (in this case, white Christian privilege), conservative attitudes about relationships (default monogamy), sexuality (hetero-normativity) and the pervasiveness of gender binary among other staples of the conservative worldview underlying Trump’s message.

I have been arguing, for years, that conservatism (especially the Alt-Right) is anchored in fear, tribalism, and lack of understanding. I’ve seen, from the point of view of a polyamorous, atheist, skeptic, that the lenses through which most of our culture sees the world are skewed and built out of a lack of understanding. So yes, I live in a sort-of bubble, but that bubble is one mostly of privilege and the comfort that comes along with that; the world I live in is safe to be abnormal and marginalization is less severe here. But I do understand that ignorance and fear exist and informs worldviews–and I know what those worldviews are because I have seen pockets of them even here, and I make a point of listening to them when they aren’t.

But do those people in conservative rural America understand my perspective? Hundreds of conversations, over my lifetime, about religion imply that the majority of our culture does not understand the nature of their own religion, let alone other religions or atheism.  Similar conversations about relationships and sexuality indicate that most people have never really questioned why they are monogamous or why they are afraid of homosexuality/bisexuality in many cases. And most of the conversations I’ve ever had imply that basic skeptical attitudes are foreign to the majority of people, everywhere.

So, is the problem a lack of understanding? Yes. But I think that the majority of the lack of understanding does not come from those of us who are elite (but yes, some of it does). I believe the lion’s share of that lack of understanding comes from the people who do not understand how their own worldview, beliefs, and anger fits into the larger set of ideas about the world. Whether ignorance, fear, or simple inability to comprehend are responsible, the simple fact is that the majority of people do not understand the arguments of the elite communities everywhere. The privilege of a good education, including the skills of skepticism and doubt, supply some people with a greater understanding of the world around us. And cosmopolitanism provides an environment for that to exist, where rural areas tend to stifle it.

Those of us able to see that Donald Trump is a con man, unprepared for his role are POTUS, and a representation of almost everything wrong with our culture were screaming, for months, how dangerous he is. And a significant number, about half of those who voted, could not understand that. Or didn’t care. Or weren’t paying sufficient attention. I’m not sure which of those is worse than the others, but they are all bad.  This was the wrong time for an establishment candidate, so people were tired of it all and either protested at the ballots or stayed home on election day. They failed to understand how bad Trump’s candidacy was. And so we will all be forced to deal with the consequences of that ignorance, apathy, or deplorablility.

Fuck.

 

The Future

But let’s not forget that there is something to take away from Emmett Rensin’s article. Our reaction cannot simply be to call them idiots, morons, ignoramuses, etc and then go about sitting in our comfortable shells, feeling superior, with our “Good Facts,” feeling smug. No, we need to organize, reach out, and at least try to improve education, filter out poor sources of news and opinion (I’m looking at you, social media), and actually do the work to raise the level of dialog in our culture.

You know, like the good parts of the skeptic/atheist movement has been trying to do for years.

The time for blame is past, and now is the time for action. If we want our dialogue to change, so that our culture can change, and so our politics can change, then we need to do a lot of hard work.

We, skeptics and atheists, have been honing these skills for a long time now. Well, some of us have (I’m looking at you MRAs; You are part of Trumps’ America). Now we need to start utilizing those tools in wider circles. We need, in our culture right now, a serious injection of skepticism, curiosity, and (perhaps most of all) empathy and patience.

Because wherever the truth is, introspection, skepticism, and communication will dig it up. Not bigotry and fear.

 

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Fight Club, Mr. Robot, and why Trump is a thing November 2, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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I just watched Fight Club for the first time in many years. I forgot so much. I forgot how much I liked that movie. I forgot how much it had to say to a pre-9/11 world about the struggle between rich and poor, the anger underneath much of our culture, and the distrust of the economic elite and the distaste fir the materialistic culture of the bourgeois.

It’s right up my alley; over-the-top symbolism, cultural criticism, and still relevant. Watching some of Mr. Robot (which is clearly derivative, but also awesome), it is clear that the questions asked in this movie, also of course the book, are still pulsing through our culture.  Culture, after all, is the very heart of the worldview in which we live.

And as I was watching it, it occurred to me that this was a prediction of a Trump America.

And then I realized that I was seeing patterns where there might not be any, while feeling the pull of a deep fear compelling me to believe it.

And then I realized that was the perfect metaphor for a Trump America, and my love of all things ‘meta’ caused me to laugh at it all.

Because it’s all so terrifyingly real, and I had to laugh in order to not cry.

 

To be honest, I’m not sure what to say about it all.

Am I supposed to sympathize with the deep fear, anger, and passion of a Trumpish America? It’s close enough to my familial, economic, and geographical (in terms of the part of Philadelphia I grew up in) background to be comprehensible to me, for sure. I can understand it.

When the world is fundamentally broken, what does it matter if the ship sinks? Who cares if he’s a narcissistic bully who will throw our country into disrepute. Aren’t we already there, in some regards? Does it matter to us?

If the system is broken, and refuses to maintain the comfortable priviliege I’ve gotten used to, why try to save it?

 

What do you mean it’s not broken? What do you mean it is salvageable? What do you mean Hillary isn’t crooked? I mean, she has to be to get along within it. The only way to survive in that system is to play dirty.

 

So, why not cut out the middle man? Instead of a corrupt politician taking money from the interested elite, why not just elect the elite? At least he’s not lying to us (although he actually is). Why not just have the economic elite control it directly, and let it all fall down?  Why not hasten its fall? Why pretend to put in a shill, and just unmask the Wizard behind the curtain?

Why not stand naked to the world, so everyone can see what we are?

Trump is America.

He’s our Tyler Durden.

 

And perhaps now it’s time to wake up and realize that it was us, the whole time creating this monster, before it’s too late. Perhaps the steady, non-ideal status quo is the only choice right now. when faced with our racist, misogynistic, bully of the America we have been ignoring for far too long.

And with Stein being a terrible choice, anyway, and Gary Johnson being a Libertarian, PolySkeptic.com has no choice but to endorse Hillary Clinton this year.

Let’s hope that future choices are more ideal.

 

The Republic of The Self January 29, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal.
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tripartite

Plato’s tripartite soul/state

One of the first philosophy books I ever read, when I was around 14 or so, was Plato’s Republic. It’s a very well-known and influential book, both in the philosophical world but also in Western culture in general. The basic theme of the book is that there is a discussion, including Socrates and his interlocutors, about the nature of the human “soul”, by use of an analogy of creating a perfect “Republic.”

The concept of the “tripartite soul” was derived, in part, from this book (also the Phaedo). Plato saw us as being made up of logical, spiritual, and desirous parts, all having to work together in a hierarchical fashion in order to achieve harmony and happiness. Analogously, the state, in this case an ideal republic, should be made up of the “philosopher kings” (reason/logic), the soldiers (will/spirit), and the citizens (appetite/desire).

Plato’s psychological theory is, of course, unscientific and not used by psychology (and his political one as well, given his inability to build a successful state himself) but nonetheless this idea is embedded in much of Western thinking (for good or ill, probably more the latter). How often do we think of ourselves as having to use reason or logic to reign in our will or desires? Don’t we still see, in some ways, our leaders as a means to control our ability to make war or to give us motivation to work and not to simply eat, drink, and have sex all day?

I’ll leave that for the anarchists out there to discuss.

 

Revolution v. Incremental change

“God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” (Thomas Jefferson)

(source)

Thomas Jefferson, despite his flaws, has been an inspiration to me in my life. I have a cloth-bound copy of his writings which I found in a little used books store in DC many years ago, and I read a bit from it now and then.

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

In a conversation I paid attention to among some Facebook friends yesterday about the upcoming presidential primaries (specifically concerning the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who I am supporting), a comment exposed some skepticism as to whether Sanders’ political revolution is possible or even likely. The sentiment was that political change occurs slowly, incrementally. The idea is that the “Hope and change” we progressives wanted with Obama only partially happened, but that we want more. Some people think that’s not going to happen, and we need to be patient and work within the system for change to happen slowly.

That actual revolutions are rare, usually bloody, and don’t happen in the way that Sanders’ supporters would like.

And if we look back on history, we don’t see too many successful purely political revolutions. Perhaps the recent election in Canada are an exception (I have not been following Trudeau’s moves, but I’m glad that Canada has moved in a more liberal direction), and perhaps Sanders winning the presidency would be similar in scope. However, would such a feat equal a political “revolution”? Or would it merely lead to more congressional inaction due to Sanders being unable to bring more liberal congressmen to office to help motivate the change? Would Congress be as gridlocked as it has been in the last 7 years?

Would it really change anything quickly enough to warrant calling it a “revolution”?

I don’t know.

But shouldn’t we be trying, anyway?

That’s a good question.

 

I, Plato

So, taking a queue from Plato, I was thinking about how political mechanization can be analogous to ourselves. If I were to think of myself as an analogy for a nation, although not a tripartite one (because the relationship between reason, emotion, and desire are not actually hierarchical at all, nor are they separate modules in any clean sense), is it possible for a person to have a true revolutionary change in behavior, outlook, and disposition? Sure, we can change, but can we do it overnight, over a few days, or even weeks?

Lord knows I have tried, over the years. But have I succeeded?

No, I don’t think I have. And I am unsure whether I even can. So, is it true that true change can only be incremental?

After all, some people claim to have been born again, right?

I’ve had certain moments where I felt like I had changed. But, upon further reflection, this was really a matter of emotion and mood. A few days later, a few weeks later, I was back to the same song and dance, but with more experience. That experience is key; something from that mood stuck with me, and little by little those moments of clarity, the feeling of something having changed, accumulated into slow, actual long-term change.

And what I’m concluding about this is that while the cumulative change will not happen overnight, we need the temporary, passionate, and radical thrusts towards a better nation and person in order to keep us pushing forward. Whether it is politics or person, we need the revolutionary energy to keep pushing the conversation and the insight into ourselves to keep moving in a direction we want to move.

The United States may never becomes a liberal, Democratically Socialist country like I’d like it to be, but we need people like Bernie Sanders shifting our attention in that direction, even if they cannot implement that change as a candidate or a president. Similarly, I may never be the man I wish to be, but if I don’t allow myself to feel the passion of being that moment today, and from time to time, I will settle into a comfort zone of who I am, rather than keep pushing on.

And I need my temperamental desires, my reason, and my will to work in collaboration in order to get there. I will not make my will, desire, nor my reason to submit to any of the others, but I will let each do what they do best, and allow the process to bring forth growth.

Am I a different person than I was 1, 2 or 5 years ago? Yes. But that changed happened with incremental change fueled by periodic revolutionary moments of trauma, my own mistakes, and intellectual insight. Those revolutionary moments supplied the ideological horizon I should be moving towards it, but often gave the illusion of already having reached it.

Electing Bernie Sanders will not complete the revolution, but it might be a step in the right direction. Making a wise decision about what I will do in my life won’t make me my ideal self, but it’s also a step in the right direction.

Be patient, but don’t allow patience to prevent you from pursuing passionately from time to time. Because otherwise our patience turns into complacency and comfort. When we stop trying for revolutions, be become part of the establishment; we become the conservatives of tomorrow.

 

 

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

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

On privacy, and indifference to a cause June 12, 2013

Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society.
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I know as much about the current NSA/social media scandals as one can glean solely from reading people’s twitter updates and headlines of articles they post on Facebook… which is to say, very little. I know that people are mad at Google and Facebook for handing information over to the government, and people are buzzing about how intrusive and spyey the NSA is, and I’m not even 100% sure whether these are the same thing incident or two different (but similar) ones. What I know is, there’s a lot of talk about privacy and how much access government agencies should have to our personal lives. The reason I don’t know more is chiefly because I don’t care that much.

Often when someone says “I don’t care about that issue” it comes with an implied “and I think it’s silly that other people do.” This is not that kind of “I don’t care.” I’m glad people are paying attention to privacy issues, because I suspect it’s more important than my personal intuitions would have me believe. So this post is partly an invitation for people who are concerned about privacy issues to educate me, if anyone feels so moved. For the rest of this, I’m going to lay out why I’m not really bothered by the idea that the NSA or CIA or whatever could see all of my internet browsing activity, or, hell, have a camera in my house.

A large part of it is privilege. As a white American-born woman, I am probably in the least vulnerable demographic for coming under unwarranted suspicion about… nearly anything. (Being suspected of troublemaking and rulebreaking is one area where males in our society have it worse than females, starting all the way back in preschool.) Apart from a speeding ticket or two (and assuming I don’t get raped), I can basically assume that the law will be kind to me. I recognize that’s not an assumption that most people can make. Furthermore, I don’t have any secrets, at least not of the kind that would be of any interest to a government. I’m not a political radical, I don’t generally partake of illegal substances, and all of my scandalous activities and beliefs are out on the internet for anyone to see. (Speaking of which, I and the rest of the Polyskeptic compound are putting on our second burlesque show! You should come see it if you’re in or near Philly.) I can’t imagine what the government could find out about me through monitoring my internet usage that they couldn’t find out just by reading my blog. (And yes, I recognize that being able to be public about burlesque and polyamory and atheism and being a sexologist is also a mark of privilege.)

My feeling of invulnerability could change when I have a child. Although it’s not common, there are poly families who have children taken away from them because of their lifestyle, even if there is no abuse or neglect going on. That’s something that will always be a niggling worry in my mind, once there are children about. But it’s still not going to raise a personal privacy concern, because I’ll still be open and public about my lifestyle. That’s a choice I made, based on principle and facilitated by privilege, and so I have very little to fear from a search of my private activity online. If the US is ever taken over by fascists (and no, it hasn’t happened yet, whatever you might say) who persecute atheism or non-monogamy, my family will be in deep trouble. I’m okay with that.

But my relative indifference about privacy has another root, weirder and more personal. Never, since I was a child, have I been able to really believe in privacy for myself. Maybe because I grew up believing in a God who was always watching, but I’ve always felt the same level of embarrassment in doing something privately that I would feel if there was someone to see. Up until I turned 20 or so, I pretty much avoided doing things in private that I wouldn’t be okay with someone else seeing, and even since then, it’s always a struggle with that irrational self-consciousness. (As you can imagine, this hampered my sexual growth considerably as a teenager.) So I find it hard to relate when people describe being creeped out or disturbed by the idea of someone spying on them.

All of this is to say: because of my assorted privileges, values, and weird mental quirks, I’m not bothered by governmental privacy invasions. But I’m not going to go around telling other people not to be bothered by it, because I realize that my privileges, values, and weird mental quirks are far from universal. I mostly wanted to write this to explore my own feelings, like, “Huh, lots of people whose opinions I generally respect are bothered by this, but I’m not at all; I wonder why.” But coming to the end, it occurs to me that I’m also writing a template for how I’d like to see other people respond in a similar position. If lots of people whose opinions you generally respect are bothered by something and you’re not, maybe take a look at the personal factors that give rise to your indifference. Doesn’t mean you have to become an activist: this is the first and probably the last I’ll write about privacy issues, because I have many other causes to put my efforts behind. But maybe take a stab at recognizing how the landscape could look very different to someone else, and avoid getting in their way.

Where philosophical differences turn into meta-debates about personalities January 18, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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This, ladies and gentlemen, will be a rant of sorts.  I’m not happy with humanity today, and it’s my own damned fault for reading blogs!

So, I’m a feminist of a specific kind.  I have evolving but ideologically-leaning views about the relationship between gender, history, and culture.  I think there are things that we should be focused on as a society to improve the world related to those feminist ideas.  I think that we need to become familiar with concepts which will be consciousness-raising and will shift our perspectives on how to behave.

The details of what specific kind of feminist I am, what ideologies I prefer, and what changes in perspectives we should work towards are almost not worth explaining, because all I have to say is that I read Freethought Blogs and Skepchick and I agree with them more often than not.  I think Greta Christina is an excellent advocate for both atheism and feminism.  I think Rebecca Watson had something to teach me in talking about a guy in an elevator.  I miss Jen McCreight’s contributions to the conversation.  I have learned lots about race and privilege from Ian Cromwell.  I think PZ Myers is witty, intelligent, and sometimes wrong (actually, he’s mostly right there).

So, now you know where I stand right?

Here’s the thing.  If you read any blogs who have a dog in this fight  (you know, the fight about the role of feminism, if any, in the atheist/skeptic community) then you will either think that Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, etc are generally right and are fighting for a worthy cause within the community or you will think they are bullies (FtBullies, if you would) who have a view based upon “garbage feminist scholarship” and who are creating a division in the community with their, well, bullying and such.  Some, such as my good friend Staks, have given up reading any FtB posts at all.  I think he’s missing out on a lot by doing so, and I’m not sure if he will change his mind.

It has gotten so bad that I am not even sure what the philosophical differences are, most of the time.  Most of the posts I see now are not substantive philosophical critiques of a point of view, they are an attack on the other side.  This has become a polarized, party-line division, much like what exists in politics.

And this is no surprise to me.  Tribal mentalities exist in all communities, so the fact that this happens in the atheist community is to be expected.  I would like skeptics to be better, but I’m too cynical to really believe that will happen even among those who should, ideally, know better.  Humans are emotional and irrational (which they then rationalize, in most cases), so all I can do is be both frustrated and amused at it all.

Take this post by Maria Maltseva called A World Without Dogma.  it starts off OK, but then you immediately see that PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, and Richard Carrier are all Marxist feminists who may endanger us with their terrible Marxist ways.  I really thought I had run into a Republican blog by accident, for a moment there.

The arguments there are straw men.  There is no attempt to take seriously the problem of how to address feminism as a skeptic (and yes, I know there are people who do take this issue seriously from some of them I also read), but rather the point is to show how untrustworthy, unskeptical, and how bad the other side is.

And yes, some at Freethought Blogs do the same thing, and I will admit that I am less annoyed when I agree with the one doing the mocking than when I disagree, even though I also do get annoyed, occasionally, by some I agree with (especially Amanda Marcotte, who I agree with more often than not but I find her writing to be abrasive, so I don’t generally read her stuff anymore, except in rare cases).

—-

So, let’s spell it out; there are people on both sides of this issue being snarky, using mockery, and who dislike each other greatly.  I want to see people who are able to see that snark and let it roll off of them.  I don’t want the emotion, passion, and even humor to go away, I want it to be waved off and for us to be able to actually have a substantive discussion about things like feminism without it turning into politics as usual. I want people to be able to hear mockery, snark, etc and let it roll off them and pay attention to the message, but often there is little actual message to sink one’s teeth into.

Yes, some people I will talk to will be wrong (painfully wrong), but can’t we drop the meta-debate? Can’t we stop talking about elevatorgate and talk about the philosophical disagreements which underlie why elevatorgate was such a big deal? Can’t we address privilege, safe spaces, and the concerns that men have all while we recognize that understanding the perspective of others is part of the process of making it all better for all of us?

I know I’m biased, but I think that is precisely what people such as Greta Christina have been doing.  I want a world where the complaints that men have with our culture are solved. I want a world where the complaints that women have about our culture are solved.  I want a world where tribalism and petty interpersonal squabbling don’t dominate philosophical debate.  Mostly what I see now is that PZ Myers and Thunderf00t don’t like each other anymore, Rebecca Watson is (supposedly) an ugly bitch, and my view of feminism is a totalitarian dictatorship in the making.

I want to put aside petty interpersonal squabbles, platitudes, and deal with real issues.  But I won’t get what I want;  the battle-lines will be drawn more vividly and I will be forced to be a combatant even if I try and avoid perpetuating the divisions.  And the effect of this is that I will inevitably become further removed from any real dialogue between people on different sides of this issue.  I will have less exposure to views different from mine, despite my desire to understand their point of view, because the conversation will become meta-, rather than substantive.

I can try to keep it away from here, but the simple fact is that I do think that one side of this debate is mostly right.  It’s just like PZ Myers said some time back, compromise with crazy is half-way to crazy town.  I think that FtB, despite some of their poor behavior from time to time, is mostly right, and I find Maria Maltseva mostly wrong, but still worth listening to in case something good comes through.

Not saying so would be inauthentic, so I will be placed on one side of the battle lines, and when I take a step across to try and understand, I will be shot at because I’m perceived to be wearing the uniform of the person seen as the leader on my “side.”

It’s absurd.  I’m interested in the truth, if such a thing exists, and I will hope that these stupid squabbles evaporate into a truly skeptical conversation.

 

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.

An unchallenged value is not worth much; or why your values might be wrong December 11, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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In recent weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the question of the relativity of values.  What do we value? Why do we value those things rather than other things? Might we be more content, happy, or more mature if we were to value other things? Can we change what we value? What the hell are “values”?

Today, I want to sketch out a rough analogy which may pave the road for future posts (or not, if the analogy breaks down or if it just ends up being a stupid idea).

[Also, apparently I was thinking about this last December.]

 

The Analogy of Tastes and Values

In order for our bodies to function, we need to eat food.  But the kind of food we eat, how much of it we eat, and how often we eat it will have an effect on the efficiency of that functioning, the body such a diet will maintain, and will effect our general mood and ability to accomplish various tasks.

In order for our brain to function as a contributor to our personality as part of a social landscape, it needs information.  The kind of information it receives (especially early in its development) and how (and how often) we exercise it will influence what kind of mind we have.  It will effect how we react to new or old information, what we believe about the world, and what we value.

In terms of our diet and our health, what we want to eat (both what we merely desire and what we think we should eat) is our set of tastes.

In terms of our worldview and moral inclinations, what we think and feel (both what we are inclined to and what we think we should believe and think right) is our set of values.

 

Desires and Wants

I want to make clear the distinction between what we unwillfully desire and what we want.  If I see a piece of chocolate (especially dark chocolate), I desire it.  My mind is inclined towards eating it, and it is by act of will (free or not) that I either eat it or I do not.  My set of beliefs, values, etc will be responsible for that decision.

In terms of values, there is also a difference between my unconscious, automatic reaction to information and my conscious deliberation about information with emotional content.  It is unconscious and automatic that I feel annoyance, even disgust, when seeing an obvious injustice perpetrated by someone against others (an unequal set of behaviors based upon a logical contradiction, for example; a violation of Kant’s categorical imperative as one rationalized example).  But there is a difference between that feeling of annoyance or disgust and my subsequent deliberation about that behavior.  I, for example, have a visceral feeling of annoyance, sometimes leaning on anger, at seeing some level of clutter (especially if ignored for some time).  But rather than start Hulk-smashing (which just creates more clutter) I take a deep breath and remind myself that this anger is not rational;  that I can either clean it, ask the person responsible to be aware of this emotional response I have and request they clean it, or I can distract myself with another task or activity (and hope it will be remedied in the mean time).

That is, what I desire to do when seeing clutter is to express my anger at the person responsible (a symptom of my personality disorder), but what I want to do is motivate my behavior towards healthier solutions, with the long term goal of correcting the automatic reaction to doing those more pragmatic solutions.  I do not merely bow to my destructive desires, but try and re-orient my emotional reactions to something healthier, and over time it works with diligent effort.  It has become essential and necessary for me to do this every day, and sometimes it’s easier than other times.

Similarly, what I desire is to eat salty snacks, chocolate/ peanut butter, and low fat wheat thins ( much better than the regular ones, IMO) while drinking a couple of delicious beers.  I desire sweet, salty, (low) fatty foods all the time, but what I actually eat is much more healthy and I feel better because my wants govern my desires.  They don’t repress or stifle them, but I feel that mitigating the effect of my desires is wise.

 

Authenticity

There are things that we desire and want.  There are also social structures around us, with many competing (and sometimes harmonizing) ideas about how we should behave.  Some of those ideas tell us to repress or even eliminate certain desires, because those desires are wrong.

But I think that we need to accept our desires as a given, and decide how we want to act while 1) not pretending those desires don’t exist 2) trying to find a way to express these desires in ways which do not non-consensually harm others and 3) not allowing those desires to consume our life such that we ignore what else we care about.  These guidelines can be applied to conservative religious repression of homosexuality, social stigmatization of our innate sluttiness, or even the use of drugs (including alcohol).  If you are gay, bisexual, or asexual, then you should find the ways you want to express those sexual inclinations.  If you are slut, then you should be a slut. If you like a drug, then if you can do it without it being destructive to the world around you, then do it.

In short, we need to start deciding how to behave, what to believe, and what to value by being authentic.  We cannot ignore the truth, even if we don’t like the truth.  Because in many cases, the part of us that doesn’t like the truth is a part of us that is either broken or was imposed by an exterior idea (such as conservative moral views).  We should care about what is true about our desires, and form our wants based upon those truths.

 

In Case Your Values are Wrong

If you find yourself living in such a way where you have desires which are unrealized, then you need to ask yourself why they are unrealized.  If you go to church regularly and find yourself plagued by skeptical questions in response to what a religious authority says, then you might need to seek out alternative views.  If you are in a monoamorous relationship but find yourself attracted to others, and even thinking about acting on those desires, then you might need to reconsider how you think about sex and relationships and consider some sort of nonmonogamy.  If you can’t just have a couple of drinks, are getting high every day, or even if you never tried getting high but are curious about it but have always been afraid, then you might want to reconsider your association with those things.

There are diets which are good for us, others which are not.  There are values which are good or us, and those which are not.  How do you know that your values, your emotional relationship to the world, are the best set of values for your inclinations?  And even if they are, have you considered if they are damaging to people around you? (That is, are they moral values, rather than Randian selfish values?).  Do you even care if your values affect other people in ways they don’t want? Also, if they do affect others in ways they don’t want, are their current values, with which yours currently conflict, wrong? If their values are wrong, how can you demonstrate this to them in a way that will not result in them being defensive, yelling at you, or punching you?

What’s more important; standing for the right values knowing that they might actually be ultimately wrong, even if they are better relative to other value sets) or respecting all potential values (even the obviously wrong ones)?  Assuredness or accommodation? (some might call it “temerity or tolerance?”, but that’s simply the other side of the coin).

I don’t have an answer to that question which everyone will accept, or even one that convinces myself all the time.  My inclinations, my desires, often tell me to stand convicted to what I value, because those values are best. But what I want is to actually have the best values, which requires a certain level of uncertainty and skepticism.  I must perpetually challenge my values the way I challenge my beliefs, and thus my certainty about my values is proportional to the amount of beating those values take from challenges both external and internal.  An unchallenged value is not worth much, yet an unchallenged value is worth everything to its owner.

That is, we should be skeptical not only about facts, but also values.  I, along with people such as Hilary Putnam and (seemingly) Sam Harris, think that the qualitative distinction between facts and values is dubious.  Therefore, I also think that the common moral distinction made in our culture between criticizing a person’s facts and criticizing their values is dubious.  I do think that criticizing a person’s values is a harder task to do well, especially if we care about their likely defensive reactions, but it is not an invalid criticism.   There is no logical contradiction to pointing out that values can be wrong, at least in the sense of not matching up with reality and what might provide optimal well-being, emotional maturity, and authenticity.  People are too often attached to their values (as well as their facts), and this should not be accommodated.

In a similar way that what we want to eat (in terms of our health) is something that is subject to criticism, what we value (in terms of being a fully realized and authentic person) is subject to potential criticism.  If you tell me that I cannot tell you what to value, I will nod in agreement with the fact that I cannot force values on you, but that I can tell you that your values may be wrong.

 

 

Reading Jonathan Haidt as a “New Atheist” December 5, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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A week ago I wrote a quick post about how I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and quoted a bit from early on in the book.  I am nearly done the book (I have one chapter left), and although I liked much of the early book and think that some of what he thinks about the relationship between our moral instincts and subsequent rationalizations of them are worth reading, I must conclude that i am not on-board with Haidt’s approach to religion, especially his criticisms of the “New Atheists.”

In chapter 11, Religion is a Team Sport, Haidt tries to deconstruct the new atheist approach, following on his anti-worshiping of reason from earlier in the book, and says we need to address religion for what is is (a group selected set of community-building institutions) rather than what it is not (a set of beliefs, ideas, etc).  He thinks that our attention to beliefs as motivators for action is too simplistic, and points out that “belonging” has to be placed along with belief and action, in the matrix of religious behavior.

Well, yes of course it does!

I don’t need to get into the details of what is wrong with the book, at least in terms of the criticism of the new atheists, because that has already been done:

Sam Harris has some thoughts about Haidt’s treatment of morality, as well as how beliefs inform our actions.

PZ Myers has thoughts about Haidt’s relationship to the Templeton Foundation, and thus to accommodationism in general.

Als0, Helian has a good critique which points to another good critique from the New York Times by William Saletan.

I agree that there are parts of the book which are quite worth-while.  I did just get it from my local library, after all, and didn’t spend a cent to read it.  If you are interested in moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, and group selection (whether or not you agree with any of those research areas specifically), then I suggest reading at least the first several chapters.

But what was most telling was that Haidt kept on talking about the difference between what makes a group work well and what does not.  His conclusion is that religion makes groups work well, at least for members of the group.  Atheists who ask us to leave religion, as individuals or as a species, risk losing what Haidt sees as the glue that can hold us together.

Haidt is seemingly unfamiliar (due to lack of mention) with any new atheist thoughts past 2007 or so (the book was published in 2012).  Perhaps the problem is that he is unaware that many atheists have been working, especially in the last 2-3 years, on building up an atheist community.  No, we may not have anything sacred (not even science), but we are working on creating a sense of what it means to be skeptical, non-religious, and living in a world with potential for beauty and terrible atrocity.

Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values).  I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well.  We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.

Haidt, an atheist himself, is not connected to the atheist community.  Perhaps if he was, then his arguments would not be so poor.  Perhaps we should invite him to the party?

 

Progress versus Process December 2, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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Politically, I tend to align myself with progressive thought.  I generally like the idea of progress; moving towards an ideological target.  But when I think more closely about the idea of progress as a concept, I think it lacks something important, and has some potential inherent dangers, when compared to the idea of a process.

One of the dangers of political ideologies is that very distracting idea of a target or set of social and political goals.  Because while those goals may be based upon clear thinking, good values, and hopefully even empirically sound philosophical bases, the fact is that circumstances change and we may not notice if we keep looking at the destination.

See, progress is teleological.  Process is methodological.

Teleology implies intention, design, and is associated with religious theology in many ways.  The presence of intent and purpose, when it come to theology especially, might seem safe because the designer is often believed to be perfect, or at least optimally knowledgeable and powerful.  But progress in the real world involves imperfect people, and so when we think about progressing towards some ideal utopia, or merely a better set of values and policies, we are almost certain to err.  And if we are attached to the destination too strongly, we may not even see those errors.

Instead, we should be focusing on the process by which we solve problems and understand the world.  Goals are nice, and often necessary to accomplish anything, but by focusing on the goal rather than the road we walk upon, we will lose sight of many things.

Many forms of religion, and religious thinking, suffer from this very problem.  The focus on Heaven (or Hell) for many people is a prime example of this.  Built into the worldview of many forms of Christianity, for example, are things like purpose, intent, and ultimate destinations for us in God’s plan.  And even within the Christian world people will criticize other believers for focusing too much on the goal, rather than what God wants us to do here.  By being focused on getting to Heaven (or avoiding Hell), many people are not doing many of the things here and now that they could, or should, be doing in this life.

And, of course, this leads to the common atheist criticism of religion; people’s focus on the afterlife, rather than this real life (the only one we have), leads people to miss all that we really have.  But this mistake is prevalent throughout all of human groups, including some atheists.  It’s one of the many imperfections with how our brains evolved, and I think we can all benefit from an awareness about what methods we use, rather than an ideological goal.

That’s what skepticism and science are good for.  Because skepticism and science are not goals; they are methods.  Granted, it’s hard to avoid looking at the potential horizon in our pursuit of the truth, but we need to make sure that how we think about those goals in the here and now, so we don’t get caught up in the dream rather than the reality.

Focusing on our process, our method, will make sure that we are on the right road, because all-too-often people find that the road they are one don’t lead anywhere; that the location in the horizon was a mirage, and the road (which they were not looking at) just goes in circles, or merely stops one day, nowhere near their illusory destination.

And there are many images of potential futures with science as our road (I’m looking at you, transhumanists).  But we cannot live in the hope that those futures will occur.  We can be inspired by them, but we have to live where we are.  I’ve known Christians who miss too much of life because they are awaiting Heaven, and I have known atheists who let life pass by because they desire their cybernetic bodies or their mind to be uploaded into a different kind of immortality.

In my opinion, we all would be better off by making sure that the thinking we are doing today is connected to real goals and real life, otherwise we may be letting precious time slip by in the name of illusory goals.  I want my goals to be attached to a skeptical worldview, utilized to make this life better for us and our descendants.

All of my distant goals and ideals are subject to change and revision because I keep my attention to what is going on around me, and thus my goals sometimes change.