Philosophical rifts are to be expected

Way back in 2002, I was in grad school, in West Chester University and saw some flier about a 10 Commandments plaque that had been on the local courthouse for many years, and some local atheists were making a stink about it. So I attended a meeting related to that, and met some local atheist activists and started learning about the atheist community. This was in the early days of the post-9/11 atheist community expansion, but before any of the major atheist books were published or the community took off in size and scope. And it was long before the rifts became apparent to us all. They were there, of course, but they had not yet become flaming internet arguments and YouTube channels raking in money for…well not all of them are terrible human beings.

Having a lack of belief in any gods, or being convinced that no gods exist (the difference of which is actually a minor philosophical rift in itself) is a pretty specific and singular data point of who a person is, and so knowing this about a person will not tell you very much else, if anything at all. PZ Myers has been arguing for years that such a worldview should lead one to a progressive worldview. And while I might agree with many of his progressive worldviews, I don’t agree that one must necessarily reach those positions, logically, from the starting point of atheism, per se.*



The cultural divide becomes polyamorous, and takes on the polyamorous community as a new partner

If you look at the atheist world today, you will find a myriad of political views, opinions about feminism, and both wonderful and awful people. There are people I tend to agree with, people with whom I may share almost no conclusion except for the lack of gods, and there are people with whom I have much in common, but disagree on small points, or on certain issues. The rifts which have occurred over the years have led to situations where some people simply cannot talk to certain people, because of vast differences in opinions. In some cases, I think the nature of the disagreement is important, in others, it’s mostly hot air and emotion preventing an actual conversation. Such is life as a human being on planet Earth.

So, will you be surprised when I point out that I’ve seen much of the same phenomena within the polyamory community? No, I don’t think you will be that surprised.

But, before I go there, I want to take a step back because I don’t think that the analogy of the atheist community maps all that precisely to the poly community itself. Rather, I think that the atheist community is a better analog for the non-monogamous world in general; some people have come to the conclusion that monogamy (more specifically, sexually/romantically exclusive relationships, since monogamy is not quite the right word. monoamory works, in some cases) is not the best way to go about relationships the way atheists have come to the conclusion that god is not real, or at least that they are not convinced that it is real.

In the atheist community, there are more traditionalist/conservative people who tend towards libertarianism, Trumpism, and are opposed to much of the feminist movement as it currently exists; mostly the “shitlords” with whom I share almost no philosophical worldview (I qualify that because inevitably some shitlord would see this and point out that we might share some opinions here and there, which would be technically true but missing the point, completely). There are also many liberal, progressive, or even downright anarchistic revolutionary people in the atheist community; people with whom I share many more data points with, philosophically. But the fact is that I’m not tied to any specific ideology, so even though I overwhelmingly agree with the more leftist, progressive worldview, there are places where I disagree on some points, even if I accept the general schema of the worldview of the progressive movement concerned with social justice and so forth. To be clear, I am not identifying with the centrists, a la Sam Harris (whose podcast I listen to, because he has interesting conversations, even if I agree with him only about half the time at best. I don’t agree that he’s especially racist, except in the technically true sense that we all participate in a racist culture to some extent). I’m definitely very far left, and the shitlords could call me a SJW if they like, but I disagree with many other social justice oriented people on some points related to the worldview, even if I accept the general schema.

The non-monogamy world, including swingers, poly folks, etc, are similarly all over the map. In general, swingers tend towards more traditionalist/conservatism. In fact, the swinging world is itself an extension of a kind of conservatism insofar as the environment is overwhelmingly couple-centric, often unfriendly towards male bisexuality, and often unwelcoming to trans people. Swingers may, individually, be OK with these things in theory, but they still tend to be much more comfortable with staying within their rules which defend a more conservative worldview about relationships and identity. Poly people tend towards the progressive side, and are generally much more open to all shades of the LGBTQ rainbow. A focus on listening to marginalized people, consent culture, and a plethora of discussions of all sorts of things which will expand your mind and worldview exist at polyamorous conferences, and I would highly recommend what the poly community has to teach to all people, and support the vast majority of the lessons they have to teach. In short, the communities to which I belong tend to be made up of people who have overwhelming support for progressive values and politics. The shitlords would certainly call it a den of SJW cucks, or some other myopic prattling.

But within polyamory, there are definitely rifts and disagreements, which is similar, in many ways, to the arguments going on in the progressive world in general. That is, even among the idealistic, Relationship Anarchistic, touchy-feely, progressive group of people, there are differences in opinion on many questions. Let’s take one example, shall we?


“Poly” is not cultural appropriation

About a year ago, there was a bunch of conversations about the term Polyamory being abbreviated to “poly,” and whether it was a cultural appropriation from Polynesian people, who apparently sometimes call themselves “Poly.” Now, I won’t get into the minutia of the arguments, but the gist was that if we want to be sensitive towards people who have been historically treated pretty badly, perhaps we should not use the same term; we should not appropriate the term. Now, I agree with the first part; we should be aware of such things and seek to do less harm, when possible. We need to be aware of the effects of history and try to be aware of how we use language, borrow from cultures, etc to make sure that we are not doing it in an unnecessary and offensive way. But I came down on the other side of this argument; I do not think that using “poly” for the polyamorous community is a form of cultural appropriation from Polynesian people, and so I still use “poly”, rather than “polya,” which has been adopted by some people recently. I’m not against doing so, I just think that it’s not based on sound reasoning. In other words, I came to a different conclusion.

I’m not insisting that people say “poly” instead of “polya”, but I do sort of roll my eyes a little when I read “polya,” because I believe that the argument for doing so is nonsensical, even if I agree with the sentiment.

Here’s the thing; I’m a skeptic first. I want to have as many true beliefs, and as few false beliefs, as I am able to have given my cognitive abilities. In short, I care what’s actually true, and I try to use logical and rational means towards figuring out what is true. I also care about justice, but I will not sacrifice the truth on the alter of avoiding offense. I will not offend intentionally (at least, I try not to), but there simply are times when the truth might be offensive or not in line with a desire to be culturally sensitive. In this case, the argument for using “polya” is a bad argument. So even if the intent is to be aware, sensitive, and non-offensive (which I think is a good thing), the argument that it actually is appropriation falls flat. That is, the argument is not true. The fact that somebody is offended by the term “poly” in a polyamorous context is unfortunate, and their feelings are still valid. The thing is, their argument isn’t valid. One can be offended, have that emotion be legitimate and important, but still be wrong.

Others disagree with me, of course. But I’m not convinced by their arguments. The problem came in when it’s pointed out that my argument is coming from a place of privilege, where my attempts to be rational about the question at hand are a function of that privilege. And yes, I am privileged. Over the last several years, I have been listening. I have learned quite a bit about how privilege works, and have come to recognize that it’s a real force in the world, with real effects. I believe that people have a range of privileges, dependent upon historical, cultural, etc factors which make certain things much easier for people like me. I understand that there are things which are much harder for me to understand, and that I have to listen first, especially when talking about an issue related to historical, cultural, or political marginalization. That is my responsibility. But that does not erase rationality. A rational argument is not subject to privilege. Rational arguments, skepticism, and logic transcend social justice concerns. A person can be privileged, use motivated reasoning (*cough cough* Sam Harris *cough cough*), and thus make mistakes in utilizing reason, but reason itself is not subject to the effects of the theory behind privilege.

Thus, in terms of answering the question whether “poly” is cultural appropriation, if the argument for it being so is nonsensical, then all the concerns about cultural sensitivity and historical/cultural structures become irrelevant. They are still relevant when discussing the Polynesian people in terms of their cultural circumstances, of course. And, of course, if the arguments in favor of calling such a use of “poly” were not nonsensical or logically flawed, then it becomes relevant to discuss whether the appropriation is problematic or not. As it stands, I’m convinced that the arguments are nonsensical. If someone disagrees, they need to address the logical concerns first, if they want to be taken seriously.


How long does one need to listen, before their questions become relevant?

Over the last few years, a question kept swimming to the surface as I thought about things related to social justice, privilege, etc. In the beginning I saw this question as a internal emotional reaction against the information; as a emotional reaction more than an actual philosophical problem. For a long time I dismissed it as a side-effect of privilege and part of the very problem I was trying to learn and understand, so I didn’t follow it to any conclusion. I was still listening, and the listening will never stop. But after a while this question persisted, and so I kept reading, listening, and hoping to find this issue addressed in a way which satisfied the question, but no answer ever satisfied me. Further, I found no way to voice this question because the question is always reacted to with dismissal and often with anger (No, I’m not tone-policing; I have no issue with the anger per se). I became terrified to ask about it, because every time I saw anything like it broached it was met with dismissal, hostility, and was never seriously addressed. The question is something like the following:

If privilege is a blinding force, which prevents those with it to see certain things about culture, in particular people’s lived experience, to what extent is this blinding force merely an obstacle or an impenetrable barrier? In other words, does ones privilege merely make it much harder to understand a set of ideas, born of a marginalized or non-privileged experience, or is it one of complete obscurity, such that the privileged person can never hope to understand or have anything to add at all?

And as I started to think more about this, the question began to have subsequential concerns and questions, which I was similarly afraid to voice in social justice circles. Because if privilege merely makes it harder to see parts of the world, that would imply that if one listens enough and comes to understand, then it is possible to come to a rational conclusion that may or may not be the same as the person who is marginalized, no? In other words, it might be possible to, from the point of view of one who is privileged, disagree with someone’s opinion who is marginalized, and still potentially be factually right. Because it’s possible that any person, in any set of circumstances, might be wrong. That’s part of being human.

If a Polynesian person, or someone on their behalf, is offended by the use of “poly” by the polyamorous community, their feelings are important and valid. We should be kind to them, and we should hear them, and we should do our best to understand where that pain is coming from and seek to minimize it as much as we can. But, again, if someone listens and comes to a different conclusion because they think that the arguments in favor of it being problematic don’t add up, or if there is no argument at all, but merely a focus on the offense, then what is a person supposed to do? Is it really wrong to have a different conclusion? Is it wrong to say so? And if so, why?

And this is where the “red-pilled” shitlord comes in and says “Exactly! The SJW cucks are all a bunch of groupthink sheeple who insist upon allegiance to feelings and will insist upon ideological purity over the truth.”. And this is the part where I tell that shitlord to go fuck themselves and find something else to do, because I’m not talking to them right now and I’m certainly not taking their red pill.

Because I’m not throwing out the larger theory by disagreeing here. Disagreeing with a conclusion or a small detail of the theory is not the same as disavowing the whole left, progressivism, or social justice. In fact, such disagreements and questions are the only way to keep those theories strong, vibrant, and not dogmatic. The dogmatism that the idiots who call us SJWs, talk about being “red-pilled, and who troll all over the internet is based upon this dismissal of any questions from people who are not convinced, either in whole or in part. No doubt potential allies who accept most of the worldview concerned with justice in society have been pushed towards the red pill (because tribalism is often dualistic) because they disagreed with some small bits here and there and were dismissed. Erased. Sound familiar?


Skepticism to the rescue, I hope

I do share one thing with those red pill people; I care about what’s true. Well, they say that they care about that, but I don’t think their application of reason is very good at all. It’s true that many shitlords, anti-feminists, and other anti social justice people grew out of skepticism. But was their skepticism properly applied in all of their opinions? I would say most certainly not. It seems to me that the anti-feminist, pro-Trump, sexual abuse “skeptics” (there are so many kinds of shitlords) on the right are holding onto notions of human rights, consent (or lack thereof), and freedom of speech which are overly tied to tradition, misunderstandings, or (in some cases) obvious trolling and lying to manipulate towards their own goals (I’m looking at you, Scott Adams)**. Some who have been red-pilled might share more opinions with their cultural interlocutors (he says euphemistically) than either side would want to admit. The tribalism at the core of this divide is obvious to me, and is actually the fault of people on both sides. I believe that one side’s worldview is generally correct, and the other is problematic, but individual people on both sides, or caught in the middle, are all over the map in terms of their specific responsibility for being decent skeptics.

So, right off the bat here, skepticism as a community is not the best example of where to turn, and being overly “skeptical” in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct is technically skepticism, but it’s also technically being completely clueless about the realities of how our culture teaches us to interact when it comes to sexuality in our culture. Or maybe it’s just that those people want to keep having the excuse to not ask for or be concerned with consent. I did hear one guy say, in response to hearing that situations such as being intoxicated, in a position of relative powerlessness (like being an employee), etc as a circumstance where consent might not be fully possible, that if that were so then he might never be able to have sex with that woman he wants to have sex with. No shit, asshole, but you’re really missing the boat here. Social justice theories about privilege, consent, power structures, and so forth are something you really need to understand, because they are real. Holding onto traditional ideas because they work for you (privilege) is a shitty way to be skeptical.

I think that social justice theories are wonderful at making important cultural, political, and historical observations, and it’s a wonderful method for understanding how various personal identities effect power structures, but it is not the best method for determining what is actually true, philosophically, in every situation. Reason, wielded by skepticism, is the best method we have for determining truth, and where social justice theories of privilege conflict with reason, we need to value reason first. That is how I rank my values, and I understand that other people do not do this, especially many people working for social justice. I simply disagree with this approach.

And I’ll be clear, I think that a social justice set of theories armed with skepticism would be a powerful tool, the problem is that not all social justice activists are always clear thinkers, and (because they are human) therefore make errors in thinking and come to bad conclusions, sometimes. And, again, while our feelings are immensely important, and things like micro-aggression, racism, sexism, transphobia, body shaming, etc are all things that actual people live through and have legitimate feelings about, in the cases where their conclusions are not rational, we should feel free and comfortable to express this when and in the space in which that person is willing to hear it. 

The problem is that I rarely feel free or welcome to do so, and am am merely dismissed as being privileged. There needs to be room, sometimes, for marginalized people to hear this criticism. I know, I know…that space for criticism is the dominant narrative, right? But, is it? Are you really going to try to argue that the dominant narrative of our culture is reason and skepticism, properly applied? I’m not talking about listening to privileged people, because I know you already understand their perspective pretty well. I’m talking about when a privileged person, who has been listening, and who cares about the truth and who has tried hard to understand but has a question, a criticism, or a disagreement and they are dismissed merely because they are privileged. That is not rational.

Maybe that person is wrong, and maybe they’ll change their mind, but we, as human beings, need more than your experience, at some point in the process of listening. We need actual arguments, and sometimes the arguments you have are not sufficient because sometimes even marginalized people make errors in judgment and thinking. Those arguments don’t have to be on the terms of the person asking, and they don’t have to invade the spaces you make for yourself to feel safe (I, for example, am writing this on my own blog), but philosophical conclusions cannot be merely asserted in the name of lived experience, because there is no “my truth” or “your truth”; there is only truth, and we all have it and miss it’s mark on the merits of our arguments. I’ll take your word on your experience, and your feelings, but your philosophical conclusions are everyone’s territory, because you’ve left the realm of experience, and are claiming something to be true. So if someone in your community disagrees with your conclusion, you cannot merely play the privilege card against a genuine disagreement because reason transcends that theoretical concept.

My point is that there needs to be room for disagreement within our communities, whether poly, atheist, or whatever, because truth is the realm of philosophy and is not subject to theories dependent upon historical or cultural realities. If someone does the work, listens, and tries to understand but simply comes to a different conclusion, the response has to be better than something like the following;

Of course you disagree. You’re speaking from the most privileged position of anyone here. You’ve got a personal investment in being able to look down, talk down, and still deem yourself as logical and correct. It’s a matter of perspective and you’ve got it.

Because that’s not an argument. That’s merely dismissal. We must do better, if we want to be role models.


No, I don’t have any answers which cannot change

The bottom line is that I don’t have answers to my questions, yet. I may never have them. But I will not merely conform and agree, because I’m supposed to. I cannot choose my beliefs, because they will form themselves in my mind based upon the strength of argument made in their favor. If I disagree with you, then it might be the case that I’m missing something, and I’ll keep doing my work to see if that’s the case. But if I’ve had the same nagging question and concern with some specific aspects of the worldview you espouse after several years of attempting to understand, then at some point the responsibility becomes less mine, and more yours to have better explanations.

Perhaps my point of view occasionally allows me to see something that you cannot see, even if only extremely rarely. I admit that it’s quite possible I’m completely wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But so far I disagree with many people in the progressive community concerning specific beliefs and details of the worldview we generally share. But I need to feel free to have these disagreements without being dismissed and erased. Perhaps that’s something I learned, initially, from you. Perhaps you need to listen sometimes, as well.



So, thanks for reading, those of you who used to be friends (perhaps as of this reading. I’ve already lost FB friends recently articulating similar points in comments sections), those of you who might agree or disagree but are ambivalent towards me specifically, or people who agree with me here (I’ve heard from some people in the poly community the last few days who might agree with much of what I’ve said here. No, none of them were also white, hetero, cis men). Something finally compelled me to write after some time. If you disagree with me and feel like dismissing me because of my privilege, then I guess we’re at an impasse.

*Skepticism might, in itself, have more logically derived conclusions, but that’s a conversation for another day

**Listen to the podcast episode at this link only if you really feel like yelling at your earbuds a lot



Shock absorption: evolving thoughts on anger and social justice

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been circling back repeatedly to the questions around the intersections of anger, marginalization, oppression, and social justice. I came to it with a knee-jerk, “Of course it’s better to restrain your anger and express yourself calmly and civilly no matter the provocation” stance, born out of my own Stoic Peacekeeper personality and the cultural values I picked up from my white educated middle-class environment. I did a lot of listening to the arguments that challenge that stance, and because this is the way I develop my understanding of knotty ethical problems, I threw myself as completely as possible into the “an oppressed person should get to express themselves however they feel like, even if it sounds unreasonably hostile and aggressive to others” viewpoint. I argued that side to others and put myself into communities where it was the rule, to see what the outcomes of having that rule are.

Based primarily on those experiences, I’ve pulled back a little and am working on settling myself somewhere in the territory between those two stances. I’m still working on where, exactly, that will be. But it’s distressing to me that the majority of the conversation I hear about the issue is pretty much either “How dare you say hostile things you mean meanyface!” or “How dare you silence someone’s expression of anger, whatever [verbal] form it took!” So I loved this post by Aoife over at Consider the Tea Cosy, which had a practical and nuanced view, affirming the right of marginalized people to express anger, allowing that the anger is not always going to be contained to the immediate oppressors, and exhorting people on all sides to be aware of how much they don’t know about the people who are in the immediate vicinity.

Bits I particularly appreciated:

 When the status quo is oppressive (it is), then staying neutral just keeps things as they are.

The status quo needs shaking up. Anger- even messy outbursts of I CAN’T FUCKING DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING- shakes things up. Anger is a sign that someone’s been stressed to a breaking point. Anger reminds us that something is rotten. It knocks away a little of our complacency.

It has taken me a long time to really grasp that staying calm and absorbing emotional strain doesn’t always help situations. Sometimes it just allows really bad situations to linger far longer than they needed to. I will likely continue to struggle with this — stoic peacekeeper, over here. But I’ve been in enough situations where just quietly coping turned out to be a maladaptive strategy, and some anger, even messy and poorly-targeted anger, would have driven us much more quickly toward solutions.

While as oppressed people it’s often a good idea to focus our anger at appropriate targets when we can, when we are privileged it’s our responsibility to.. deal with it. Take some breaths. If we need to stew and simmer (we’re only human!), be careful about where we direct that hurt. Understand that whatever anger we’re receiving is magnified many times by the other crap the person has had to deal with. Accept that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for anyone involved.

I really like that she handles both sides of the coin here. The hurt I, as a privileged person (in a hypothetical scenario) feel from being lashed out at unfairly, is real. It counts. It’s not nothing. But it’s also (in this same hypothetical scenario) way less than the person doing the lashing-out has had to deal with, so it’s my responsibility to suck it up and cope in a way that doesn’t create more hurt for that person.

And then there’s the cases where maybe the hurt I feel isn’t way less, because of whatever shit I’ve got going on:

 If the world were divided neatly into privileged and oppressed, we could all portion out how much anger we can take (and from who) and how much venting we get to do. It’s not, though. It’s messy- messier than our anger, messier than the hurt that leads to that anger or that results from it.

As people who are hurt and angry, intersectionality, I think, reminds us that other people could be dealing with things as opaque to us as our experiences are to them. There’s no such thing as the Last Acceptable Prejudice. All prejudices are the Last Acceptable Prejudices. While they all hurt us in different ways, the fact of that harm is always there. Vent if we need to, but understand that not-in-my-group doesn’t equal never-hurt, that not all things are visible to bystanders, and that this person might have a load of microaggressions of their own tipping them over an edge you never knew existed.

This is the piece of things that had me tearing my hair out when I was active in a heavily social-justice-oriented community. Situations would arise where one person’s hurt and anger and oppression redounded on another person in a way that aggravated that person’s hurt and anger and oppression, and trying to adjudicate those situations was frankly more than I was able to cope with, especially when I was one of the people being hurt.

Read the whole piece, it’s great.

Shock absorption: a model for looking at hurt and response

There are two different ways I’ve seen people look at anger, hurt, and response. The first is what I’ll call the “conflagration” model. People who love and trust each other, and have the right temperament for it, can get into screaming fights, yelling all over each other and maybe even breaking a dinner plate or two, and then once they’ve expressed themselves as loudly and fully as possible the anger dies down and they can hug and laugh and be close again. As far as I can tell (and I really don’t know, because this is an alien dynamic to me) the things each person said get filed away under “things I say when I’m angry” and both people know that they weren’t really meant, and don’t have a lasting hurtful impact. Maybe both people just grok that those are feelings expressed but not endorsed? The point is, in that model both people’s anger and hurt flares up like a bonfire, feeding on itself and growing for a while, and then naturally burning itself out and leaving very little residue to deal with.

Then there is what I’ll call the “shock absorption” model. In this one, hurtful things that were said and done while angry (or irritated or sleep-deprived or distracted) don’t go away… they react and rebound like shock waves. Jo, coming home from a shitty day at work, says something carelessly hurtful to Sal, who then has to do something with that hurt. Ze can bounce it right back to Jo, snapping back at hir, or ze can take it out on someone else, or ze can hold onto it and let it stew and fester, where it will likely gain momentum and fly out later at Jo or someone else with even more force. Any of these actions are going to cause an echoing effect, where the person who got hit by the rebound will then bounce it back to someone else, and on it goes. (If it’s just Jo and Sal volleying back and forth, hey presto! you have a fight.)

Sal can also do some conscious shock absorption, where ze thinks, “I know Jo is having a terrible time at work. I know Jo loves me and didn’t want to hurt me. I’m going to let that slide, and maybe bring it up later when Jo is in a better place to have a conversation about it.” This kind of shock absorption — reacting to hurt with understanding and patience — is what stops the endless cycle of hurt and anger rebounding all over the place. In the shock absorption model (which I think applies to any relationship where love, trust, and/or conflict-friendly temperaments are not firmly established, including nearly all the interactions social justice is concerned with) somebody, somewhere, has to do this before things will calm down. Often multiple people need to, as everybody takes deep breaths and works to get to a place of understanding and kindness.

A person’s ability to act as a shock absorber in this way is limited: by their temperament, by their maturity, and by the level of stress they’re currently under, including how much shock-absorption they’ve already been doing in the recent past. Once your shock pads are worn down, you’re back to Sal’s original choices in response to hurt: lash out (at the person who hurt you or someone else) or let it fester inside you, where it will only get worse and eventually emerge to do more damage. I didn’t mention it above, but sometimes if you go the “let it fester” route, the damage it does is to yourself and your own self-esteem. Taking on a lot of hurt and never dealing with or expressing it can eventually have you believing that you deserve to be treated badly, that you can’t expect any different in relationships, that this is just how things are.

When we’re talking about anger and social justice, asking a more privileged person to suck it up and deal with the occasional misdirected outburst is essentially saying, “The person who lashed out at you is likely near the end of their shock-absorption capacity. You have plenty left, so use it.” It’s saying, “One of the hazards of dealing with constant micro-aggressions is internalizing that sense of inferiority, starting to believe that you don’t deserve better. The person who lashed out at you is protecting themselves against that outcome; let them.” As long as you have some shock-absorption capacity left, it’s best to use it in those situations.

This is complicated by the fact that the apparently privileged person might also be at the end of their shock-absorption capacity, for any of a number of reasons (including having some invisible sources of marginalization.) This is what the third quote I pulled from Aoife’s post touches on. Saying, “you have to be the shock absorber here because you haven’t been hurt the way the other person has” is really, really upsetting — not to mention sometimes impossible to grant — when you’re staggering under the weight of your own stress and hurt.

And on the flip side, a lot of people who have the capacity to absorb hurt choose to rebound it instead. Absorption takes work, lashing back is easy. This is one reason I’m wary of the extreme “marginalized people get to express themselves however they want!” position. In some cases, I think it can turn into an abdication of any responsibility for acting as a shock absorber when you do have the capacity. This especially happens with people who are somewhere in the middle of the privilege ladder (assuming such a thing is a sensical concept, which it’s not, but it’ll do for the moment.) It is impossible to know what’s going on from outside: whether the person lashing out is doing so because their shocks are worn too thin, or just because they feel entitled to lash out. But I will say, that of the many and varied outbursts I’ve seen, statistically some of them are almost certainly being perpetrated by people who could have healthily chosen to absorb the hurt instead, and that just increases the strain on the system for everyone.

It’s even further complicated by the fact that, if you’re an internalizer, it can be hard to tell the difference between internalizing the hurt so that it festers, and absorbing it so that it dissipates. Impossible to tell the difference from the outside, and not always easy from the inside. If you’ve gone through most of your life acting as a shock absorber for other people, you can slide from “productively exercising patience and understanding” to “self-destructively internalizing hurt” without even noticing it. Another dynamic I’ve seen play out in social justice circles is that a bunch of people who tend to externalize are loudly rebounding hurt all over the place, while the people who tend to internalize are just getting quieter and quieter and eventually slip away from the circle, when they realize they’ve crossed that line and participation is becoming self-destructive. The people who externalize hurt are not always the ones most deeply hurt, but this tends not to get recognized in the conversations about anger and social justice.

Sometimes a situation is so tense that there’s just not enough shock absorption capacity to handle the level of hurt that’s bouncing around. When things get to this point, there’s nothing to be done except back away; any interaction is going to cause more damage, whether it’s internalized or externalized. If the connection is valuable enough, and the parties involved are able to replenish themselves elsewhere, they may be able to regroup and try again. But maybe not. I’m convinced that the main reason many relationships and communities fall apart is that the total shock absorption capacity of the group is worn too thin to handle the next wave of stressors.

Implications of the shock absorption model

What does this mean, both for social justice circles and for relationships? The guidelines I’m tentatively staking out are these:

  1. In most situations, if you can be a shock absorber, do. If you can react to being hurt with patience, understanding, and kindness, and do so without damaging your own sense of self-worth, do that, because there are likely plenty of people in the situation whose capacity is lower than yours.
  2. Recognize that for some people in some circumstances, letting hurt rebound so that it strikes someone else is the healthiest option. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, per se, but it’s the best way to deal with a bad situation. It also doesn’t mean that you personally deserve the attack that was sent your way. Draw a line between, “this person needed to vent their hurt toward me” and “I deserved what they said/did.” You don’t have to draw it publicly, in fact you shouldn’t. Just note that it’s true, and go seek reassurance and comfort somewhere else if you need to.
  3. Work on being self-aware about when you absorb and when you don’t. If you’re an internalizer, get smart about the signs that you’re unhealthily internalizing rather than productively absorbing, and find ways to express your anger when you’ve hit the limit of your absorption capacity. If you’re an externalizer, don’t take “I get to express anger however I want” as carte blanche to throw your hurt around. Again, if you can be a shock absorber, do, because the fewer shock absorbers there are in a situation the more likely the whole group is to reach critical dissolution point.
  4. Be wary of making judgements about how much absorption capacity the people around you have. The less you know them, the less clue you have about what’s going on with them and how thick their shock pads are at the moment. What matters (to you) is your hurt and how much you can take. You get to draw boundaries to protect yourself whether someone is willfully and carelessly throwing hurt around, or reacting in the only way possible to them.
  5. When everybody’s shocks are wearing thin, the best thing to do is back away. Let everybody go off and replenish their emotional reserves. Sometimes, getting a situation resolved right now is not going to happen, and continued attempts are just going to wear everybody down even further. One of the sucky things about certain kinds of oppression is that it becomes very hard to find a retreat space where you’re not constantly being worn down by new stressors and microaggressions. This is part of why “safe spaces” are so important, and why people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from them. Having a space to vent and express and restore makes it easier for someone to come back and have a conversation that will be productive and healthy on both sides.
  6. And my overall, foundational principle for these kinds of discussions: Be excellent to each other. We’re all hurting, in various ways and at various times. Wherever it’s possible, let’s do what we can to make less hurt, not more.




The Privilege of Passion

I was out watching the Chicago Blackhawks win game 4 (in overtime) of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, at a local bar I like (because they have a great selection of beer), when I saw that I still had about half a beer to drink once the game was over.  I had brought with me (because I’m totes a nerd, even while drinking beer at a bar with a hockey shirt on) a copy of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science which I started reading again recently.  It’s great because it’s a collection of loosely related aphorisms, so it’s perfect for reading when you don’t have a lot of time, and because it’s just an awesome book.

After reading a section about Nicholas Chamfort (which reminds me that I should read some of his work in the future), I got to section 96, which reads as follows:

Two Speakers.– Of these two speakers, one can show the full rationality of his cause only when he abandons himself to passion: this alone pumps enough blood and heat into his brain to force his high spirituality to reveal itself.  The other one may try the same now and then–to present his cause sonorously, vehemently, and to sweep his audience off their feet with the help of passion–but usually with little success.  Soon he speaks obscurely and confusedly; he exaggerates; he omits things; and he arouses mistrust about the rationality of his cause.  Actually he himself comes to feel mistrust, and that explains sudden leaps into the coldest and most repugnant tones that lead his audience to doubt whether his passion was genuine.  In his case, passion always inundates the spirit, perhaps because it is stronger than in the first speaker.  But he is at the height of his powers when he resists the flood of his emotions and virtually derides it; only then does his spirit emerge fully from its hiding place–a logical, mocking, playful, and yet awesome spirit.

This spoke to me in a powerful way.

I have read this particular book a few times already.  But the last time I read it was a few years ago.  Books like this one reveal how we grow, sort of like how when you read Catcher in the Rye every few years to see how you react to the protagonist.  This little paperback is marked up, annotated (I have a system), and is now starting to fall apart a little.  Yet this section was not marked much.  It had slipped past me the first few times I read it, but not this time.  I have sections so inked up, noted, etc that you can barely read the text, but this one was hardly marked at all.  But today when I read it is jumped out at me.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between argumentation and emotion.  For many years, my writing, perspective, etc was tied up in powerful and partially irrational emotions.  A few years ago, after a pretty awful part of my life, I was told by a therapist that I should read about Borderline Personality Disorder.  Upon doing research, I discovered that there was a name for the particular brain crap that I had been battling for as long as I can remember.  And reading this section of Nietzsche, it makes me wonder it, perhaps, Nietzsche understood something about what it’s like to be me.  I generally think that Nietzsche had insights into humanity that the vast majority of people do not (and perhaps cannot); the fact that I read this book a few times and missed this one makes me wonder what other aphorisms he wrote, which have so far left me cold, have to offer.

There is a part of me that wants to reach out more, emotionally, to people.  But the fact is that when I allow my emotions to lead, more likely than not I will speak poorly, get caught up in anxieties, or simply lose my place in the conversation.  Arguments, especially in person, make me lose my rationality to some degree because I become enveloped in a shroud of emotions; fear, uncertainty, sadness, etc.  I enjoy conversations, but I have come to accept that there are certain types of tones of voice, body language, etc which trigger feelings that I cannot control.  I can guide them, but I cannot harness them.*

I have this ideal view of me becoming a person who iss patient, kind, and attentive person in discussion.  I listen, understand, and respond without emotion clouding my judgment, or without becoming paralyzed by uncertainty.  I desire to be able to listen dispassionately and allow my intellect to efficiently solve the problem, or at least to understand it.  The problem is that I cannot maintain that calm in actual conversation most of the time.  I may appear calm and collected (and you likely have NO idea how much effort it requires just to maintain that appearance), but the fact is that I’m not.  I’m filled with potential outbursts which are inappropriate, destructive, and (for me as well) terrifying.

So, when I read the section quoted above, I felt like I had at least one person who understood.  There is a strength in me, an intelligence and a perspective  capable of awesomeness, that is hard for me to maintain.  But it is there.  Those emotions which rise up when I become anxious are indeed tempting; it’s much easier to allow those emotions to control my behavior than to remain rational and calm, but I cannot simply remain calm.  I cannot allow my passion to step forward because it’s too much for me (or most others) to handle.  That, and what it causes me to say and do have little to do with what my intellect would say.

Others, who have passion but are not overwhelmed by it, can allow the full force of that passion to flow freely.  It comes across as authentic and meaningful, because they don’t have to restrain it.  That is their privilege.  In my case, since I cannot simply let my passions to freely compel my words and actions, the act of restraining it makes it appear forced–ironically because I am not forcing it out, but forcing some of it in.

So, I cannot allow my passion to flow freely, most of the time.**  There is too much of it, most of the time.  So I will continue to practice resisting the flood, perhaps even to deride it.

But no, I shall not speak ill of emotions and passion.  They are both beautiful and powerful, and wonderful tools for those who can wield them well.  But for me they are often too dangerous and destructive to myself and those near to me, and so I will keep striving to develop the ability to speak with passion put aside, knowing that even in doing this it is passion which is the cause of my speaking, ultimately.  The idea, I think, is to allow passion to fuel my words, not to compose them.

[BTW, I was very tempted to title this piece The Passion of the Anti-Christ, but was not sure how many people would appreciate that reference, even though I’ve already mentions Nietzsche here.]

*If you are thinking, right now, that this is something that I can learn to do, then you are in a place of neuro-typical privilege.   This is one of the key parts of my disorder, and the danger is that I think I can control it, but I cannot.  The best I can do to explain is taht the very process of attempting to control the overwhelming emotion simply feeds it, and before I know it it has taken over.

**There are times when I can.  Those times are sometimes late at night, either by myself (struggling to remain sane, rational, and calm while battling some fear or another) or with Ginny or Gina who try to do anything to help me not hurt so much.

The Zen of why atheist men should understand #ShutUpAndListen

OK, so I’m a man.  I am going to preempt this post by saying that his is an attempt to explain my understanding of an issue which I may be completely wrong about.  But I think it’s valuable to express it anyway, just in case I might flick on a light bulb for some people.


Ex-theists and perspective:

Many atheists used to be theists.  If this is true for you, then there was a time when they were involved in questioning your beliefs, and during that time you probably had conversations with atheists who were attempting to provide evidence, logic, etc in order to get you to see a point.  For whatever cognitive reasons, your past self was just not seeing it.  But over time, you started to digest the ideas, have them incorporate themselves into your mind, and one day it just sort of clicked.  It just made sense, perhaps suddenly, perhaps a little at a time, but one day it just made sense that belief in a god is not rational nor justified.  You were not necessarily exposed to a new idea, but you were exposed to a new perspective that shifted how you saw the issue.

I am willing to bet that a lot of what delayed this ‘getting it’ was trying to engage with the information.  A theist hears a logical point from an atheist, and they have to try and employ their current worldview against it; their mind has to address it with what content it already has.  In short, they are trying to respond to it as part of an intellectual conversation.

Click for link to article

Privilege is a tricky concept.  One of the important aspects of it is that if you have it, it works to blind you against seeing it.  In our culture, belief in god, mostly the God of Abraham, is widespread and the tradition called “Christianity” has a privileged position.  I’ll bet that most ex-Christians didn’t understand the privilege that theism and Christianity had before they started living as out-of-the-closet atheists.  And now that they are out of the closet (I hope, anyway), they start to understand that privilege because they see it from a new perspective.

Just like the theist could not understand the atheist position, intellectually or in terms of the cultural privilege such belief comes with, many men are struggling with the concept of male privilege right now, and the relationship between these two phenomena should be enlightening.


Male privilege as a perspective

A few women have told me that the ideas that some men are trying to communicate, in regards to feminism, sexism, and “Men’s rights” are ideas they are well-aware of.  On the other hand, many of the messages that many women are trying to communicate to such men, especially right now in the atheist community, are not being understood.  Feminist criticisms are based on ideas that are not part of the mainstream and which are marginalized in comparison with the ideas some men tend to make in such conversations.  So when some men respond, rather than listen, they are repeating the mainstream view which the feminist criticism is responding to in the first place.  It’s like a theist responding to an atheist claim by saying “but god really exists.  Just ask anyone!”

For our purposes here, the (mostly Christian) theistic ideas that many ex-theists are familiar with are analogous to the anti-feminist ideas which many of those same atheists still defend.  Similarly, atheist arguments are analogous to feminist criticisms of mainstream gender concepts and behaviors.  The atheist talking to the clueless theist (clueless in the sense that they do not yet understand either their privilege or the superiority of the atheist position) is therefore also analogous to the feminist talking to the MRA or someone like Ron Lindsay (also see Amanda Marcotte’s open letter to CFI) who simply is not getting why they are being told to shut up and listen.

This is not about free speech.  This is NOT about silencing dissent or quelling men’s place in the conversation.

I will repeat.  #ShutUpAndListen is not about silencing dissent, conversation, or about bullying forward an ideology.  It’s about the fact that if you are not listening, you may not be in a cognitive position to understand because your mind is oriented along the lines of the mainstream idea being criticized.  In this specific case of male privilege, it’s about how one’s position as a male in our society gives that person unconscious, automatic, and unintended advantages that they will not see by trying to engage by using it.

One’s intellect is not in question here per se, but it is partially your intellect—your ability to engage with and converse about ideas—that is the cause of the blindness.  By engaging by use of your perspective, which is privileged, you are using your privilege rather than trying to see it.  There is a paradox at work here, in other words.

zen-circle-sheilan-sheilanIt seems to me that this is very much like a Zen koan.

If you try and use your intellect only to understand Zen, you will never understand the concept of Zen.  Zen is about transcending ourselves, consciousness-raising, etc.  It is about allowing you to take yourself out of yourself so you can see yourself from another perspective.  Once you see it, your perspectives shifts in a way that you could not have understood, or predicted, before the shift.   After you see the shift, you can engage with it intellectually, but not before.

Privilege is about perspective, perception, and is entwined with the very foundations of how we understand ourselves in relationship with other things.  It is not an objective concept to be apprehended, it is a way we see such concepts.  It is a method, not a fact.

Think about how it changed the way you understand the world to understand that your previous religious worldview (for those that had one) was fundamentally wrong.  Was it conceivable to understand what you understand now, then? When I first saw the shift of my own privilege (which happened much too late, when it comes to male privilege), it changed the conversation for me.  And so now talking with men who do not get it yet is much like talking with a fundamentalist Christian.  I simply cannot show either of those interlocutors either my atheist or feminist  perspective, but I can talk around it.  I can describe it and hope that they are listening to me, rather than thinking about their reply, but I cannot force them to.

All ex-theists had to spend some time really listening, whether live or via reflection, to what an atheist has said to them about belief. Some may do this on their own and without external argumentation, through genuine introspection and self-doubt, but it amounts to the same.  Understanding privilege is more about introspection than it is about understanding a concept.  it’s about understanding how our mind works (or, more correctly, how it doesn’t).

And that’s why we all, at some times, need to shut up and listen.  It’s like meditation; we have to shut down our privilege engines, our verbal and intellectual powers, and watch the mind in action to see how it’s skewing the world for us.  By insisting upon verbalizing it—by talking rather than listening or watching—we are not able to see the machine in action, and to fix it.

So, whether it comes to gender, race, etc, shut up and listen.  Sometimes, it’s the only way to understand.

Third wave atheism or the ‘new skepticism’?

edit: I saw Jen’s follow-up post as well.  I like this image best:


A couple of days ago (I’ve been moving and such), Jen wrote this post on her blog about how the atheist community has been a “boy’s club” and how we need to help progress towards a “third wave” of atheism.  The key part is this:

I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift. I want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement. I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people. We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.

It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

Yes, I agree.  We, in the blogosphere have been talking a lot about “new” (or “gnu”) atheism, but in the same way that a Jr. leads to a III, we can have the future of the skeptic/atheist movement be a third wave where we include all of the various effects that religion, theological thinking, and non-skepticism generally affects our lives.

In short, we need to transcend mere atheism and move onto application of skepticism to all aspects of culture, beliefs, and actions.  We need a new skepticism.

I have been trying to do just that for years at this blog.  I saw the kinds of arguments that people had about god, religion, and things like science, and saw parallels between how we think about monogamy and polyamory.  I saw unskeptical thinking leading people towards conservative views about sex and relationships, and I began to draw those lines using what I had seen in the skeptical community since I ran into it a decade ago.

In the years that I have run this blog (and after subsequently adding some new writers), I have broadened my focus to include questions of orientation, gender, and have even wrote about my own neuro-atypicality.  Yes, I still focus on atheism and polyamory most of the time, but that is because these are the subjects I know best.  I look to people like Ginny (my lovely wife) to write about gender, trans, sexology issues (when she’s not burdened by grad school work, that is).  And Wes and Gina do their things, whether controversy or convulsions of laughter.

In doing this, I have come to a fairly progressive perspective, which I suppose is no surprise to anyone who knows me.  I support LGBT rights, including the right to marry, raise children, etc.  I support people who are simply trying to live their lives with political and legal freedom afforded to them not according to theological concerns, but by rational and empirical arguments based on fairness and compassion.

But most importantly, I support the freedom of speech and thought, without which the freedom to act would be parochial and hindered.  As Keenan Malik recently said,

Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.

(H/T Greg Mayer over at WEIT)

I support maintaining a skeptical community that fights for the truth, is aware of concepts like privilege and how it influences or worldviews, and which perpetually self-improves by allowing for criticism and dissent, when dissent is warranted.

To conclude, I agree with Jen that we need a third wave of atheism.  And whether we think of it as an atheist movement, a skeptical movement, or a social justice movement led by skeptics and atheists, the important thing is that we must keep challenging ourselves to understand more, listen better, and remember that religion and non-skeptical thinking has effects which may not be immediately obvious to us, with our perspective.  Religion effects different groups in different ways, and so we need to be inclusive in order to progress towards the goal.

The goal of making ourselves, as activists, obsolete.

Thinking about “the OTHER side” with friends

OK, so I don’t know why I have not been reading Dan Fincke’s blog, Camels with Hammers, for longer than that last month or so.  I don’t always agree with him, but he and I share a number of things, including graduate degrees in philosophy, a love of Nietzsche, and being atheist bloggers.  It’s too bad he’s not poly or I might have to have a man-crush or something.

This is what Patrick Stewart does after reading the beginning of this post

OK, not that last part.  I’m totes hetero.  Except for Patrick Stewart during the days of Star Trek: TNG.

Anyway, I’m getting off-topic (already), so I’ll just leave my Kinsey rating to the side for a moment and get to what I want to talk about today.

I had a long conversation with some friends last week about atheism, polyamory, privilege, etc that was rather frustrating all-around.  In an email exchange, a friend wrote to me, and this was my response.

I think I address some issues which are interesting to readers here, so enjoy.

[I’ve changed names of people involved for the sake of anonymity or someshit]

I find it interesting that you read that post and got this from it:

I’m not sure which viewpoint you meant to espouse here – doesn’t this stand for the proposition that any prominent view can be blindingly pervasive?

I find it interesting because this may be a related tangent to the post, but it is not what Dan Fincke was talking about (as I understand it).  For me, the core of the post was this section (Quoted only to highlight it, not to have you read it again, necessarily):

And this is not because they are either brainwashed or intemperate, but rather because they know what you think already and are sick of it. They too were systematically enculturated to internalize the same values, beliefs, practices, and assumptions that you were. What you are about to say to them was drilled into their heads, quite often to their own detriment, with both words and consequences. And sometimes those words and consequences were extremely harsh in order that the point you want to make to them might sink deep into their little, obtuse heads. Whatever you are going to say, they have heard it already from their parents, their lovers, their religious leaders, their friends, their coaches, their colleagues, their teachers, and/or their employers. The assumptions you want to make explicitly clear to them, in order that they finally “get it”, have already determined the course of their lives in ways you can hardly imagine.

They have met you before. They have thought your way before, they have felt your way before, and they have valued things your way before. They have lived in your world their whole lives. They walk around with you already in their head.

They have struggled through hard experiences, wrestled with challenging educators, and engaged in a whole lot of personal reflection in order to learn  how to think differently, in order that they might successfully think and feel at cross-currents with not only explicit sociopolitical pressures but implicit ones embedded in language, social norms, religious practices, and, even, what are taken to be moral assumptions.

People who come from your own culture and yet think so wildly differently from what you think you know to be common sense do not just wind up that way because they are stupid or emotional or have mysteriously not been presented with basic information or arguments yet. They have, in all likelihood, had some bad experiences and been exposed to challenging ideas that you have not seriously had to contend with yet. They have, in all likelihood, thought through the issues at hand in intricately complex ways that you have not even begun to take seriously.

Of course this does not mean that they have necessarily come to correct conclusions in all, or even in most, matters. Their radical reeducation may be mistaken. They may have drawn the wrong conclusions from their experiences in any number of areas or in any number of ways. They may have something to learn from a dialogue or a debate with you.

But neither you nor they will learn anything if you just dismiss them as someone who needs you to explain to them the obvious that they might overcome their apparent obtuseness. Nothing is going to be learned if you condescend to them by telling them they haven’t heard out the “other side” and that they are just some sort of extremist who does not get basic facts about the world. Nothing is going to be learned if you strawman what is strange and unfamiliar in what they are saying so that you never give it the slightest chance to prove itself to you and to expand your horizons. You are not going to grow if you look for their most obvious mistakes, interpret their views to have the worst possible implications, or try to attack their personal failings as a convenient excuse to shut them down without listening to them.

This is not talking about how persuasive or prominent an idea is, at least not directly. As I understand it, Fincke is talking about how worldviews skew how we approach topics.  It’s talking about how a person can get at a problem from a view that others, who have not dove into the intricacies, simply don’t see.  The simplistic view that those people, who have not dove in, is often paired with an untested certainty about their view.

I say “untested” because they have not dealt with the subject deeply and seriously, so they are incapable of understanding it in the way that the expert (or even non-expert activist) does.  It does not mean they are lacking in intelligence or anything like that, just that they currently lack the relevant experience to comprehend the various subtleties of the problems.

As an example, let me address your question about self-doubting ideologies, where you said

So it would cut against any ideology which isn’t self-doubting, including atheism?

I’m curious why you see atheism as not being self-doubting.  Granted, there are atheists who may not doubt (as there are theists who do not doubt), but this is either a false claim to cover up insecurity or a semantic problem. Atheism per se is nothing more than the lack of belief in any “gods” (whatever those are supposed to be).  Atheism is a tentative conclusion based upon rational thinking, logic, and empiricism; in short, it’s due to skepticism; the lack of supporting evidence leads to the lack of belief in supernatural entities.

Any intelligent and mature thinker knows that their opinions, conclusions, etc are always tentative.  The strength of their certainty is dependent upon the strength of the evidence in support for a position, ideally.  My certainty that there are no theistic gods is very high (for deistic gods, not as high), and if I am given sufficient reason or evidence to doubt this certainty, that lack of belief is subject to change.  If there is good reason to think there are any gods, I want to know and am willing to change my mind.

But my experience with theology, science, philosophy, etc have led my certainty to grow quite strong, and the area for possible evidence for such beings is vanishingly small.  That is, the gaps for “the god of the gaps” grows smaller the more we learn about the universe.  But in the end I will always concede that I might be wrong, that there may be a god, gods, or something supernatural.  I simply see no reason to suspect that I am wrong, currently.

So in other words atheism is always tentative and thus, in a sense, self-doubting.  An atheist should always doubt (everyone should).  If I were to be precise, I would point out that because atheism proposes nothing about the world at all (it is a negative position; a- + theism=atheism), it is not even categorically meaningful for it to not be subject to doubt because it proposes nothing to doubt or not.  Theism is the position, the claim, and atheism is the rejection of the claim and logically implies nothing else, directly.  The only way to meaningfully doubt atheism is to be exposed to evidence or good reason to believe in a god.  And an atheist should be open to the possibility of such (And there are atheists, like PZ Myers, who [seem to] disagree with that statement…for reasons too complicated to get into here).

The point of the post, as I understand it, is to show that ideas, whether popular, mainstream, etc (or not) are subject to a kind of bias, often called privilege, which creates a problem in communication.  The Christian talking to me, for example, talks as if I have never heard the story of Christ.  Or at least that if I know the words, I have failed to comprehend the meaning and significance of the story.  But not only do I know the story, but I know the history, theology, etc better than they do (quite likely; studies have shown that atheists know more about religion than practitioners of those religions do, in most cases).

I know it more because I have spent years studying the subject.  I have superior experience, so when I talk with people with other specialties (say, the law or robot-building), I run into ideas about the subject which fail to demonstrate sufficient understanding, let alone expertise.  And the arguments that I hear are attempts to show a narrative which I not only understand (and better than the arguer), but which I have transcended, rejected, and have replaced with a superior narrative.

Like I said before; I would not try and argue a legal position with you (or anyone else who has studied such things) without understanding that my views on the subject are sophomoric (at best), and I would lend more weight on what you would say, even though I am aware that you may not actually be correct.  But I hear people add their views about religion, atheism, philosophy, etc frequently who have little idea about what they’re talking about, because they are intelligent people and these are mere matters of critical thinking (or whatever their justification may be).

There seems to be a view in our culture that subjects such as religion and the complex issues surrounding “new atheism” are accessible to any educated person (and, I suppose it is if they do the work), and so many people feel (whether atheist or theist) like they can just confidently explain to me the popular narrative and I’ll simply get that I’m making it more complicated, extreme, etc than it has to be.  When [name redacted] referred to me as “one-dimensional,” I wanted to say I saw him as sophomoric and simplistic, but I realized that wouldn’t help conversation.  When I hear that, I feel like I’m talking to the freshman in philosophy class who thinks he knows everything because he read ahead and knows what the next reading offers as an answer.  But that freshman doesn’t have a grasp on the problem at hand, and just looks stupid from the point of view of the expert.

There exists a (privileged) narrative about religion, faith, atheism, science etc in our culture which is largely nonsensical and flatly wrong.  It sounds sensible at first hearing (that is, it’s compelling and persuasive and thus hard to respond to easily without explaining the underlying narrative), but it’s dubious and has been shown to be so by people such as myself for years.  And yet this narrative drives the mainstream cultural opinion where the mass media, most of the middle class, and even educated people swim and pass around the memes which we, the experts in the field, know to be absurd.  And so we get frustrated, labeled as angry, irrational, and “one-dimensional.”

The reason we seem one-dimensional is that whenever we talk to people like [name redacted], in the role he played during that conversation, we are viscerally reminded of the narrative we find so ridiculous, and have to confront it again.  It seems like was are reactionary and combative, but we are defending ourselves against the dominant narrative.  We are combating a privilege you have, can’t see, and everyone walks away frustrated.  We have to explain the basics of the problem, for the thousandth time, to someone who thinks their opinion is intelligent when it isn’t.

So yes, we come across as angry, repetitive, and one dimensional.  We have the choice of that, or shutting up.

This image sums that up for me, perfectly:

So, you don’t see atheist discrimination?

A challenge (via Atheist Apostle…via Dead Logic)

Wear if you dare!


Now, I have been wearing shirts that advertise my atheism for many years.  I have some acquaintances who question why I wear them as well as why it matters.  They are atheists too, in most cases, and nobody seems to care about it around them.

Well, a few things:

1) Most of my acquaintances who make such comments, especially people I’ve known from from high school, are very privileged private school educated, upper middle class, white men.

2) They rarely or never talk about their atheism, especially to non-atheists.  How would they know if discrimination existed? It’s easy not to be discriminated against if you are so deep in the closet nobody can see you there.

3) I’m not sure if most of these people would know what discrimination looks like, from the receiving end, if they did experience it.

My own admitted privileged status in our culture means that I don’t fully comprehend the repercussions of discrimination myself, and this is magnified for those who don’t expose themselves to being out atheists.  I am well aware of my ignorance about the experience of serious discrimination.  But what small amount of lack of privilege that being an atheist entails in our society (especially when compared to what women, non-white, trans, etc (not to mention the various intersectionality that people experience), I can assure you it does exist.

It’s nothing immediately dangerous (in the vast majority of cases, but I also live in a liberal metropolis), and in most cases it amounts to awkward conversations with clueless people.  It certainly can make job-hunting problematic, as advertising atheist activism on a resume may not be wise.  Although I once did get hired for a job (years ago) while wearing a “Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood atheist” shirt.

So, atheist discrimination, in comparison with discrimination received by other groups of people is comparatively tame.  But it exists.  The more people that come out of the closet as atheists, the better it will eventually get.

So, whether you wear a shirt like the one pictured above or not, keep in mind that there are significant religious privileges in our society, and that we need more people standing up, speaking, and acting in the name of social justice of all kinds.

All social justice activists are working to make their activism irrelevant.  Let’s make atheist activism irrelevant.

Polyamory is not a privilege, but is skepticism?

I wrote a long post two nights ago, in response to a post over at which started some conversation.  Today, I want to clarify a distinction that may help illuminate my central point.

There are social power dynamics which make achieving certain things more or less difficult in our culture.  Those with more privilege have an easier time surmounting aspects of our culture than others.  Some people avoid emotional, economic, etc hardships which makes certain things easier to achieve.

In other words, privilege exists.

For some people to arrive at polyamory, they need to overcome such hardships.  For others, such struggle is not necessary.  Thus, for many people to arrive at polyamory (or atheism for that matter), they need to take advantage of privilege.  For others, lack of privilege can still lead one to polyamory.

The conclusions I draw from this are that there are privileged ways to get to polyamory, and for many people to get to it they need to take advantage of privilege, but polyamory is not a privilege per se.

Privilege will certaintly help to practice polyamory, but to simply be polyamorous is not a privilege.

Whether I could have gotten where I am today without my privilege of gender, race, economic status (although I have been quite poor myself at one time, I grw up without want), and education is unknowable.  But that some people could have seems incontrovertable to me.

This brings to mind the question of whether skepticism is a tool held through privilege or not.  Because yes, some people arrive at true opinions and healthy lifestyles without rational scrutiny, but is skepticism itself possible without privilege?

Smugness and arrogance in polyamory?

I have been following a blog about polyamory for a little while now called polytical.  I try and keep up with a few poly blogs, twitter feeds, etc in order to keep my finger on the pulse of the community.  I am not really a part of that community, even less than I am an insider the atheist community, but I have been listening for some time and know a fair bit about the issues, people, etc.

So, earlier today this post went up on polytical entitled I’m Poly ‘Cause I’m Better (which was a follow-up and partial change in views from a previous post entitled I’m Better ‘Cause I’m Poly).  I had not read the earlier post previously (it went up before I started following the blog), but read it today for further context.  I will say that I pretty much agreed with the older post.  I have some reservations about the one from today.

Let’s just say I have some questions.  Concerns even.

Lola O starts by saying how ze, after more presence in the poly community, has started to see the smugness of some polyamorous people; smugness about polyamory being better than monogamy and so forth.  I have seen a little bit of that myself.  I think that some of that smugness, that arrogance, can be justified.  Not all of it, surely, but some of it.  I’ll get to that.

So, let’s start with where Lola thinks the problem originates.

I feel it’s important to address this. Not because I enjoy being a naysayer, but I can see why the community alienates people. The smugness comes in two forms – a lack of acknowledgement of intersectional issues, and unchecked blatant privilege.

Oh boy, have we skeptics and atheists been over this ground in the last year!  The debacle that was Elevatorgate, The ‘Amazing’ Atheist, and even Penn Jillette will remind us skeptics (the rest of you can use your Google machine) of what I am referring to (and of course there are many more examples).  Alienating people, especially women and non-white people, from meetups, conventions, etc has been a huge issue in the skeptical/atheist world in recent years, and it exploded last year in a way that educated many people, including myself.

I still have not had a chance to thank Rebecca Watson, personally, for much of that unfortunately.

Once again, there are a lot of things that the polyamory community has to learn from the skeptic community, as well as the other way around.  I know there is some overlap, but I don’t see a tremendous amount of discussion that deals with the intersection and how their trajectories might resemble one-another.  Except, of course, for here at!

In any case, let’s get back to Lola.  Ze thinks that there are two issues that are at the foundation of the problem in the poly community.

  1. a lack of acknowledgment of intersectional issues
  2. unchecked blatant privilege.

Intersectionality is a relatively new idea to me, although I certainly sympathize with the phenomenon as an atheist, polyamorous, skeptic.  Privilege…well, that is not as new to me, but the debacles listed above must have increased the Google hits for that term by a significant degree last year, and I wrote a bit about it myself.  But  I don’t want to deal with these issues naked, I want to allow Lola to dress them up, give them shape, so that we can follow her reasoning.

People who say they’re polyamorous and critical of the assumption that we’re biologically suited to monogamy do not seem to bat an eyelash at gender stereotypes, and are more than willing to glue themselves to biological imperatives of the way “males” and “females” behave.

Yep, I’ve seen this.  The nature of privilege (or am I getting ahead of myself) is that you don’t see it when you have it.  I am in agreement with this statement, although I don’t know how common this actually is, having seen it rarely myself.  As a point of comparison, I’ll add this; having seen how many atheists, who tend to be good at seeing past religious privilege, are blind to their own privileges has taught me that suffering the blunt end of privilege does not imply that you are incapable of having another form of privilege.

Lola continues:

I find myself (and I’m not exaggerating) constantly having to remind fellow poly people that not only do intersex and gender variant people exist, but sometimes even that bisexual individuals exist. And when I bring up how sexism probably impacts the way people interact with others; the way people find partners; how comfortable, for example, those who identify as female may feel in situations where being poly means they are sexually available, I’m told that I’m pissing in everyone’s Cheerios or being too negative.

I have not seen this much myself.  From my non-scientific sample, from my experience, this is pretty rare.  Of course, most of my experience with the poly community IRL comes from being in Philadelphia; a very LGBTQ, intersex, etc friendly area of the world.  I also attended an extremely liberal school where most of my friends were also extremely liberal.  Just another privilege of mine.

It may be that the level of awareness, comfort, and overlap between the polyamorous community and the intersex/gender variant community varies from region to region or even group to group within a region, and Lola and I live in different parts of the world and may travel in different kinds of circles.  Perhaps if I traveled around more I would find similar experiences as Lola did in recent months.

At one poly event, when a friend of mine brought up the struggles of women & gender variant individuals, and how – as poly activists, we need to mention and address these issues, she was condescended to by a fellow “poly activist” who told her that those people need to fight their own battles while we need to focus on poly struggles and poly issues.

I am in complete disagreement with this “poly activist” which Lola paraphrases here.  This type of statement is another example of where the poly community needs to learn lessons from the gay community.  I learned it through the atheist community, in a talk given by Greta Christina, where she talks about how the atheist community needs to learn from the mistakes of the gay community.  (watch it, but perhaps after reading):

This larger fight for rights, recognition, etc for all of us weird, and even the not-so-wierd, people is the same fight.  I stand for gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, cis, feminist, men’s (but no so much MRAs), atheist, Christian, Moslem, Jewish, Hindu, Pastafarian, polyamorous, monogamous, asexual, etc rights.  I stand for human rights.  Anyone who thinks that we are all fighting separate fights doesn’t see the larger picture, and ends up segregating and tribalizing us all.

Lola then addresses the issue of whether polyamory should be included in with the “Queer” umbrella, and even whether we should add a “P” to the LGBTQ “alphabet soup.”  In some ways, I think that there are good arguments for this addition, but only because I have seen good overlap between the LGBT community and polyamory.  But if what Lola is identifying here is true, then I think that the following is very well said.

And when I voice my concerns as a queer person, that adding “P” to an acronym built on backs and blood of beaten, raped, tortured, and slain individuals is insulting when, while polyamory is misunderstood, it has yet to be a death sentence – I’m told by individuals who have no concept of being queer that I’m being divisive and discriminatory. What sort of welcoming do queer people find in a community that tells them to keep their issues to themselves, unless of course heterosexuals want to co-opt their struggle?

This is a fantastic point.  I don’t know the extent of the real distance between the poly community as a whole from the LGBTQ struggles, but if it tends towards being as far as Lola is claiming here, even if not everywhere, then I think that the poly community should back off trying to add a “P” here, at least until this issue is rectified.

So, thus far in the post I am in agreement with Lola.  I think that ze has some wonderful things to say about some problems in the poly community, and while I hope her experiences are the rare exceptions, my more cynical nature doubts that it is.  We poly people have work to do, surely.

So I keep reading.  When Lola turns to race relations, I don’t expect to find this sentence;

To put it bluntly, being polyamorous may cause one to endure all manner of ignorant comments and may even threaten the custody or family lives of a few, but practicing polyamory is overwhelmingly a privilege.

Upon reading this, something pops in my brain.  ‘huh?’ my inner-voice says.  ‘did I just read that correctly?’ it continues.  Now, I have never thought of polyamory as a position of privilege.  To me, it seems that monogamy has the position of privilege, and polyamory is struggling against that privilege.  But being aware that privileged people are blind, I keep reading.

Loving more than one person is a capability I believe all human beings have. But having the time, energy, and resources for more than one relationship is, without doubt, a privilege.

Ah! I see.  This makes a bit of sense.  I see where the argument is headed.  The immediate point following this, then, is not surprising.

I see a lot of poly people online and offline wax poetic about polyamory being the next stage of human evolution, degrade and devalue monogamous people for their silly triflings; all the while ignoring that a working single mother barely has enough time for herself, let alone dating.

This is an interesting point.  And no doubt the observation is largely true, but consider this.  A common response to polyamory, from monogamous people, is that they simply don’t have the time or energy for another relationship.  This is basically the same point, and I think it falls apart for similar reasons.  Let me address it in two ways.

First, what I think is overlooked here is that some ways to approach polyamory may actually help this problem, rather than exacerbate it.  I think the assumption here may be that the single mother (or father) may not have time for two relationships, let alone one.  Sure, this is a problem.  But what if that single mother/father found an existing couple, family, etc? What if they found themselves a support network which could make the work of raising a child a bit easier?  That is one of the major strengths of polyamory, IMO.

Granted, this is an idealized solution to a tough situation, and the logistical problems in finding said support group is a challenge in itself.  I was raised by a single mother, until I was eight or so, myself.  And while my mother didn’t find a poly tribe, she found a support structure despite the hardship.  Finding a poly support structure, if that is what she had been after, may not have been impossible or even very difficult (especially now that the internet exists) for a single mother.

The second point is that this argument is no more a problem for polyamory than it is for relationships in general.  It’s like my mother (who apparently has a lot to do with this post) talking to me about why I, as a poly person, should not get married.  All of her arguments turn into arguments against marriage itself, rather than arguments against me getting married while polyamorous.

The essential point here is that when one argues that polyamory is a privilege because doing it is hard, one might as well be arguing against having relationships at all.  Having a tough life does not stop people from finding what they need and want, so if they are open to and prefer polyamory, they can find that as well as any monogamous single parent could.

These discussions about how advanced polyamory is and how much better we are at relationships and life come off to me as incredibly ignorant of the realities many face. There’s a difference between being happy in and of ourselves for what we have, and being arrogant and ignorant. I have the economic privilege and free time to date more than one person, but I haven’t always had that. And people who have to spend most of their time working to keep their head economically above the water may have little time for conventions and long discussions about compersion. Love is infinite. Time is not.

When I met my soon-to-be wife, I was unemployed, nearly homeless, recently abandoned in a city I barely knew (Atlanta), and emotionally wrecked.  I was already pre-disposed to polyamory due to previous experiences, introspection, etc.  My being polyamorous was not about going out on nice dates, spending tons of time with many people with whom I had long-term relationships, or even actually having any partners at all.

My being polyamorous was about not creating arbitrary and absurd rules, when starting or solidifying relationships, about being exclusive.  It was merely about recognizing that my ability to love is not limited, and that anyone who will love me has to know that about me because I will not lie to myself by artificially being exclusive for the sake of some silly fears and insecurities.  Being polyamorous is about being authentic to my actual desires and tendencies, not living la vita loca with wining and dining potential partners.

It was a declaration of true maturity, skepticism, and self-knowledge, not a declaration of wealth of time and money to do the dating game with two or more people.

Polyamory is not about doing what the hetero-normative, middle class, educated world does, but just more of it transparently.  It’s about recognizing that we actually do love more than one person, and this happens whether we are dirt poor, middle class, or of the 1%.  For me, it is a part of a larger project to be a better person than I was, than most people are, and who I would be if I hadn’t challenged myself to be better.

I am not better because I am polyamorous, but rather I am polyamorous, like Lola said, ’cause I’m better.  Not better in the sense of having more money, time, or people in my life, but because I have done the real, hard, tedious work of improving my ability to be a better person, including when I didn’t have the privileged economic means, and for me that means being polyamorous.

In my view, polyamory is actually better, unless you accidentally become monogamous, than what the world tends to do with relationships.  Am I smug? Damned right!  Am I arrogant? I don’t think this pride is unwarranted, I think it’s earned.

And no, not everyone will be polyamorous, nor will all people have the capability to be so.  Also, not everyone will be a skeptic, an atheist, a PhD, an expert, or even famous.  This does not mean that we do not respect, fight for, and care for those who cannot climb such mountains, but it means that in some way we have achieved something that others cannot, or have not yet, achieved.  We can encourage others to follow, but will not expect all to do so.

My privileges (and I have many; I’m white, educated, middle class in a very wealthy country, male, and certainly some others that I’m not thinking of right now) are not what make it possible for me to be polyamorous, but they do allow me to do polyamory in a more privileged way.  This is the distinction that, I think, Lola is missing.  It’s not that polyamory is a privilege, but doing polyamory in a certain way is a privilege.

But this privileged way of doing polyamory is no different than doing any type of relationship in a privileged way.  Again, this line of reasoning does not point exclusively to polyamory, but also to any type of relationship which exists in a privileged world.  There is a logical error of confusing a privileged way of doing polyamory with polyamory per se.  Polyamory does not require a privilege to mount, it only requires an open and honest mind about how we love people, what we want, and how we communicate between those two things.

Finally, I want to deal with what Lola talks about near the end of the post.  The discussion here is things like mental health, ableism, etc.  Lola says:

Discussions that centre around shaming jealousy, or the assumption that security is a realistic goal for all, or that you need it in order to be “good at poly,” create an environment that encourages people with mental illness (and people without) to not only misjudge red flags and pangs they experience as jealousy but also encourage them to ignore those feelings for fear of being the “green eyed monster”. There’s little to no discussion around these assumptions unless it’s pointed out that insecurity could stem from mental illness, and no advice or acknowledgement on how exactly folks with mental illnesses are supposed to navigate poly situations.

I struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder.  If there are any MH issues which would be problematic with emotions, including jealousy and insecurity, BPD would be among the toughest to deal with.

I acknowledge that many people may not be able to do poly, for reasons of trauma, mental health issues, etc.  Where “jealousy-shaming” actually exists, it needs to be confronted and eliminated.  Jealousy is not something to be ashamed of, it is something to work through because it is unhealthy.  We must be up-front with our personal struggles, and not be ashamed of them.

I think that Lola might be missing the distinction between shame and the frustration that comes with having to deal with something unwanted and pernicious, like jealousy (or faith, credulity, etc), which can cause emotional reactions such as shame.  I have not seen much “jealousy-shaming,” but I have seen people bluntly proclaim that jealousy is an unhealthy attribute which we need to confront towards the goal of managing it maturely, honestly, and with aplomb. This is not shaming; this is asking people to deal with a difficult problem with things like maturity, courage, and lots of communication.

The experience of shame in response to such things is part of the problem, and it makes me wonder if the intent of people is always to shame, or if many times it is the interpretation of people who struggle with jealousy and are confronted about this. Shame, a Christian concept if ever there were one, is anti-human and festers beneath the psyche of many of us in the West due to the perpetuation of theologies which feed off of such unpleasant experiences.  We need to be aware of that.

Jealousy, like faith, needs to be outgrown by our species for us to thrive in a future where we transcend the teenage years of our history.  Not through shame, but by compassion, patience, and very good listening skills will we achieve such goals.  We need to allow the love (the ‘-amory) to massage jealousy away a day, a word, or a touch at a time and encourage the best scientific methods to deal with the exacerbation of that problem for those with particular mental health struggles, just as people do in the monogamous world.

We don’t, after all, say that since many people struggle with violent tendencies we should, therefore, not confront and try to deal with people who have mental health issues which exacerbate those impulses because it causes shame.  I know, from personal experience, that causing physical harm to people through violence brings shame, but that this response was mostly my responsibility.

I’m glad I realized that it was not shame, but motivation to be more healthy, was the intention of those confronting me.  Otherwise, I might still be ashamed, rather than more healthy.

Near the end, Lola begins to sum up thoughts:

So, I have found the smug poly people. But it’s more than smugness. To me, smugness implies at the very least that there is something to be proud of, and you’re going the extra mile beyond being proud to being boastfully arrogant. This isn’t boastful arrogance, this is unchecked ignorance – and that is nothing, as a community, to be proud of. I see this problem in many communities, and I’m hoping that this is something that will change.

Well, maybe the community does not have anything to be proud of.  Frankly, the community I have seen is small, unorganized, and struggles with all sorts of issues that differ from group to group.  But this statement above goes further than I am willing to go.  This, above, sounds like an attempt to shame.

I do hope that the polyamory community will continue to grow, evolve, and improve.  But I think that many poly people have much to be proud of.  I am proud of my accomplishments as a poly person, of our little group, and the thoughts that we have collected here at polyskeptic (we’re still quite young as a blogging group).

To sum up my own thoughts here which have gone long and long), I agree that issues with intersectionality need to be dealt with where they are a problem.  I believe that education about what it means and how it affects us all are part of that solution.  But I don’t agree that polyamory is privileged any more than any relationship is potentially privileged.  I believe that Lola has committed a logical fallacy in arguing that poly is privileged because to do it in a privileged way is not possible for everyone.  There are non-privileged ways to do polyamory, and many people are doing just that.