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Philosophical rifts are to be expected November 15, 2017

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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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

 

 

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The philosophy of political correctness November 9, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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There has been a thought that my mind has been returning to in recent months.

The core of the idea derives from an idea that originates from my early education. Whether it was middle school, high school, or perhaps something I read outside of the school curriculum of that time period, I do not remember. Very basically, it is the following;

liberals and progressives tend to be more prone to describe and see the world in terms of nurture being the more important factor in understanding the world; we construct the world, and who we are has more to do with our life experience and construction. Conservatives are more essentialist or absolutist in their view of the world; there are definite facts, realities, and a nature to things, and what we are is dependent upon those realities. Who we are is based upon our nature. In short, the difference between liberals and conservatives is one of nurture versus nature.

This is an oversimplification, of course, but I think that there is something here worth thinking about, and some kernals of truth as well.

As an example of how this plays out, let’s take an issue which has been increasingly discussed in our culture, especially recently; gender issues. What is gender? What is sex? Are we essentially male, female, or some other gender or is this concept a social construction? And how do more progressive and liberal minds approach this issue compared to how conservative people think about it?

Take this article, for example, written by Crip Dyke at Pharyngula;

Online Gender Workshop: Detour, Social Construction Ahead edition

It’s an interesting article which clarified some concepts for me, in terms of what is meant by the phrase “gender is a social construction,” but also “sex is a social construction.”

Some snippets:

We choose the meanings to take from words and we choose the words we wish to embody our meanings. This is not unique to sex or to gender: this is the nature of language. To say, then, that “gender is a social construct” is nothing more or less than stating “gender is a word in a human language”. Therefore to say that “gender is binary” (or, conversely, to say it isn’t) is a choice we make about how to communicate meaning. The truth of the statement, or not, depends on the definitions we give to “gender”, “is” and “binary”.

and, later:

This is an inherently social process. We are interactively constructing the meanings of words (and thus concepts).

So: stars are real objects that really orbit each other, but binary is a social construct. Vulvae are real body-parts that really do communicate sensations to brains via neurons, but sex is a social construct. Thai food is made up of very real, nutritive substances, and a delicious subset of these are, objectively, the best foods a vegan can eat in southwest Canada, but cuisine is a social construct.

and, again…

Just as “social construct” doesn’t mandate the lack of a physical referent, neither does it mandate that one’s definition is bad or ambiguous. AT&T has a definition that is specific, non-ambiguous, and quite good in the sense that very few people will interpret you to be talking about something other than AT&T when you say AT&T. And yet, it’s impossible that AT&T as a term with meaning was arrived at without social interaction constructing the meaning.

read the rest for full context. It’s worth the time, and it it a worth-while conversation.

And yet, I’ll admit that when I started to read this article I I felt a bunch of philosophical red flags starting to fly. My anti-postmodernist leanings started to make me feel like I was beeing bambozzled by language tricks, and a part of me agreed with something the first commenter said:

Where you attempt to use linguistic deconstruction, Hegelian postmodernist games with language to deny and “spin” underlying reality.

But to use Pierce’s language, signs are noises or glyphs, and denote abstract types which to enable communication we assert as referencing generalizations of particulars. I don’t care whether you use “sex” or “gender” or “abracadabra” to designate the real physical dimorphism that exists, but it is a real physical fact of the world – the very reality that killed postmodernism – and you cannot change that reality by doublespeak.

And, I’ll add, that I felt like what was happening was that the idea that gender/sex is a social construct was a deepity. In other words, it was trivially true on the surface (all concepts are social constructions), but that there was a conflation going on related to how the real physical world really exists, and that saying that a description, or a referent, to the real world was a social construction seemed to be claiming that how we think about something changes its reality.

And this was too much like The Secret to be comfortable for me.

We are all in tension

But then something occurred to me. And then I felt like writing. To be clear, I don’t want to deal with the above issue; I’ll leave that for people more qualified than myself to deal with (but by all means, check out the whole post, because it is well-written and explores some important concepts). But I wanted to use this discussion as an example of the thing that occurred to me.

As I understand it, this discussion exemplifies what happens when the part of us that wants to hold onto certainty, familiarity, and simplicity interacts with the part of us which is curious and is capable of nuance and complexity. And while it’s way too simple to say that liberals are curious and want to understand complexities while conservatives just want their traditional comfort zones (many liberals, after all, accept concepts like karma, are susceptible to bullshit “science” trends like the link between autism and vaccines, and any number of other simple but harmful ideas which fit within their own comfort zones), it is true that the way conservatives deal with issues related to gender (the recent rejection of equal rights in Houston, for example) is based upon socially constructed, essentialist notions of what it means to be a “man,” “woman,” etc.

They think they are pointing to an obvious, objective reality about the differences between men and women, when they are stuck within the mire of traditional, binary, and (indeed) socially constructed concepts of gender.

And it’s similarly true that many progressive discussions do lean towards a postmodernist, anti-realist, and semantic-heavy framing, one which looks like (especially to conservatives) a denial of “simple reality.” Thus, it appears to conservatives as if those liberal hipsters are trying to tell them that our physical bodies, the general physiological dimorphisms (physical differences between men and women, IOW), are not real. And it sounds like bullshit to them.

And in some extreme cases, the language that such progressives, social justice activists, etc use seems indistinguishable from the meaningless word salad of Lacan, Deepak Chopra, etc. (See the Sokal hoax, for some context on my, and other skeptics, view of how postmodernism often bleeds into nonsense).

Bottom line; we are all capable of this exact tension within ourselves between gripping the flawed familiar and being tantalized by the nuances of complexity. So long as that grip is loose and we don’t allow the poetry of words, like the Sirens they can be, to lure us away from reality, we will be fine.

And the boundaries of these tensions present, to us, the space for conversation. And both the desire for nuance and certainty can grip us, and we can become too attached to whatever we associate with. Let go, and escape the endless cycle of attachment and pain, and float into the nirvana of maybe, perhaps, and let’s see. Let’s test what might be true, possible, and not hold onto what is comfortable. Slave owners were comfortable. But at the same time, let us not be lured into slavish illusion presented by false hopes.

Dream, but do so with our feet on the ground.

Clarification of an old idea

There is a thing I used to say a lot, some years ago. I’m not sure how true it is, but I think it’s at least partially true; today’s liberals are tomorrow’s conservatives. In recent years I have come to think that this formulation is not the best way to articulate what I think I mean. Let’s try this:

Today’s cutting edge social movements will be the socially constructed, traditional, and normal concepts of tomorrow. And in a few of generations, those cutting edge, controversial, and new ideas will be defended by conservatives as traditional and obvious;they will become the new, solid ground. And the cutting edge, controversial, and new ideas that their descendants will espouse will seem to shatter their comfortable worldview, will be looked at with skepticism, will not be understood, and they will chafe against them the same way today’s conservatives do.

So, my thought is this; is it meaningful, at all, to say an issue itself is a progressive one? Right now, gender equality is a hot topic within social justice crowds (and I’m glad that it is!), but will there come a time when gender equality is as conservative a value as individual freedom is now? Was individual freedom once a social justice issue? And, if so, is the fact that individual freedom is held up as a strong conservative value a lesson for us all?

I don’t know.

What I’m increasingly aware of, however, is that the arguments, such as the one inherent in the Crip Dyke post from above, is that the conversation is less one between liberals and conservatives per se as it is a conversation between two aspects of the human mind, expressed socially as a divide between different types of people (whether feminist/anti-feminist, liberal/conservative, etc).

The question becomes whether that tension, that dichotomy, within the human mind is a real distinction or one we socially construct. And that, right there, is the meta-question. Because all of our concepts are based, ultimately, on a real physical reality. The question is whether our construction, our concepts expressed through language, are reliable representations or not. Also, whether that concept itself is meaningful. And on and on, through many meta-layers of potential analysis.

At bottom, many conversations about social justice boil down to metaphysics, epistemology, and linguistics. It’s all philosophy, long before it’s politics. I believe I can only comprehend a small piece of the surface of the problem, but I am fascinated that this philosophical conversations will probably continue so long as there are people to have them. And I’m glad that there are people out there who can express the conversation, and understand the problems, in ways that I do not, because that serves to feed my own cravings for nuance, complexity, and thwarts the conservative parts of me that will settle into comfort. It also stops me from gripping “reality” too tightly.

The Virtue of Selfishness, Chapter 4: The “Conflicts” of Men’s interests April 24, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

I know, I know….I have not been keeping up with writing.  The reasons for this are complicated and probably uninteresting to you, so I’ll just skip the laments and get to the goods.

OK, maybe not the goods.  We’re talking about Ayn Rand here!

Last time, in chapter 3 (The Ethics of Emergencies), we continued with how we are, individually, the standard for our own ethic, yet somehow this is an “objectivist” ethic.  This time, we are going to explore the nature of conflict in our competing interests.

Ayn Rand starts with an obvious issue

Some students of Objectivism find it difficult to grasp the Objectivist principle that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men.”

Um, yes.  I am having some problems with this principle.  So I’m hoping Rand will sort it out.

Rand starts with a common example:

A typical question runs as follows: “Suppose two men apply for the same job. Only one of them can be hired. Isn’t this an instance of a conflict of interests, and isn’t the benefit of one man achieved at the price of the sacrifice of the other?”

This is, at least, a conflict in opportunity. There is an actual physical conflict here; only one man can get the job, not both.  So, how is this not a conflict? In order to explain why, Rand presents us with four considerations.  They are:

  • Reality
  • Context
  • Responsibility
  • Effort

Let’s look at each briefly.  OK, I’ll strive for brevity, anyway. (I failed)

Reality

A man’s “interests” depend on the kind of goals he chooses to pursue, his choice of goals depends on his desires, his desires depend on his values—and, for a rational man, his values depend on the judgment of his mind.

Again, Rand is relying on this distinction between reason and whim (as we saw in all of the previous chapters, but especially chapter 1), a distinction which is not as clear as she thought, and as many people still seem to think today.

The next paragraph contains this continued error, but follows with a point I agree with.

Desires (or feelings or emotions or wishes or whims) are not tools of cognition; they are not a valid standard of value, nor a valid criterion of man’s interests. The mere fact that a man desires something does not constitute a proof that the object of his desire is good, nor that its achievement is actually to his interest.

Again, I disagree that desires, emotions, and “whims” are ontologically separate from reason.  They can be different in structure, but we must be careful not to think that they come from different places; our reasons ultimately come from our desires, subjectivity, and whims, even if they actually do end up cohering with reality (the role of skepticism/science is to determine which ones actually do cohere).

And, of course the fact that a person desires something is not sufficient to declare that it is good or in their (rational) interest.

To claim that a man’s interests are sacrificed whenever a desire of his is frustrated—is to hold a subjectivist view of man’s values and interests. Which means: to believe that it is proper, moral and possible for man to achieve his goals, regardless of whether they contradict the facts of reality or not. Which means: to hold an irrational or mystical view of existence. Which means: to deserve no further consideration.

What I think she means here is that you get the job, the sandwich, or the girl (yes, she uses this example later) because they have done the work to deserve it.  There is no realization of the role of privilege, bias, etc that goes into who actually gets the job.  Not that every person that gets a job got it because of these reasons, but ignoring the fact that we think we are being rational when we are being led by “whims” is really the Achilles heel of Objectivist “philosophy.”

This, once again, is simply the same type of magical thinking (a la The Secret) that she is decrying in the very same paragraph.  That is, while saying that a mystical view of reality is not worthy of further consideration, she is using magical thinking and calling it rational.  Also, once again, this philosophy is subjectivist to the core.  Projecting your personal whims onto the wall  and calling it rational, reasonable, and objective just does not work.

When a person reaches the stage of claiming that man’s interests conflict with reality, the concept “interests” ceases to be meaningful—and his problem ceases to be philosophical and becomes psychological.

To a philosophy geek, this looks like an homage to Logical Empiricism, but whether Rand was familiar with this or the closely related idea of logical positivism is not clear.

I do find it interesting, however, that she identifies where the conversation has left philosophy and became psychology.  In my opinion, this discussion never left psychology at all.  But because Rand believes that reason is ontologically (or perhaps merely epistemologically) distinct from desires, emotions, or whims, she thinks that she is actually leaving behind mere pulls of desire and flying into what? The Platonic realm of Ideas or Forms?

It seems that, for Rand, to be meaningful means to be separate from mere emotion, desire, and whim.  These things are subject to psychological analysis, not philosophy.  Reason and philosophy are dependent on each other, in some way.  I disagree on all counts. Not only is desire, whim, and emotion relevant to philosophy, but reason is relevant to psychology.  Moreover, Psychology and philosophy are relevant to one-another.

In any case, let’s move on.

Context

Just as a rational man does not hold any conviction out of context—that is: without relating it to the rest of his knowledge and resolving any possible contradictions—so he does not hold or pursue any desire out of context. And he does not judge what is or is not to his interest out of context, on the range of any given moment.

The idea here is essentially to be internally consistent, mostly in the sense of not having any incongruity between various interests; don’t pursue an interest today which will conflict with another interest that will be relevant tomorrow.  In short, a person “does not become his own destroyer by pursuing a desire today which wipes out all his values tomorrow.”

Which is all fine, and I have no quarrel with this.  Later on, she further clarifies by saying that “a rational man never holds a desire or pursues a goal which cannot be achieved directly or indirectly by his own effort.” Here, it is the term “indirectly” which should hold our attention (she italicizes it in her own text).  Let’s see why:

It is with a proper understanding of this “indirectly” that the crucial social issue begins.

So, since Rand has been somewhat quiet about how social issues come into play, my ears perks up (metaphorically, or course) when I read this.  She continues.

Living in a society, instead of on a desert island, does not relieve a man of the responsibility of supporting his own life. The only difference is that he supports his life by trading his products or services for the products or services of others. And, in this process of trade, a rational man does not seek or desire any more or any less than his own effort can earn. What determines his earnings? The free market, that is: the voluntary choice and judgment of the men who are willing to trade him their effort in return.

The idea is that we achieve some things directly, by our own efforts, but so long as we are acting rationally and trading (and not sacrificing or asking others to sacrifice), then we are, as a society, achieving the indirect effects of that rationality and trade.  That is, if I’m acting according to my own interests and so are you, what we achieve together is deserved, Just, and earned by both of us.

utopia-feat

Is this the future of Galt’s Gulch?

This view is so idealistic, so optimistic, and in a strange way beautiful that I really want to believe it.  when I first read Atlas Shrugged, this idea did tug at a part of me.  It is a compelling vision, one which shares many of my values and which looks like a world worth working for.

I want to live in a world where people who value effort, responsibility, and (dare I say) fairness that this is their goal.  However, when we actually look at those who argue for a free market, I don’t think this is what we get.  This optimism of the human potential is not only unrealistic, but it fails to the same problems as before; separating rational interests from whims is a meaningless idea, and we merely end up rationalizing our whims and calling them “reason”.

This is a kind of bait-and-switch.  Show me reason and fairness then when I move closer what I get is Ayn Rand’s own personal preferences, rationalized. It bothers me that Rand was unaware of the role of bias, emotion, and privilege in how we think rationally.  Even when we are thinking rationally, and using empirical means to solve problems, we must pay attention to whim and irrationality because it is part of thinking rationally (for us humans, anyway) to be swayed by emotions and whims.  Logic, after all, is only a tool to apply to the assumptions, feelings, and instincts we have.  In the end, logic should weed out the bad ones, but not necessarily.

GIGO, after all.

We cannot separate emotion and rational thought, fundamentally.  We can follow the threads of skeptical thought, science, and logic to show which of our emotions, desires, and whims will lead us to a set of goals, values, etc which we want, but in the end all we will have is better emotions, desires, and whims, not some magical substance of reason pulled out of the void.

Reason, rationality, and logic are processes.  They are the earned title that whims get when they pass the test of skeptical analysis.  Not only are they relevant to ethics, value, etc, but without them ethics, value, and all the other things that matter could not exist at all. Every rational thought, conclusion, or worldview which has ever existed is fundamentally a whim.  perhaps it’s not shared by everyone inherently, but that’s how they start.  The ones that survive the tests are ones worth considering.  The question is which one’s pass all the tests; individual (which is where Rand stops), interpersonal (the realm of ethics), social (the realm of policy, law, and morality), and universality (the supposed role of things like religion, Platonic philosophy, and any other attempt at objective truth, but really might just be a meaningless set).

I actually think that rational thought is just a specific kind of emotional experience, or at least a specific kind of subjective experience which includes emotion and rationality as part of a continuum.  But it’s the kind of subjective experience which can be, with effort, sacrifice, and empathy, be shared through language and thus becomes intersubjective.  The whims which can be communicated, agreed to, valued, and shared (which is what culture is) are the ones we can address as either rational or not, useful or not, or meaningful or not. But they are still whims; just not mere whims.

Let’s get back to Rand.

When a man trades with others, he is counting—explicitly or implicitly—on their rationality, that is: on their ability to recognize the objective value of his work. (A trade based on any other premise is a con game or a fraud.) Thus, when a rational man pursues a goal in a free society, he does not place himself at the mercy of whims, the favors or the prejudices of others; he depends on nothing but his own effort: directly, by doing objectively valuable work—indirectly, through the objective evaluation of his work by others.

If I were feeling nit-picky (and I am), I would quibble by saying that we recognize the intersubjective value of work.  That is, it is work that starts out as subjectively valuable, but when someone else also recognizes the worth of that work, then it becomes intersubjective. At no point here did any objective perspective (like, for example a God) come into play here.  There is nothing objective about any of this.

Aside from that quibble, this is all fine in general.  It sounds nice, and gives the student of objectivism a warm fuzzy feeling in their chest, but it ignores the fundamental problem which I have been coming back to in this series of posts; there is a real, actual contradiction between selfishness and one’s ability to deal with other people.  Our relationships are not mere trades, because to communicate and to interact is fundamentally a process which requires some level of sacrificing one’s “rational” interests. We have to give (potentially) undeserved effort to other people just to comprehend them enough to attempt to trade with them, in many cases.

Yes, we can merely trade goods, effort, and money without digging into the socially structural issues involved, but we can only then trade with those sufficiently similar to us, which leads to the balkanization of social networks.  If we seek to trade ideas, goods, etc with a wide range of people, cultures, etc then we need to give more of ourselves.

We cannot understand our privilege, bias, or assumptions without spending some significant time putting other people’s concerns, ideas, and worldviews before our own.  The very ability to have empathy, concern, or effort towards social justice of any kind is very difficult while being selfish.  The only way one can agree with a position of social justice while being selfish is when the conclusion of the work of social justice happens to cohere with their selfish needs.  But what happens when our selfish interests causes dissonance with the idea of social justice? Well, without giving up on selfish interest, all that can happen is self-justification, defensiveness, and rationalization for one’s place of privilege.

A selfish person can parrot the conclusions, enjoy the fruits of, and march along side the empathetic social justice people, but it will be at least partially a charade (perhaps even to oneself while doing it) because the very problem of bias and privilege is founded in the selfish impulse, along with the cognitive dissonance which must accompany it. I’ve known too many people who agree with social justice conclusions, but simply miss the boat when it comes to how what they do violates social justice, whether it takes the form of misogyny, bullying, or harassment.

Back to Ayn Rand. Is there any surprise that those fond of Ayn Rand look down upon social justice? Can there be any doubt that a selfish person could never be more than a poser if they espouse concern for social justice? Could such a person ever really internalize the fundamental concept of social justice outside of where the progress that such social movements coincide with their interests? It’s fine, for example, to have a person who sits on the side of social justice, so long as when it is them who is the perpetrator of some harm they don’t recoil behind a wall of defensiveness, excuses, and rationalization–if not out-right denial that they did anything wrong!

And no, I’m not an exception to such criticism.  We all make mistakes, an hopefully we all learn from them.  But we have to first be aware that there is a problem, before we can fix anything. We all have to be vigilant, honest, and open to criticism. This criticism, like all my criticism, is aimed at specific people, humanity in general, and at myself.  We’re, everyone’s, susceptible.

But, I’m getting caught up in a tangent.

Responsibility

Most people hold their desires without any context whatever, as ends hanging in a foggy vacuum, the fog hiding any concept of means. They rouse themselves mentally only long enough to utter an “I wish,” and stop there, and wait, as if the rest were up to some unknown power.

The idea here is simply a continuation of her criticism that many people hold a magical view about reality in which the help that “welfare states” and such seem to want the help to come from somewhere, somehow.  She makes reference to the author of chapter 2 (and some later chapters) Nathaniel Brand in saying that “‘somehow” always means “somebody.'” The implication is that if someone is needy, someone else has to help.  Well, yes.

But I found this to be interesting.

But humility and presumptuousness are two sides of the same psychological medal. In the willingness to throw oneself blindly on the mercy of others there is the implicit privilege of making blind demands on one’s masters.

Yes, the entitlement of the needy that we, the masters, should give them crumbs off our table! Not every need is a demand.  Not every request for fairness is a demand.  The fact that it feels like a demand to them should tell us something about them, although I don’t know exactly what.

What I find interesting here is the use of the term “privilege.” I don’t know enough about the history of the social justice movement to know if this term was used in the way I use it back in 1964, but the association between entitlement and privilege is more complicated than this presentation.  Sometimes, the masters take more than they should, while thinking they are taking their fair share, and what ends up happening is inequality that to the “master” looks like justice.  The master works harder, hence why they are the master.  They are blind to the fact that their taking more than they actually deserve creates a tension which the “entitled” person making “demands” understands better than they do.

This, in essence, is a rationalization for the “Haves” to feel superior to the “Have-nots.” Not because they necessarily deserve it…but since one cannot have without deserving it (“reality”), then I suppose they do necessarily deserve it.  Or something. And if one does not have it, then that’s because of “reality” as well.  Thus, for those interested in social justice who ask for “handouts,” it is a demand that the masters, who are just following “reality” and understanding “context”, it would be irresponsible to give it to them because they don’t deserve it.  Isn’t rationalization great!

 

Effort

Since a rational man knows that man must achieve his goals by his own effort, he knows that neither wealth nor jobs nor any human values exist in a given, limited, static quantity, waiting to be divided. He knows that all benefits have to be produced, that the gain of one man does not represent the loss of another, that a man’s achievement is not earned at the expense of those who have not achieved it.

Yes, because resources and money are not limited resources.  If we all are reasonable, rational, etc then we can all be wealthy, eradicate conflict, and never have to give up on any of our interests.  That doesn’t have any contradictions at all.

But this essay has been a little lass straw-man focused, so let’s not ignore this:

It is only the passive, parasitical representatives of the “humility metaphysics” school who regard any competitor as a threat, because the thought of earning one’s position by personal merit is not part of their view of life. They regard themselves as interchangeable mediocrities who have nothing to offer and who fight, in a “static” universe, for someone’s causeless favor.

She goes on in that vein for a while, and it’s all the same trite as before so we don’t have to address it.  But then Ayn Rand says something that will sound familiar to those of us in the polyamory community.

He knows also that there are no conflicts of interests among rational men even in the issue of love. Like any other value, love is not a static quantity to be divided, but an unlimited response to be earned. The love for one friend is not a threat to the love for another, and neither is the love for the various members of one’s family, assuming they have earned it. The most exclusive form—romantic love—is not an issue of competition. If two men are in love with the same woman, what she feels for either of them is not determined by what she feels for the other and is not taken away from him. If she chooses one of them, the “loser” could not have had what the “winner” has earned.

polyNotice that she says “if she chooses one of them,”which could be taken to mean if she chooses either of them or only one of them.  I do not know Rand’s views on monogamy (her books seem to espouse some sort of sexual freedom, but not polyamory per se), but this certainly leaves room for nonmonogamy. This is interesting because she seems to have this notion that values, including love, are essentially infinite.  This is an idea that has persists throughout the poly community, as we can see from the infinity heart symbol which was the inspiration for the PolySkeptic logo (in combination with the Dawkins scarlet A).

But she also seems to think that resources are limited.  Because while love, as well as other values, may be unlimited (which is debatable), the resources for economic growth and prosperity are not unlimited, and so wealth must either be distributed (whether through planned economies of free markets) unevenly or evenly.  I am not sure if Rand thought it was possible to have an egalitarian outcome of economics through her Objectivism, but what is clear is that she thinks that the level of inequality that existed then (and it has grown worse since) was Just.  People have what they have because they deserve that.

Ah, Just-world fallacies….

So, what’s the conclusion?

Now let us return to the question originally asked—about the two men applying for the same job—and observe in what manner it ignores or opposes these four considerations.
(a) Reality. The mere fact that two men desire the same job does not constitute proof that either of them is entitled to it or deserves it, and that his interests are damaged if he does not obtain it.
(b) Context. Both men should know that if they desire a job, their goal is made possible only by the existence of a business concern able to provide employment—that that business concern requires the availability of more than one applicant for any job—that if only one applicant existed, he would not obtain the job, because the business concern would have to close its doors—and that their competition for the job is to their interest, even though one of them will lose in that particular encounter.
(c) Responsibility. Neither man has the moral right to declare that he doesn’t want to consider all those things, he just wants a job. He is not entitled to any desire or to any “interest” without knowledge of what is required to make its fulfillment possible.
(d) Effort. Whoever gets the job, has earned it (assuming that the employer’s choice is rational). This benefit is due to his own merit—not to the “sacrifice” of the other man who never had any vested right to that job. The failure to give to a man what had never belonged to him can hardly be described as “sacrificing his interests.”

I don’t want to live in Ayn Rand’s world.  It’s not that I think her ideal vision is ugly, per se, it’s just that her world is fantasy.  She rationalizes what is a real set of conflicts by calling them deserved fruits.  She is blind to the fact that rationality cannot be divorced from emotion, bias, whim, and emotion generally.  She’s blind to the fact that as a result of this inability to divorce these things, she is rationalizing her own whims into “objective” reality.  She’s blind to her own magical thinking, which is exactly the Just-world fallacy, which is essentially the same as victim-blaming.

At bottom, again, her Objectivism is sophomoric philosophy.  It’s dressed up subjectivist rationalization.  It’s not stupidity but it is myopia. It sounds appealing (even occasionally to me), but all good rationalizations look good with it’s nice shiny new suit on! The Emperor has no clothes, Ayn Rand has no objective truth, and selfishness cannot be ethics  The emperor’s garments , ideally, look rational, reasonable, and real but they are merely whims dressed up for a Halloween party, dressed as Reason.

Naked, stupid Reason.

Atheism+: We are the 99%? August 29, 2012

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

OK, first off the bat, it’s quite obvious that atheists are not the 99%.  While atheist/nonreligious numbers are growing, we have yet to break even 15% (The Crommunist has a break down of some numbers here).  But does this mean that our atheist+ values are not similar to the values of the 99%?

What seems pretty clear to me is that the focus on social justice in the atheist/skeptic/secular community cannot be an accident of history.  The Occupy movement of last year,  which continues in a transformed state, has obviously had ripple effects throughout the political and social world.  The 99% meme is now a part of our language and culture, and it has created an ideological watershed that will likely become part of our legacy as a set of generations active today.

So, to what extent are the values and goals similar to those of the Occupy movement? Well, I’m not sure, but people who are concerned with social justice will recognize the real divide between the economic elite and those below them.  The haves and the have-nots.

Control of the levers of political, and thus to a large extent social and cultural, power are in the hands of extremely wealthy people.  Most of the rest of us get to vote, but forgive my cynicism in pointing out that many people are frankly uninformed and thus have an oversimplified view of policy and thus support idiots.

Hence the current Republican party.  Is it a surprise that science, education, and social equality are not on the list of things-to-do for people who have done such a good job of swaying an electorate with propaganda and emotional appeal in the place of news and public policy? It shouldn’t be.

The Republican party is in serious need for a takeover by people who, while I disagree with them philosophically in most cases, have some important contributions to make to political thought.  You know, the old style intellectual conservatives a la Barry Goldwater.

Clearly Atheism+ is heavily progressive.  My guess is that atheists who lean conservative in this political climate will tend to not support the cause, and if they do so they will do so weakly.  And I don’t mind that it is progressive, because I am largely progressive myself, as are the other people here at PolySkeptic.  Hell, as I said yesterday, I am in favor of being radical, and perhaps I could be described as radical politically, to some extent.

So, do we try and overtly tie the messages and goals of the Occupy movement with Atheism+, or do we think that many of the Occupy people might resent that and leave their meme to their use, and simply help where we can?  Can we call ourselves part of this larger social movement? Because while people in the 1% are probably both atheist and theist, nonreligious and religious, clearly most of the atheists are part of the 99%, and the values of atheism+ contribute t0 the values of Occupy.

The Occupy movement is not about religion or god-belief, although certainly the levers of power have historically been tied to institutions such as the Catholic church and other theocratic forces.  But today the most wealthy don’t, as a rule, sit near an altar, a throne, or in the metaphorical clouds as gods or demigods.  Their power is levered by money, political maneuvers, and ideology.  All tools utilized by religion, sure, but we cannot directly tie the atheist movement to the 99% Occupy movement.

What we can do is point out that many atheists share the popular values of equality, social justice, and the existence of fair opportunity for all people.  Our culture, political institutions, and approach to problem-solving is in dire need of adjustment, and in some cases demolition and rebuilding.  Too much innate privilege is further privileged, too little room for proper application of skepticism is allowed, and too many people are uneducated about how to fix it or even think about it.

As Thomas Jefferson said to William S. Smith Paris in a letter written in 1787;

God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.

We have been too long without a real change in political and social atmosphere.  We, as a culture, are stagnating.  I don’t know what the best solution is, but I know the direction we are going as a culture cannot be it.

To get to a world of social justice and reason and to not continue on this path which empowers so few and keeps ignorant, distracted, and stupid so many, we need drastic change.  While we debate such easy questions as gay marriage, “legitimate rape,” and the place of religion in public policy, the vast majority of us are being swindled without full realization.  The classic misdirection of the pickpocket, except the pickpocket lives in a massive estate and pick-pockets millions of people every day.

We are not powerless, but we are not utilizing our powers.  We need more things like Occupy and Atheism+.  We need education, information, and a set of values to follow towards cultural and political transformation.

Social justice, at all levels, needs to be radical August 28, 2012

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

With the recent label of Atheism+ becoming all the rage, I have been thinking about things like social justice a little bit more than usual.  As a self-described liberal/progressive, even as a voting independent, I do care about creating a world of fairness and compassion.  But I am hampered by a relative privilege which prevents me from fully, naturally, grasping how badly our society needs to consider social justice as necessary.

This blog is undoubtedly a place where we talk about “first world problems.”  I address the assumption of monogamy, theism, unskeptical thinking, and a host of other intellectual problems which take place at all levels of society, but which are mostly relevant among the educated elite of our world.  That is, the educated Western middle class, which you are likely a part of if you are reading this, are subject to really poor thinking, but their problems are pretty insignificant when it comes to the crippling poverty, violence, oppression, and so forth which some other bloggers address.  But they still matter.

I am under no delusion that most of the things we discuss here at PolySkeptic are of lesser importance than many of the issues which social activists deal with.  But what I am willing to say is that the methods we employ—skepticism, logic, and a willingness to accept challenge—are the methods that we need to employ to solve problems of all levels and kinds.

Take, for example, this article from Phillymag.com about PTSD in Philadelphia (it’s quite excellent, so take the time to read it all).  It addresses the cycle of violence, physical brain damage from experiencing violence, and cyclical behavioral effect of said damage on cities such as Philadelphia.  The article takes a scientific approach to the problem, painted with set of narratives, and talks about how we need to approach this on a large scale, as a society.

From the article (page 4):

 

There’s a solution available—a remedy that might change this city’s funereal culture. But when entire neighborhoods become toxic, the medicine has to be vast in scope. “You really only have two choices,” says Drexel’s Sandra Bloom. “You can remove the person from the environment, or you can change the environment itself.”

So, says Bloom, individual treatment can be helpful, including both talk therapy and pharmaceutical interventions. But big cities like Philadelphia, with large neighborhoods subjected to decades of violence, need to think in broader, more dramatic terms. “To treat large populations and cause a cultural shift,” she says, “we need to look at the kinds of group treatments”—including group therapy sessions and a wide mobilization of mental health resources—“that have been employed in war-torn places like Rwanda and Bosnia.”

Upon first reading, this seems an outrageous statement. In 1994, Rwandans suffered 800,000 deaths in 100 days. But Bloom’s point isn’t that the horror visited upon Rwandans and the murder and injury rates in Philadelphia are statistically equal. Her point is that they are shared experiences of protracted violence that have shaped the way entire communities think and live.

 

There are so many assumptions, experiences, etc which make up our worldview that we are almost completely unaware of.  We are often so blind, not only to what life is like to others, but even to why we think and behave the way we do, that to try and solve these kinds of problems seems daunting.  Our lives are framed by our experiences, our environment, and we too easily obstructed by such things to see that the problems around us affect us.  We are interconnected in cultural, political, and ideological ways which are usually unseen, but we should try to see them better if we care about solving them.

Whether we are talking about PTSD/violence cycles, poverty and political/legal systems of keeping people poor, religious indoctrination and skeptical skills, or the assumption of monogamy and how that affects how we think about love, relationships, and sex, we have to be aware that any solution will have to be broad and persistent.  We need people aware of the problem and who are capable of helping in some way.

That is what social justice is about.  And now we are starting to see that the atheist movement is being included into the set of social justice issues, and is subsequently willing to group together, as atheists, to lend some hands in spreading ideas, proposing solutions, and hopefully to get our hands dirty in addressing social justice issues.  Many atheist groups have been doing so for years, and now we have a label for such efforts.  I cannot imagine a good reason to oppose this label.

As a community, we have had the discussions, are becoming more aware of the problems, and are realizing we need to create formal and informal organizations to move towards better ways to address the issues which surround and bind us.  Call it Atheism+, call it secular humanism (but perhaps with a generational upgrade), or call it snarfwidgitry for all I care.

But realize that if we are to survive this adolescence of the human race, we need to address some of the fundamental problems, from the crippling poverty, oppression, etc to the lack of application of skepticism to questions of relationships.

We have to be willing to question all of our assumptions, learn to check our blind spots (including privileges), and not simply accept the prevailing wisdom as wise.

In short, we need to be at least a little radical, or we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.  Because while we are not inherently Fallen and sinful, we are inclined towards behaviors which are damaging to ourselves and other, and we need to actively work to counteract such inclinations to be better as people, societies, and a species.

 

Is polyamory a social justice issue? August 21, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: , ,
9 comments

In reading about this new Atheist+ issue generated by Jen and others around her (especially Greta), I have seen various social issues included in the list of causes that people want to support.  Women’s issues, POC issues, trans issues, LGBT issues, neuro-atypicality issues, etc have been enumerated, for good reason, but I have seen no mention of issues related to polyamory.
So here is my question; am I being irrational in thinking that polyamory should be included in such lists, or are many people behind in not including this as a social justice issue?

As a quick note for those that don’t know; I live in a house with 4 other polyamorous people.  One is my wife, another my girlfriend, and the other two are my girlfriend’s husband and his girlfriend.  So these questions are not merely academic for me; they are real questions with potential serious significance.

There are real-world fears around being polyamorous.  Coming out at poly has consequences similar to coming out as gay, for example.  Parental rights can get complicated with polyamorous families.  Visitation and end-of-life rights, afforded to legal spouses, becomes problematic when you have more than one serious long-term partner.  In short, all of the rights that one gets as a spouse cannot easily be extended to other partners, which can create problems.

The foundation of this problem is the cultural lack of familiarity with what polyamory is about.  We are not the same as swingers (although there are often overlaps).  We do experience some forms of social discrimination, stereotyping, etc.  I have been told that I have chosen this lifestyle, but I cannot choose how many people I love any more than I can choose what genders I love.  I have discussed my view on the issue of choice, or orientation, in terms of polyamory here, but I will briefly sum it up in saying that I do not choose my desires and my feelings, but I can choose to act on them or not.

And why would I repress my actual desires? Would I do so for the sake of cultural norms which make no sense? No.

I am not aware of large scale cultural campaigns to react against polyamory comparable to reactions against ‘the gay agenda’.  There are not common stories of poly people being beaten, fired, or killed.  There is a persistent social stigma against it, and it is presented as the conclusion of the slippery-slope for things like gay marriage (” if you allow anyone to marry, the next thing that will happen is 3 people getting married!” The horror!), and there are the many legal issues briefly mentioned above.

And I will briefly mention that advocating for polyamorous rights and protected status in society is made more complicated in context with polygamy and its relationship to fundamentalist Mormons, Islam, and the patterns of abuse against women, and young girls, in those communities.  So it is a complicated issue, but I do think it is a social justice issue.

I think that we need to keep that in mind during these discussions about adding social justice issues to our atheist activism.