Gendered names and hurricanes

I love me some subconscious gender bias and its hidden malevolent effects on society. So you’d think I’d have been excited when reports came out of a study claiming that female-named hurricanes are more deadly than male-named ones, because people don’t take them as seriously and don’t prepare or evacuate adequately.

Even more than rooting out subconscious gender bias, though, I love critically digging into scientific work and picking apart how strong its data, interpretations, and conclusions are. Especially when they sound fishy to me, and this one sounded a bit fishy. Gender bias is trendy right now, and while I think it can and does have powerful effects, that hurricane-deadliness thing is a huge claim. So as interested as I was in the original study, I didn’t get really excited until I started seeing some critiques.

Even more than both those things? I love names and naming and the psychology of names and name trends and all that. I try to keep that particular love quiet most of the time because it’s boring and weird to most people and not particularly useful. But this vortex of three keen interests of mine amounted to my spending a solid chunk of the last 24 hours reading, analyzing, playing with numbers, and generally geeking out in the worst way.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the actual writeup of the study… fortunately, some of the data is available for public view here, which is awesome. So I’m doing the best I can with what I have.

To summarize the original study, as best I understand it from the available info and writeups:

  • The authors took data on all hurricanes since 1950, including the hurricane name’s position on a scale from most masculine to most feminine, and number of deaths associated with the hurricane.
  • Statistical analysis showed that names that were ranked as more feminine were associated with more deaths.
  • To test their hypothesis that the higher death toll was due to social perceptions of a female-named hurricane as milder than a male-named, the authors did a series of experiments where participants predicted the severity of an invented hurricane, or indicated whether they’d evacuate or take other precautions for it. The scenarios were identical except for the gender of the hurricane name: Victor or Victoria, Alexander or Alexandra, as examples. Participants overall took the male-named hurricanes more seriously than the female-named ones.
  • The authors take the hypothetical scenario response results as evidence that people in general take female-named hurricanes less seriously, and are less likely to adequately prepare or evacuate, leading to a higher death toll.

Fine so far as it goes. Now let’s look at the critiques:

  • Up until 1979, all hurricanes had female names. Over time since 1950, hurricanes have become less deadly, which confounds the study’s data. (The study authors did do a separate analysis of hurricanes from 1950-1978 and 1979-2012, but the results did not reach statistical significance, which the authors say is because each group is too small.)
  • None of the six studies on hypothetical scenarios, which the authors used to demonstrate the causal link they’re claiming, used a population that is necessarily representative of the coastal town-dwellers who are actually impacted by hurricanes: three of the studies used undergrads, three used participants recruited via an online platform.
  • There are a lot of known major factors that impact a hurricane’s deadliness, and it’s unlikely (and insufficiently demonstrated) that a subconscious gender bias is strong enough to have a significant effect above those other factors. (I know, I worded that vaguely. That’s not the part that I examined, so read the article for more details if you’re interested.)

The first bullet point is huge. If it’s true that hurricanes in earlier decades were more deadly than hurricanes in more recent years, then that’s a major confound that potentially overthrows the whole study. The other issues are relevant and important, but the first one is major.

The authors responded in turn:

  • The analysis looked not only at male or female designation of names, but at the perceived masculinity or femininity of a name. (For non-hurricane examples, most people likely perceive Angelica as a more feminine name than Jean, and Brock as a more masculine name than Julian.) It was the name’s place on the masculine-to-feminine scale that related to its deadliness, not simply the male/female designation of the name, and those results held true even before 1979 with more feminine female names accompanying more deadly hurricanes.
  • Years elapsed since the hurricane (in other words, how long ago the hurricane happened) is not correlated with the hurricane’s deadliness.

They addressed the other critiques, but their commentary amounted to “Well, yeah, that’s an unfortunate feature of the resources we had available, but that doesn’t disprove it.” Which is true.

From reading the articles linked above, I had two major questions:

  • Have hurricanes actually become less deadly over time? It seems to me that the study’s authors and its critics are saying directly contradictory things about this, and it makes a huge difference.
  • How did the study authors determine the relative masculinity and femininity of names? And how valid was this ranking?

To my delight there is a spreadsheet available giving the hurricane names, ranking on masculinity or femininity, death toll, and lots of other data. So I’ve been able to play around with it a bit myself, and while my stats knowledge is pretty limited, I can do basic math.

To the first question, “have hurricanes become less deadly over time?” there seems to be a direct contradiction between what the study authors say — “how long ago the storm occurred did not predict its death toll” — and what the critics say — “hurricanes have also, on average, been getting less deadly over time.” Of course those sentences have different words in them, and it’s possible for both to be literally correct. And in fact, as far as I can tell, they are. This is why you have to read your science reporting carefully, kids!

I am sure there’s a sophisticated statistical regression thingy one could do with this data, and it might be that I’m doing it completely wrong, but here’s what I got. Using the good ol’ average formula, I came up with these numbers:

  • The average death toll of all hurricanes from 1950-1978 (when all hurricanes got female names) was 27.
  • The average death toll of all hurricanes from 1979-2012 (when hurricanes got male and female names) was 16.

Thus far, the critics seem to be winning. That’s a pretty substantial difference between the all-female group and the male-female group. Without doing any fancier calculations, this layman’s eye is gleaming with suspicion.

To get a sense of whether the decline was smooth over time, I did the average death toll by decade, and here’s what I got:

  • 50s: 24
  • 60s: 36
  • 70s: 16
  • 80s: 6
  • 90s: 15
  • 00s: 19
  • 10s: 68

Two major things jump out: the 80s were a great time to be in a hurricane, and the 10s were terrible. Of course, there were only three years counted in the 10s, 2010-2012, and in fact only three hurricanes happened in those years, so as a decade it should be discounted entirely. And one of those hurricanes was Sandy, which has the third highest death toll on the list (159, after Diane in 1955 with 200 deaths, and Camille in 1969 with 256. Hurricanes Audrey and Katrina were excluded as huge outliers, with death tolls above 400 and 1800.)

The authors’ statement, “how long ago the hurricane occurred did not predict its death toll,” may well be true. The weirdly low-fatality 80s plus the highly deadly Sandy coming right in at the end could blur the overall trend. (Please, someone who’s competent with statistics chime in and explain all the things to me!) But that doesn’t change the fact that hurricanes in the three decades of female-only names were, on average, more deadly than hurricanes since male names began being used.

So what about the author’s second rebuttal, that it wasn’t just male or female designation of a name, but ranking on a scale of masculinity to femininity, that predicted deadliness? They argue that even in the all-female era of hurricane names, a Hurricane Angelica would be taken less seriously than a Hurricane Jean, and thus lead to more fatalities. They rated all hurricane names on a scale from 1 to 11, with 1 being extremely masculine and 11 being extremely feminine, and used that rating in their analysis.

I wasn’t able to find out how they assigned the masculinity-femininity ratings to each name, and I’d be much obliged if someone who has access to the article could tell me. Because obviously, the analysis is only as good as the validity of those ratings. And I am — to put it mildly — skeptical of how valid such ratings could possibly be, especially in terms of supporting the authors’ hypothesis.

Name perception is a tricky thing. It’s formed by a lot of factors, sound and association being the biggest. I felt fairly confident that most people reading this would agree that Angelica is a more feminine name than Jean: it’s got more syllables, an ‘a’ ending, and the word ‘angel’ contained in it. Those are three big markers of femininity that add up to a pretty indisputable trend in how we’re likely to perceive it. But what about, say, Flossy and Edith? Alma and Ione? Erin and Sandy? In each of those pairs of names, which do you think is more feminine? How easy is it for you to judge? I’ll put the answers according to the authors in white text: (Edith, Alma, Sandy) Is that what you’d have said?

I did a little quick and dirty experiment on my facebook wall, asking friends to rank five names from the list in order of least to most feminine. The names were Erin, Sandy, Barbara, Cleo, and Ginger. After 13 respondents (I SAID it was quick and dirty) I tallied up my results. One thing I noticed was that absolutely no one ranked all five names the same way. Ginger was always in the top 3, Erin always in the bottom 3, but the others were all over the map. Sandy was particularly interesting: 5 of my respondents ranked it as a 1 (least feminine), and 5 ranked it as a 4 or 5. When the scores were averaged it ended up ranked right in the middle.  Grease-sandy I was curious about Sandy because I think of it as an androgynous name that’s used mostly for females, and thus on a 1-11 scale of masculinity/femininity, I’d rate it around a 7. The study authors rated it at 9, solidly in the middle of the feminine category, above names like Florence, Jeanne, Connie, and Opal. One person suggested that it’s an association with Sandy from Grease which leads to a more feminine impression of the name. So some people hear “Sandy” and think Olivia Newton-John, while others hear it and think, “Probably a girl but could be a boy.”

Interestingly, when I averaged my respondent’s ranking of each name, I came up with the exact same order that the study’s ratings of each name gave: Erin, Cleo, Sandy, Barbara, Ginger. Although none of my friends ranked them in exactly that order, the average matched neatly with the names’ order in the study. So yes, while individual ratings of a name may differ considerably, the aggregate impression over a large group of people might be stable.

But the question then comes in, which large group of people? If there’s one thing you can say definitively about name perceptions, it’s that they change dramatically over the years. Names like Florence, Mildred, Bertha, and Edith were once considered youthful, fresh, sweet names for a baby girl. Now they conjure up an image of a grandma or great-grandma. I think of Ashley, Stephanie, Jennifer and Samantha as normal feminine, young-woman names, but they’re on the cusp of becoming mom names, the kind of names that Barbara, Carol, and Donna are to me. Our impression of a name is profoundly tied to the generation we were born in. And this is important to assessing the study because the whole argument is based on the assumption that people’s subconscious impressions of a name — and specifically its masculinity or femininity — are shaping their behavior.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the name given to a hurricane gives people a qualitative impression of it, based on how they normally think of that name. Names shape how we see things and people; that’s why I find them so fascinating. But the impression I have of Hurricane Carol now is very different than the impression a community in 1954 would have had of Hurricane Carol. In 1954, most Carols were in their teens and twenties. Carol then was something like Madison today, just in terms of when it became popular and was being commonly used.

I assume that the study authors’ name ratings were obtained by asking a (hopefully large and diverse) sample of people to rate the names on femininity and masculinity. If they did their job right, they also checked their ratings for validity among a few different groups of people. Even if they did, though, that doesn’t mean the ratings are valid when applied to the specific people relevant to their hypothesis: the community of people that was responding to news of an incoming hurricane.

In fact, when it comes to earlier decades, we can be pretty confident that they aren’t: the entire cultural milieu, the people that were associated with a name, and the names that people thought sounded perfect for their baby girls and boys were entirely different.

Barbara then.
Barbara then.
Barbara Walters 512
Barbara now.

None of this disproves the study. It’s possible that perceptions of a name’s “femininity” remain stable over time even while the images of what kind of person goes with that name shift decade by decade. But in my view there is not nearly enough evidence that this is the case, and some good reasons to think that it may not be.

I also question how valid the correlation is between masculinity-femininity rating and associated deaths based simply on the distribution of names on the masculinity-femininity scale. The names tend to cluster at one end of the scale or the other, with the overwhelming majority lying up at the feminine end. There are 25 names in the bottom half of the scale, rated between 1 and 6: all but 3 of these are rated between 1 and 3. So the bottom half of the scale has fewer names and they’re heavily weighted toward the low end.  There are 58 names in the top half of the scale, 46 of which are rated between 8 and 10. So the top half has over twice as many names, and they’re weighted toward the top end but nearer the middle than on the masculine side of things. There is only one name each in the 3, 4, and 5 zones, and only three in the 6. Hopefully the authors did some fancy math to correct for any effects that this grossly uneven distribution might have contributed to, but without seeing the study I don’t know, and I remain skeptical.


As best I can tell from what’s available to me, the criticisms of the original study by Jeff Lazo are sound. Hurricanes did kill more people on average in the era of all-female names than since then. The authors’ counter-argument that they also found an effect of relative femininity of a name depends on fine-tuned rankings of a name’s femininity and masculinity, the validity of which I’m highly skeptical. It is possible that the authors’ contention is true and that the name given to a hurricane impacts people’s preparedness level, to an extent that its effect is noticeable over the other relevant factors (media coverage, economic issues, etc.) but it is not sufficiently demonstrated by the study thus far.

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.




Why I loved the HIMYM finale

My opinions about the season finale of How I Met Your Mother have grown stronger in the days since I watched it, and saw many other people’s reactions. My first response was, “I never thought I would be okay with this but… I kind of like it.” Reading a lot of people’s negative responses, and the reasons behind them, has pushed me firmly into This was one of the best romantic comedy endings ever territory. And here’s why.

The whole premise of the show, we thought, was ultimately going to be a fairy tale, Ted questing for his true love and then getting his happily ever after. Ted buys into that narrative whole-heartedly. Words like “the one” and “destiny” get thrown around. While he has a number of good relationships, alongside the multitude of not-so-good ones, he clearly views them as failures and false starts on his way to finding his One True Love.

All romantic comedies are fairy tales, and meeting or marrying the destined partner is the happily ever after. Plenty has been written about how inadequately that storyline reflects reality: that there are just as many (almost certainly more) messes and tears and misunderstandings after the big I Do or I Love You as before; that the most dramatic stories don’t usually lead to the happiest love relationships; that maybe teaching ourselves to view meeting The One as the endgame of life isn’t the healthiest pattern. But it’s a compelling story and it’s easy to get invested in it.

One of my big worries throughout the show was that The Mother couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But she did! She was fantastically written and fantastically cast, and pretty much charmed the pants off me in every scene. She was a perfect match for Ted without being at all obnoxious, which in itself is a minor miracle. (I don’t hate Ted nearly as much as a lot of people do, but I grant his frequent obnoxiousness.) I loved her and if she’d shown up as a character and NOT been The Mother, I suspect the writers would’ve had a riot on their hands.

So it was that much more surprising (although in retrospect, it was telegraphed throughout the season at least) that that turned out not to be the story at all. The entire show was never about finding the one person who completes you, the one true love that give you your happy ending. It was about how love can be amazing and perfect and right at the moment, and then three years later, maybe it isn’t right any more. Or maybe you lose that person through circumstances neither of you can control. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real love, doesn’t mean it wasn’t amazing and perfect and right when it was happening. And if you later fall in love with someone else, you don’t have to pick which of the two is your “real” love story, your true destiny and the love of your life. They both are.

I was rooting for Barney/Robin from the moment they suited up and drank scotch together. (Hotttttt.) And their relationship was important to both of them: it let two commitmentphobes get a genuine workout in their issues, and when they broke up, it wasn’t about lack of trust or the impulse to run away or the inability to resist that one little fling… it was just that they weren’t making each other happy any more. And they were both honest enough, and cared for themselves and each other enough, to admit it. That’s a brave and positive step, and one that I wished we saw more in stories. They had a great relationship, and the fact that it ended doesn’t erase that.

And then The Mother’s death. (Even though we find out near the end that her name is Tracy, she’ll always be The Mother to me.) I’d read speculations that that was going to happen, and the way the last season played out brought me closer and closer (and with a heavy heart) to believing it. That one episode with the flash-forward of them going back to the inn and the “What mother would miss her daughter’s wedding?” bit? Yeah. I got it, and I cried, and I hugged Shaun. One of the things HIMYM has done brilliantly is the tragedy of untimely death. In our medically advanced, “wars happen on other continents” culture, that’s a thing that we try really, really hard to pretend doesn’t happen. Or we try to give it a bigger meaning or significance, to distract from how much it hurts. HIMYM has never done that. People die, it hurts, it doesn’t make sense. The only comfort is that we got to love them while they were here.

Tracy’s own story foreshadows this really nicely, and it tells us (in case anyone was unclear) exactly how to take her death. We never met her former lover (what was his name? Mike maybe?) but it was clear she thought of him as her One True Love, her destiny… and when that destiny was cut short, she thought that was the end of love for her. And letting go of him, finding the ability to love again, didn’t erase her love for him. The whole episode “How Your Mother Met Me” was great both in that we got to know Tracy better, but more so in that it pre-figured the process Ted was going to have to go through. We don’t see him going through any of the steps Tracy did in the six years between her death and his telling of the story, but it’s easy to imagine him slowly letting go of the idea of One True Love, and instead thinking of her as a true love.

And then we come to Robin, and here’s where the show fell down a bit. (Or a lot.) Ted’s pining for Robin in the latter seasons was SO obnoxious that it became impossible to root for them, even if the show hadn’t been insistently telling us that they wouldn’t get together (or so we thought, because we didn’t question the assumption that “the mother of my children, the woman who made my life incredibly happy” = “the only woman I’ll ever be with for the rest of my life.”) I actually did root for them in the early seasons, or wanted to: there were a lot of moments where I was like, “Dammit! Why can’t it be Robin?” But by the end it had turned from “two people who are so close to being right for each other, but agonizingly not close enough” to “OMG Ted will you GET OVER IT?” I can see why he didn’t. He loved her, and he was fixated on the idea of romantic destiny, and when those two things go together it can be very hard to let go of someone. But it dragged on too long and was too one-sided, and ultimately that “I love you + destiny = obsessing futilely over you for years” equation is not attractive or healthy.

And I guess, because of the whole destiny delusion, it was easy for people to read the whole story as, “Robin was Ted’s ultimate destined True Love, Tracy was just another distraction that happened to give him kids.” But I don’t see that and I don’t think the actual writing of the show supports that. The Robin-as-destiny concept was false and flawed and childish. Ted had to grow up and grow out of it. He sort of did, in the last season, but it was too little and waaaay too late to have any impact other than “my god, finally.” And then the whole locket thing brought it back in in a way I really disliked. I think it would’ve been better if Ted had had his “actually letting Robin go” moment a few seasons back, and then their continuing chemistry and love could have been gently hinted at at moments here and there, without it ever being about one of them helplessly pining for the other.

I also get why a lot of people feel betrayed by the way it all played out. In a lot of ways, the whole show was a huge bait-and-switch. The entire premise was supposed to be a traditional love story with a fairy-tale happy ending, and it turned into a story about how love takes many forms, and loving someone sometimes means saying goodbye, and there are actually no happy endings at all, because the story keeps moving and changing and what you actually get (hopefully!) is a sequence of happy middles, sometimes very different from each other. That is a much better story! Or at least it’s a much truer story, and one I wish our culture would tell itself more often.

And it’s not that lifetime love never happens, either. Marshall and Lily provide a counterpoint story, one of a single love that flourishes over a lifetime. But theirs is realistic too: they have to fight and struggle and sometimes their dreams conflict, and they have to make tough choices. I loved that moment when they said new wedding vows to each other, and agreed that they’d probably need to do the same thing again multiple times in the future. They keep choosing each other, through all the changes that happen, and it’s a free and happy choice for both of them.

There were other little things in the finale that I loved: I loved that becoming a dad was Barney’s real transformative moment, and goddammit if Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make that well-worn trope moving and beautiful. I like that Marshall had to go back to being a corporate lawyer for many years more before getting his judgeship. Having to take jobs you don’t like is another harsh, oft-denied reality that the show’s done a good job with over the years. I like that Robin fulfilled all her personal dreams: if she had ended up giving up on them in favor of a relationship with anyone, I’d have burned shit down. I like that there were long periods where the group of friends had grown apart and rarely saw each other; their lifelong friendship wasn’t about things always being the same between them, but about the fact that they could always come together after a long separation, and always wanted to.

I dunno. I thought it was great.

On privacy, and indifference to a cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship Agnosticism: process over teleology

In conversations with people over the years, I have been asked, in a myriad of ways, if I think that polyamory is better than monoamory.  Do I think that being polyamorous is better (necessarily or generally) than monoamory?

I’ve dealt with the question before, but I want to take a different approach–a different perspective–on the question today.  I don’t think that polyamory, per se, is better.  I do think many of the skills and lessons that being polyamorous has taught me are superior, but those same lessons could, potentially, be learned while being monoamorous.  What I have come to see as superior is not the ends–not how many romantic, sexual, etc partners one has–but the process of how we get to those ends.

Process over teleology, in short.  Let me explain.

I’ve talked a fair bit about my annoyance that being with one person, even if that monoamory is not the short-term goal, is the mainstream default ultimate goal.  While young and dating, many people will date two or more people within the same time-frame, but the ultimate goal in our culture is to find one person to either settle with or to convince yourself that this one person is all that you need romantically and sexually.  And sometimes it ends up being true, whether for several years or a lifetime, but this model of relationships is not universally ideal.

The problem here is that this approach to relationships is teleological, which means it’s concerned with the ends, rather than the means or the process.  It views the purpose of relationships as being concerned with a set goal (or set of goals) which all current relationships should aspire to.  We should be tying to find a single life-partner, because that’s what real love is or something.  If you are not interested in that, then you might not find happiness, or you may even be doing something wrong.

Let’s take a couple of basic examples; Let’s say that you have been with someone for 5 years and are not married yet, and not considering marriage.   For many people you are doing something wrong, the relationship is a dead end, and you may need to find someone else you are ready to be serious with.  Marriage, monogamy really, is the goal for many people, and if that ring doesn’t present itself, then move on (that’s the wisdom, anyway).  Or maybe you don’t have a single partner for very long, whether serially monogamous or you keep dating more than one person simultaneously.  In this case, the common wisdom says that you might have commitment issues (which may be true), because if you were ready to commit you would stop playing the field and finally become an adult, or something.  In short, if you are not in a monogamous marriage, in a relationship moving towards monogamy, or even looking for that, then you are doing it wrong.

The problem here is not that finding one person to spend your life with is bad per se.  The issue is not about where you end up, the issue is how you were thinking about your desires, emotional and physical needs, and whether you were getting what you actually want from relationships rather than thinking about a default and expected end.

If you have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you will see this default set of relationship expectations turned on it’s head.  Here’s a snippet from chapter 3:

Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. But there were also husbands, wives, lovers. There were also monogamy and romance.

“Though you probably don’t know what those are,” said Mustapha Mond.

They shook their heads.

Family, monogamy, romance. Everywhere exclusiveness, a narrow channelling of impulse and energy.

“But every one belongs to every one else,” he concluded, citing the hypnopædic proverb.

The students nodded, emphatically agreeing with a statement which upwards of sixty-two thousand repetitions in the dark had made them accept, not merely as true, but as axiomatic, self-evident, utterly indisputable.

“But after all,” Lenina was protesting, “it’s only about four months now since I’ve been having Henry.”

“Only four months! I like that. And what’s more,” Fanny went on, pointing an accusing finger, “there’s been nobody else except Henry all that time. Has there?”

Lenina blushed scarlet; but her eyes, the tone of her voice remained defiant. “No, there hasn’t been any one else,” she answered almost truculently. “And I jolly well don’t see why there should have been.”

“Oh, she jolly well doesn’t see why there should have been,” Fanny repeated, as though to an invisible listener behind Lenina’s left shoulder. Then, with a sudden change of tone, “But seriously,” she said, “I really do think you ought to be careful. It’s such horribly bad form to go on and on like this with one man. At forty, or thirty-five, it wouldn’t be so bad. But at your age, Lenina! No, it really won’t do. And you know how strongly the D.H.C. objects to anything intense or long-drawn. Four months of Henry Foster, without having another man–why, he’d be furious if he knew …”

Some may think that this is the polyamorous ideal (and for some it may be), but this, as a societal norm, is equally problematic because it discounts the possibility that some people, few or many as they are, may not want more than one person (or anyone at all, for that matter).  This commits the same error as our current culture as being more concerned with the goal than how one gets to where we get.


Process-oriented relationships

What do you want?

I mean, what do you desire?

This may not be as easy a question as you think it is.  The reason is that many of our wants are a result of the acculturation we receive as we grow up.  We are guided towards the social and cultural ideals of the world we live in, if not out-right trained or programmed (in some extreme cases), which informs the kinds of answers that come to mind when asked what we want.  When I ask you what you want, here, I’m not asking you what your long term goals are, what you hope to achieve, and especially not what you think you should want.  No, in this case I’m asking what you desire, generally and right now, from people around you.

What types of interactions do you desire with people?

What we actually desire may conflict with the cultural norms around us, and when those things conflict we may find that we automatically, or possibly feel compelled to, lean towards the norm rather than the desire (and for many the opposite is true as well, but that’s an error I’ll not address right now).  People who find themselves attracted to their own gender may pretend otherwise, especially if they are bisexual, due to religious or cultural expectations which devalue homosexuality and bisexuality (especially for men).

If you find yourself desiring two or more people, in our culture the appropriate thing to do is to spend time with all of them, in order to determine which one you will pick, or to simply decide which to pursue so as to avoid conflicts or jealousy.  But this is absurd from a point of view where one is agnostic concerning where one ends up.

If you are not very concerned about what is expected of you from your culture, and you rather follow what you actually desire, then there is no reason to openly, un-apologetically, and unabashedly pursue all of the people whom interest you.  And you should then stay with the people with whom you share some mutually-pleasurable relationship, whether it be purely physical, purely romantic, purely friendly, or any combination thereof.  You should not be concerned about what expectations there are whether from your culture, society, religion, or family.   You should pursue what you want with concern only for the people with whom you have relationships.

In short, love each person as you actually love them, no more and no less.

And wherever that takes you, whether monoamoryy, polyamory, or some other non-monoamorous option, that’s fine.  If you end up being with one person for the rest of your life, then fine (that’s what I call “Accidental monoamory/ monogamy“) and if you end up being with 25 people (to varying degrees or not), that’s fine too.  The point is not to be perpetually strategizing what type of lifestyle you will have, but to simply allow your relationships to go where they naturally lead according to the desires that everyone involved has.

Of course, you should be transparent about this; you should not claim to be exclusive while not being exclusive, for example.  You need to pursue your desires with care and consideration for the people with whom you have relationships.

To sum up, polyamory is not better per se, although I think that what people can learn from polyamory might raise our cultural consciousness about the nature of desire and relationship possibilities which most people don’t consider.  I don’t necessarily want everyone to be polyamorous, but I think everyone should be aware that monoamory is not the only healthy option.  If we allow our actual desires to fuel our pursuit of love and sex, I think many more people will find options more like polyamory, rather than automatically and unthinkingly choose monoamory out of cultural habit.

Poly Living Conference this weekend and thoughts on atheist blogging

I really should be getting to sleep, considering I have work in the morning (11AM, but that’s still morning!), but before I do I wanted to post a few thoughts.

Thought #1: I’m going to my first poly conference this weekend, the Poly Living Conference which is in Philadelphia this year.

I’m planning on taking ample notes, talking to many people, and trying to get a sense of the state of skepticism within the polyamorous community, you know because I’ll be speaking about that in about 5-and-a-half weeks at the Atlanta Poly Weekend Conference.

Centered around this upcoming weekend is some amount of anxiety, because despite a recent comment on this blog, I don’t see a lot of overlap of skepticism and polyamory (especially among those at Loving More, who are running this weekend’s conference).  Now, I know some of the people at the Atlanta conference next month are skeptics and atheists, but I am not sure about the people at the conference this weekend, the keynote speaker of which is Kamala Devi (from the recent Showtime series), a person who seems to be pretty into the woo side of things [Feb 10 2013 edit: my preconceptions here ended up not being fair or true.  I hold Kamala in high regard after having met her this past weekend, and apologize for the prejudice], including tantra. (information about the speakers can be found here).

I’m anxious because I am interested in the conversation about skepticism in light of sexuality, relationships, etc and want to talk with people about it, but in my experience those on the liberal side of religion, who call themselves spiritual, or who are pagan, tend to be pretty sensitive about criticism in general, and I don’t wish to make the conversation impossible by, well, being myself.

I’m anxious because I really don’t want to dislike the polyamorous community, and in some of my experience I have been rather disappointed in polyamorous people when it comes to skeptical thinking.

Though#2: I’m not sure about atheist blogging, sometimes.

There are some wonderful blogs which are primarily about atheism and skepticism, despite the various splits and interpersonal issues that have surfaced in the last few years.  But there are some atheist writers who are still plugging away at the atheism 101 topics, addressing the same old topics that we were all plugging away at back in 2005 or so when this new atheist thing became all the rage.

And there many still be a reason for them to be doing so, because so many still don’t understand this basic stuff, but as a long-experienced atheist activist, writer, etc I find it pretty boring.  Those blogs are not for me anymore and I am less interested in addressing the same issues as I did like 8-10 years ago.  I think that we should still have those resources available for those interested in those basic questions, but I think that we all need to keep our eyes on the larger prize: an intelligent, informed, skeptical world that tries to address injustice wherever it lives.

Others have moved on to try and not only grow the community, but make it better.  By trying to broaden the scope of skepticism and atheist activism, many writers and activists have started to realize that’s it’s not just about being an atheist (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but about helping create better skeptics all around.  I will continue to write about atheism in this sense (and possibly, occasionally, in the other sense), and try to make a world where tehre are mature, aware, and quality atheists; not merely atheists.

Those are my thoughts for the night.

Where philosophical differences turn into meta-debates about personalities

This, ladies and gentlemen, will be a rant of sorts.  I’m not happy with humanity today, and it’s my own damned fault for reading blogs!

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

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

So, now you know where I stand right?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seeking Quality over Quantity (or why most people are not worth my time)

For many years I have thought that through determined effort, rational thinking, and patience, it was possible to change people.  And sure, people change their minds in the face of facts, or more likely experience which includes emotion and reflection, but this happens through appealing to a central set of values, inclinations, and other emotional considerations.  I once thought that it might be possible to actually change the core emotional values people have; to make them more prone to caring about self-improvement, authenticity, and thus to become better skeptics (and thus better people).  Granted, I never thought this was possible for all people, perhaps not even most, but now I think such a thing might be impossible, or at least vanishingly rare.

Much of what I have written here at, even before the creation of that newer URL nearly a year ago, has been in the hope of making an argument for the application of self-challenging skepticism in order to show that faith is perhaps the worst human trait, as well as to explore the  social and cultural predominance of an often stifling and broken view about sexuality and relationships.  I was hoping that through a combined application of rational argument and a perspectivist’s critique of cultural norms, I could demonstrate that skepticism was a tool for our improvement as people, and hopefully create some new atheists and polyamorous people, because I believed that the truth of atheism and the promiscuous inclinations of the vast majority of humans was universal and that more people should be able to see that.

And while such actions may create new atheists and polyamorous people, what I am leaning towards concluding is that the underlying skepticism is harder to inspire.  There are certain sets of inclinations, desires, and fears which either make a person more or less likely to utilize skeptical thinking, and if some personality traits are not present, you might as well try and yell down a wall.

So, as a result of this leaning (which is even more cynical than I have been previously), I am leaning towards an updated approach to writing about the topics of religion and relationships.  The casual reader may not notice much of a difference, but anyone who knows me will notice the importance of the subtle distinction.  Rather than try and find people who are stuck in the cultural milieu of theism and monogamy, and try and convince them that they would, perhaps (and probably), be happier giving up such things, I want to focus on finding people who display certain personality traits, in order to grow a better atheist and/or polyamorous community.  Rather than transform people, I want to cultivate certain types of people in the hope of finding ways to educate and inspire them, while looking for others to inspire me as well.

Because in many cases, such communities have done a fairly good job at growing (especially the atheist community in recent years), but in doing so it seems we are more interested in quantity, rather than quality.


Build Quality Rather Than Mere Quantity

Here’s the thing; the atheist community has become a cultural phenomenon.  it’s not quite mainstream yet, but it is on the path towards it.  But many people seem to think that we just need to grow, rather than actually improve, what exists. The goal is not to create more atheists per se, the goal should be to find and cultivate better people, and better people will become atheists because atheism is rational (and if it isn’t, those better people will discover that).  Similarly, the goal is not to create more polyamorous people, it is to have people better understand their own romantic and sexual desires, and show them how to find a more healthy way to explore and express those desires.  Thus, better people will tend towards polyamory (or accidental monogamy).

Getting numbers for our communities is an important part of the larger cultural shift, and I will not disparage it altogether as a strategy, but there is a point when the community needs to pause and take note of the shape of the community, rather than its mere size.  What values do we have? How skeptical are we being? Are we keeping in perspective the larger goal of cultural improvement, rather than merely caring about our immediate concerns? Etc.  And I think that many in this community have got caught up in squabbles about stupid shit, and frankly I don’t want to associate with some of them who do not display traits worth wanting.

So, having said that, what types of qualities do I want to seek out and help cultivate in our communities?

1) Attention and empathy.

You know, like mirror neurons and shit.  I want to seek out people who have the capability, and desire, to see the world through the perspective of others.  This means listening, yes, but more importantly trying to understand concepts like privilege and cognitive biases.  By empathy, or even compassion, I don’t mean merely being nice and gentle with people, because sometimes people need a (metaphorical) kick in the ass, and accommodating is not always a good solution.  I mean that we need to make a genuine attempt to understand what is being said, including  the context of those ideas, so that when we do unleash our raptor-like wit and eviscerating critiques, we can hit as many of the actual weaknesses of their position, as well as be aware of our own weaknesses.

Also, it’s possible that we are wrong, or at least partially wrong, and understanding the argument of others might actually teach something about ourselves, including our own privileges and cognitive biases.

In short, the best means to criticism is to make sure you understand the other positions as well as they do (if possible), and the best way to know such things is to listen carefully and try to understand their perspective, especially if it seems ridiculous.  Makes me want to quote some Sun Tzu or someshit.

2) Judgment

We need to be able to be authentic concerning what we think, and be honest with our conclusions (tentative as they may be).  We need to exercise our abilities to discern rationality from irrationality, rationalization from explanation, and good from bad.

There are bad people in the atheist community.  There are bad people in the polyamorous community.  These people have bad ideas, treat people badly, and make rationalizations and excuses for why they are not bad, and for some reason people follow them.  Yes, those people are still part of the larger community, but they should not be our inspirations.  But mostly, there are people who have a mix of bad and good ideas and behaviors, and we need to be able to separate those things.  There are many people who have contributed very much to our success as a community, but who maintain ideas which are damaging.  We need to be able to criticize them without eschewing them, but we should be able to eschew when necessary, at least in terms of our support or respect for such people.

We need to encourage good ideas and criticize bad ideas, and be able to not divide into camps which no longer talk with each other because of disagreements.  We need to be able to take judgment, give judgment, and not create battle lines because of judgments made against us.  In short, we need to accept judgment as a good thing, rather than as a thing which divides us.

Judgment being a bad thing is a religious idea, more often than not, and we need to re-appropriate it for our use as a tool, not a weapon.

3) Expanding our domain of understanding and concern.

Battle lines create quasi-dogmas.  It prevents communication, yes, but more fundamentally it prevents us from taking seriously the perspectives of others.  We need to be perpetually broadening our arena of concern, even if our actual arena of action remains small.  That is, we might only fight for the rights of polyamorous people in the workplace, church state violations in your state or city, or focus on the relationship between race and religion in your culture.  All of these things (and many more) are worth doing, but if you are doing those things, it is important to be aware of how the concepts that you use in your work map onto other parts of our struggle for social justice.  And yes, you should care about social justice in general, and apply skepticism to such questions.  If you don’t care about such things, then there is no point in talking to you, is there? I can’t make you care about something that you don’t care about.  Similarly, if you don’t have the basic emotional capability to empathize, talking to you about morality would be futile except as an intellectual exercise.

The idea that religious people have a privileged status in American culture is not exactly like the privilege that men have, but the concept is transferable to some extent.  How some people understand one while rejecting the other makes no sense to me, and strikes me as a fundamentally conservative mind-set which acts to undermine the larger goal of improving our culture.

Self-improvement is not always linear, in the direction of your personal goal, it is more like a network, where concepts and efforts that we use are related to other things around us, and we should see that the effort to solve issue X is related, in some way, so solving Y and Z.  Skepticism is a tool to be applied to religion, astrology, and homeopathy for sure, but also to gender, relationships, and many other cultural concepts that are too often unquestioned or not analyzed.

4) Exclusion.

There are some people I don’t want at my party.  They simply don’t care about the perspective of others and are unable to comprehend the problem and so they mock it, they either judge in only one direction or pretend not to judge, or they see no reason to expand their scope of applying skepticism and rational analysis to their lives.  Whether it’s fear, apathy, or simple cognitive or emotional inability to understand, there is no point in exerting much effort on some people; they just don’t want the discussion, and it will just be time wasted on your end.  The resources will exist, on the internet, in books, and in your head, if they start to care, but before they do care it’s not really worth the effort.

Such people may still be atheists, they may be non-monomagous, they may be skeptical about some things.  But they are probably not worth my time when it comes down to explaining nuanced concepts which they will not retain even if I tried.  We have to be willing to cut our losses in some cases, and realize that some people simply are not equipped to be real adults with the ability to understand certain concepts.

Fuck ’em.

I’m not wasting much of my time fighting them anymore.  If you want to, then by all means do so.  But I wash my hands of people who don’t have the fundamental values and desires to make themselves better people.  They won’t be going anywhere, it’s just that they are not worth arguing with so I leave them to others who still feel like they can do something to get through to them.  I certainly did for many years, and I can’t change their mind for them either.

I want to see more effort in improving what community we have, rather than merely get more attention and attract more people.  Yes, we want more people, but we should make sure those people are worth wanting.

Meh, call me an elitist if you will, but I think that many people just are not capable of being good as people.  I view relationships the same way; some people are not really worth pursuing.  Why would I try to date a person who I didn’t respect (or wasn’t attracted to)?

This is not a universal creed, it’s just where I stand on this issue at the moment.  And like I said before, I will not decry anyone who wishes to howl at the moon or yell down walls (hell, it sometimes even works!).  I’ll just be watching, paying close attention, judging openly or quietly (depending on the circumstances), while trying to expand my own understanding so that I can keep growing myself.

I’ll hope to meet others doing the same.

Jonathon Haidt on preferences and morality

Saying ” because I don’t want to” is a perfectly acceptable justification for one’s subjective preferences.  Yet moral judgments are not subjective statements; they are claims that somebody did something wrong.  I can’t call for the community to punish you simply because I don’t like what you’re doing.  I have to point to something outside of my own preferences, and that pointing is our moral reasoning.  We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.

This is from page 44 of Jonathon Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind which I am currently reading.

This idea is central to how I have been thinking about morality in recent years, at least in conjunction to ideas very much like those in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.  I take it as axiomatic that preferences exist as the basis for much of our opinions, whether they be about politics, sex, religion, etc.  I realize that our values are not chosen, but are the result of fundamental emotional/pre-conscious processes which we don’t have immediate or easy access to.

But when it comes to things like public policy, especially when it comes to things like sexual orientation, I recognize that there is a significant burden on those who seek to limit personal freedoms which derive from our fundamental preferences and desires.  Religion is a devastating vehicle for such preferences—preserving and sanctifying them—but it is but one example of the great-grandparent of all vehicles for such things; culture.  Culture is not good or bad, per se, but it carries traditions and concepts which we put there, often without knowing why.  Culture is the storage space for all of our un-chosen fears, hopes, and everything in between.

It may be one of the great ironies of the human condition that we have to be willing to reject the specific preferences that we have for the sake of personal rights of others.  I say it’s ironic, because those same sets of preferences are the bases by which we rationalize morality at all; our personal preferences are the bases for enlightened self-interest, the golden rule, etc.  If we didn’t share the universal sets of personal preferences, then morality would not be relevant because we would feel no compulsion towards any particular action, let alone compassion.  It is because we care about our own preferences that we can, and feel compelled to, care about the preferences of others.

I cannot change, and did not choose, that I am sexually attracted to women rather than men (overwhelmingly, anyway), any more than another person cannot change that they are attracted to men, all genders, etc.  Thus, the same desires I  have to create various levels of intimacy and commitment with women are analogous to the desires that gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and even sapiosexual people have for the subjects of their desires.  My preferences are mine, and their preferences are theirs.  When put next to each other and looked at inter-subjectively,  no subjective preferences have a privileged status and all must be given equal initial weight (my like of John Rawls will be apparent here).  Thus, gay marriage is as much a right as any other form of marriage between consenting adults, because my preference for women is no more inter-subjectively valid than a preference for men and so forth.

Cultural tradition (specifically religion), the storage space for those bigoted fears, disgusts, and shames concerning homosexuality, are not sufficient reasons to create discriminatory policies against some forms of those desires for intimacy and commitment.

We have our preferences, but those preferences cannot inform, on their own, how we create policies that affect other people, at least in cases where no non-consenting victim exists.  And we have to keep in mind that as we dig into our minds (in the sense of Nietzsche’s concept of being archaeologists of the soul), we may find that preferences can change, and that we may grow new ones as we grow and learn.  Because while we may not choose our preferences, we can at least expose our mind to new ways of seeing issues which may alter the way our unconscious mind prefers to react.

Pay attention to your immediate and unconscious reactions.  Be mindful of feelings of disgust, shame, and fear in the site of things which we cannot find reasons to feel disgusted, shameful, or fearful of.  Sometimes interesting facts emerge while probing our preferences.  And sometimes our preferences, and thus our values, are actually just wrong and will need to be replaced, if that’s possible.

For the sake of our species I hope that values can be replaced.  But if not, I hope that we can at least convince people who have those damaging preferences that they should accept that their preferences will not become laws to govern all.



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: