Yelling at Each Other Through Trees

Last night, in a conversation over a couple of beers, an analogy just sort of spontaneously emerged from my brain and spilled out of my mouth.

We are all walking a path of life, each carving a path through a dense forest, and yelling at each other through trees.

Yes, many of us travel in packs, with a few trailblazers hacking away at the brush in front of them with machetes of varying quality and sharpness, defining the cultural path for those behind them. And some, behind them, will wander off into the forest around them, perhaps bumping into other cultural paths, but in general the world is a network of paths being blazed through a forest, leaving the separated groups in the position to yell at each other through trees in order to try and figure out what is going on, where we are, and if there is anywhere to go better than this.

We are a tribalistic species. I’ve written about this all too often over the years. We truly, and literally, don’t understand each other much of the time. A dominant narrative metaphor for the lack of understanding frames this problem in terms of us not sharing a common set of facts, anymore. The political Right, especially those supporting Donald Trump, have a different set of facts than, say, the progressives on the political Left, and neither understands each other.

Now, it’s quite likely that one of those political tribes is closer to “the truth” than others. You may guess which camp I think is closer to such a truth based upon my previous commentary, but the larger issue here is that none of the various political cultures who are contributing to the inter-cultural conversations are likely to be right, in any objective sense.

Wait….”right”? Do I mean in the sense of having facts that cohere to a skeptical methodology which sifts between those ideas supported by evidence from those that do not? Or do we mean right in terms of values?

I’ve written about the false dichotomy between facts and values in the past (see here and here, for example), but I’ll summarize that I don’t think that they are really all that different. We can have wrong values, in the same way we can have wrong facts.  With facts, the question is evidence. With values, the question is whether our values support human well-being, fairness, and transparency.

Of course, the larger issue is meta-ethics and such, which is a thorny mess I don’t want to deal with right now. The bottom line, for me, is that if you aren’t concerned with well-being, truth, fairness, etc, then I’m not sure you are interested in being a good person. Why should you care about those things? I’m not interested in playing those sorts of games with people who aren’t. They aren’t acting in good faith, I believe. They are interested in power, control, and manipulation. Those values are not values worth respecting. If you disagree, I will fight you.


But, back to nobody being right….

The problem is that we conflate being more right than someone else with being right in general. I believe that I’m right that there isn’t a god, or more specifically that sets of ideologies such as Christianity or Islam are not real. If I’m talking with someone who believes that Jesus is real, Heaven is real, Hell is real (and I’m going to it), and I believe I am right in not thinking those things are real, I’m not (ideally) claiming that I’m right in the sense that what I actively hold to be true is correct, but rather that I’m right concerning the specific question of whether their religious beliefs are rational or real.

I want to paint this distinction, because I think it’s lost all-too-often in such conversations. In the atheist community, some debaters and thinkers have tried to make it clear that their atheism is merely a “no” to the question “do you believe in god?” In other words, it’s a lack of belief. But, based upon my many such conversations, it often seems that my interlocutor is hearing something else; not merely that “I don’t believe you” but also “my worldview is actually correct, not yours.” Those are quite different claims.

Now, I, of course, do believe my worldview is correct. This is true by definition. If I didn’t believe it, it wouldn’t be my worldview. But it’s a different claim to say “I don’t believe you” and “My worldview is right.”

Because while I do believe my worldview is right, the fact is that none of us has a completely defined, seamless, systematic worldview which covers all possible questions. We don’t carry around a systematically air-tight philosophical theory of the world which can answer all possible questions. We have loosely knitted ideas based off a set of methodologies, and they might not even be logically consistent with each other.

If you ask me about what I think about the Christian concept of sin or what the soul is supposed to be, I can come up with an answer. How I do so is based upon how I organize and coalesce information. I may have a few quick and easy answers (sin is a concept which essentializes us and causes guilt, for example) or even sound bites to pull out of memory (the impermanence of the soul is akin to a flame, waiting to be extinguished ), but worldviews are generated in real time, perpetuated by the way my brain has formed itself through experience, and always subject to change with new experience.

In an analogous way, a political movement, made up of people of related worldviews, is neither right nor systematically defined. The current progressive leftist movement is, in my view, superior to that of the alt-right in terms of both facts and values, but there are processes in the Left which are as flawed as anything in the right. In the absence of an alt-Right to compare it to, the left would be a set of ideas in need of both criticism and improvement. But so long as the alt-Right exists, they are the lesser of evils with a large margin of point-differential, so they have my support until a better movement comes along.

None of the teams are worthy of worship or unquestioned reverence. We need to stop being so attached to groups, parties, and especially our own in-groups (this is my major criticism of hard-core Democrats, right now; loyalty to party over social improvement). I’ve seen too many groups become subject to tribalism, cliquishness, and corruption to even trust any group, no matter how well-intentioned its people are. My recent interactions with the secret Facebook group, Polydelphia, is a prime example of how a group with good intentions can become corrupted and internally ruined by people who think they are doing the right thing.


What to do?

I don’t know. I’m not optimistic. Talking to people from vastly different worldviews was always hard, but it’s much harder right now because of the demonization, cultural bubbles, and enmity which has been created by well-intentioned (in many cases, anyway) social media outlets and meta-narratives which cannot parse fringe movements nor their criticisms (neither can those fringes understand each-other).

But we are trying to get a bird’s-eye view of the forest terrain by yelling through trees at each other. And so far the best ways we have found to do such things is to pull ourselves out of ourselves, to transcend and elevate ourselves above the hacking and slashing. Skepticism, science, and any other methods we can use to minimize bias (both individual and group biases) is the only means we have found, thus far. Seeking ecumenical similarities in religious traditions (for example) as a means to unite us is nothing more than people comparing their paths through the forest, and is unable to transcend the question.

Only by attempting to prove ourselves wrong, through skepticism, can we hope to transcend the forest, or at least draw an accurate map.

So long as we continue to abandon skepticism and the answers it supplies–and both the Left and the Right are doing so–the further way we get from the truth, collectively.

I’m not optimistic.

Intelligence is insufficient

Intelligence is a useful quality to have, but it is not enough if we seek things such as wisdom, fairness, or even simply being correct.

I know some pretty smart Christians.  I know some people who are smart and yet who still have some pretty dated and conservative views on the world.  There are pretty awesome people I meet who react to polyamory unfavourably,and not just as a personal preference.  They are able to think, they have impressive cognitive abilities, and yet while talking to them it’s sometimes obvious that they are missing something from their thought process. To the untrained eye, this may look like lack of understanding, but it may not be that simple.  5 or 10 years ago, when my eye was less trained, I would have argued with such people and tried to convince them of my position.  Their smart, I’d have thought, and so if I present a solid argument they’ll have to agree with this reasonable belief I have.  The problem, here, is two-fold.

First, this presumes I’m actually correct.  I may not be correct, and starting as if I am is no help to me nor my interlocutor.  If I might be wrong, then starting by trying to convince them of my position will not serve greater understanding or intellectual growth since it will either end in my convincing them of an untruth or of an endless argument where they are the one with the hopefully keener eye to see what we are missing.  On top of this, there is a cognitive block that occurs when you argue from a position of “I’m already right,” because it prevents listening.  While you argue your points, in such cases, it is harder to see the others’ points being made because our minds will protect our current worldview against dissonant ideas.  And really smart people are really good at this worldview-protection, because they can easily and quickly think up rationalizations for why an objection isn’t relevant or right.  But by doing this, we miss important facts and perspectives which may be of value to us if we could understand them.  You know, just like how you want your interlocutor to think and feel while making your points.  Funny how that works.

Therefore, we should start with as neutral a position as possible, and be willing to question every assumption, value, and belief we hold.  Also, we should talk to others as if we are willing to do so, because doing so not only looks more open-minded, but actually is part of becoming open-minded.

Second, it presumes that the difference in opinion is one of mere comprehension, when it very well may not be about comprehension at all.  The issue may be a difference in values.  A difference in values is much harder to shift, for many of the same reasons generated by dissonance theory referred to above, and most arguments I’ve heard boil down not to facts, but values.  And while I don’t believe that facts and values are fundamentally different ontologically, they are behaviourally different at very least.  That is, a fact is easily proved or disproved, but because a value is part of the process of thinking and behaving, it is harder to see for what it is and how easily it can lead us stray of rational behavior and beliefs.

I believe that a value can be more true than another value (in terms of how it lines up with what goals we share.  What goals we should share is another question).   A fact is an external reality or claim about said reality which can be checked with empirical and or logical methods.  It is demonstrably testable whether this element has those properties, this mathematical proof works, or that lead is denser than water.  A value is a fact which is part of the process you use to evaluate other kinds of facts, and thus is generally out of the line of sight for your intellectual powers. More fundamentally values are ideas, which makes them physical processes (ontological dualists can exit through the door, as I have no patience for that shit any more), which also means they are also subject to empirical and logical methods as well (although the exact technique to do such a thing is still quite difficult) and thus values can be measured against reality in a similar way as mere ‘facts.’  I’m willing to submit that values can, therefore, be better or worse than other values.  Honesty is better than deceit.  Compassion better than harm. And, maybe, the desire for truth is better than the desire for comfort.

Or is it?

Some people don’t care about the truth, in itself.  I mean, if you are talking about something as banal and mundane as ‘are you telling me the truth about this drink not being poisoned,’ then people usually care about that level of truth.  But what about the willingness to try and learn, grow, and change beyond what is comfortable? What about someone who does not really care what the truth may be, because their faith makes them feel safe and loved? Arguing with such a person about the existence of the supernatural is a wasted effort; they don’t care what’s true.  There are smart people who hold such positions, including people that I know and care about.  Utilizing intellectual means to try and convince such a person will probably be pointless and frustrating for both of you.  They value differently than you, and by applying such a method you are attacking the facts rather than their values.  You need to appeal to their values, and doing that by intellectual means is hella hard, and often pointless (but I don’t think it’s impossible).

Or, what about a person who has a moral worldview which you find abhorrent, flawed, or merely not moral? I know quite a few such people, and I do not address why I disagree with them most of the time, because our disagreement is not about facts, it’s about a specific kind of value; preferences.

Morality is not a reasoned activity fundamentally, even if we can use reason and science to improve it and clarify the problems raised by morality’s mantle.  Morality, especially where it is codified or systematized, is usually (if not always) ad hoc reasoning.  That is, we simply have deep preferences for which we build logical boxes for storage and for hitting our opponents over the head with.  Kant, for example, didn’t start from some idealized blank slate of a mind to reach his deontology, his universalization of maxims, rather he had certain preferences and quirks about his mind that made it feel right to do this and not right to do that, and created (brilliantly, mind you) a logical scaffolding to make sense of these brute facts of his mind into a systematized universal standard.  I happen to share much of those preferences that Kant seems to have had, so I tend to agree with Kant when it comes to ethics (although I thought he was wrong about many other things, like aesthetics).  Where I think Kant erred, in terms of his ethical thinking, was believing that his exercise was a truly intellectual one, rather than one of rationalizing values.  The same is true for Bentham and Mill with their versions of utilitarianism, and perhaps even Aristotle with his Nichomachean Ethics (which everyone who is interested in ethics should read, in my opinion).

So, having intellectualized and semantic arguments about ethics is usually completely pointless (not always, mind you).  When this type of conversation happens, what we tend to observe is a proxy war for our preferences.  The question is not whether my scaffolding is more rationally stable than your scaffolding (I actually really don’t like that game), but whether my preferences themselves actually have better effects on people and in the right ways, and whether (therefore) I might try to shift my values.  All too often, we see something like a person whose preferences are more self/freedom oriented arguing with a person who finds consideration and efficiency more valuable, but they don’t address the values themselves.  Instead, it turns into a conversation about what “rights” mean or some other epiphenomenal factor, which is less helpful to everyone and merely seeks to put on display rhetorical skills.  It’s like lovers trying to hammer out an intellectual solution to feeling unloved; it’s bound to not really help, in the long run, because what the hurt lover wants to just to be loved (it’s a mistake I’m prone to making).

Intelligence is a great tool but without perspective it can often be a blunt tool instead of a sharp one.  Perspective requires the spirit of not only a skeptic, but an archaeologist of the soul (‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ used metaphorically there, of course.  And yes, that’s yet another set of references to Nietzsche).  It’s one thing to use rhetoric, logic, and eloquence to find the flaws in the argument of your opponent, but it is quite another to have the courage to take a hammer to your very psychological and emotional bones.  And when a person can utilize whatever level of intelligence they have and work for the character of self-criticism, then a person begins to approach wisdom.  Because while we don’t choose our level of intelligence, we have some control (assuming free will is meaningful) over how we use it.  The how of our intelligence is more important than its raw power.

Our insecurities will compel us to show off our intelligence.  We want respect, love, and friends. And we can get those things if we are (perceived as ) smart.  That world is all vanity, the neighbour to fear.  Fear is the mind killer, right?  And fear has a tendency to create the illusion of confidence or even to actually create arrogance, where practicing intellectual patience instead might be wiser.  Because even if we are right, we still might have something else to learn if we are not so ready to be right that we only swing our intelligence outward while not watching for the parry and counterstrike.  Also, it does not help to make people like us very much.  You may not care about that.  I care about that, at least a little.  Just don’t make the mistake of allowing your insecurity and fear make you act in such a way that you tell yourself, after the fact, that you didn’t want people to like you when you really did want them to like you.  Because that’s a thing that happens.  Again, it’s called cognitive dissonance, so read about it.

Regression towards the mean (a rant)

All cultures have traditions, values, means of communication, etc.  All of these, and more, help define meaning and appropriate behavior for the group of people that interact with that culture.  It sets values for moral behavior, words for communication, and expectations to evaluate your decisions and circumstances against.  It gives you a set of standards to compare how well you’re doing in your process of personal growth.  Culture creates a filter through which we define what is good personal growth.  The problem is that sometimes cultures are bad standards for such things.

What do you do when the values, expectations, and even the very language your culture uses seem, well, wrong? Not all of them, necessarily.  Really, it just takes one value or tradition to create this problem, and I am not sure it is a problem which will ever go away.  We may perpetually, as a species, be evolving and progressing our cultures towards various ideals, assuming we don’t kill each other first.  I’m rarely optimistic.  So, given that, it seems rational to assume that those working for social justice, of all flavors, are the people we should be paying more attention to as members of culture.  But we don’t, because the path of least resistance is easier.  It’s totally understandable, right? Well, it’s certainly human. As if that’s sufficient reason to do something in itself.

(Just another reason I’m a misanthropist and not a fan of humanism; I don’t want humanity to be our example or our standard, I want the ubermensch to be the standard.  I want to transcend mere humanity towards something perpetually better, culturally.  No, not a trans-humanistic future of perfect cuber beings or even Cybermen, but a perpetually improving set of cultures.).

Well, in such cases where we find ourselves dissatisfied with our cultural environment, we have little choice but accept it or to (hopefully) find some other people who feel the same way and create your own sub-culture where we will often have to hide some behaviors so that the normals can go around feeling comfortable with their quaint little lives, unchallenged and sometimes even unaware that challenge is even an option.  And if we, rebels and other hooligans, happen to encroach on their territory (which is everywhere, seemingly), we have to apologize and slink back into our little holes, lest they get offended and have feelings they don’t want to deal with.  Examples? Christian privilege in the Christmas wars, for starters, but also the fear that many polyamorous people have in being discovered by employers, family, etc because of the effect of cultural norms on our legal and practical rights.

And, sometimes, you meet one of these friendly normals who seem to think your little hole in the culture is sort of fascinating and interesting.  They sort of like some of what you have to say, or they have a friend who also has a similar hole and they want to be liberal, open-minded, and accepting but they don’t really feel it deep down the way we do so it always feels like they are merely patronizing.  Because they are patronizing, even if it is also partially genuine (I’ll be clear; sometimes it is actually genuine).  They will occasionally visit your little hole, play around for a while in that hole, but they are not prepared to live their.  In some cases, a person might spend time with the weird people because a friend likes the weird thing or because their partner is weird as well, and they feel like they should be supportive even if they don’t really get it.  I mean, sometimes they do get it, but sometimes not.  Either way, they are not invested in your little cultural oddity, and most of their thinking and feeling is still tied to the mainstream culture in which they live most of their lives.

As we grow up, the things that are meaningful to us are tied to the culture in which we live.  And for most people, that is the mainstream culture.  Generations of people have common cultural items to use as stand-ins for more universal human commonalities, and we latch onto those things.  For many people it is the church they went to, but it could also be the love of popular TV shows, music, or hobbies.  And this is all fine.  The problem is when the things we value and have fond associations with are a part of the problem.  I’ll use a personal example.

When I was in graduate school, I made friends with a fellow graduate student who was the member of a fraternity.  He was very active and loved this fraternity, and he spoke well of it.  Through our friendship, I became fascinated with the ideals and the experience of this group of brothers, and because I valued him and the ideals proposed by the fraternity I decided to join.  I had hoped to meet other people who shared certain values with me and to become part of a group that seemed actually worth-while, rather than the ones I had seen elsewhere.  It was against my general nature of not being the type who joined things like this; I never went to church (willingly), I have never been enamored by any particular political party, and I had some prejudices about fraternities.

Upon joining, I slowly but inevitably saw the private, secret rituals of the fraternity as well as how my new ‘brothers’ really were, and things started to sour.  I learned, quickly, that the role of the fraternity was exactly like the role of church for most mainstream and normal people.  While in the ritual times and spaces, people tend to be solemn, respectful, and even reflective.  But as soon as they leave, the ideals (for most of them), go by the wayside.  Then I saw that people were sort of douchebags, just like everywhere else.  On top of that, the ideal that the fraternity upheld were available without the fraternity; just like with religion.  There was no need to join the fraternity, because I could have the ideals without that particular group of people.

One example always sticks with me.  I had some interaction with the prytanis (president) of the chapter at Drexel University a while ago, during my early days as a volunteer, and it was like talking to any self-serving, arrogant, and self-important douchebag I have ever had the displeasure of talking with. The values of the organization do not tend to filter down to the members.  So it is with such things.  This, and other things I learned during my brief activity (you are a brother for life, after all), showed me that no matter how good the ideals of a community, or culture, are, those ideals won’t translate.  You don’t have to be a member to share the ideals, and if you do become a member you won’t necessarily meet better people.  Unfortunately, this truth carries through to all of my experiences with groups of all kinds, including the atheist community.  I have many friends in the atheist community, but it is full of many douchebags as well.  The Polyamorous community is a little better.

So, it’s even worse when even the ideals of a community, group, or culture are not, well, ideal. Take the ideals of love and romance in our culture to start with.  Most people associate love with concepts of possessiveness and jealousy as a positive sign of love being ‘real’.  But those are the ideals of love and romance in our culture in general, whether we like it or not.  It might be changing slowly, but that’s where it seems to be for most people.  Those of us who are polyamorous tend to recognize that those values are broken, and see love as expansive and less limiting (it’s not actually infinite, because nothing is.).  But from the point of view of someone steeped in  mainstream culture, we poly people often look like we’re crazy, or at least playing with fire (which is also fun).  We are, after all, intentionally breaking the expectations of the culture they live in and value.  I mean, it’s one thing to cheat, but at least the normal monogamously-inclined cheater has the ideal of exclusivity, possessiveness, and jealousy…I mean, true love and romance…as a goal.  At least those cheaters are (generally) trying to do things right, but they keep messing it up because they are human.  But to throw away those ideals and love 2 or more people? That’s just nuts.

So when those hangers-on, those people who are, intellectually and theoretically, accepting of us rebels and hooligans (you know, because they are open-minded, liberated people); those people who hang around because they have friends who are also weird; those who hang around because the person they are dating wants to be part of it, even if they are unsure about it.  When those people start to really face the hard parts of being an adult and dealing with the real complexities of attraction, jealousy, envy, time-management, trust, etc what do they do? Well, they tend to regress towards the cultural expectations. The average. The ‘mean’.

Monogamy as an expected ideal, as it is in our culture, is not a healthy value to defend and to default towards.  I recognize that some people will be truly happy and fulfilled in monogamous situations, but as a default this ideal is broken when held against the shape of human desires, capabilities, and actual behavior.  When you have millions of people nourished with in a set of values around love, relationships, and sex which imply the expectations of monogamy, their emotions and thus their opinions latch onto those ideals.  Subsequently, due to various cognitive biases and imperfections, they are offended by opposing values which may actually be superior (either generally or for them specifically).  So when some of those people are exposed to polyamory, even if they are willing to accept or even try it, their emotions are still tied to the ideals of love, relationships, and sexuality which make polyamory seem wrong, impractical, or “not for me.”

Let’s use another example, not from myself but based, in part, on someone I have known all of my life.

If someone grows up going to church, loving the music, the community, etc, they will attach emotional significance to much of the tradition and ritual.  They have emotional bonds to the sounds, smells, architecture, etc.  For someone like this, being in their religious space brings to mind good feelings, memories, etc which cannot be replaced, but which are valued by them whether they would choose to value them or not.  If they start to disbelieve in any or all of the doctrines of the church, those feelings don’t go away.  So even if they leave the church, they seek out some sort of substitute, or create atheist churches (*gag*).  And from time to time, they will think about and miss what they left.  Their emotions bond to such sounds, smells, images etc which they formed in those places while they developed as people.  And sometimes, especially if they experience trauma, hard time, etc, they go back.  They regress.

The same thing often  happens to people who are interested in, or try, polyamory.  It gets hard, their emotions–which were tied with ideas about love and security which are antithetical to being polyamorous–pull them towards the cultural norm.  It’s the path of least resistance, after all, to appear normal.  it’s even easier to actually just be normal.  Polyamory is not normal (and it may never be).  The normal alternatives, whether monogamy, serial monogamy, or even swinging (which is, let’s be honest, just couples who like to fuck other people sometimes, and not a real challenge to the fundamental norms of couple-based relationships) requires less personal struggle and work, it’s easier to explain to co-workers and family, and it does not force you to grow.  Growing is hard, fitting in is easier.

And we as sensitive, caring, and mature people, are supposed to sympathize with their struggle when they regress in such ways.  We are supposed to allow them to go the path they want with our blessings and support, because their life is theirs.  Well, sure it is, but that does not mean that the decision to regress towards the norm is not often based on some fear, unwillingness to be challenged, and even cowardice.  That does not mean we have to actually agree with them.  Also, it does not mean we have to respect their decision.  We are supposed to not challenge them when shit gets hard for them because shit is already hard for them, I understand.  We are supposed to be patient (and some patience is fair to ask for, but their must be a limit).  We are supposed to not rock the boat.  We are supposed to behave ourselves. we are supposed to know our place.  Our place is not to question the norm. Most people will defend their norms all day and all night because it is comfortable, and they will do it with a smile and get offended when you find them ridiculous, because they are so conditioned to see it as right even if it might not be.

They are so easily offended, those open-minded, liberated, progressive normal people.  Not to mention the conservatives; they are a whole different problem.  But the liberal-minded mainstream normal people who find us weird people so interesting to hear stories about on NPR or have representative friends to make them seem interesting…. They are very often, to this weird person anyway, quite amusing and interesting.  They are like the Unitarians from the point of view of radical new atheism; not the source of the problem, but not really helping either.  They are just sort of boring, trite, and uninspiring.  They just sort of blend into the background of the culture, which we already (hopefully) agree is not ideal.

And we are supposed to respect them and their lives.

That’s another part of the values of our mainstream culture.  That is the quiet, brilliant lore of mainstream inoffensiveness.  That is what feeds and keeps alive what is wrong with mainstream culture.  Where privilege of all kind lives, it is guarded by the desire to be polite, because being polite is nice and it won’t offend your grandmother or the neighbors.  Where injustice lives, so does the smiling, ubiquitous face of “it’s just how people are” and “live and let live.”  Where cowardice, fear, and conservative tendencies live, so do the values of tradition and “just fitting in”.  And so when shit gets hard, it’s easier to just fall back into the tendencies of the lazy and cowardly culture that we live among and within.  When shit happens, it’s easy to just blend into the background pattern of normal culture, and appear as just another person who feels more evolved and liberated because you had this time in college (or whenever) when you tried that weird thing, but it wasn’t for you.  Or perhaps you have some weird friends who are interesting to invite to parties and amaze the other normals with how many interesting people you know.  Don’t I look all open-minded now? Aren’t I a mature and responsible adult? Aren’t I interesting?

Not necessarily.

So this is where I regress to being (a little) mean.  I don’t respect the majority of our culture or its values.  I don’t want to be nice or to sympathize beyond a reasonable level of time to allow you to get used to the culture shock you have when you run into weird people or radical ideas.  I’m willing to allow you some time to calm from your privilege or parochialistic shock, but then I expect you to actually grow up a little or go away where I don’t have to tolerate the inoffensiveness you reek of.  And, unfortunately, most will go away and regress to their mean.  That’s fine, my world is better without you anyway, but I will be disappointed because this reaction is so common.  I’m not going to be nice to you just because you have some emotional attachments to being normal and unchallenged, and you would rather run away or hide behind wanting to fit in or not offend your co-workers or your family for the sake of something that scares you to think about doing.

I’m sympathetic to emotional difficulty when it’s warranted, but the common emotional attachments to a set of values affixed to a broken and stupid culture are not sufficient warrant after a while.  If you are exposed and given time to adjust to the weird alternative to the norm, and you don’t adjust, then I’m no longer sympathetic.  You have time, especially if you have the time to read blogs like this, to think about the nature of our culture and your relationship with it, so do it already and stop being boring.  If you don’t do that work now, then I hope that if you eventually figure out that the (for example) monogamous marriage which you willingly enter, but later find yourself stuck in, was the result of unrealistic expectations about relationships which you learned from our culture, then you will be willing to do the work.  I also hope that you will then be willing to start re-thinking your values and your attachment to the dominant cultural values.

I hope you figure that out before all of that, and I hope that our experiences and insights as (polyamorous, atheist, social justice activist, etc) people, while not perfect (I’m certainly far from it) might be more than mere interest from afar.  Because for many people out there, the weird stuff around them is just a way to play with ideas while not really questioning your very basic values and assumptions in any meaningful way.  Weird sub-cultures and counter-cultures are a sort of cultural clothing that makes our culture look interesting to those living in it, when it is not interesting in itself.  In short, I’m not impressed by your emotional freak out because you are more comfortable with what is normal than with doing the real work to challenge your cultural conventions and assumptions. I’ll be impressed when the freak out happens when you are genuinely trying to adjust to the fact that the dominant culture inculcated so much crap into you and you are trying to change those ideas for better ones, actively, painfully, and most of the time.

I am no longer impressed by the values, methods of solution, or rules of a culture–any culture–which is fundamentally broken as our mainstream Western culture is.  And if you don’t think this mainstream Western culture is broken in many ways, then you might be part part of the problem.

An unchallenged value is not worth much; or why your values might be wrong

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

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

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


The Analogy of Tastes and Values

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

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

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

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


Desires and Wants

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


In Case Your Values are Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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



Atheism over humanism: why we must philosophize with a hammer

[EDIT: I want to add a quick note to this article because of some confusion that became obvious to me in conversation.  I am not creating a dichotomy between atheists and humanists; I am commenting on the differences between people who prefer one title over the other.  In my experience, which term a person primarily identifies with tells you something about how they view the issue of how to deal with religion.  Do we take an oppositional stance or do we focus on our positive values which may overlap with religious values?]

Today, on facebook, I ran into this:

The ‘humanist’ label is a fine alternative to one of the hundreds of religious affiliations. It is certainly finer than ‘agnostic’ or ‘athiest’, as they define thenselves against something rather than for something….

Now, many people in the greater community of reason, of which I and the other atheists are a part, prefer the term humanist to atheist.  Others prefer freethinker, rationalist, or….Bright (I dislike that last one very much, as do many others I know).  I prefer atheist for a number of reasons.  Now, this does not mean that I’m not a freethinker, a rationalist, or that I’m not bright (Oh, please stab me with a spoon!), but it means I prefer the term over others such as humanist.

Hammer of the Gods?

But the technical fact is I am a humanist in many ways.  The humanist ideals and values are things I generally agree with.  The Humanist Manifesto, for example, demonstrates ideas that are largely similar to my own ideas, and where I might quibble or disagree it does not lead to a drastic difference of opinion.  For the most part, I find the manifesto to be pretty bland and uncontroversial; its liberal and progressive Christianity without the Jesus, Reform Judaism without YHWH, unitarians without…well, it’s sort of like them, actually.  My disuse of the term humanist is caused by the same basic reason that I don’t attend unitarian services; I simply have no need for it and I often feel like its just a little too much like theistic religion.  As Nietzche put it, it is really a matter of taste–to much stale air!

Therefore, I don’t think that the quote at the top of this post is sufficiently convincing to change my attitude towards the primacy of atheism over humanism in my self-reference.  The reason has everything to do with the quote above; I define myself as being against theism primarily.  It is a value of mine to be against this idea of supernaturalism, not as a mere rebellion, but as a matter of recognition that it has more reach than humanists give it credit for.  It has worked its tendrils into just about every concept, value, and sector of our culture in ways that make our attempts to be “for something” a difficult task if we value truly escaping the clutches of theistic thinking.

While I am not opposed to, and often support, the creation of new values and ways of life other than that created by our largely religion-infused western culture, the fact is that the predominance of that culture necessitates a defensive position in many cases.  That is, the ubiquity of religious ideas, even where there is no actual supernatural belief present, is so suffocating that new values become unwitting atavisms.  Humanist values, often thought of as being new or at least different, are usually mere secularized religious ideas, mostly due to the fact that religion usurped them millennia ago. But religion did not merely adopt these values in those ancient days, it changed them by infusing them with the anti-life message of sin, depravity, and shame.  The stain is old and hard to remove even by those humanists who seek to become reborn out of religion–an image surely evocative of something.

Wait, not THAT Hammer….

Even among atheists, the acculturation of a religious ideas has infected the minds of people to such a degree that even when they reject the theology, they often still hold onto much of the structure of the morality and behavior.  Atheists may not believe that we were created by god to live such a way, yet they still often hold onto archaic sexual norms, conventions of respect for people’s personal beliefs, and cultural definitions of relationships (such as marriage as being between two people of opposite gender).   I have heard atheists who still suffer from discomfort with their own sexuality, try to shame me into not criticizing religion openly, or who actually argue against gay marriage or polyamory.  Only the stain of religious thinking can be responsible for this (at least I’ve heard no good arguments which are not based upon religious ideas, ultimately).  Thus, when people leave religion and create new ways to think, like secular humanists do, often their actual lives are not in any way truly new or revolutionary in any way.  They just drop the problematic metaphysics and declare that the rest of their values are their own.  I am somewhat cynical of this claim; I think their new values are often still pretty traditional and even conservative.  But at least its an improvement over pure theistic religion, in any case.

I don’t think enough people in our culture are prepared for new values yet.  I think too many people are incapable of conceiving of new values, and simply replace their old ones with new personas, while still the same deep down.  Many pagans, wiccans, and other alternative new age religions are guilty of this.  They hate or at least dislike their old religion, and so they replace the mythology with another, while keeping the scars of their religious foundations intact and very influential; they often don’t actually grow, they just change clothes.  And many people still value the words, and what they see as the personality, of Jesus Christ.  They don’t believe he is god, but they see his message as good.  This is the essential problem; Jesus’ words were often insane, non-pragmatic, and dangerous.  He is not the highest of moral teachers, he is a character of his time who idealizes for us bronze-age morality which we should have out-grown by now.  The whole and central moral message of Christianity is perverse and vile, and it is holding us as people, as a society, and as an influential culture, back from truly growing and transcending ourselves.  And while humanism is not trying to accomplish this atavism–or at least the slowing down–of our growth, it often achieves it anyway.

To truly create new values, we must do philosophy with a hammer (as Nietzsche suggests in his Twilight of the Idols).  We must utterly destroy the values which we have before us.  And if we find, after everything has been

Hmm, not really what I had in mind either…

smashed, that we create new values that look a little like those smashed idols, then so be it.  But we, the atheist community, are still trying to teach new people how to wield their own hammers.  And until all is questioned and all corners of our culture analyzed with the skeptical tools of science and logic and we are able to think more clearly about our history as a world of freethinkers, humanism will be a premature step for many people.

Don’t get me wrong.  I want the humanists to keep up their program.  I want those who have trashed their own cultural houses to keep building, but I want them to remember that there are many other people still smashing, as well as many more protecting their idols from those of us who want to hand them hammers.  So, humanists, while you are attempting to build values for yourselves and for others to adopt when they are ready, remember that you still may have missed an idol or two, probably in the attic, basement, or perhaps you didn’t notice that you were clutching it.  Also, remember that we new atheists are with you (in spirit), but someone needs to keep handing out hammers.  And the title for such a person must still be “atheist.”

Happy smashing!

Destruction of Traditional Values Should be Legal, Safe, and Rare

It is my proposal for discussion that social progress must, necessarily, destroy some traditional values. It is my hope that this destruction will only take place where those traditional values are themselves causing destruction, hopefully unintentionally.

Is there anything wrong with being homosexual or bisexual? Is there anything wrong with being polyamorous? Is there anything wrong with being an atheist? Is there anything wrong with these things in themselves?

Is there anything wrong with a society that accepts homosexuals on equal terms? Is there anything wrong with a culture that accepts non-monogamy on equal terms with monogamy? Is there anything wrong with a world that does not care if a person does not believe in spurious metaphysical claims?

Society will change as the individuals that make it up change. And as we see the principles of moral behavior projected onto these new personal behaviors of people, we would be remiss…no, we would be hypocritical…not to apply the same values of fairness and justice upon the similar social structures.

Marriage, through most of history, has been defined as being between the opposing sexes. The reasons make sense, as in order to raise children it is the minimal requirement that one man and one woman get together and make babies. And as society began to complicate and settle, allowing people to explore more complicated relationships, it should be of no surprise that some would create situations, both unintended and eventually intended, that would forgo the status quo of what was done usually.

Question #1:

Is it the case that, purely on an interpersonal level, that relationships can be made to work between two people of the same sex, three people, and can people live fulfilling lives without religion or faith? More generally, can people live happy, productive, and moral lives not following the normal paths? Does eschewing traditional worldviews and values necessitate that life will become difficult, perverse, etc?

I think that the answer is quite clearly that casting off traditional values and lifestyles can often have its difficulties, but that it is very possible to live fulfilling lives. The success of the attempts will vary depending on other social considerations.

Question #2:

Is it reasonable to expect that individuals living their lives according to their values will not be noticed by, inspire, and inform other people of alternative possibilities of life? That is, even if these non-traditional people never write a blog, protest, try to pass legislation, run for office, etc in order to support their non-traditional lifestyle, will they simply go unnoticed?

I think the answer to this question is a mixed bag. I think that their are many things that people do that go unnoticed. The reasons are varied, but it is clear that there are many things that remain unseen, unspoken of at work or at parties (at least mixed parties), and so go largely unnoticed. I think that eventually the general awareness of such things happening is nearly impossible to contain, even if the specific people and places are not known.


When non-traditional ideas spread to so-called “mainstream” culture, what happens? That is, when the cat is out of the bag what do people say? Again mixed bag. Depending on how close to home, emotionally, religiously, and morally (yes, all of these things are related) these non-traditional ideas are. Thus things that challenge “normal” views which people have close emotional associations with such as religion, sexuality, family, etc, the more likely the challenge will be taken personally and thus cause a defensive reaction.

This means that the issue becomes of social consequence, but only because it is a strongly personal issue that challenge ideas of society.


Does it make any sense to believe that changes at the personal level, things that individuals do, should not often change society eventually?

Any change that happens on the personal level has the potential to eventually transform social norms. Why? Personal transformations are the building blocks of social change. Thus as interpersonal relationships change in nature, it is only natural that those people will begin to redefine concepts which their relationships use. Concepts like ‘family,’ ‘marriage,’ and ‘even ‘love’ will take on different meanings in the context of their new experiences.

Atheists have been around for thousands of years. We didn’t always call ourselves that, but we were around. For most of human history, religion, politics, and economics were tied together in ways that they are not any longer in much of the world. One of the many factors of this change is the concept of separation of church and state, which was a radical change in the US Constitution but which was probably inevitable to happen. Thus, the personal changes of small numbers of people that didn’t believe in gods were able, eventually, to demand political representation that would have been nonsensical in prior eras.

Same sex marriage would have been a concept that made no sense hundreds of years ago. Even in times and places where gay sex was acceptable even if it was generally done behind closed doors, the concept of marriage had a meaning surrounded by family and property, and not so much with love, tax breaks, sharing of medical benefits, or simple interpersonal bonding as it does not for many people.

But as these concepts began to be associated with marriage, the institution itself began to change. This was not an intentional effort to change what marriage is, it is just part of the process of history and culture. Thus, when men who wanted to cohabit, adopt children, or just declare to the world their love for one another were able to say so in the open without excessive fear of social reprisal, of course they want to the same legal rights as straight people. It just followed by simply application of human rights to what the concept of marriage had become.

That is, it was not the homosexuals and lesbians that redefined marriage, it was the changing culture that had already done so through changes in women’s rights, economic shifts, and changes to sexual culture in general, and gays simply saw that it naturally applied to them because they were doing exactly what many straight couples were doing.

The fact that certain elements of society had not realized that this change had occurred, realized and disagreed with the changing tides of said change, or simply don’t want people not like them to have the same rights for simple bigotry is an unfortunate aspect of this slow social change.

There will inevitably be some people who are operating under a different set of assumptions, value different and sometimes older concepts, or for whom the older ideas are so important that to see them challenges is a personal, cultural, and possibly theological affront.

But the cultural change is not an attack against them. Rather, the reactionary elements of culture are an attack of a change already in process. And while the change that happens will actually destroy their values in many ways, it is not done in order to achieve this end.

It is somewhat like what happens when a man who has spent a lifetime collecting and adoring vinyl records finds that music is no longer produced in this form. It affects him personally and his offense is understood and we feel for his loss, but the world has moved on. He will still be able to find others who share this love, old stores that still have some left-over copies of a favorite album, but the time has passed. He can try to prevent it, but it is likely in vain.

And certainly there will be true losses, true beautiful tragedies in the loss of certain constraints, values, and of lost traditions, but this is part of the human condition. I lament these looses, but at the same time I celebrate the process of culture, as I hope it will lead to greater personal freedoms and move away from bigotry and fear that are often the result of clinging to traditions, even if said traditions contain their own beauty as well.

Within the lives of people who hold more traditional views are great points of beauty, love, and genuine humanity in its greatest forms. But sometimes to hold onto such ideas, despite their beauty, is to cause unseen and unintended harm that made necessary the change that threatens them.

Traditional concepts of marriage was not originally intended to discriminate against people, but it does. Traditional values of meaning, morality, and society was not, I don’t think, originally intended to create social and cultural difficulties for atheists, but they do. These institutions, with all of their beauty, were not intended to have the consequences they have, but they have those consequences.

By being socially conservative about many things, one is trying to hold onto to beautiful and meaningful things. These are things that define large segments of society in ways that may not be replaced easily, if at all. But as we pull back and look at the affects of traditional policies, definitions, and values, we find that they have consequences that many, and I would hope most, of social conservatives would not want to impose upon people if they understood the affects.

I will continue to hope that the intention behind people is to preserve what is important to them, and not to destroy what is important to others.

I say that because as a social liberal, I do not intend to destroy the values of conservatives, I must admit that this is an unintentional result of the struggle for fairness, liberty, and positive social change. We do not wish to destroy traditional values except where those values threaten greater liberty for all.

I do not challenge tradition blindly. I challenge it because tradition sometimes challenges my freedoms, as well as the freedoms of many others. I encourage people to keep all challenges in check, just in case we overstep our bounds. But I do believe that many traditions will have to be destroyed to make room for improved traditions that cannot live alongside the ones being protected by conservatives.