Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On semantics, and the poor use of movable goalposts

I have three daughters, and one of my least favourite things about this is a recurring argument which goes (at least in form) thusly:
Me: "[Daughter] - stop using that crayon to draw on the wallpaper!"
[Daughter]: "It's a felt pen, dad!"
Me: "[Daughter] - stop poking your sister with that fork!"
[Daughter]: "It's a knife!"
Me: "[Daughter], have you been sneaking non-uniform shorts to school?"
[Daughter]: "They're track pants! Ugh!"
It's pretty clear why those responses make no sense, and what conversational purpose they serve. My kids don't have good reasons for the stupid things they're doing, and want to deflect attention onto arguing about pointless minutiae. Fortunately, none of them is sufficiently good at this for it to be anything more than irritating - and after all, these are arguments from a trio whose ages range from 3 to 11.

It's a bit weird when you see people attempting this same (and similarly pointless) goalpost shift as grownups, though.

The first and most egregious example came from a group I'm a member of on G+. The group is called "Suppressed Transmissions" and specialises in weird news, art, and images that suggest hidden Dark Secrets behind ordinary reality. It's supposed to be a setting-mine for weirdness-in-real-life roleplaying games and fiction.

I shared a feature on an issue of Look magazine from 1972, because it had Anton LaVey on the cover and the concept of a reasonably mainstream magazine doing a feature on the Church of Satan amused me. The comment thread got hijacked by someone with strong antisemitic views, who viewed LaVey as part of some grand Jewish plot too complex and stupid to go into right now. The person got banned fairly promptly, but not before responding to being called on his antisemitism like this (sic):
"Semite means middle eastern people.  Just cause some kazhars converted to judisim doesnt mean they are all middle eastern, does it? Or is it a race Not sure which jewish lie you are gonna use to back the "anti semite" claim"
There's this weird kernel-idea embedded in there that somehow by redefining the terms on us, he can prove that by some anthropological-dictionary magic he's not an antisemite (he's anti-Jew, there's a difference, Dad. Ugh!) and that that will make his hatred of Jewish people somehow OK. Or possibly he's a not-especially-clever troll who maintains that particular profile just for Jew-hatin'.

The more subtle (and thus more troubling) example I've been seeing lately revolves around Ahmed Mohamed. Just quick, if you've been under a rock and missed the whole thing, here's the teal deer version: Ahmed is a 14 year old Muslim boy of Sudanese parents, who lives in Texas. He took a home-built* clock to school. There was an unarguably racist** and utterly disproportionate reaction which led to Ahmed being treated as a suspected terrorist, and led to the school authorities and the police in the state of Texas looking pretty bloody stupid.

The official response to this has all been pretty good (Ahmed got an invitation to the White House among other things) and my personal internet filter bubble means I haven't seen any overtly-racist nonsense. What I have seen, is a lot of people (Richard Dawkins' view is here, and links to more of the same) questioning a) whether Ahmed really built his clock or just de-shelled a commercial alarm clock, and b) what his motives were for doing so.

This is transparently the same debating tactic that my 3 year old uses. To answer the second part of the question first, there's nothing suspect about Ahmed's stated aim, which was to impress one of his teachers - and that motivation still makes sense if we assume he didn't build the clock himself from scratch. The first part is the kicker though - because the hidden assumption there is that somehow Ahmed's fear, suffering, and humiliation would be OK if we can just prove that he's not really gifted with electronics. Because the outpouring of support for him wasn't because he built a clock - that's very clear - it's because he was detained and harassed on the basis of his name and the colour of his skin.

I'm pretty clear on what my three year old wants when she tries to distinguish moral shades in drawing on walls with pens versus with crayons - she wants to avoid a discussion about drawing on walls. What is it that the "Clock Is A FRAUD!" people want, do you suppose?

*Or home-assembled, or maybe not - we'll get to that in a second.

** You can say "Islam is not a race" until the cows come home, but most people when they think "Muslim" don't think of someone who looks like this guy, or even (if they're honest) this guy.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

On dying under things

First off, if you're interested in such, Love and Pop has my review of HP Lovecraft's The Thing On The Doorstep. It's mostly good but an unfortunate shade of murky green.


As you're probably aware, even if you're not a New Zealander, we're currently going through a process of referenda on the way to possibly changing our flag. I'm not super keen on this, for reasons that can be tidily summed up by Toby Morris (tl;dr, I think changing the flag eventually is a) inevitable and b) a good idea but I'm suspicious of the current timing, and I'm pretty uninspired by the process).

However, there's one particular argument I hear from people in favour of keeping the current flag, which I think needs to be disposed of - the idea that you can't change the flag, because New Zealand soldiers died under it*.

I'm loath to Godwin myself so easily, but here's a flag people died under:

and here's another:

here's one people are dying under right now:

It is entirely possible for people to commit themselves sincerely to a cause, and its symbols, and be wrong. It is equally possible for people to be misled as to the actual purpose of their actions - this is my view of soldiers who died in WWI in particular. Enshrining symbols and the causes they represent, just because people were willing to die for them is a terrible idea.

*Lest you think I'm overstating this, the NZ RSA wants people to spoil their flag ballots for this specific reason.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Turning the lights on

My friend Daniel has a post over on his blog about how the dreaded Political Correctness actually seems to have improved (and continue to be improving) people's general behaviour over time. A good part of this post is in response to a comment by another fellow known only as "Mike" on Facebook. Mike is of the opinion that things were better in (presumably) the 50s, when New Zealand society was by and large more homogeneous.

Or was it?

One of the things that you notice when you research any dissenting point of view (pacifism during World War I and World War II, to take a recently-relevant example) is that you often find that it was more common than conventional wisdom would have you believe. The thing is, history is a political exercise - and so dissenting accounts are often written out of the primary narrative.

This doesn't have to be actively conspiratorial - people work according to their own biases, and the science suggests that humans are really bad at being fully conscious of these. Also, if certain behaviours or attitudes were shameful or dangerous at certain points in history*, it makes sense that people who held those views or indulged in those behaviours would tend to be secretive for reasons of self-preservation (and thus not make it into the "official" history).

My point is that commentators like "Mike" often suggest that the increasing visibility of (for example) gay, trans, and other gender/sexuality issues is the result of a more accepting society making those lifestyles more common; or (for another example) that the recent spate of publicised police violence in the US is the result of criminals becoming more dangerous (or sometimes of police becoming more racist); or that increasing rates of reported sexual assault are the result of a lapse in society's morals.

I think this it's much more likely that our more accepting society (plus the boom in self-publishing on the internet) is simply making it easier to talk about all of these issues in public, in a form that is semi-permanent and easy to refer back to.

It's not that none of these things happened in the 50s - they just happened in the dark, and now we're turning the lights on.


Love & Pop has my review of Life Of Crime. It's a Coen-brothers-esqe people-being-bad-at-crime movie with Jennifer Aniston and Mos Def in it. It's not bad.

*Homosexuality and socialist views both come to mind.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

No one's celebrating anything (plus many many links)

I mostly stayed off the internet over the long weekend, but I saw a thing go past on Facebook which I feel needs addressing. One of my friends said they'd been to see the Te Papa exhibition about the Gallipoli campaign and "no one's celebrating anything". This is a response to an objection to ANZAC Day on the grounds that it celebrates warfare. When my kid's teachers received the news about us not attending their ANZAC ceremony, their response was remarkably similar.

The thing is, I have yet to hear someone make that particular objection*.

All of the objections to ANZAC Day I've seen (including my own) have been around the way in which the day is framed, and the ways in which competing accounts have been dealt with. Specifically, the objection isn't that ANZAC Day celebrates war - it's that it treats war as justified and necessary, and dissent is strongly discouraged if not actively suppressed.

My friend Daniel writes about the awful goals and conduct of World War 1, and the hypocrisy of using its rhetoric to justify sending New Zealand troops to fight ISIS. Strikingly, he also raises the point that without the international (legal) arms trade groups like ISIS would be far less dangerous and less sustainable. The White Poppy campaign funds research on this.

Russell Brown has a really interesting post bookended with his presence at the RSA he's a member of. The fallout of war is long-lasting and horrendous - this is why it's a bad solution to problems. Russell's post linked to the way in which the Herald used its gossip column to interrogate Lizzie Marvelly about her conflicted feelings about the day, and the way an Australian journalist was sacked for criticising ANZAC Day on Twitter.

It also pointed me to two documentaries: ANZAC: Tides of Blood, which is about Neill's family history with the ANZAC campaign, and the way the ANZAC myth developed; and Ngā Rā o Hune - The Days of June about Waikato Maori who refused to fight. I haven't had a chance to watch either of these but they look good, and notably both come from Maori TV.


On an entirely unrelated note Love and Pop has my review of the Jacques Tati box-set. It's suuuuuuuuuuuper loooooooooooooong (like the box-set itself) but Tati is a pretty interesting guy, and his films have the weird distinction of being highly-regarded, but hardly ever directly imitated.

*My friend, of course, may have - but I didn't see any specific mention of it in the Facebook thread in question.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Lest we forget (again)

The poppies are starting to appear everywhere again.

I'm in the interesting position of  writing my kid's school a letter to tell them that neither she nor I will be attending their student-led ANZAC Day ceremony while (with my Board of Trustees hat on) trying to help them find a bugler or trumpeter to play the Last Post on the day.

On a recent bike tour around the South Island, my parents came across the Kowai Peace Memorial. It was built with private money in the aftermath of the First World War, as central government were only willing to fund "war memorials" in the traditional (triumphalist, militant) style. Built, I might add, by Charles Upham and friends (or at least in Upham's patch - so presumably with his blessing). It's difficult to find much reference to this written anywhere* but the caretakers at the hall talked at length about how many returned soldiers wanted functional memorials that were explicitly peace memorials and, how the government had refused to fund anything but militaristic and ornamental war memorials. A cursory google search suggests that this was not too uncommon.

This story neatly encapsulates the way I feel about the day. I acknowledge that many people who fight and die do so in the honest belief that it's their duty, but I feel like that's all we're allowed to publicly remember.

People don't just die in wars, they kill, and rape, and torture. All armies, not just the "bad guys" - because that's part of war and always has been. This is a thing that people who fight in wars need to find ways to deal with. This is a thing to remember.

World War 1 (the one we specifically commemorate on ANZAC Day) was not a "war for freedom". It was a war that made little sense even to its initial participants and involved the ANZACs only because they were dutiful colonials. It was a war that sowed the seeds for World War 2, which in turn created the conditions for many of the ongoing conflicts of the modern world - including the ghastly mess our government has just committed troops to. This is a thing to remember.

People, recognising the waste and futility of the war, struggled and suffered to protest it. This is a thing to remember.

Even now, people who threaten the official story about emerging nationhood and glory and sacrifice for freedom are attacked, and denounced as traitors. At the same time (as my old friend Dougal points out) the official version seems determined to hit peak marketing-kitsch. This is a thing to remember.

Any fitting memorial to the people who fought and died and still fight and die in the belief that they're doing their duty as good citizens of their country has to, in my mind, be one that commits to wasting as few lives as we can in future. To that end, I recommend the White Poppy campaign - the proceeds of which go to research into peace and conflict and militarism.

I'll leave you with Andy Irvine's version of Marcus Turner's** excellent meditation on all this. We can do better, that's a thing to remember.

*Apparently The Sorrow and the Pride by Jock Phillips and Chris Maclean talks about it, but I don't have a copy to hand and shan't before I want to have finished this post.The Wikipedia article on war memorials mentions it, but only in regard to Europe.

** I'd have played Marcus Turner's version but I can't find it online anywhere - so Andy Irvine is what you get.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

That weird feeling when you nearly agree with Bob McCroskie...

New Zealand's favourite pretend charity* and purveyors of anti-gay propaganda and moral outrage about teenagers potentially having sex, Family First want you to boycott the new movie of 50 Shades Of Grey.

This is because, in the words of FF's Managing director Bob McCroskie:
"The premise of the movie is that a woman who is humiliated, abused, controlled, entrapped, coerced, manipulated and tortured is somehow an ‘empowered’ woman. And a man who is possessive, controlling, violent, jealous and coercive is somehow showing ‘true love’. These are foul and dangerous lies. This movie and the book it is based on simply glamorises sexual violence and should be rejected by everyone who is concerned about family and sexual violence."
In a bizarre twist of fate, I think Bob McCroskie is very nearly right about this - just deeply deeply wrong the reasoning that got him there.

Bob McCroskie, Family First and their pet (terrible, fake) psychologist Miriam Grossman hate 50 Shades because they're convinced that anything outside the fairly narrow template that they define as a "healthy" relationship** is automatically dangerous and harmful. This means that the BDSM relationship depicted in 50 Shades is inherently damaging and dangerous because a relationship where one of the partners binds, dominates, or causes pain to the other (even if that partner wanted them to and specifically verbally asked them to) is automatically a Very Bad Thing. Here's Miriam Grossman:
"There are vast differences between dark and light, healthy and unhealthy. Fifty Shades of Grey blurs that distinction. It leads your daughter to wonder, what’s healthy in a relationship? What’s sick? There are so many shades of grey…I’m not sure. But with her safety at risk , there’s no room for confusion or doubt. You want your daughter to be one hundred per cent certain: an intimate relationship that includes violence, consensual or not, is emotionally disturbed. It’s sick." (Emphasis mine.)
This is pretty clearly nonsense. If you read anything coming out of the kink**** community you'll know that those guys put a huge amount of effort into carefully negotiating consent so that people end up having the experiences they want to have and still stay safe. In fact, a lot of the current conversations people are having about consent at the moment have their roots in discussions that started (as far as I can tell) with online kink communities.

So given that I think McCroskie and Grossman are both wrong in their thinking, how come I agree with them that 50 Shades is all kinds of gross and weird? It all comes back to consent again - Christian Grey repeatedly violates Ana's autonomy, and this is passed off as sexy and romantic.

In some ways this is kind of understandable, 50SoG began life as a an erotic Twilight fanfic and thus (I strongly suspect) has its roots in some sort of sex fantasy belonging to E. L. James. The reason this is relevant is because when you're having a sex fantasy in your own head, consent is completely irrelevant. You're playing around with figments of your imagination, who exist only to serve the situation you're creating for yourself. If one of those characters is (to quote an example beloved of anti-feminists) raped, that doesn't then imply that you actually want to be raped, or to rape somebody else.

As long as the fantasies stay inside your head or as short-form standalone erotica*****  this isn't really an issue. It becomes problematic when it's applied to characters in a piece of fiction who are presented as having some sort of self-discovery, because the behaviour that leads to the self-discovery is tacitly presented as worthy unless it's explicitly described otherwise. And Christian Grey's behaviour is, from a kink/BDSM point of view, completely terrible.

If you want an overview of the book from a kink perspective, Cliff over at the Pervocracy has an excellent rundown (exercise caution before clicking - the Pervocracy is great but sometimes NSFW and links to some DEFINITELY NSFW places) but the teal deer version is pretty simple: Ana rarely (if ever) has a chance to set the parameters for the situations that Grey puts her in, and has no way out if she's not enjoying herself.

50SoG isn't actually the only offender here - I think it's a wider issue with fiction by people turned on by the idea of BDSM who didn't do their homework. Another good example is the movie Secretary which starts out being about two people drifting into a (mutually enjoyable) BDSM relationship but culminates with an actually-horrible-and-abusive "test" of one partner by the other, which leaves her stuck in a chair sitting in her own urine for three days. Romantic.

If you're genuinely interested in kink or BDSM, there are lots of great resources on the web, and the Pervocracy (linked above) is a pretty good place to start. I humbly submit that this would be a better and healthier use of your time than going to see 50 Shades Of Grey.

It's been brought to my attention that Secretary isn't really as good an example as I thought. Lee (the titular secretary) is actually in more control a lot of the time than I gave her credit for. It's obscured a bit because the movie follows the drifty romantic comedy template for characters negotiating romantic or sexual situations (which is its own big bag of problematic nonsense, but waaaaay wider than any single film). Sorry guys.

Also, this post (especially the first couple of paragraphs) is basically a love letter to DoNotLink which you should all be using all the time (assuming you want to link to sketchy places for the purposes of explanation or freakshow appeal). I want to particularly stress this for people who like to link weird stories from the Daily Mail.
*This may be unfair. The Sensible Sentencing Trust might actually be New Zealand's favourite pretend charity.

**They're not specific about this, but a trawl through their respective web presences strongly suggests the parameters are straight married couples having (preferably exclusively) PIV sex. It would be nice if those couples could be white***.

***This sounds like an unnecessary ad hominem but is a strong hunch based on the choice of stock photos throughout the Family First website.

****I'm not 100% certain, but I think this term is favoured because it broadens the parameters of "into non-standard sex stuff" in a way that a term like "BDSM" doesn't - like "queer" does for people whose sexuality doesn't neatly fit into a 2- or 3-state switch model ("straight, gay, or bi").

*****I think people are by in large pretty good a recognising discrete pornographic fantasies as stand-alone things that don't relate to anything else and (importantly) have no bearing on the rest of reality.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Gangs and heroes

When I was in primary school in Scotland, forming "gangs" was one of the games that seemed to be pretty much universal. Someone who wanted to start a gang would link arms with a friend, then walk around the playground chanting "Who wants to be in our gang?" and collecting prospects. These gangs tended not to last more than one lunch hour, but the allure of joining up (even for such a limited time) was potent. 

There seems to be something fundamental about humans that means we find being part of a group very seductive, and that seems to make us vulnerable to "hacks" that exploit this impulse to get us to do things, or be less critical of our stated beliefs*.

This is what sticks out for me from my friend Daniel's recent post about the kind of religion he objects to, and is sort of in the background of his most recent post about meme-responses to the situation in Ferguson. In both cases, it seems to me that people's membership of particular religious or ideological groups is blinding them to the unpleasant implications of things they believe. Of course, in relation to religion, this isn't a new idea. In fact, part of the core of the New Atheist suite of arguments against religion is the idea that religion makes people particularly vulnerable to this kind of hack.

Where New Atheism seems to me to fall down, is in the assumption that doing away with religion will do away with this quirk of human thought. You can see this in the way that New Atheism has itself become a gang of sorts** and begun to suffer from some of the problems that gang-ness tends to cause. In the case of the New Atheists, I'd characterise these as a tendency toward gatekeeping, the construction of various folk devils***, and falling in love with heroes. If you want more on gatekeeping or folk devils, Fred Clark at Slacktivist and the guys at Nonprophet Status do a pretty good job respectively****.

What I want to talk about right at the moment is heroes.

A hero is a person who, as a result of their achievements or statements, has been acclaimed as great and adopted as a representative of a certain group or ideology. This makes them slightly less human (in the sense of being a complete person with virtues, flaws, and frailties) in the eyes of their admirers, and tends to give their views more weight than those of the average person.

This can happen at a variety of scales, so you can be a globally-recognisably Hero of New Atheism or Feminism or Socialism, or a local hero like a parish priest or the leader of a chapter of the International Socialists. The most complete form of this, I would call something like "sainthood" - the point at which someone ceases to be human at all (usually after their death) and is pretty much pure symbol. I'd call Ghandi, John Lennon and Martin Luther King examples of this.

The problems inherent in having heroes are pretty clear, when you examine how this tends to work.

The first issue is that heroes tend to get more allowances for bad behaviour, because their status as group representatives makes them more valuable than the rank and file members. The most famous example of this is the sexual abuse problems within the Catholic church (and in that case it was exacerbated by Church policies designed explicitly to minimise scandal and thereby protect abusers) but anyone who's been a member of a group with an abusive but important member (anecdotal examples I've heard include socialist groups in Wellington, kink communities in the US, and a university pagan/shamanic society) knows that this is not a purely religious problem. There are also more public secular examples like the recent revelations about the BBC and British Conservative Party.

The second issue is that heroes tend to have their pronouncements heard and promulgated regardless of their merits. Having said something intelligent once is no guarantee of continuing to do this indefinitely. For example, I think Richard Dawkins is entirely correct about the logical extreme unlikeliness of God (at least in the majority of Church-doctrinal conceptions) existing. Meanwhile, his pronouncements on any issue relating to rape, sexual harassment (really women in general) or the relative danger posed by non-majority-white-people religions are woefully off-base, and yet are received as wisdom on the basis of his atheist thinking.

This is also true of other New Atheist heroes like Sam "torturing Muslims is super-cool" Harris and Christopher "the war in Iraq hasn't killed enough people, and by the way did I mention how women are biologically destined to be unfunny (whoops sorry that was a joke or maybe a secret plan to get more women being funny)" Hitchens. This is dangerous, because while there's no earthly reason for atheism to be associated with racism or sexism, an uncritical admiration of racist sexist people due to their status as atheist heroes is starting to build those links - at least in the minds of the wider public.

Did you notice, by the way, that in these previous two paragraphs I've stuck with the view that atheism is in and of itself a rational and logical point of view? It's entirely possible for a person to be right about (or good at) one or more things (and receive appropriate acclaim for that) while still being wrong about other things, or even an actually terrible human being. This brings me to my final problem with heroes.

Communities who have heroes often feel the need to defend them, because of their status as community representatives. More than once when I've raised Dawkins' or Hitchens' problems with women, or Harris's racism in a discussion, I've been told that I'm attempting to smear them in order to discredit their advocacy for atheism (and presumably by extension atheism as a point of view). This is not an uncommon phenomenon in comment threads around the web.

I was really taken with the article "How To Be A Fan of Problematic Things"***** and I think that probably has the core of the principle you need for dealing with problematic thinkers. Unfortunately, heroising someone tends to short-circuit the capacity for that kind of critical analysis.

* I'm not going to go the route of suggesting that intelligent, well-educated people can't genuinely believe in, say, the Biblical account of Creation (as interpreted by Ken Ham) and must therefore be lying. I do think though, that there are probably different levels or classes of belief depending on how much conscious attention has been put into squaring them with the world we live in and their implications for your other beliefs. I think that humans are capable of holding sincere yet contradictory beliefs so long as they don't pay too much attention to the contradiction. There's something disingenuous about pouring mental effort into ignoring or handwaving those contradictions, but I think there are people who simply aren't fully aware of them. Of course, there are also people who deliberately espouse beliefs they don't really hold for reasons of Magic.

** In a recent internet argument I got told that I was wrong to think of atheism as a movement and that I was trying to pull the classic Christian apologist swifty of claiming that atheism is a religion and therefore atheists are religious and should go and vanish in a puff of logic or something. While it's true that atheism per se is actually just a single component of a wider worldview, I think there's such a thing as New Atheism which tends to include a specific set of views in addition to disbelief in god(s). I also think that once you have conferences dedicated to your interest or point of view, you can safely be called a movement or at least an informal organisation.

***At some point this will be a link to another post where I unpack this idea a bit. In the mean time, what I'm talking about here is a form of demonisation strawman where you construct a position so vile or ridiculous that opposition to it is a basic human response. You then justify your own extreme statements or actions by claiming that you oppose the folk devil that you've built (and covertly including a much wider group under the same umbrella term). Classic examples include "the humourless PC brigade", "delusional religious people", "lazy welfare queens" etc. It's important to understand that I'm not claiming that examples of these classes of people don't exist - just that they're rarer in their purest forms than the constructers of folk devils like to admit.

**** Fred Clark tends to talk about gatekeeping in an American white evangelist context, and the NS fellas talk more about islamophobia than other classes of folk devil, but they'll both give you some grounding in the ways these concepts work.

***** For bonus points check out this article about what happens when things that didn't start out racist become racist in a new context.