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.

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* 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.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Prisoners" and hurting people

The US Government has just released a report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, in other words on the use of torture by the CIA. You can get it as a pdf if you like >500-page documents full of horrifying details and the word [REDACTED].

David Simon has written the most basic and heartfelt howl of pain and outrage about it, echoed here by Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism. Doug Muder at The Weekly Sift does a more analytical breakdown which is also good. The fellas over at Mind Hacks have a really interesting article about how the directors of this particular torture initiative either totally misunderstood or criminally misrepresented the psychology that they based their operations on, and how (terrifyingly) the CIA fell for it regardless.

Between the Doug Muder and Libby Anne piece, there's a pretty good indication as to how the CIA got it so badly wrong here. What Muder refers to as the "bomb in New York scenario"* is seductive because it connects the very human desire for immediate revenge on wrongdoers with the promise of an immediate, tangible, and morally valuable aim. If you read Libby Anne's roundup of right wing US commentary on this report, you'll see the basic structure of the bomb in New York repeated over and over again.

In his article, Doug Muder does a pretty good job of taking this argument to bits, moral-logic-wise.

On the other hand, I've been reading a bit of research that suggests that humans cling to stories above all else, and tend to reject facts that get in the way of our preferred story (hence the persistence of Andrew Wakefield's MMR-causes-autism thesis, flouridation panics, so on and so forth). The suggestion seems to be that having a counter-story is a more effective way of dealing with faulty information.

If that's the case, I would strongly recommend watching Prisoners, and getting other people to do so as well. The basic setup is that two young girls disappear, and in the absence of any progress from the police, one of their fathers kidnaps the initial suspect in order to try and beat the truth out of him. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, the striking thing about Prisoners is its absolute condemnation of revenge and vigilantism. In this film, without fail, every single act of vigilantism, torture or retributive violence is counter-productive, and makes the overall situation much much worse.

I think that's a story we need to hear told more often.

* This scenario (and variations thereof) is beloved of people who want to be able to say that torturing people is OK when the "good guys" do it, and it goes as follows: "There's a bomb planted in New York that will kill thousands - maybe tens of thousands when it goes off/ You have a guy in custody who knows where it is, and torturing him is the only way to get that information. What would you do?" 

***

Review update for those interested in such...

It's been a while since I posted anything, but I've kept writing reviews so those have been stacking up a bit. Love & Pop has currently got my reviews of:
  • Muscle Shoals - a fascinating look at the disproportionately influential Muscle Shoals music scene, and the improbably tragic life of one of its central figures. It's a must for music nerds (like me) but my less-nerdy co-watchers said they could have used more music and fewer talking heads.
  • Lucky Bastard - a found-footage thriller about murders at a porn shoot which is also a commentary of a sort on male entitlement and the violence it engenders.
  • The Angriest Man In Brooklyn - a minor Robin Williams vehicle that suffers (I think) from unfortunate proximity to his death. If it could be safely ignored, it'd probably annoy people less.
  • Enemy - Jake Gyllenhaal plays two unpleasant men who are exact doubles. Giant spiders stalk above the Toronto skyline. Everything is a ghastly piss-yellow. (It's actually frustratingly, tantalisingly good, and will glue itself to your brainpipes tenaciously.)
  • Savages Crossing - an Aussie thriller hoping to capitalise on the menace of John Jarrat's "Mick Taylor" character from Wolf Creek, and the star power of Craig McLachlan. Falls flat through lack of commitment.
I'm working my way through a giant boxed set of Jacques Tati films, and will be reviewing those in a bit. It's slow going at the moment, though as people in my household are resistant to the (to me) obvious charms of French-language physical comedy.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Calling (out) the Cops

A while back, I wrote this post here about the philosophies that I thought should underpin policing, based on what we as a society actually want the cops to do for us.

I think  that with recent events in the States, we can see the end point of an adversarial relationship between the police and everyone else. The issue there (as I guessed at in my post) seems to be strongly tied to a very particular kind of police culture. That link goes to a post by an ex-cop called Redditt Hudson (a glorious name for the Internet Age) and makes, in my view, a very strong case that it's a lack of real consequences for police who misbehave that leads to this kind of culture flourishing.

Based on my personal contact with the police (I do sounds and play music at a number of community events, and so have a bit to do with Community Liaison-type officers) I had been reasonably comfortable that New Zealand (despite the obvious issues I mentioned in my original post) was still some distance from this kind of scenario.

I am less confident now.

We need police who are supported and trained in effective de-escalation, who see themselves as public servants rather than superheroes, and who can expect clear consequences when they act inappropriately.

We do not need to start having our own Michael Browns, Eric Garners and Tamir Rices.

EDITED TO ADD: People who follow that "I am less confident" link will find that the Bay of Plenty District Commander Superintendent is listed as "pictured" but that the picture has been replaced by an ad. I am sure that neither the Bay Of Plenty Times nor the New Zealand Herald meant to imply that the man in question is actually Skrillex.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Doin' stuff fer free...

First things first - Love & Pop has my review of Hentai Kamen - it's a Japanese live-action superhero parody (based on a 90's manga) about a high school student who transforms into a "pervert superhero" when he wears used panties on his head. Aside from the obvious, a lot of the humour derives from poking fun at the tropes of "superpowered highschoolers" manga/anime. From that description you can probably already tell if it's your jam or not, but if it is you'll probably enjoy it.

Now read on...

Gawker's Hamilton Nolan (somewhat contemptuously) reports that Lena Dunham's promotional tour in support of her book Not That Kind Of Girl will feature unpaid opening acts, who have applied through her website for the privilege of performing. I am reminded of the related furore when Amanda Palmer tried to do a similar thing - crowdsourcing unpaid musicians to back her up on tour.

Now, as then, I am having kind of a hard time figuring out what the fuss is actually about.

The primary argument put forward in both cases is that these women have heaps of money, and could therefore afford to pay people - the inference being that they're somehow ripping people off, or depriving other (more professional) acts of work. I sort of get that - I play in a covers band and I certainly get cross when people do pub gigs for free, thus devaluing all the other musicians in the area.

But playing to drunken punters in a pub is in no way the same thing as being part of a charity event (which I'd cheerfully do for free) or to being included in an event put on by someone you admire, which is what's happening here (and in the Amanda Palmer example). In both cases, these women sought applications from people who'd be interested in being part of their events, and made it clear from the outset that there wasn't going to be any money involved.

There's an argument that Dunham and Palmer are somehow "abusing" their fame and social status to get stuff for free, but that seems disingenuous to me. The people who applied weren't under any particular pressure to do so, as neither Palmer nor Dunham had any particular power over them that would make the situation abusive.

I guess the thing I'm getting at is that rich and famous people get free goods and services from people who admire them all the time. It seems suspicious to me that the internet chooses to make a fuss about this when it's women with a history of making people (particularly men, particularly white heterosexual men of a particular sociopolitical bent) uncomfortable, asking for things up front from their fans.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Secondary trickles - vanishing rich people (aka "Y'all are doing capitalism wrong" part 2)

Hokay, first things first. On the offchance that people really really like me reviewing stuff and are worried that Cinemania's gone, it's been reborn phoenix-like as Love & Pop and I'm still writing stuff for them pretty regularly. Most recently I reviewed the Australian River Cottage spinoff (pretty good, very white), Hugh's 3 Good Things (moar comfort-food cooking TV), The Life After Death Project (a horrible doco about ghosts, centred on a pretty interesting-sounding dead guy), a Korean disaster movie (actually pretty amazing), and an Adventure Time special (it's Adventure Time, whaddaya want?*).

Right. Where was I? Oh yes. Taxing the rich.

I fall pretty squarely on the left in terms of politics. According to the most recent shot I had on Vote Compass**, I'm pretty much in the middle of the left-libertarian*** box. One of the things that goes along with that is that I believe in taxing people (particularly rich people, particularly very rich people) more in order to make it possible for the government to pay for more stuff, allowing the public access to free or heavily-subsidised services.

To clarify, I'm talking about income tax here. In NZ we have two primary kinds of tax - income tax on the money we earn, and GST (Goods and Services Tax) which is a percentage of the cost of everything we buy. The current government have cut income tax, and increased GST.

The problem with doing this is that while people with higher incomes will always pay a higher dollar share of income tax, even if the percentage is flat across all income brackets (here in NZ it's not, though I couldn't tell you the precise rates off the top of my head), GST always runs into the "you can only buy so much stuff" problem I mentioned in my last post. With income tax the government will get a bigger share if more people earn more money, while with GST the only way for the government to increase their take is to convince people to buy more stuff - and even the richest person can only eat so much food, and wear so many clothes. On top of this, increases in GST are always passed on in the price of the Goods and Services in question - so raising GST makes everything more expensive for everyone, which disproportionately affects the poor.

So, I'm in favour of plans (regardless of which party they come from) to cut GST and increase income tax in the top brackets to compensate. One of the most common objections I hear to plans like this is that they "punish people for hard work", and that if we tax them too heavily all our richest citizens will head overseas. To which I say, "who cares?"

First off, there's a tendency to misunderstand the way that tax brackets work in New Zealand - or to wilfully misrepresent it, if you want to be cynical. When you enter a new tax bracket, the new tax rate doesn't affect the entirety of you income - just the bit that pushes you into that new bracket. Secondly, if someone makes over a million dollars a year, and you really do tax 50% of their whole income - they still end up with a minimum of $500,000 - which is still more than 5 times the median income.

And as for people who'll leave if they're taxed - I contend that we can do without them.

There aren't that many people making more than a million a year in New Zealand, so if they all left at once the impact on our population would be pretty tiny. Moreover, the jobs that they're doing can, I believe, be done at least as competently by people who are willing to accept smaller salaries. I don't believe that people who have the skills to be CEOs of large companies are actually as rare or as superhuman as they like to make out, and getting $500,000 (even $1,000,000) per year instead of $4,000,000 still leaves you pretty well off.

The question is this: do you want it to be possible for some (not very many) people to be astronomically rich to the point where they couldn't spend all their money if they tried? Or would you rather have free schools, hospitals, and ambulances?

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*What do you mean you don't watch Adventure Time? It's really good! It hits that Moomin-flavoured sad-stuff-for-kids button whilst also being actually funny, and has D&D jokes without being self-conscious about its nerdiness. And it's a kids' cartoon where the characters aren't perpetually snarking at one another and the voice acting isn't 50/50 gravel and horrendous squeaking. Seriously. Go do it.

**It's a tool that aligns your personal values with the stated policies of the major political parties here in NZ. If you're a New Zealand resident, I strongly recommend you have a play with it. I didn't find the results especially surprising for me, but I get the impression that others might - and it's always nice to have your sense of where you sit politically confirmed.

***In the sense of letting people mostly do what they want - I'd call it "anarchistic" but the axis on the graph that Vote Compass gives you calls that "libertarian" as opposed to "authoritarian" on the other side. Basically, I'm on the side of Chaos if you're familiar with 4-axis D&D alignment grids. Chaotic Good, I hope.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Trickles (the "Living Wage" and stuff...)

My wife runs a small business, and is doing a business course* to improve her policies and procedures and things. Recently, she got into a discussion with her classmates (and a separate but similar one with the small business group she's a member of on Facebook) about the Living Wage. Obviously you can go find out about the Living Wage at that link if you want to, but for my teal deer friends: it's a recommended wage, calculated based on the cost of living in New Zealand. Notably, it's about $4.50 an hour higher than the minimum wage.

My wife's course-mates and co-small-business-groupers were resoundingly against the idea, on the basis that it'll make it far too expensive to employ people and cost jobs. This is the point of view currently presented by the majority of right wing parties in New Zealand at the moment as well. Unsurprisingly to people who know me, I think they're wrong.

Now, a disclaimer: I am not an economist**. I think though, that economics is a less scientifically objective discipline than some economists like to make out - and it's certainly not immune to ideology or fashion.

The primary argument against the Living Wage (as I said above) seems to be that it will cost too much for small businesses. First off, this doesn't seem to be the case. The Living Wage people offer accreditation for businesses that adopt the Wage. They're all over the place (there's a cafe here in Palmerston North that does it) and none of them seem to be keeling over at time of writing.

I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding going on here. It's tempting for people to see themselves and their families and businesses as somehow sealed off from the rest of the world, with a little door where inputs and outputs go through. That's not quite right though. If paying your employees just meant more money in the salaries budget and nothing else, the naysayers would be right. What actually happens is more complicated.

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the concept of "trickle down" - the idea that cutting taxes would mean that the rich would spend more, and everyone would benefit all the way down the chain. It was a lie, of course. The problem with trickle down is that while some rich people might enjoy having more money, there's only so much stuff you can spend money on. Some people do buy a bunch of stuff they don't need once all their immediate needs are met, but there's a limit even to that - to put it simply, people don't need to eat twice as much just because they earn twice as much. All this money just ends up accumulating, and doing nothing much useful for anybody***.

You know who does have stuff they need but aren't buying? Poor people. Not even poor people - below-averagely well-off people. Ordinary people. The people who, for the vast majority of small businesses, make up almost all of your customer base.

"Trickle down" is a lie, but "trickle up" actually works. Measures that put money in the hands of people who don't have any are going to be more effective at stimulating people to buy stuff, because I can guarantee that there is stuff that those people want and need that they cannot currently afford to buy. Unless your business is selling multi-million dollar real estate****, these people are your customers and their lack of money is what stops them from giving that money to you.

There are other benefits - the Living Wage seems to greatly improve staff retention, and having done recruitment and discovered how badly it sucks, that seems like a major plus to me. It also seems fairly self-evident that paying employees a rate they can live on would make them less likely to dip their hands in the till or otherwise let the side down.

There's a counterargument to the effect that if you give one staff member at the bottom of the chain a raise, the other staff members will all expect a commensurate one. I think this is flawed. First off, I don't think that good staff would begrudge someone a payrise that brings them above starvation wages just because it narrows the gap between them. Secondly, the Living Wage is a base rate like the minimum wage - it's something you decide not to go below. You can still address everyone else's pay through whatever mechanism you ordinarily use, you just don't go below the Living Wage.

This is part of my grand theory "You've All Got Capitalism Wrong". More on that anon.

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*It's going well, thanks for asking. Seriously, really well - I'm very proud of her indeed.

**My Uncle Brian is, but that doesn't really mean anything useful here.

***I'm aware that some rich people donate vast chunks of their largesse to charity. This is irrelevant to my argument because a) charity is a terrible way of meeting the majority of social needs, and b) money put into charity patches holes in the social fabric - it doesn't do a great amount to push the economy along.

****Or brain-destroyingly-expensive jewellery, or painfully high fashion, etc. etc.