Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Thoughts on trigger warnings

Recently I had the opportunity to do a de-escalation course run by Manline through my work. It might not seem like an obvious requirement for a soundy at a community radio station, but (while they're not common) I have had a couple of experiences at work where people have become threatening with me or other staff (usually after getting craftily drunk in the studio and being told to leave as a result).*

The course as a whole was really interesting, and I'd really recommend people checking something like that out if they ever get the chance. A lot of the techniques are interesting because of the way that they sort of "nudge" someone (or yourself) from one mental circuit** to another - which is close to Magic, I reckon.

However, what I want to talk about is a different exercise. What we did was to split into two groups and line up on opposite sides of the room. The group whose turn it was was instructed to identify the person opposite them as a real person from their past who made them "uncomfortable" (first names only, obviously).One by one, the facilitators instructed the people who were playing the roles of the "oppressors" to walk slowly toward the other participant.

The experience was really unpleasant in a really instructive way. As this person (who I'd met all of an hour previously) slowly advanced on me, I felt all of my self-defense systems come on at once. I found myself involuntarily drawing myself up tall, and holding a breath to make my chest and shoulders bigger. We were instructed that whenever we wanted to, we could tell the other participant to stop, and in my case that felt like an immediate and pressing need once they got within a couple of feet.

We were given the relevant instructions to dispel the phantom (and related feelings) that we'd just called up - but it was really striking how real the experience was. All the other participants reported the same thing - different specific symptoms, but all had very similar experiences.

Here's the thing, I'm a pretty mentally and physically healthy person. I'm a white, heterosexual dude in the Anglosphere. I've had the odd fairly unpleasant experience in my life, but nothing I could straight-facedly claim as life-shattering trauma. And the mere act of invoking a person from my past, and then having the person I'd assigned that identity to slowly advance on me in a conference room made me feel physically stirred up and unsettled.

What would that have been like if I was a person who faced some sort of oppression on a daily basis? What would it have been like if I'd had some really serious trauma tied to the experience that was being presented to me?

It bears some thought.

*An especial mention here goes to the charming gentleman who wandered into my office when I was a very young and inexperienced radio soundy, told me that if I called the cops he'd "fucking drop me", and then proceeded to tell me at length about how we were kindred spirits because I was a musician (a fact he'd have no way of knowing - so it was a mere lucky guess on his part) and he was an alcoholic. To his credit, when someone from outside the station called the cops, he was very polite to them.

** There's probably a more accurate term than "mental circuit", possibly even corresponding to brain areas. The point is that a lot of these nudges work by getting someone who's currently stuck in "fight or flight" and gently pushing them toward "reasoning" or "communicating" modes.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The horrible philosophy of the Manosphere

First, a little background: the following post is one I was kindly invited to write by Professor Philip Moriarty as a guest post on his blog "Symptoms Of The Universe". The invitation came off the back of  a conversation I had in comments on this post here.

If you're interested in reading that conversation (or rather that series of conversations - there were a few threads) my handle there is "ObjectiveReality". This is because Prof Moriarty has a WordPress blog and my Wordpress login is "ObjectiveReality", if he had a Blogger blog like mine, I'd have been "Wolfboy"(1) as I am here.

For a very tl;dr version of the backstory, Philip ended up on a podcast with another Philip (last name Mason) who more usually (at least on the internet) goes by the name of Thunderf00t. If you're not familiar with him, Mason is an atheist YouTuber, a sometime science YouTuber, and a virulent antifeminist.

In the course of this conversation, Mason expressed the view that the lack of women in STEM(2) fields was due to sexual dimorphism. Philip addressed this view at length here, pointing out that the evidence for such a view was not good (to say the least) and invited Mason to comment. After a long period of silence, he asked again and was treated to an astoundingly puerile exchange via email, which he lays out at length here 

To be honest, this is not especially surprising (most denizens of the Manosphere(3) are significantly less intellectually rigorous than they like to claim) but it is a deeply irritating example of the awful way in which these people argue.

A better example (I hope) after the jump...

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.