26 November 2014

Fallout. New Tactics.

So. That was fun. A few buildings burned. A couple of cop cars. And not much was resolved or changed.

Here's what I think we know in the Brown-Wilson case.

There was some form of altercation. This resulted in Brown's death (eventually).
Wilson's story has some corroboration here there there was a form of disturbance.

Stuff that remains undetermined:
I think the causes of that disturbance are less clear. It's possible Wilson's account is accurate. I remain dubious largely because Wilson's account relies heavily on his subjective interpretations rather than other witnesses. Some of the details are not as clearly corroborated or seem outright wrong (for instance, how and why Brown turned around, the "reaching for his waistband", and the distances involved from Wilson's car). Some of those are fishy narratives that are often used by police in describing a violent episode involving deadly force. Whether they actually happened in all cases they are used to me is an unfounded assumption. To me this narrative is mostly superfluous. The crucial question isn't so much whether there was a scuffle and a shot or two fired at Brown, possibly hitting him. But whether Wilson's second batch of shots at Brown was justified after Brown retreated. Wilson uses a rather dehumanizing and scary account of dealing with an impending assault and firing at an onrushing attacker, and it is certainly possible that many elements of that account are true to the best of his knowledge. There appeared to be more conflicting accounts however over that set of details. I think it very likely that such conflicting accounts would make it virtually impossible for him to be convicted of anything. But I do think that there may be some open questions over the justification for those shots, in particular the fatal shots to the head. Or to the training involved that lead to it if nothing else.

Things that don't make sense in his narrative:

The tie-ins to the robbery suspect story feel like they were tacked in to make a revision to his story and add some form of justification. But. If an officer felt he was approaching or saw someone who might be a suspect in a robbery/assault, it seems strange that he might merely ask such a person to get out of the street and walk on the sidewalk. That entire set of facts he presented centering around a package of cigarillos feels tacked on as a result. That there was some kind of disturbance and scuffle ought to be enough that there might be a justification for force. If Brown's assaulting someone (and an officer of the law at that), that should be plenty without adding in anything else (like "this man was a wanted criminal, for basically petty theft, maybe assault). And indeed, whether or not he was involved in such an incident still does not justify being shot at by police. The justification for that turns on whether or not the scuffle provoked a considerable fear.

Things that also happened as a result of the grand jury.

Lots of people (mostly white people) complain about rioting. I agree it does not help the cause of justice here, or reform. I agree it isn't justified. I don't see why it was a surprise. Most people expected both the lack of an indictment and the possibility of riots as a result. Police spent most of the time leading up to the result talking up the level of preparations. And then didn't seem all that prepared when violence broke out, like they were surprised in particular where violence broke out (nearby where Brown was shot and where there was some violence before during the summer) rather than where people and many police were assembled (near the courthouse and police station).

Prosecutor spends a lot of his air time complaining about the media and social media narratives. I'd say that given that a lot of both of their use of narratives haven't done much to establish something about this particular case, and have done a great deal (but not nearly as much as they could have) to show the lack of merits in militarized police forces putting down protests with disproportionate force to the level of threat, or to cover the methods of police oppression used on a daily basis in communities like and including Ferguson, Missouri (largely through the collection of petty fines and warrants, asset forfeiture seizures, occasional violence against citizens, etc), that complaining about those things would be perhaps something he feels compelled to do, but has little ground on which to stand. As it is his office that helps run through the system of abuse through fines and criminal justice which isn't properly adjudicated (eg, with appropriate defense counsel), and is likely deliberate.

Complaining about media narratives framing and prejudging the case, perhaps is a more sensible complaint. I paid much less attention to details about the actual shooting because I was aware that was more like a matchstick than the kindling on which things might burn and that details would be scarce. Also it was pretty clear from the prosecutor's demeanor, history, and close ties to the police that there would be any prosecution anyway, and what leaks of information came out ahead of time only suggested it would remain unlikely and would almost certainly fail to provide a guilty verdict even if the case proceeded to trial.

The crucial elements were that there are deep-seated reasons why these communities do not trust the authorities to handle cases of police shootings fairly, believe those shootings to be unjustified, or otherwise are more skeptical than are the people observing from the safe confines of American suburbia (where encounters with police are rare outside of speeding tickets for teens and college students, or the occasional break-in being investigated). Policing is experienced very differently based on skin colour alone, much less the cultural and socio-economic gaps between poorer communities and upper middle class neighbourhoods. This is evident when looking at polling suggesting many are seeing these events as isolated and the apparent mystery experienced by the general public in associating why there might still be riots or protests months later. When the problems are systemic to the way the community is policed and how both police and the community see one another.

Police seem to have made a hobby of developing excuses for deaths that do not require them to examine their training and use of force methods. This is one of the reasons these kinds of stories continue to persist. Some police forces have dealt with very questionable shootings by officers by dismissing officers, or pressing charges (in one bizarre case in Connecticut, officers wanted to press charges against another officer for a beating in a "resisting arrest" case, but the DA refused. The officer was at least fired).

There was a lot of attention paid to whether there were drugs in Brown's blood stream. (Well after the John Crawford shooting in Ohio, this also came up there). Marijuana on its own from observing people who use it does not strike me as heavily correlated with erratic and aggressive behavior of the sort police or 911 callers, etc, are claiming in these cases. Maybe poor judgment. But it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that this was drug addled crazy behavior when the drug in question doesn't tend to cause such behavior. If they were claiming these men were stone cold drunk, yes. I could see that. Stoned, not so much.

So where do we try to go from here. I would propose several things

1) For the St Louis area in particular (and there are other metropolitan areas with similar problems, Atlanta, Detroit, or even San Francisco/Oakland would be examples), we may want to look at consolidating some of the tiny legal jurisdictions that have cropped up as city populations have expanded and sprawled outward. These are often carved out deliberately for race related reasons and result in a lack of a sustainable tax base to support the level of civic government required (because too many people are poor and jobs are scarce). Instead, the town's government will levy considerable fines and minor legal fees upon an impoverished community. It may even account for planned increases in those fines in year-to-year budgeting. Suggesting that the fines are arbitrary rather than necessary quality of life and safety legal structures. We may not be able to abolish this variety of policing entirely, but avoiding the problem of unsustainable local governance by eliminating or at least reducing the level of civic separations in an area may be of use.

2) Continue to work to abolish the war on drugs. At this point the number one thing that can be done to improve civic relations between minorities and the police is to reduce the amount of contact and the amount of invasive police tactics that are being used. A huge portion of that comes back to the penalties (arrests, felony convictions, loss of economic and legal rights making re-integration difficult) and incentives for police (asset seizures, frequent arrests for stat games) involved in the war on drugs. The flow of militarized equipment into local police departments, of the sort used in putting down demonstrations, is also closely tied to this ridiculous project of trying to use the law and police to deal with medical problems (for some, addiction or overdose) or to avoid dealing with medical problems for others (mental health ailments being self-medicated with drugs or alcohol in a non-addictive way). A violent crime, such as assault or murder or arson or rape, should attract a significant bulk of our police attention and resources. Followed by varieties of property crime (theft, fraud, etc). We are expending inordinate amounts of attention and resources for policing what are effectively consensual acts (vice crimes, like the trade and use of narcotics). If people are getting high and going off to commit acts of violence, that is still worthy of our time and attention. But far more people are getting drunk and doing so. We do not or should not say that this is not worth our time and attention simply because the drug of choice was legally sanctioned.

3) Continue to reduce or reform the penalties for many non-violent crimes. If we can't get rid of the laws, we should at least reduce the amount of harm that punishment for a petty crime does.

4) Try to channel public anger in these directions. Talk about the harm that is done when police become an oppositional and occupational force in a community, and try to have more communities actually deploy community policing, where cops walk beats (getting out of the squad car), know the communities in which they work and are known in them, talk with leaders and representatives, and respond to complaints rather than feel like an invading army. With the appropriate funding for that rather than the funding for "community policing", where police departments have gathered large amounts of military hardware (without much training but plenty of intent to use it) and have strong incentives to make arrests rather than investigate crimes. There are communities and police departments that behave in this way. Even in areas with violence, poverty, or minority populations. The outcome of friction between police and the community should not simply be angry and violent demonstrations or police deploying in SWAT gear and firing off tear gas or pepper spraying peaceful demonstrators. Both sides have reasonable demands (both want crime to go down in a community for example and by association, their lives to be easier and safer). What we're mostly arguing over is what works to actually accommodate those demands. It is not, generally speaking, what police are doing.

To take a separate example. In Utah over the past half-decade the largest cause of homicide is the police. They're technically in a rough tie with a domestic dispute leading to death, but the ordinary things driving crime elsewhere like gangs are almost non-existent as a cause of violence by comparison. There are two ways to approach that fact of life. One might be that this might mean that the public is quite safe and there are few murders, which may indicate the police are doing an effective job helping do so. In the entire state there were just over 300 in a 5 year period. There were at least that many every year in Chicago alone in that same time frame. But another way to look at is that the public could be even more safe if the police weren't busy killing some of them. Police shooting of citizens caused 45 of those deaths. There's a middle point in there somewhere where there are perhaps some cases where police have to kill someone to protect the community, but that the use of force is a last resort and rarely if ever used and rarely if ever needed versus other methods of policing (de-escalation for instance).

23 November 2014

Corollary to controversy

There's a flipside of course to how atheists, secularists, scientists and science educators should proceed on the question of how to teach evolution to a population of creationists.

How creationists should interact when confronted or how they carry and present themselves is equally important to a civil discourse than how others push back against them.

As a hint. Having your beliefs criticized or questioned is not censorship or oppression. 

Don't react as though you are being silenced when a ton of people come into a social media forum and say "eh, no, that's wrong/stupid". That may or may not be an appropriate way to try to reach someone who is factually wrong about what the facts actually are, but it also isn't the same thing as being oppressed for your beliefs. You stood up and said something. Other people disagreed with it and decided to stand up and say something back. Criticism is how we (Americans at least) avoid the need for censorship, by making our ideas fight in the open for supremacy and social dominion rather than pressing them into the darker corners and demanding they stay hidden away. Some of our ideas are bad or inconsistent with available evidence, and those ideas will find many people ready to push back upon them. Each of us tends to have some of these wrongful beliefs and ideas in what we think of as carefully crafted assumptions core to our being and gets defensive when they are pushed back upon.

That doesn't mean that being pushed back upon is the same thing as being censored.

The entire reason this topic of evolution came up again in my radar is a famous former baseball pitcher (Curt Schilling) and now baseball analyst decided, unwisely, to use his twitter feed to try to debate evolutionary theory, as I guess one does when one doesn't think very much about what they will say on social media forums and expects that it will be a good forum for changing people's minds. Toward the end of this digression, he decided to make a parting shot that supposedly if say, Muslims, had brought it up, they wouldn't be attacked for it because we're all liberals who just hate Christians. This proceeds from a false assumption that somehow these other religions are okay or correct on these issues because they're not Christianity. Atheists, who are mostly liberal in their politics, actually spend a lot of time running down Islam, Judeo-Christianity, and even Buddhism, on creationist beliefs and other issues. There just aren't very many non-Christians in America that the attacks aren't very pressing and aren't seen very often by the majority dominant Christian seeking to claim persecution for his beliefs. There aren't very many Muslims running around in the US trying to say that god created the Earth in 7 days, or that the Earth is only 10000 years old or some other such absurdity, not because there aren't Muslims who believe such things, but because there aren't very many American Muslims. There are very many Christians doing so, in part because there are very many American Christians. So it is they who get pushed back upon. That has nothing to do with whether the underlying beliefs are more sheltered or presented because these other people hold religions that supposedly aren't as annoying to secularists. They do. Sometimes more so. But on that topic, they don't. Because there aren't many people to talk to and ask around these parts.

What was more amazing in raising this statement was that Schilling was not censored by anyone for attempting to bring up something that many people think is wrong (even if many people agree with him on some levels). In fact he wasn't even censured by his employer. He was still busily posting vaguely racist right wing interpretations of the impending problems in Ferguson, Missouri concerning a criminal justice matter over the weekend. But guess who was censured? His co-worker, Keith Law, who began posting counter-tweets and arguments to Schilling and others as the argument swirled around for the evening and into the next day. ESPN has claimed this was not the basis for a suspension from twitter but did not offer any counter-narrative explanation that there can be another interpretation that one can follow as plausible. Law posts fairly often about all manner of topics, as one does when one is actively using social media and was silent about the basis for the suspension himself when posting on other forums. What that leaves is an atmosphere where ESPN appears to have punished someone because they defended scientific theories publicly and not punished someone who expressed religious beliefs that apparently demand they doubt those theories publicly, but who also expressed the position that he was being punished for expressing those beliefs. When his opponent was the only one who was.

Something is deeply wrong with that impression that we have a society that concludes, very commonly, that its dominant population group by religious affiliation is somehow living in a systematically oppressed world. And quite simply: "you people" need to shut the fuck up about oppression on that point. Being told you are wrong about something is disagreement. It is unpleasant, yes. The fact that someone can disagree with you, and others may rush to defend that person, is not the same as being in a position of persecution and oppressiveness. People sometimes should disagree or attempt to in a more civil manner (this of course, goes both ways), or learn to try to have constructive debates where their core and essential beliefs and priors are more easily examined by casual and interested observers. But that we disagree, and that we sometimes disagree vehemently over positions as diametrically opposed as basic worldviews, is a consequence of living in a pluralistic and liberal democratic state of the sort that the basic rights of the US Constitution grant to the individuals to practice and the state to protect. It is not at all the same as living in a society that say, demands state fealty to a religion, or a lack of one, and punishes with criminal and civil penalties even including the death of those who refuse to comply. Nor is the same to claim this is the variety of persecution when one is told that because they work in a public position (a teacher for example) they cannot use that position to advance their religious beliefs upon others. They are still welcome to do this privately. They just can't do it in their official capacity. And quite simply it is absurd to claim that someone is being held accountable and persecuted for their beliefs if they aren't punished but someone who defends a position which appears contrary to those beliefs is punished. Atheists are much more likely to encounter public discrimination and censure than any Christian sect. They're much more likely to be fired or dismissed, or not hired or held up for a promotion on that basis. There are nearly zero elected officials with an open expression of atheism in the country at any level of government. And so on. I do not know Mr Law's religious views or lack thereof, and won't presume to speak for them, but he expressed a pro-science view, with the same level of politeness and openness to inquiry (if not more so) than his interlocutors. He was the one punished. So yeah. Shut the fuck up about being stepped on and persecuted. I see shades of this in the Gamergate and shirtgate backlashes, where threats are issued toward people for expressing an opinion, and it is this group issuing threats toward other people proclaiming that it is the oppressed. Both groups claim oppression, but if one side issues direct threats of physical violence as a means of depressing the turnout of their opposition, I'm inclined to say that's the side committing the oppression. I didn't see any threats issued here. But I did see discipline hammers fall down on people. They were not the people Mr Schilling assumes are likely to be punished (eg, himself).

There are reasonable presentations of religious persecution or oppression of religious belief. I am for instance more sympathetic to an argument that using the legal system to require privately owned businesses to provide certain wedding or marriage related services (usually for homosexual couples) seems a stretch. That does not mean that I wouldn't consider that behavior a form of bigotry or at least discrimination or that I would not consider encouraging boycotting such businesses to use social coercion rather than legal sanctions to overcome the practice or drive that any business practice like this out of the industry. But I'm not certain that the government needs to step in in these ways if we have an environment that is increasingly open and welcoming to homosexual couples for marriage and equal protection of the rights granted by marriage contract laws and that there may be competitors who will be happy to serve such couples and take their business. It is in this general realm of social coercion that I think people should be pushing back against wrongful or harmful beliefs perpetuated by some religious people, such as creationism or anti-homosexual views. People should criticize. They should argue. They should debate, persuade, cajole, annoy, organize, and persist. If this atmosphere of debate reaches a point where people do not feel they can air these views publicly, for fear of the social ostracization and consequences of holding and airing unpopular views, that still is not oppression. That may or may not reflect an unpleasant atmosphere for productive and constructive debate, where the best defenses of these now unpopular ideas are not being made or sought out. But it also may reflect that those ideas are held in social disdain for very good reasons. And that people who want to hold to them should have to confront those very good reasons and try to resolve whether or why they want to continue holding these unpopular views. Maybe they will come up with better arguments in response. Chances are they will not (Mr Schilling presented nothing that hasn't been a standard creationist or ID argument for decades for his part). In the case of religion, even it evolves in what it accepts and proclaims to its followers and interested observers, one could readily find and hear arguments made either for or against slavery from the perspective of religion. One rarely sees a direct claim that slavery is morally acceptable today. Similarly various religions or their derivations have adopted ways to incorporate scientific discoveries and interpretations like the orbits of planets, the big bang theory, and evolution without much conflict and violence done to the scientific consensus on these issues.

As a final point to all of this. One of the most annoying processes of public debate and discourse is the shifting goalpost method of argument. As an example. People demand evidence for X. Other people subsequently present evidence for X. Evidence of X now becomes a non-important factor to be dismissed (even though it was just requested), or the source of evidence comes under dispute. Almost no one is reacting by saying "huh, I didn't know that, I will now investigate what you have presented to me". Schilling did this several times (transitional fossils, "problems" with the fossil record, etc) before tossing off people attempting to present him this evidence as people attempting to persecute Christians.

Evolutionary theory is one of the arenas of social discourse for which there is abundant evidence because the biological field of scientific inquiry includes hard empirical sciences with lots of data points from which to draw reliable conclusions (genetics for example). On other matters, say, economic theories regarding minimum wage law, there is much less hard empirical data and a lot of speculative conclusions. Sometimes none of those may be shown as correct in a predictable and testable way. For these subjects, arguments regarding sources of data can be more valid concerns over ideological bias. One would expect that political matters could often inspire difficult and nonconstructive debates as a result as people retreat to the corners of expertise for which their priors hold to their stated outcomes and beliefs. For public concerns over science, this is less useful. Scientists can be individually biased, and many fields, particularly in difficult to research matters like social sciences or medicine can have complicated problems with the manner of research and verification or replication of results. Skepticism can be a useful tool in digging through results that do not smell right to us for that very reason. Lots of pharmaceutical studies are flawed because they are produced or paid for by the companies attempting to market a new drug, for example, and the results were cherry picked to make the drug look more effective or to have a broad array of possible benefits, and so on. Skepticism of that variety is very useful. But that skepticism neither requires us to go in the direction that creationists insist nor does it automatically mean that data is false because it conflicts with their priors. Even if they were able to disprove evolutionary theory or some other cosmological theory, this creationist explanation does not stand on its own merits as a central truth that should replace it, if one is being openly skeptical and examining the merits of each idea. Even standing within metaphysics and dismissing empirical observations altogether, what of some other religious faith's interpretation of the story of creation? Why is this one the one? It isn't, there isn't anyway to demonstrate that. It just is the one that you want it to be because it affirms many other things you would also like to believe about yourself, your identity, and the world and how you interact with it.

This may all be a fascinating argument in an introductory level course on comparative religions or something amusing to contemplate as one studies Greek mythology as a child, but it isn't a constructive way to talk about science and debate its merits. I would agree it doesn't seem very constructive to try to bludgeon Christians over the head with data, as that's been going on for decades. Or that there are institutional problems with the way science is being conducted, or that there aren't very many conservatives in some fields of study which may offer distinct perspectives, such as in moral psychology, and so on. But if Christian creationists aren't willing to observe what scientific study and the field is doing or what it has produced as evidence in support of its conclusions then why even bother having the argument? One possible interpretation for this is to not bother to engage or dignify this position with debate. If "they" want to go believe that, whatever. Our concern would be this large body of people who aren't sure what to believe. And maybe look at why that is and what we can offer. People tend to demand rigid uncertainties. Science doesn't tend to offer rigid uncertainties. But it can offer quite a lot in the way of taking some uncertainties and finding ways to make them predictable, testable, and empirical, taking the misunderstood or unknown and making it understood and known as best we are able.

Having a flashlight in a dark room doesn't always illuminate the whole room. But it makes it a lot easier to see than fumbling around in the dark.

How to teach to "controversy"?

"Hill found that 58 percent of respondents said this topic is only "somewhat, not very, or not at all important" to them. People who held creationist views were the most emphatic about their beliefs; 64 percent of that group said they care about being "right," presumably in the metaphysical sense of rightness. " 

I tend not to worry very much about whether generally the population accepts evolutionary theory on its own, excepting as it is a harbinger for otherwise poor quality scientific backgrounds. It does not have very much to do with almost anyone's daily lives. Antibiotic resistance and viral mutations would be the average person's limit of visible experience for which they are having adverse effects (by not getting vaccines for their children and by overusing antibiotics for viral infections for which they have no impact or farmers using them prolifically on animals we consume). These are fields for which the limited education of the average person on germ theory and the types and causes of illness, or even just the ability to critically examine ailments and their causes in others (eg, people get colds not because it is cold, but because they stay inside more often with other people when it is cold), is probably a bigger concern than evolutionary theory. Meanwhile the average person is not likely to work in a biochemistry lab or a genetic engineering research firm or as a naturalist studying animals and animal behavior or biodiversity. The specific influence upon their lives is pretty small as a result and so it is not something I worry a great deal about in particular.

What is concerning on this subject is that my "opposites", the creationists, seem to care an awful lot about it, much more than the much smaller cohort of people who are, like me, atheistic and accepting of evolutionary theory. And then this was also a concern: "An estimated 28 percent teach evolutionary biology according to the recommendations of the National Research Council; the rest don't advocate either view" Science teachers apparently don't care very much about whether the general population learns about science either. It's one thing if I don't care, because I have no children and little interest in teaching such creatures. But if the teachers at large don't care (or are afraid to, a plausible explanation in many cases), that's a deeper concern. If there's a large percentage of people who care a great deal, but who disagree with established scientific concerns, there needs to be a way to raise it for everyone else, the people who are unsure or don't care very much one way or the other or who otherwise want their children to learn the proper scientific ways of thinking and analysis as part of their upbringing and education.

Some thoughts

1) Let the most adamant creationist people go and teach what they want through home schooling (they're often already doing this).

2) Let the most adamant creationists set up their own private institutions to send their own children, with the possible result, if this is a significant problem that people do not learn adequate science in primary education, that they could risk being shut out of certain professional fields as adults (unless they address this later on by attending colleges that aren't conservative Christian in nature).

This is also already happening. I often think it may be acceptable to let them use tax credits to fund the institutions simply because #3 below looks so bad as a long-term prospect to me. We've had decades since Scopes and the needles haven't moved very much in the general population, and I think there's not very good reasons to think this will change in the near term for sure. My general thinking for #1 and #2 is that creationists aren't very easy to argue with logically, so they're better off not impacting everyone else as much or not being as concerned about everyone else because they've segregated their children off. I think it likely that if they are left alone to do their thing, there's a possible gain in them generally leaving everyone else's kids alone and we can focus on educating those children instead.

As a hopeful note, I don't know that this self-segregated education style has a lasting effect that the creationist might hope for. It's very possible that their children may not care as much about their religious identity as they do (often for other unrelated reasons) and this may allow for openings of doubt in any factual basis behind creationist mythology.

3) Continue the curriculum and courtroom fights and leaving teachers and school administrations to fight it out with parents who don't pursue those two above options out of inertia or marginal interest. I'm not very enthusiastic about this as a result because school boards are often democratically selected. As we should see from the link, not only are there a ton of creationists in America; roughly four times as many as the atheistic population which is largely on its own fighting back as the theistic evolutionist is not very concerned about the issue one way or the other, for reasons that should be obvious. They're also much more motivated about the issue. Meaning they will go vote for school boards that advance creationist views as much as they can get away with and they will win those elections in most states, with adverse effects upon the overall quality of education available to everyone. Not just what is available to creationists and not just impacting upon science curriculum and evolution in particular.

The optimistic view is that religious dogma on other issues, such as birth control or homosexuality, is driving away many young people from organised religion as young people have broken from their elders and parents on these questions, and they may also break on this question once broken away on others. This suggests that in 20-30 years time, fewer people may care a great deal about this as a question of evolutionary theory in education. I'm not sure this is a good calculated risk given what creationists or millennial revisionists can do to science and history education in the meantime. That damage is still considerable.

4) A different approach would be to let students try to bash each other's heads in by debating or bringing up these issues. I don't think this is an effective method of teaching "controversial" issues until perhaps high school and my preference would be that it be in the form of a comparative religion or philosophy course. Creationism is not science and doesn't belong in a biology class.

5) Address the question of meaning. Teleology has a long use as part of religious doctrine for providing people easy answers (if I think badly misleading ones) about the nature of the universe and one's purpose in it. As the poll should also show, there's a large cohort of people who are theistic but accept evolutionary theory or place their deity as having a specific involvement. To explain this view (or one possible interpretation of that view). Let's say god created evolution as a biological process, and upon its long and winding paths, came a result of the creation of man. This purported god was pleased by that development and endowed human beings with some special significance (often the "soul"). Or something to that effect. That's an opening for which acceptance of scientific conclusions about the nature of existence has walked through Christian theology for centuries ("god did it, and this is how", or other similar interpretations). Evolution for whatever reason is not typically pushed in the door this way and in fact is presented precisely as the vehicle for atheism that many anti-science creationists fear it to be. That may have to change tactics.

I don't think that's going to provide a very satisfying answer for meaning and purpose at all to address the question of "meaning" for which many people reject evolutionary theory to present it in the "god did it this way" variety of explanation. But apparently a lot of people do. I see this example of "meaning" frequently used in movies with an alternative to gods in the form of super-advanced aliens seeding humanity into the genetic code of the planet and sometimes teaching humans basic skills of agriculture or warfare, or in some cases various "advanced" technologies (a position which makes even less sense than the soul concept advanced by Catholics given that there's actually very strong observable evidence against it, while the soul is a metaphysical concept devoid of evidence or empirical debate). This path provides some presentation of meaning that is to me just as hollow and useless as those provided by religious scripture and organised religions. But given the popularity of the plot points, it is not surprising that the problem of meaning dominates the need to cling to creationist myths, whether science fiction-based or religious, to avoid the difficulty of addressing personal or species level meaning. I sympathize that those are difficult questions for which simple and emotionally driven responses may provide comfort and ease (but not actually answering the question). I don't think the average person wants to contemplate these issues very deeply, or at least very often, in favor of actually living their lives.

Which is probably why many people are fairly blah about whether evolution is a thing.

To put a quick flip on this science fiction-y thinking. There's also been a strain in Star Trek type shows that the future will be better tomorrow because there won't be religions because presumably the aliens we would encounter won't have them either or will find our myths absurd and have their own better ones or some such. While I find the humanist ethos running through Star Trek amusing and sometimes appealing (and sometimes not so much, since it glosses over economics on the basis of "we have matter replicators"), there doesn't seem to me to be a basis point for saying that human beings on discovering other sentient beings from other worlds would suddenly and inevitably accept that this means that there is no god and their religious beliefs are pointless. What it might (optimistically) suggest to many people is that evolutionary theory is generally correct. But that acceptance of theoretical knowledge already doesn't come into conflict with the questions of purpose and meaning that most people are using religious beliefs and practices, and the affirmation of congregations of like-minded others, to try to wrestle with. Those questions aren't going to be diminished by the discovery of and communication with other beings.

14 November 2014

Series of social-cultural things

Upon which I have comments.

1) Serial. I am rather annoyed that most people seem to either think this has a firm conclusion or are annoyed that it seems like the interviewer running the podcast seems to have a firm conclusion/bias in mind.

What is actually happening on the podcast is we are seeing what the criminal justice system can look like. We are seeing that eyeball witnesses often aren't very reliable, but people and police think they are anyway. We are seeing that resources for defense teams to investigate a case and otherwise effective defense counsel are hard to come by. We are seeing that juries tend to be very deferential to police and prosecutors. We are seeing that police don't follow every lead, but that even when they don't, that can be considered "good" police work. We are seeing that once the justice system has concluded guilt, it will be very hard to un-conclude it (usually one has to prove someone else's guilt).

None of that establishes that Adnan is innocent of the murder he was convicted of many years ago. Some of it probably could have established reasonable doubt in a jury trial, which is a different question. Whether someone should be convicted of a crime based on available evidence is distinct from whether this person is guilty or probably did it. Which may be the most important manifestation from the broadcasts is that the system we use, despite our fervent belief to the contrary, doesn't always work the way the airy words we described and imbued it with in our popular narratives of crime and its foes.

2) Shirt-gate. And gamer-gate for that matter.

Seeing what seem like fairly tepid complaints like "hey why's that scientist/engineer wearing that shirt with all the half naked women on it?" or "hey, why's every woman in an average video game look like a porn star?" These aren't that disturbing of issues taken on their own, but they're part of a general problem relating to sexism in society. Probably more disturbing than the shirt itself was the Kardashian shot heard round the world that eclipsed the news we landed a probe on a comet hundreds of millions of miles away.

The shirt is more about the general biases and prejudices experienced by women in science fields or wanting to go into them than the shirt itself. Presumably if men are comfortable enough going to work wearing shirts with erotically depicted female characters on them, then they may be comfortable enough with other sexist or misogynist forms of expression.

Games, I think we're stuck with "attractive" forms to a degree in video games and pop culture media (music, art, photography, movies/TV, print ads, etc). I can see that it can be toned down. The burning question mark is not just the physiques and physical depictions, but also the development of characters within the mediums. One of the simpler tests for film character arcs has been "are there two women as characters who manage to have a conversation not about a man in it". Video games in some sense have an advantage already simply because any female characters involved are often extremely powerful at destroying demons or zombies or Nazis or whatever else the game's foe is (not always, but this comes up enough, and enough games allow for a female protagonist or party member, etc, that one would think it would have an influence on the thinking of women as capable, independent, or something along those lines).

Each of these are themselves problematic, worthy of input as to the varieties of offenses that come up. But what's really disturbing isn't these things as cultural notes themselves. It's that people reacted to anyone bringing them up as though the act of pointing it out or taking any offense to it, requires not merely an argument, but a denigration of the women (it's usually women pointing these out) who are involved in making these points or a defense of men and the apparent demanded and inherited right to ogle or sexualize women as a variety of free speech. This actually isn't under attack that I can tell. I suppose there are people who don't want these movies, T-shirts, or video games to be made and distributed. But the initial reaction wasn't that. It's calling attention to the type of character traits one possesses when one does present as a person wishing to ogle women or sexualize them as characters or "artistic" presentations and whether these are desirable traits for men to possess. The fact that this is reacted to with an often out-sized level of scorn or annoyance then makes itself into a more clear example that it probably is not a set of desirable traits.

For men to try to understand this. Ogling women isn't going away. I find women attractive. I enjoy that about humanity that there are other persons who are attractive to me, and thus find speaking in the company of women I find attractive, spending time around such persons, and so on, engaging and energizing (such as I find spending time around almost any persons engaging and energizing). What I also find though is that women will tend to make for more interesting company when this is not the central attribute of any form of relationship with them. In the same way that if one is a heterosexual male, the attractiveness of your male co-workers, companions, and friends is generally not a major concern (at least this is my experience).

If that's the only attribute of a relationship is that one party spends a lot of time being looked at for looking good, it's going to be really boring or frustrating for one or both parties fairly quickly, and it will also quickly be learned that this is all one wants to contribute to any form of relationship is to look upon another person because they're deemed attractive. One has to spend an often considerable portion of the time recognizing and exercising those other qualities of interaction with other human beings than superficial appearances and one should find that that time is enjoyable. It can be frivolous, rude, polite, funny, intellectual, whatever. But if all anyone sees when they look at another person is a good view, and nothing else, that's more a potentially disturbing character trait about you than a suggestion that more people should provide those good views for you in the form of popular media presentations. And that if these demands as expressed through the exercise of design of games or T-Shirts marketed to people like you are offensive to others, that actually should not be surprising, shocking, or alarming to discover that other people find this a character defect. Beauty and the admiration of it as a concept seen in others isn't going away, and isn't even likely to be challenged as a human evolution. But it's a more complicated venue to navigate and appreciate properly than demanding nude photos of every woman who shows up in an online forum or multiplayer video game as it appears some men are wont to do from the reactions and abrasive attitudes that have taken up arms in the wake of these fairly modest complaints.

If one really wants to see and experience beauty, it doesn't appear by issuing forward to the world the opinion that you deserve it from others, you will have to contribute to it first at a minimum. Or more pragmatically, the idea that beauty as a commodity one appreciates and seeks to find also includes the women who one finds beautiful as a commodity that one can effectively buy or sell as well through those demands isn't a pathway to find oneself suddenly appreciated as an enlightened and kind being. It forms rather very different impressions in the minds of others instead.

I suppose it should not be surprising that people would react with vitriol to discover that other people think them pigs or sexist or even someone that actively hates women. That would be a rather unpleasant discovery to be made aware of (for most of us). The really curious part is how one intends to define away these undesirable traits by demonstrating them against anyone who points them out.

3) I've entertained some conversations with other secularists, agnostics, and atheists over the years. I find I have a set of policy disagreements or disaffection with some issue or other that aren't always shared. I don't hold that against these "fellow-travelers" and continue to argue for whatever it is I'd prefer and sometimes shrug at whatever it is they might prefer (and sometimes not, as above). I rather expect from years of holding sometimes radical views that other people don't agree with me for any number of reasons. What is not always abundantly clear is why.

What I'm finding in spending more time around or among other atheists as a group of other individuals is that they are sometimes angry. Christians sometimes think or say this is because they're angry at god. They're not. They're angry with you (Christians, since this is America and most of you are of that flock). For what you put them through or for what you still put them through. Entertaining as those diversions on policy are, there are actual people suffering for the upbringing they experienced, the isolation of it, and the lack of options presented, the lack of pragmatic experiences to draw upon. I did not experience these things because of faith or lack thereof or organized religion and my lack of interest in it (I still experienced them but for very different reasons). I did not experience the isolation from family in the way that I could never see them or wouldn't hear from them. Or did not experience a loss of friendships because I changed my belief structure (I may have from becoming somewhat more expressive of my ideas, but my underlying "beliefs" haven't changed very much in decades).

Something I've long thought about religion is that it operates principally with the need for social reinforcement. It evolved in large part as a way to keep a social unit cohesive as it became larger and more unwieldy to operate without chaos and it performs this role very well in fact. "Belief" and beliefs that people hold are largely enforced through the shared affirmation of a social unit (family, church, friends, etc) and not because there are any effective and good reasons for those beliefs to be regarded as truthful and honest interpretations of the world around us. One of the usual selling points people may use is to claim that X number or X% of others agree with them about their preferred method of deity worship. Sometimes, perhaps often, this number or percentage is erroneous anyway, but the idea that this should be persuasive is not a statement that they are holding true and correct beliefs apportioned to evidence. What it is is a statement of social conformity and social penetration. It is saying that we have a strong and cohesive social unit and wouldn't you like to be a part of it?

The flip side to this conformity is rarely appreciated by someone like me though. Because I never had to leave it behind. I've always been a bit of a non-conformist or non-conventional thinker. In part I've developed an instinctive discomfort with people who let me fit in too easily and without disagreements, so belonging to a "strong" group doesn't appeal to me anyway. The flip side for others is that when one rejects those beliefs, and the associated community and its rituals and practices, that community often rejects you for doing so. It does not neatly help people transition to a new set of beliefs or a new worldview in ease and comfort with former relations and associates. Not only does it not assist (which one assumes it shouldn't have to), it often kicks such people to the curb and announces they are horrible people to everyone involved as a means of speeding along that departure. For someone like me, being rejected by people I don't agree with on a fundamental question of worldview and any associated practices isn't inherently annoying or isolating. But I didn't have to agree with them or pretend to for some portion of my lifetime. One assumes this method of penalty is primarily there as a means of discouragement. People inside the bubble may see that the exit is an anguishing affliction of suffering and despair by being deliberately separated from the social networks of support one builds up through a lifetime of shared associations and they decide that their doubts can be a little quieter. Because the US offers easy access to a smorgasbord of religious devotions and their assorted beliefs however (even for those wishing to stay within the rubric of "Christendom"), this method is of diminishing return and effectiveness upon the litany of people who might wish to transition out. What it does not do and not offer in that transition is an easy way out. The exit strategy still sucks. It still inflicts damage for many.

I have some sympathy for that. I'm not sure how one gets from there to "religions should all be abolished", and then operating as though that is a plausible social goal. But I am sure why many people of a variety of atheist thought might be angry at the religions, other adherents, and their institutions.

12 November 2014

More on the advance by nickels and dimes

I've often had some strange opinions. Or what must seem like strange opinions to most people.

So. This one is kind of out there too. I don't think the problem for pro-choice people is defending Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court. That's not going to be overturned for one. And if it ever is, the problem is then on pro-life voters to defend a minority position in almost every state (the complete ban of abortion) by making that their intended legal framework. My thought has long been that if Roe were ever overturned, the pro-life movement shrivels and dies because it can't win that way and Roe is a rallying cry that it doesn't get any other way. 

The real problem has been, especially over the last few years, a system of nickel and diming the effective options of what it means for pro-choice to be actually exercised. To restrict; primarily with tedious, invasive, expensive, and mostly unnecessary legal frameworks to run a clinic conducting abortions and to obtain access to it from within a state (waiting periods, ultrasounds, descriptions, parental notification, restrictions on IUDs, etc). Most of that is controversial and well-known to be useless and arbitrary rather than meaningful restraints among pro-choice advocates, but such advocates are also not very common (ardent pro-life voters are roughly as common). Most people are squishy and uncomfortable with the topic and without much contemplation will feel these are reasonable restraints. Even though they're not useful to protect anyone except to waste more time or money for those who want or need access.

But it's also starting to punish. And this is more where it gets scary and strange. 

"Based on the belief that he had an obligation to give a fetus a chance for life, a judge in Washington, D.C., ordered a critically ill 27-year-old woman who was 26 weeks pregnant to undergo a cesarean section, which he understood might kill her. Neither the woman nor her baby survived."

"documenting 413 arrests or equivalent actions depriving pregnant women of their physical liberty during the 32 years between 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, and 2005. In a majority of these cases, women who had no intention of ending a pregnancy went to term and gave birth to a healthy baby. This includes the many cases where the pregnant woman was alleged to have used some amount of alcohol or a criminalized drug. 

Since 2005, we have identified an additional 380 cases, with more arrests occurring every week." [Bold mine]

This is in combination with cases like that in Texas earlier in the year where the state was attempting to keep a pregnant but brain-dead woman "alive" long enough to deliver a baby against the family's wishes and before the legal statutes required it (which is grotesque and macabe enough that there are legal statutes requiring it rather than allowing families to decide this). 

The problem with these legal changes isn't just that it presents these arbitrary distinctions over the access of women to abortion. It's that it now potentially criminalizes basic medical decisions, places judges in positions of authority over the health risks or even the lack of life rather than doctors and patients making these decisions, and in some cases, criminalizes terrible things happening to women naturally. Miscarriages. Which are much more abundant than people realize. Or severe health problems placing both her and a probably very much wanted pregnancy at risk. These demands and realities are placed at odds with legal codes that are not as accommodating. Even if women are eventually cleared of any "wrong-doing" and even if one agrees with the fundamental "personhood" legal basis behind many anti-abortion legal codes, that we should be demanding the intrusion of the state onto personal liberties of women who have suffered a considerable loss, or been through considerable trauma and risk to their own lives suggests that we have accorded the state far too much power over this. And far too much power primarily for the purpose of punishment rather than power for the purpose of protecting the life and safety of citizens. 

As a corollary to all of this. I'm still extremely baffled by the Democrats election strategy being premised largely on fear based positions relating to abortion politics. As noted above, there is not actually a grand divide of people for whom this is a single-issue vote that they will always turn out to vote for or against. There are some people for whom this is an issue, but there were not many. The electorate seemed mostly concerned about their economic prospects, with maybe IR (ISIS) and other assorted issues mixed in. And what's more, this has never actually been a "women's issue" in the sense that it motivates women to vote uniformly or as a bloc of voters. It is a women's issue in the sense that it is women getting abortions or in need of them; men obviously don't need them as we can't have one. It is not a women's issue in the sense that there are more women in favor of abortion (men are usually slightly higher in support in polls, especially later term) and that thus running such ads or campaigns based upon the (legitimately) terrible things Republicans could do in office on these issues would turn out women FOR Democrats. It doesn't break that way. It was just as likely to either: 

a) get women to go vote FOR Republicans, because there are numerous women who actually favor such policies and want to see them enacted. Women break evenly here rather than "for" choice (although most women still have a "abortion for me and not for thee" style convention to this "choice").

b) get women annoyed at the men in these campaigns for thinking this is the only issue on which they are concerned and annoyed enough to stay home and not vote or annoyed enough to vote for the other guy. 

That was a textbook stupid campaign in other words. 

05 November 2014

Quick thoughts on the election

1) The most interesting thing that happened was how well marijuana did at the ballot (2 states and DC legalizing it entirely and Florida's medical marijuana vote going extremely well, 58%, but not passing). And how poorly anti-abortion or how well minimum wages did as issues. I'm not a fan of minimum wage laws, in that I don't think they're an effective way to address income inequality. Nor do I care if people work at companies full-time and yet still qualify for various social welfare programmes. I think that's actually a net good even though I think the social welfare programmes are inefficiently scaled (and can cause heavy disincentives at the margin), simply because it is more tolerable to almost everyone that we provide social welfare to people who are working (or can't work) but aren't making ends meet at the margins. However, those complicated economic objections aside. The fact that many people do seem to think min wage is somehow effective at helping poor people suggests that many people voting for increases in it were concerned about income distribution or the general economy. Mostly what happened is a lot of liberal-ish sounding things passed but a lot of conservatives won elections. I thought that was very odd.

2) Conservatives did not score as many own goals as they have the last few cycles. Democrats did. The one case that eludes me is how a Congressman with 20 indictments for various forms of corruption can win re-election. That seems like it ought to be a pretty damning own goal problem. Apparently saying dumb things about female anatomy is (and it ought to be pretty damning), as is sending photographs of your own anatomy (if male, this is stupid but doesn't strike me as potentially damning politically), but potentially violating the law is not. Good to know.

3) It is not enough to tell people what your opponent might do that is terrible. You need to have something to sell yourself on. In Colorado, Udall's campaign was running a ton of negative ads relating to an opponent's prior support for strong anti-abortion laws. These apparently turned voters off rather than working as a scare tactic. Meanwhile, Udall's actual record included being a staunch anti-NSA reformer by rhetoric and voting and even opposing expansive foreign policy conduct (by his own party's President). Those may not be broadly popular everywhere, but I'd have to think they could have been popular in Colorado. Various media outlets subsequently endorsed his rival simply because they were so annoyed with the negative portrayals instead of the salesmanship of what he could offer.

This strategy is especially poor at working on liberals and motivating them to vote in large numbers. Fear is a conservative weapon, and they're very good at using it. Liberals also need something to escape their fear with, which they're not as good at using lately. It's possible that Republicans will spend a lot of time trying to kill judicial appointments, overturn or at least sabotage Obamacare, or trying to bring up impeachment and investigations of the Obama administration. But. I think if they want to win in 2016, they won't be able to do that. They need to try to govern in order to not be punished by the general disdain for Republicans (both parties really, but they're especially unpopular) and their best option is to try to pass laws to show what their agenda is and then have Obama veto them or the Senate filibustering them if they're particularly egregious. So talking about these things as fears isn't really that practical because they're more vague and unlikely to be realized as actual problems. Specific policies like anti-abortion laws or attacks on birth control accessibility might be more plausible, but it would still be better still to actually defend birth control accessibility as a thing, or access to abortion rather than simply oppose those who don't want them. They can stand on their own with or without pointing out that someone hates it.

4) Lots of people who voted clearly do not pay attention to politics. While I found the photo bomb on McConnell in Kentucky hilarious, it was pretty obvious a couple months ago he was going to win that race and win it comfortably. It was called almost immediately because it was clearly won months ago. The question mark was the margin, which was higher than polls suggested. That was an ominous sign that portended several other defeats, including some unexpected governorships. Kasich as governor was in a similar boat as that race was settled months ago (and won by an even more comfortable margin as Fitzgerald was one of the "own goal" Democrats). People who don't pay attention to these horse races and just show up to vote don't really have valid complaints to make and their surprise is particularly off-putting as pathetic. What people should be doing is spending some of the time ahead of the elections trying to make the argument against McConnell or Kasich or for their candidate of preference in some conversation with other human beings. This rather quickly establishes how strong a candidacy is even without referencing polling data as you'd know immediately there's a ton of people around who don't share your views and may need to be talked to or argued with or that you live in a bubble of people who agree with you and need to talk to a few strangers for sampling purposes. Instead of showing up on election day and suddenly being surprised there's legions of people who voted for the other guy and calling it a day. There is no actual prohibition against talking about politics and policy matters. Most people just don't like fighting over it because they're usually ill-informed and think they aren't.

5) Something I think liberals don't often realize, and this goes back to the fear element: Politics is not about policy. It's about tribalism. Getting your tribe to stand up and shout down the other one. Sometimes it's about finding some other tribe (in another land) to unify against and shout down. Sometimes it's about picking fights within your own tribe. Mostly it's about shouting at other tribes though. It is not about ideology. It is not about political policy positions. Almost no one pays that much attention to know what those even are. Liberals, or to some extent moderates, and that rare band of independents, do care about those things. Some conservatives care about a few particular policies. But people, and especially conservatives, mostly care whether they are in charge of setting those policies and getting to lord that over their foes. As do many "liberal" political figures (Obama included). It isn't a contest about who has better arguments, who can debate the particulars of policy concerns and constraints, or even who looks better on TV. It's a contest about who gets to do things and try to brag about it and who gets to not do things and complain about what is being done.

04 November 2014

A quick word on voting posts

I say this about every year. It gets old.

Telling people they can't complain if they don't vote doesn't make any sense. Don't do it. You look like an arrogant prick who isn't paying attention. Basically you come off like one of those door-to-door missionaries who isn't aware that most everyone in the area is a Christian already but with a sales pitch that sounds like there's a lot of people like me out there. People who are voting, people we "want" voting, are already doing so in pretty hefty amounts and the types of people complaining about politics are especially.

Chances are excellent that the only people paying attention enough to complain in a cogent way did vote. And the reason they're now complaining is that stupid things are going on anyway in spite of their participation in elections. Their awareness of stupid things implies they are paying attention and likely voters. You don't need to sell them on the prospect by talking it up. Voting offers a very small chance of changing the stupidity to a different format with very minimal effort on the individual's part. All you technically have to do is register and show up and cast a ballot, no attention is required to matters political to vote. People who pay no attention to it probably aren't the kinds of people we want showing up, because they're more prone to systemic biases that are harmful, like racism/sexism/anti-immigrant bias and misinformation on basic facts. But chances are, someone who complains about politics, that person did vote. Even if they were ill-informed or under-informed about the basic issues.

Second, even if they don't vote, the chances their votes are the best method of changing that stupid thing from going on is still extremely small. In fact it is likely that someone complaining about it on Facebook (and doing nothing else, itself a troubling prospect) has an equal or greater chance of influencing public policy than their vote by influencing public discourse in some small way. There are dozens of ways to execute your civic duties to fellow citizens, and voting is a very, very small one. It's probably one of the least effective in fact because it has only a limited impact upon what policies are enacted and what laws will govern us compared to the alternatives. The assumption of "not voting" canceling out these other active alternatives in a person's routine engagement with matters civic and political is extremely arrogant and dismissive. People can care a great deal about their fellow citizens and express it in often very meaningful ways without bothering in partisan political discourse decided in a ballot box.

Telling people they can't complain if they don't vote is basically a stealth way of exhorting people to go vote through some variety of shame, as if in a bizarre secular ritual. As implied above, voting is a minimal standard of civic engagement. What you should be exhorting people to do is pay attention and maybe get involved in some issue or other that they/you believe requires reform. And then do so yourself. Telling people just to go vote, with no other recourse to civic involvement, is like saying "I know you can't be bothered to give a shit about other people, so at least pretend like you did in this very small but publicly celebrated way." We are rewarding ourselves for paying attention at a point which has very little impact and allowing ourselves permission through that social congratulation to ignore it the rest of the time. It's the rest of the time that stuff is going down people. That's when you pay attention and get involved if you wanted something to happen (or not to). Not one day in November. Some random day in March or July is when a bill gets into public discussion or a judge decides an important case.

If you want to vote, great. Fine. I'm not complaining that people do this in the slightest. You're welcome to do it. I think it should be easy to do and that people aren't prevented or restricted from doing so. For instance, I think states that prevent ex-cons from voting should not do so, and that voter ID laws are extremely dumb ways of addressing any probable causes of voter fraud and basically clumsy racism dressed up as something else. I don't advocate things like civic knowledge tests or basic political or demographic knowledge tests either (there's no chance those could be administered fairly for one). What I'm concerned about is how people go about talking about voting as though it's the greatest thing ever and that people who don't do it are losers or something. Sliced bread sucks too. I'm tired of hearing about how great it is (supposedly). But at least most people don't go around saying that unsliced bread is something awful and pitiful. They instead talk about the virtues of sliced bread in comparison to other supposedly great things. Politics is a lot bigger than our yearly elections and there are many, many more productive ways to plug yourself into it than entering a ballot box once in a while. Don't try to tell us this way is the most awesomest one ever. Just go do it.

And then complain about all the people who you voted against winning like the rest of us do.


There are two corollaries to this line of argument I think are worth suggesting as well.

1) Other countries with highly corrupt and illiberal governance have elections, they can even have "free and fair" elections in order to elect what amount to dictators or theocratic parties (Iraq, Iran, Palestine/Gaza, Egypt, Russia, etc). This is evidence that "voting" is a pretty minimal standard of civic involvement for a modern liberal democracy to practice. Voting is probably one of the least important institutions to maintain and participate in order to exercise one's liberty as a citizen in a (relatively) free state. Majoritarian rule through election contests is a pretty minimal standard for western liberalism to be practiced and isn't the central feature of those nation-states that ascribe and aspire to it. It's a feature, but it's primarily about the protection of minority (and individual) rights that one could say a defining character of a liberal democratic state is found.

2) Voting often results in people we don't like winning elections and instituting or attempting to institute bad policies. It could be as simple as our "red vs blue" fixation, but in other countries the results could be something like "Hamas". One of the problems with American coverage of the Iranian election protests was the assumption being that the liberal student protests were evidence of a broader support for revolution of the Iranian system of theocratic and illiberal democratic elections. They weren't. But we were willing to go along with that assumption because the people we didn't like had won the elections and it was assumed the people who lost supported our agenda (as a hint: they didn't).

This isn't evidence that voting is inherently awful, a complaint I've seen some libertarians make (which is a problem among libertarians). But if the general public tends to actually support things that are reprehensibly bad, and for whatever reason they often do on a lot of public policy questions, the way to change that isn't going to be through counting the ballots up every year, because those ballots will just continue to document the awful preferences of the majority. It's going to require a lot of hard work and engagement with many, many people. Legalization of marijuana or the acceptance of gay marriage equality have taken decades of agitation, and the battle was waged in newspapers and press editorials, street canvasing and petitioning, marches or demonstrations, even expressions in popular culture. And of course fought in courtrooms to overturn bad laws. Ballots are only a fairly recent addition to these campaigns. This suggests that voting is a low priority civic subject compared to all the groundwork that goes into getting something as even an option to vote on, where the candidates consider the issue worth legislating or popular referendums are introduced, and so on.

03 November 2014

Atheists untie

Or whatever that call would be.

A conversation that has emerged in some prominence over the last few years, and which I see favorably questioned and discussed in circles of secularists is something like "how do we get along with religious people?". Not just "person who believes in some deity or other and occasionally quotes a sacred text", but like "those religious people". The ones who think we all ought to be of their chosen variety of faith, praying in schools, and so on. And not just "get along with to get by" but things like "date, or have or sustain fulfilling relationships with". These are more common questions because the volume of interfaith and non-faith relationships have accelerated over the last couple of decades.

This variety of question has baffled me. I don't think it makes sense to try to sustain a close intimate relationship with someone where a worldview is diametrically opposed. You can have long-lasting friendships which are formed around other elements besides your worldview shaping concepts of existence. Things like "we both like pizza and football, let's watch football games and eat pizza", and that kind of relationship can co-exist with the bizarre confluence of other interests that you never share or never need to share. Supposing out of a hypothetical couple that one person is a vegetarian for moralistic reasons (animals shouldn't be bred and slaughtered for consuming them would be their stance, so not just they shouldn't eat meat, but no one else should be doing so either), and one person has a high regard for the taste and consumption of bacon, such that they will want to consume bacon and other meats with some frequency and delight. That isn't going to go very well if they're going to try to live together or even occasionally have breakfast. Maybe there's ways to make that work. But why is it necessary to bother? Isn't it potentially simplified for the moralising vegetarian to find someone who is willing to eat much less meat (if at all), and the bacon-lover to find a fellow traveler who desires the consumption of meats and shares their joy in doing so? This would make somewhat more sense if atheists or atheist tolerant persons were rarer than they are for pair-bonding purposes. They're not as rare or difficult to find as one thinks. If you know 20 people, you will know at least 1 or 2 and if one is an atheist, chances are good that of the 20 people you know at random, more than that will fall into the category. Maybe that's not enough of a sample size to select interesting partnerships and friends, but it is a bigger starting sample than many people get (devout Muslims in America for instance).

Even expanding the pool, supposing that one person doesn't eat meat for health reasons (they prefer a vegetable based diet, but may or may not be 100% scrupulous about whether they avoid animal fats in their diet) and the other person doesn't really care that much if they have bacon all the time. That combination should be able get along famously, or at least figure out how to get along reasonably well without much guidance at resolving this "worldview disparity". This describes what many people's interfaith (or non-faith) relationships are like. Religion rarely comes up because neither person takes it that seriously in assessing the other person and their identity, and when they do, it is possible to find ways to work around it.

I suppose one explanation is my experience as an atheist is distinct from the norm. I was never around a heavy religious treatment as a child or teenager. Because I found it absurd from an early age, it wasn't forced to me or compelled upon me. What religion was around from family appears to have been Catholics, but fairly non-compulsory and non-invasive in acting upon me as a disinterested observer of their practices. When I came up on these "questions", of existence, etc, as a matter of course, investigating the texts themselves (as one does when one is an atheist who enjoys philosophy and is willing to consider that maybe other people have figured these things out), generally leads toward a rejection of those texts as sensible guides for life and happiness. They are absurd when read as a critical outsider, and at best offer metaphorical guidance in some passages that is sensible but surround it with a lot of nonsense as with any fiction.

This outsider perspective wasn't also very often a well-known or regarded element of my persona. I wasn't interested in expressing it widely not because I found it shameful but because it wasn't an interesting characteristic (to me at any rate). It also wasn't an obvious characteristic in the persons I chose to associate that they either were or were not overtly religious or "nones". I made my associations for fairly practical reasons; we liked playing basketball or video games or discussing history and politics. Religion doesn't come up much in these venues (necessarily at any rate, it comes up more noticeably as I've gotten older). It wasn't a feature of my identity nor one that I placed much interest in the identity of others. This allowed for at least casual relationships with other people to form, which for both of us are likely enlightening as to the outlook of secularists and religious worldviews alike even as we often have staunch disagreements.

What appears to be the experience of many atheists is that they were raised in an environment of often "extreme" faith, where that faith was a feature of their identity and interaction and presentation to the outside world. In such environments, the pressure of conforming socially is very high, the pressure of adopting certain worldviews is also, and that abandonment of those views and behaviors carries significant costs. If it carries risks and costs, it is assumed that people will want to maintain those relationships that came before this change in their own worldview to reject belief in some deity (or to adopt a strong belief in the absence of previous belief) in order to minimize the damage. Family, lovers/spouses, friends, all being at risk at once can be a daunting position to find one's self on top of reconciling questions over your own identity and the epistemological and empirical questions of existences and ethics that inevitably circle overhead.

In my view, it is probably better not to bother in many cases. If I had had these kinds of troubles with family for example growing up, I wouldn't bother associating with family now, nor have much interest in reconciling those affairs later on. But I carry a degree of comfort with anti-social behavior that many are not comfortable with. Rather than fight with people with whom I share little or nothing in common, and rather than expend a lot of energy building or searching for common ground if none is apparent, I find it usually better to disappear and go to try my own thing. There are ways to communicate or reach many people across these divides, just as there are ways to explain evolutionary theory or global warming to creationists. But I don't have that much patience with human beings generally to be very concerned about trying.

So perhaps what forms the largest portion of bafflement is why people would spend that much time and energy trying to get along with people who have deemed it important to hate or fear you when there are a lot more people who don't care that much one way or the other about us, or who are open and tolerant of a wide variety of views in their associations, or who enjoy the same outlooks as you already and can readily get along without much adjustment at all (maybe someone snores, or has a higher sex drive, or doesn't like a variety of music someone enjoys, but these are more practical problems than diametrically opposed systems of considering the world). Clearly being hated bothers us more than I'd considered. If we're hated or enjoy the threat of hate from someone we had considered with love and affection, I could see how that would be difficult and require some variety of resolution to move on. Indifference is a far more common course of action though than hatred. In general, in America, other people are not concerned with what you are and what you believe and won't spend that much time trying to change it. There will be random missionaries show up at your door whilst you try to piece together a sandwich, and political causes that pop up now and again with a clearly religiously motivated position. These are more sideshows and amusements for the atheist than the introduction of this volatile mixture into a personal space and the amount of energy invested into the latter rather than the former suggests that people want to care a great deal more than I do about these problems. For reasons that do not make much sense to me.

John Oliver has this show

And on it he seems to talk about all the things I wish people would talk about and be aware of and mad as hell about as I am. And meanwhile is doing so in a sensible and well-informed manner. With some jokes.

1) Prison reform (or at least why we need it)
2) Local and state office elections (the ones nobody pays attention to)
3) Civil asset forfeiture seizures
4) Capital punishment
5) Immigration (couple different ways)
6) Police militarization
7) Drone strikes
8) The stupidity of the Olympics (Winter especially)
9) Global warming
10) Dogs acting out Supreme Court cases. (Okay, that's not really something I wish people would talk about, but it made re-reading the case arguments a little more entertaining).

I wish he had mentioned that the US sugar market not only protects itself from labeling, but also from competition (through exorbitant sugar tariffs and barriers to entry from foreign producers).

The main appeal of the show, for me at least, is that he seems to be conducting long-form journalism pieces disguised as comedic segments. This is something that the format of the Daily Show ordinarily doesn't allow, as it too easily gets bogged down in the same daily grinds that plague the networks it routinely pillories on air. Oh and it is on HBO so they can do an entire segment mocking campaign attack ads by depicting an old man's penis as one of the candidates. So there's that also.