Friday, August 31, 2012

The Joy of Violent Movement Pulls You Under (Slight Return)

Francis Spufford:

I really think you lot need to be a bit clearer about what the emotional content of your atheism is. You are the ones who claim to be acting on a mere lack, on a non-belief, but as absences go, contemporary atheism doesn’t half seem to involve some strong feelings. It isn’t all reading Lucretius, or thinking about the many forms most beautiful. For many of you, the point of atheism appears to be not the non-relationship with God but a live and hostile relationship with believers. It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe: atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do. The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, a scab you can’t help picking. People who don’t like stamp-collecting don’t have a special magazine called The Anti-Philatelist. But you do. You do the equivalent of hanging about in front of Stanley Gibbons to orate about the detestability of phosphor bands and perforations. The Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site – where you’d think that it wouldn’t be that surprising to find discussion of, you know, belief – is inhabited almost entirely by commenters waiting for someone to have the temerity to express a religious sentiment, whereupon they can be sprayed with scorn at fire-extinguisher pressure. It’s as if there is some transgressive little ripple of satisfaction which can only be obtained by uttering the words “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” where a real live Christian might hear them.

Jerry Coyne asks if we think this is accurate. I do, yeah. I've said recently, and will repeat here, that you see all the exact same group dynamics at play in a comment thread full of atheists as you do anywhere else on the Internet. A bunch of assholes, full of self-righteousness, snarking at their enemies and patting each other on the back for being so clever. It only seems different when you're emotionally invested in it. Having the crest of Reason & Rationality emblazoned on your flag doesn't change the fact that you are, well, just another group of people rallying around a flag and behaving accordingly.

It will be pointed out, rightly, that religion is hardly a quiet, private hobby like stamp collecting, and as such, it's to be expected that people will have strong, normative opinions about it. And no doubt, people who act like assholes during religious arguments will tell themselves and others that the importance of the cause compels them to forego politeness. But though it may be a common conceit to believe otherwise, most of what people do on the Internet is not valuable. You're not changing the world by commenting on blogs; you're just hanging out with your friends. Your sarcastic jokes and remarks aren't cumulatively adding up to progressive social change; you're just showing off to win praise from the rest of the group. Pointing and denouncing might feel satisfying, but they're not the same thing as activism. You're just one more insignificant individual who takes pleasure from feeling justified in being mean and causing pain to someone from the out-group, especially if it raises your own status.

The striving for distinction keeps a constant eye on the next man and wants to know what his feelings are, but the empathy which this drive requires for its gratification is far from being harmless or sympathetic or kind. We want, rather, to perceive or divine how the next man outwardly or inwardly suffers from us, how he loses control over himself and surrenders to the impressions our hand or merely the sight of us makes upon him; and even when he who strives after distinction makes and wants to make a joyful, elevating or cheering impression, he nonetheless enjoys this success not inasmuch as he has given joy to the next man or elevated him or cheered him, but inasmuch as he has impressed himself on the soul of the other, changed its shape and ruled over it at his own sweet will.

- Nietzsche

In other words, it can make us feel powerful to be even a little mean. The need to feel powerful is so ingrained in us that even professions of humility can become subtle means of self-promotion ("I'm less interested in one-upsmanship than you are", as Alan Watts said). And even those of us who genuinely want to spread joy and benevolence get an ego-charge out of exerting a powerful effect on another person, on winning their admiration, on inspiring awe (or even a little fear), on mattering in an undeniable way. Most of what we do on blogs is a way of convincing ourselves and others that we matter, of elevating ourselves, and a quick and easy way to get that assurance is to knock someone else down.

Yes, yes, I know, of course they deserve it. You just might want to take note of the fact that almost everyone who acts hatefully or aggressively toward another claims that they're only doing it for a higher cause, or in order to defend themselves or someone weaker. It seems to be a deeper truth about human psychology, no matter what the intellectual rationalizations—it doesn't take much to get people to choose sides and start throwing rocks and making raids on the enemy's territory. The hats and armbands and fight songs may change, but from a slightly removed vantage point, all of human history has been nothing but an increasingly sophisticated story of rock-throwing and territory-raiding. And no, I don't believe that being an atheist means that we are somehow more aware of our subconscious, preverbal instincts and thus better able to keep them from taking us over—if anything, the smug satisfaction we take in our special status makes us complacent against them. Nor do I believe that those lizard brain urges, like the fabled dictatorship of the proletariat, will fade away once we've completely eliminated our enemies and achieved a mythical state of perfection.

Boundaries Collapse

Liel Leibovitz:

The decades haven’t made Bloom’s argument any easier to follow. The same terms that dominated the conversation about his landmark book—ethnocentrism on the one hand, relativism on the other—dominate still. The same thinkers and disciplines that infuriated Bloom—Heidegger, deconstruction—still occupy the minds and the curricula of graduate students in the humanities. Roughly speaking, we still understand our moral and political choice as being between open-minded liberalism—which we understand to hold that all creeds were created equal, all cultures similarly rich and bountiful in meaning, and all people at once irreplaceably unique and, under democracy’s bright sun, equal and interchangeable—and conservatism—which we understand to hold that we Westerners are inherently more advanced, our culture more sophisticated and storied, and our way of life unquestionably true.

To Bloom, such a dichotomy was not only false but oppressive. Publicly, he was entertained by critical proclamations that berated him, like the memorable one, by David Rieff, that Closing was a morally corrupt book that “decent people would be ashamed of having written.” But listening to Bloom that night in Cambridge, and reading his book closely, you couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of profound sadness. The discussion, he lamented, had become about whether we should discard the classics for having been written by dead, white men, or preserve them as the pillars of a particular culture we revere. To Bloom, there was a third way, and it was much more attentive and instinctive: The great books matter simply because they matter, and we continue to seek them out not in order to reaffirm or reevaluate our own standing in the world—a myopic view based on understanding the progress of mankind as an ongoing power struggle—but because they remain instrumental.

Again, I'm intrigued to see how much his actual writings may contrast with the conventional opinion of them. If I do find them useful and engaging, it will be an embarrassing but valuable reminder that we should never let anyone else do our thinking for us.

A Crude Political Propriety-Meter

Robert Hughes's death earlier this month prompted me to revisit his book Culture of Complaint, recommended to me by my friend Arthur as a criticism of political correctness/obsessiveness from a non-right-wing perspective. Among many good parts, this stood out to me:

These backward habits of judging writers in terms of their presumed ability to improve social consciousness may be tough luck for snobbish Proust and depressive Leopardi, for Henry James the closet case and Montaigne the son of bourgeois privilege. But they are even tougher for the students, who come away with the impression that the correct response to a text is to run a crude political propriety-meter over it and then let fly with a wad of stereotyped moralizing. "Boy, Professor Peach really did a job of unmasking the hierarchical assumptions in Dante last week, all those circles and stuff, you shoulda been there."

Politics ought not be all-pervasive. Indeed, one of the first conditions of freedom is to discover the line beyond which politics may not go, and literature is one of the means by which the young (and the old) find this out. Some works of art have an overt political content; many carry subliminal political messages, embedded in their framework. But it is remarkably naive to suppose that these messages exhaust the content of the art as art, or ultimately determine its value. Why, then, the fashion for judging art in political terms? Probably, people teach it because it is easy to teach. It revives the illusion that works of art carry social meaning the way trucks carry coal. It divides the sprawling republic of literature neatly into goodies and baddies, and relives the student of the burden of imaginative empathy, the difficulties of aesthetic discrimination. It enables these scholars, with their tin ears, schematized minds and tapioca prose, to henpeck dead writers for their lack of conformity to the current fashions in "oppression studies"—and to fool themselves and their equally nostalgic colleagues into thinking that they are all on the barricades.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

All the World Over, So Easy to See; People Everywhere Just Wanna Be Free

Evgeny Morozov:

For many (citizens of modern-day Russia or China), being able to vote is not as valuable as being able to receive education or medical care without having to bribe a dozen greedy officials. Furthermore, citizens of authoritarian states do not necessarily perceive their undemocratically installed governments to be illegitimate, for legitimacy can be derived from things other than elections; jingoist nationalism (China), fear of a foreign invasion (Iran), fast rates of economic development (Russia), low corruption (Belarus), and efficiency of government services (Singapore) have all been successfully co-opted for these purposes.

It's especially amusing in an election year—Americans of all political persuasions are constantly complaining that our political system is irredeemably broken in some way or another, yet it's still widely accepted that it should be exported to everyone else, through persuasion or force.

Heart on Sleeve

R. Jay Magill:

The intriguing thing about our repeated moral letdowns is not that insincerity continues to exist, but that we continue to insist we are outraged by it. In many ways our frustration with insincerity is itself disingenuous—a kind of performance of an upright moral sensibility. Most of us actually do recognize how things get done in the world, for better or worse. Power and money matter. Who you know matters. Public and private do not need to align in political matters. This is called pragmatism, or realism, or realpolitik, or Machiavellianism, or, since Machiavelli, simply politics. WikiLeaks and the Occupy movement may have been arguing against the ways of the world for high-minded moral reasons, but as the intellectual historian Martin Jay recently wrote in his Virtues of Mendacity, the political hypocrisy Americans so passionately decry "may be the best alternative to the violence justified by those who claim to know the truth." Many a Communist dictator, Jay notes, regularly enforced the citizenry's total transparency by spying on and slaughtering or banishing dissenters to Siberia. Like it or not, liberty includes the right to lie; freedom allows for deceit.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Here's to Us! Who's Like Us? Damn Few, and They're All Dead

Mike Vogel:

Earlier this week, a few people on Twitter were freaking about the fact that freshmen entering college this year were born after Kurt Cobain killed himself. And….? Is it supposed to remind us that time has passed and continues to pass? Is it supposed to make anyone who remembers Nirvana’s music feel old?

If I were going into college this year, my thought would be “Who the hell cares?”

I’ve never embraced the term Generation X (even though I enjoyed the novel by the same name and have read most Douglas Coupland books). But I do have many of the symptoms of Gen X: a decades long crush on Winona Ryder, memories of an Atari 2600 addiction, watching Raiders and Empire in a theater, listening to more grunge music than I care to admit, watching Challenger blow up while teachers cried at school. You’ve got a cultural touchstone? I remember that too! We share that! Yay!

I've never found it useful to conceptualize people as an age bracket + significant cultural events. The supposed defining factors of my generation either didn't apply to me (I wasn't a latchkey kid, my parents weren't divorced) or didn't move me profoundly. As far as I could tell from the media narrative, my peers and I were supposed to be bitterly moping over the fact that our parents failed at creating some hippie paradise while finding solace from sociopolitical doom and gloom in the surrealist, nonsensical lyrics of Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. Maybe some people who fit that caricature actually existed, but I never met any of them. At any rate, I'm not at all interested in what I have in common with large groups of people. I'd much rather look for points of departure.

Nagarjuna's Tetralemma

Speaking of the difficulty of capturing experience in words:

If we do this, we might notice that there seem to be only four possible ways to explain (i.e., conceptualize) our objects of consciousness (i.e., our experience). This is so whether our objects are exotic ones, such as photons, or pure mental objects such as the idea of simplicity, or common physical objects such as cups. These four ways form the four horns of Nagarjuna’s tetralemma, which can be simply stated as follows: either (1) objects are themselves, or (2) they are not themselves, or (3) they are both themselves and not themselves, or (4) they are neither themselves nor are they not themselves.

It would seem to common sense that at least the first statement ought to hold true, and thus offer some explanation of experience. But, as we shall see, none of the four options does. None does—yet experience remains.

The exposition of that argument is too long to excerpt, but you can read it here, if you've been feeling an urge to pull the epistemological rug out from under your own feet.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Picture Held Us Captive

Ray Monk:

It was fundamental to Wittgenstein’s thinking – both in his early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and in his later work Philosophical Investigations – that not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words. In the Tractatus, this appears as the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” runs the famed last sentence of the book but, as Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important. (Compare this with the logical positivist Otto Neurath, who, echoing Wittgenstein, declared: “We must indeed be silent – but not about anything.”)

To grasp these important things, we need not to reason verbally, but rather to look more attentively at what lies before us. “Don’t think, look!” Wittgenstein urges in Philosophical Investigations. Philosophical confusion, he maintained, had its roots not in the relatively superficial thinking expressed by words but in that deeper territory studied by Freud, the pictorial thinking that lies in our unconscious and is expressed only involuntarily in, for example, our dreams, our doodles and in our “Freudian slips”. “A picture held us captive,” Wittgenstein says in the Investigations, and it is, he thinks, his job as a philosopher not to argue for or against the truth of this or that proposition but rather to delve deeper and substitute one picture for another. In other words, he conceived it as his task to make us, or at least to enable us, to see things differently.

This reminds me that it has been an unprofitably long time since I availed myself of Ludwig's work. Must remedy that.

This is actually a frustration I feel keenly, constantly; the difficulty of capturing mental pictures in words. Like Susan Sontag said, some conceptual furniture and pictures won't fit through the small doorway of writing. I'm annoyed with the limitations of almost everything I write as soon as I declare it finished (or, rather, when I finally tire of wrestling with it and just release it as is). I see detailed masterpieces in my head, but I feel like I might as well be using a basic box of eight-color Crayolas to actualize them.

Monday, August 27, 2012

More Christian Than Christians

Reading Pharyngula has definitely plummeted into diminishing returns territory, but what the hell, we're here for the moment, let's do this:

Im in that awkward position where i do agree with most of the values and dislike the misogynist idiots but see no value or reason to mix atheism and the other values. For me atheism just is the simple disbelief and my political values stand apart from it.

Now you see, that’s just stupid. There are lots of atheists who take this blinkered stance that atheism is just one specific idea about rejecting god-belief, and it has absolutely no philosophical foundation and should have no political or social consequences. And that’s nonsense. This commenter is deluding himself as thoroughly as any god-walloper.

If there is no god, if religion is a sham, that has significant consequences for how we should structure our society. You could argue over how we should shape our culture — a libertarian atheist would lean much more towards a Darwinian view, for instance, than I would — but to pretend that atheism is just an abstraction floating in the academic ether is silly.

No, you jackass, you idiot, you fatuous blowhard, the point he was making was that political values are not derived from one's stance on the truth or falsity of monotheism. They can be justified or rejected without appeal to religion or the lack thereof. As evidenced by, oh, I don't know, the fact that a strict atheist like Ayn Rand could share common political cause with the party of Christian fundamentalism. Or the fact that many lay members of various denominations would be willing to work with you on all your social justice goals, regardless of how suspiciously you eye each other's ultimate motivation. Or the fact that your old pal Hitchens managed to carry his Trotskyist beliefs across the political spectrum into alliances with widely varied political bedfellows, all while remaining an atheist. The fact of a godless world has inspired everyone from fascists to communists, which makes it pretty much useless as an organizing principle for your intents and purposes.

Because I’m an atheist and share common cause with every other human being on the planet in desiring to live my one life with equal opportunity, I suggest that atheists ought to fight for equality for all, economic security for all, and universally available health and education services. Peace is the only answer; extinguishing a precious human life ought to be unthinkable in all but the most dire situations of self-defense. Ours should be a movement that welcomes all sexes, races, ages, and abilities and encourages an appreciation of human richness. Atheism ought to be a progressive social movement in addition to being a philosophical and scientific position, because living in a godless universe means something to humanity.

If you agree with that, you’re an atheist+. Or a secular humanist. Whatever. You’re someone who cares about the world outside the comforting glow of your computer screen. It really isn’t a movement about exclusion, but about recognizing the impact of the real nature of the universe on human affairs.

And if you don’t agree with any of that — and this is the only ‘divisive’ part — then you’re an asshole. I suggest you form your own label, “Asshole Atheists” and own it, proudly. I promise not to resent it or cry about joining it.

Actually, it's not about agreeing or disagreeing with any of those insipid platitudes propositions. It's about finding them incoherent and hopelessly utopian, ignorant of both history and basic human psychology. Do you honestly think religiously-inspired unreasonableness is the only thing preventing such a world from coming into existence? Better minds than yours have tried and failed to reorganize the world according to ideals of perfect justice and rationality, yet you apparently think tiresome adolescent bravado will carry you the rest of the way there. The sort of equality you envision only exists as a mathematical abstraction, not as the end result of policymaking. Practically speaking, you sound like you're trying to form a Green party minus the pantheism or mystical nature-worship. Philosophically speaking, for all of your blather about the immense significance of a godless universe to humanity, you don't seem to have strayed far from the familiar path blazed by the most extreme Christian idealism.

Faster, Pussy Riot! Run, Run!

Connor Simpson:

The official Twitter account for the Russian punk band Pussy Riot announced that two of their members have left Russia to avoid further persecution from Russian authorities.

Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, were sentenced to two years in jail for their role in the "Punk Prayer" video that sparked the whole controversy. Despite receiving worldwide criticism for persecuting the band members, Russian police announced earlier this week that they were pursuing more band members on more criminal charges.

Goodness! You mean all those heartfelt posts and tweets from longtime fans (some of them having followed the band for as long as a month!) amounted to nothing but ineffectual posturing? Sacrificing limbs for the cause was all for naught? Must be due to that mysterious Russian soul:

Which brings me to the part of the Pussy Riot story that the Western won’t touch: A huge number of Russians, many of them decent Russians, many of them the type we consider “our” Russians — want to get medieval on the Pussy Riot girls, string them up in Red Square, and make it hurt. Like I said, this anger comes not just from the reactionary peasant caricatures or KGB Putin goons or crusty Commies — but from “our” Russians too, educated yuppie-Russians, indie-rock/hipster Russians, student Russians, anti-Putin Russians ...

Hell, even a sizable portion of the hundreds of thousands who protested Putin earlier this year would be found in a lynch mob against the Pussy Riot girls. You thought what those Russians were protesting was the chance to become just like freedom-loving Nebraskans? (Wait, are there freedom-loving Nebraskans?) If you got that impression from the anti-Putin protests, you don’t know Russians very well.

...Part of the hostility to Pussy Riot is that they’ve become a cause-célèbre in the West. Russians have not had a very good historical experience with things the West think Russia should do, going back a few centuries — the memory of America’s support for that drunken buffoon Yeltsin while he let the country and its people sink into misery is still raw — "a painful memory" like John Turturro's character says in "Miller's Crossing," a memory woven tightly into the Russian RNA’s spool of historical grievances. And nothing triggers that reactionary Russian live-wire gene like an earful of Westerners moralizing about any topic, even the most obvious topic, even the topic where it’s 100% clear we’re on the right side for once.

So when they hear us finally paying attention again to Russia because a punk band with an English name using Latin script falls under the Kremlin’s gun, they don’t necessarily see “injustice” the way we do from our far-away vantage point — they see another dastardly plot by the West to humiliate Mother Russia and bring her to her knees.

The Visionaries and Cannibals Problem

John Vidal:

Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world's population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.

Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050, according to research by some of the world's leading water scientists.

"There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations," the report by Malik Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said.

A couple billion extra protein sources wandering around, and they're telling us to eat more grains and vegetables? What conventional, inside-the-box thinking. What a false dichotomy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Luke 11:23

Ahahaha. For once, the comment thread is absolutely the best part.

Morality Play


In our plutocracy corporate-dominated economy we dump our money into black boxes all day, every day without any knowledge of what happens to it down the line. Can you even imagine what the money ends up doing when you buy gas? Coke? Anything from Wal-Mart? A car? Clothing? You're funding everything from gay-bashing to Koch Bros. style Teabagging to environmental degradation here and abroad to ethnic conflicts in underdeveloped countries to child slavery. The CEO of Chik-fil-A is either brave or dumb enough to have told you the specific ways in which he is a loathsome person. But you're not naive enough to think that the others about whom you know nothing (Quick! Name Target's CEO. You can't. His name is Gregg Steinhafel and he hates the gays too) are using your money to plant flowers, feed the poor, and teach blind children how to read.

I question the logic or effectiveness of targeting a specific fast food chain with a loose boycott (which is unlikely to accomplish much) when it is merely a symptom of an entire system that is rotten to the core. Unless you're living the college activist completely-off-the-grid lifestyle you are going to continue to funnel money to awful, awful people. Most of us deal with that through willful ignorance. Can you even imagine what oil companies and their executives are doing with the billions they've made? I don't want to know, and if it's anything less than murdering endangered seals with weapons fashioned from the bones of slightly less endangered seals I would be stunned. I don't say that to guilt anyone into feeling bad about their buying habits; it is only to emphasize that cutting one head off of the hydra isn't going to kill it.

Willful ignorance, exactly. Boycotts over the political outrage du jour are just like so many other self-serving, public performances of moral indignation, though. How many people did you see online last month gnashing their teeth and wailing over the horror of gun violence after the Aurora shooting? How many of those people were so deeply affected by what they proclaimed to be the unforgivable, unacceptable tragedy of it all that they've begun seriously devoting their spare time and money to the cause of gun control? And how many of them eventually shrugged and quietly went back to their normal routine once they realized that the problem wasn't going to be solved by forwarding a few petitions, retweeting some links, and demanding cosmetic responses?

There's nothing wrong with not being a hero. No one is obligated to sacrifice their health, happiness and personal pleasure for a cause. Almost all of us would refuse to seriously inconvenience ourselves for the sake of being the change we wish to see in the world, even if only a fraction of us would ever publicly admit it. But perhaps people should be guilted into recognition of the extent of their complicity, by virtue of their mere existence, in this amoral global economy, if only so as to disabuse them of the notion that personal indulgences can be granted them for their superficial displays of moral sentiment.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tally Whackers

Jody Rosen:

I’m referring to the list’s gender breakdown. If I’m not mistaken, there are just 23 records by women artists in the top 200, and only two in the top 50. And that’s a generous count, making room for co-ed acts like The xx, Beach House, and Portishead. Again, we can look to the self-selecting voting base. According to Pitchfork’s own stats, 88% of the poll respondents were men. “The Dudes’ List” might have been a more accurate title.

Still—what the hell is wrong with these dudes? Did it escape their attention that for much of the past decade and a half, female artists have had a stranglehold on the popular music zeitgeist? Have they never heard of Missy Elliott? Can they really prefer The National to M.I.A.’s Kala, to Bjork’s Homogenic, to Joanna Newsom’s Ys? Where are politics in all of this? If you surveyed the roughly 24,600 men who submitted “People’s List” ballots, I wager you’d find nearly 100 percent espousing progressive views on gender issues. This would not be the case if you took a similar survey of pop, R&B, or country music fans—yet a “People’s List” of top recordings in those genres from 1996-2011 with a similar gender breakdown is unimaginable. The fact is, when it comes to the question of women and, um, art, the Top 40’s great unwashed—and even red state Tea Party partisans—are far more progressive and inclusive than the mountain-man-bearded, Fair Trade espresso-swilling, self-styled lefties of indiedom. Portlandia, we have a problem.

But let's wait a moment before concluding that Pitchfork is just anti-women. After all, it's one of the very few sites out there that gives women more bylines than men. The lack of female artists on this list seems more like a nasty symptom than the underlying illness. The survey format could be the culprit. Crowd-sourced rankings like these always average out the most interesting choices, allowing the most middle-of-the-road selections to rise to the top. (What's up, Interpol.) So, in a way, statistics might be to blame for the blandness of the People's List.

Pitchfork has always been an anal-retentive, numbers-driven machine. Their reviews suggest that there's a significant gulf between an album given a 6.4 and an album given a 6.5. They draft lists compulsively, attaching stone-cold numerical rankings to albums that emerge from very different contexts. And their reviews often read like a baseball player's stat sheet, full of record label catalogue numbers, precise recording dates, gear specs, and other obscure figures that make Pitchfork a closer cousin to Sabermetrics, than, say, Rolling Stone. Talking about music in numerical terms codes Pitchfork's discourse as masculine. That's not to say that women are scared off by numbers, but geeking out over numbers has long been culturally framed as a "male" activity. (Are there female stat geeks? Sure. But not a very large percentage, we'd guess.) And aside from the issue of gender, discussing music through math simply feels bloodless. In the Pitchforkian approach, music isn't something to be enjoyed, it's something to be catalogued. Records aren't a source of pleasure, they're widgets that need to be placed into vertically-descending cubbyholes.

Yes, in the Pitchforkian approach. Can you believe those philistines, reducing art and entertainment to numerical quantification, rather than understanding culture as a battle of White Penises vs. Multihued Vaginas, as all right-thinking people should? The Pitchforkian approach, as opposed to the demographically correct approach of small-minded bureaucratic bean-counters like ourselves, who would squeal with delight if iTunes would allow us to view our library as a color swatch, a pie chart, or a genitalia count so that, in the totally unlikely event that we should ever be tempted to leave some aspects of life unsullied by crude agit-prop, we could quickly be reminded of our priorities. Ooh! Maybe it could even produce a composite sketch based on the racial/sexual makeup of our libraries, so it could sit there in the sidebar and shame us with its gaze!

"Dude, your iTunes composite's looking a little too White Broheim today! Whassup with that?"

"Aww, man, I know, but I just downloaded some John Denver and Kenny G this morning, so that threw it off. Don't worry, I'll add some Voices of Forgotten Worlds later to even it out!"

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Where Rock is Criminal, Criminals Rock

Joshua Foust:

In Russia, Pussy Riot's newfound Western fans are taking a serious issue (Russia's degrading political freedoms and civil liberties) and turning it into a celebration of feminist punk music and art. Feminist punk music and art are great, but they are not the solutions to this particular problem, and pretending that they are takes attention away from more worthwhile efforts. Pussy Riot might have made punk music, but they got themselves imprisoned for an act of political dissent. Their unjust imprisonment doesn't necessarily make anything done in their name -- or, particularly, in the name of their punk music -- a step forward for Russian political rights.

...Pussy Riot are part of a larger movement within Russia to demand political freedom, one that Putin's regime thugs are literally, physically beating back. American celebrities are right to be outraged about Pussy Riot's treatment, but it's a shame that so few seem to have investigated what happens to the activists who aren't Western media darlings for their all-women punk bands with sexually suggestive names. Rather than the Pussy Riot trial catalyzing a broader Western awareness of Russian authoritarian backsliding or even a popular movement to pressure Moscow to loosen its restrictions, it seems to have inspired little more in the West than outrage about how sad it is for some punk rockers to go to jail for a silly little church concert.

Yeah, Pussy Riot's okay, but he's supporting less-mainstream Russian activists now. They're pretty obscure; you probably haven't heard of them.

Not that he's wrong—most of the writing in the blogosphere about this case is useless. The authenticity-envy of so many American smartphone-revolutionaries is embarrassingly palpable in their naked desire to vicariously experience punk rock as something other than a safe career choice. (Personally, I prefer vintage Chris Bowers when it comes to vapid morons who think dabbling in revolutionary politics makes for an impressive CV, if you're into ironically appreciating that sort of thing, but I digress.) But let's not pretend that feminist punks and Free Tibet stickers are distracting serious people from practicing the "awareness" and "attention" that would, uh, somehow cause democratic upheaval in authoritarian states.

Monday, August 20, 2012

There's Only One True Path In Life; the Road That Leads to All Leads to One

Adam Lee:

I've said it before, I'll say it again: If I thought that religion was false but beneficial, or even just a harmless diversion, then I wouldn't object to it as strenuously as I do, and I certainly wouldn't spend as much time writing about it as I do. I argue against religion because I think it's dangerous, because I think it does more harm than good, and because I think that when people give it up, humanity will be better off. As far as I'm concerned, atheism isn't an end in itself but a means to an end, and that end is the creation of a freer, more peaceful, more enlightened world.

I don't mean that religion has only bad consequences. People's religious beliefs can bring them together in community and inspire them to acts of charity; but people's religious beliefs also motivate and promote ignorance, hatred, prejudice, xenophobia, violence, terrorism, and holy war. I'm confident that if we give up religion, we can get rid of these evils without losing anything good. There are perfectly good secular, humanist reasons for forming communities, engaging in charity, and treating each other with compassion and dignity, and I happen to believe that people would do these things whether or not they believed in a god.

First of all, let's point this out: we largely have no idea what would happen if everyone on earth were to "give up religion" in all its guises, from monotheism to animism. Nothing of the sort has ever occurred before, obviously. Breezily claiming that we would all be "better off" is basically a meaningless statement of the "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" variety—grammatically and syntactically correct, but lacking any real-world referent. The ripple effect from such a profound alteration of basic human psychology would be unpredictable, to put it mildly.

And we are talking about psychology here, not rationality. Religion is an outgrowth of humanity's communal impulses, not an imposition from the outside. People didn't decide, as rational agents, to band together and submerge their individuality in the group because they heard one clever person tell a story about a man in the sky who wanted them to do that; that's completely ass-backwards. People naturally form groups. The stories they tell themselves about their groups are what we call myths. These myths can be more or less grandiose, but they all help people make sense of their experience—"sense", as in, symmetry, cohesion. Humans, like any other animal, have no inherent purpose but to exist and reproduce. Seeking truth for its own sake through science and rationality is just one of the supplementary purposes we've come up with, and if that truth is disheartening and disorienting, people aren't being "unreasonable" to reject it in favor of myths. And the idea that humans are destined or obligated to recognize their essential kinship and work together to maximize the reach of a certain set of abstract values is itself a myth. A story that orders experience in a pleasing way so that people like Adam won't suffer a crippling existential crisis.

Ignorance, hatred, prejudice, violence, xenophobia, war—I happen to believe that people would do these things whether or not they believed in a god.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Don't Get Sentimental, It Always Ends Up Drivel

Carl Wilson:

For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin. To say a work of art is sentimental is perforce to damn it. To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phony, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd. It is the art of religious dupes, conservative apologists and corporate stooges. As kitsch, it is likened to fascist or Stalinist propaganda by Milan Kundera, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight MacDonald and of course Theodor Adorno. The German novelist Hermann Broch wrote,"The producer of kitsch does not produce 'bad' art....It is not quite impossible to assess him according to aesthetic criteria; rather he should be judged as an ethically base being, a malefactor who profoundly desires evil." The punk sneer pronounces the same verdict.

"Subversion" today is sentimentality's inverse: It is nearly always a term of approval. To show the subversiveness of a song, TV show, or movie is tantamount to validating it, not just in pop criticism but in academic scholarship. What is subversive? Transgression, satire, idiosyncrasy, radicalism, asserting a minority identity, throwing noise into the signal, upending convention, generally mitigating for change. But as social critic Thomas Frank has long argued, today those are values promoted by advertising, corporate-management gurus and high-tech entrepreneurs. Canadian authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's entertaining polemic The Rebel Sells adds that anticonformist impulses are the octane of consumerism, seeking the cutting edge, the very soul of Bourdieuvian distinction, whether in designer couture, organic cuisine or "uncommodified" culture.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Communication Breakdown

Rawls: I'm a reasonable guy. In fact, everywhere I go, people say to me: "Bill Rawls, you are a reasonable fucking guy." Am I right, Jay?
Landsman: You are reasonable, sir.
Rawls: Yes. Yes, I am.

The point of this list, I hasten to say, is not that the opinions that I have expressed on these topics are necessarily correct, but rather that a good number of people in the CoR, including several leaders of the movement(s), either hold to clearly unreasonable opinions on said topics, or cannot even engage in a discussion about the opinions they do hold, dismissing any dissenting voice as crazy or irrelevant.

As you can see, the above is a heterogeneous list that includes scientific notions, philosophical concepts, and political positions. What do the elements of this list have in common, if anything? A few things, which is where I hope the discussion is going to focus (as opposed to attempting to debunk one’s pet entry, or deny that there is a problem to begin with).

B) The “I’m-smarter-than-thou” syndrome. Let’s admit it, skepticism does have a way to make us feel intellectually superior to others. They are the ones believing in absurd notions like UFOs, ghosts, and the like! We are on the side of science and reason. Except when we aren’t, which ought to at least give us pause and enroll in the nearest hubris-reducing ten-step program.

C) Failure of leadership. It is hard to blame the rank and files of the CoR when they are constantly exposed to such blatant and widespread failure of leadership within their own community. Gone are, it seems, the days of the Carl Sagans, Martin Gardners, and Bertrand Russells, and welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can.

...Do I have any practical suggestions on how to move the CoR forward, other than to pay more attention to what the people just mentioned say, and perhaps a little less attention to what is spouted by some others who shall go unmentioned? At the risk of sounding somewhat immodest, yes, I do. Here are a few to get us started (again, discussion on how to improve the list will be most welcome). Once again, the order is pretty much random:

i) Turn on moderation on all your blogs, this will raise the level of discourse immediately by several orders of magnitude, at the cost of a small inconvenience to you and your readers.

ii) Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians, who are supposed to be offending people. (In other words, we are not all Jon Stewarts or Tim Minchins.)

iii) Apply the principle of charity, giving the best possible interpretation of someone else’s argument before you mercilessly dismantle it. (After which, by all means, feel free to go ahead and mercilessly dismantle it.)

iv) Engage your readers and your opponents in as civil a tone as you can muster. Few people deserve to be put straight into insult mode (Hitler and Pat Robertson come to mind).

ix) Keep in mind that even the very best make mistakes and occasionally endorse notions that turn out to be wrong. How is it possible that you are the only exception to this rule?

This seems to be a recurring theme on several of the blogs I read. What's with all these intelligent, deep-thinking people going for each others' throats lately, needing to be restrained and sedated? I blame the heat. Fucking summer. It's good for nothing, I'm telling you.

I snickered a little at the pains he was taking to be coy about which bloggers he thinks are spouting venom and failing to provide examples of leadership. It reminded me of something I read a while back:

Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?
The Dude: No, you're not wrong.
Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?
The Dude: You're not wrong, Walter. You're just an asshole.
Walter Sobchak: Okay then.

Ahh, no, it wasn't that. Close, but no, it was something else...

So when people, atheists and theists alike, complain that I’m obnoxious, I feel good about it. There’s the fact that most of the people doing the complaining are not the sort I have much respect for, so I take pleasure in pissing them off, but also that I’m fulfilling my responsibilities. I make people aware that where I stand, there stands an atheist, and not some simpering milquetoast making apologies for his temerity in disrespecting religion, but someone who is proud of his beliefs.

Pigliucci complained about the arrogance of some atheists who think all believers are dumb, which is a common complaint, and one you hear from believers as well. But they’re wrong: I don’t think I’m smarter than everyone else.

I just think I’m right.

That’s important. Atheists should have a feeling of unrepentant confidence — we are on the right side of reason, the right side of history, and the right side of the evidence...And anyone who’s bothered by my cockiness should have a little more self-awareness: we all think we’re right, or we wouldn’t be doing what we do. Yeah, the faitheists and believers think I’m a bad guy, for the reasons above (and I’m OK with that). My other sin, though, is that I encourage other atheists to join me, I reinforce my kind of rudeness in a large group of people, and I do that community building stuff. I foster my tribe. We grow stronger and louder and bolder, we are all bad guys together.

...If you aren’t angry, there’s something wrong with you.

Religion is not some mild happy recreational activity; it is a poison of the brain that taints the vast majority of humanity. It is bad shit. I will not support it in any way, and I resent the complacent schmoes who urge us to close our eyes to it. One the one hand, we’ve got the moderate academic types who like to tell us it’s mostly harmless and we’ll never be able to get rid of it, anyway; to them I’d say that, as people who are supposedly dedicated to learning the truth, you ought to be the first to deny religion because a) it’s wrong, and b) it’s a fallacious way of learning about the world. On the other hand, we’ve got the happy progressives who want us all to do interfaith work, and tell us that the fundies might be bad, but we share common cause with liberal Christians; to them I say that a mind addled by liberal opium is just as faulty as one fired up on conservative crack.

Deep sigh, rub hands over face, run fingers through hair. Okay. Being that we write as cultural Christians for the most part here, it's fine to grapple mostly with monotheism. Most of the religion that affects our lives is "of the book". But it's also true that there are a few billion other people in the world who don't experience religion as an inferior version of science, as propositions aiming to become workable theories, as statements of metaphysical facts that you must accept on faith. As some of those in the nascent field of evolutionary religious studies can tell you, for those people, religion is what you do rather than what you think. Telling them that their religion is "wrong" would be like telling someone that art and poetry aren't "true" (of course, we don't know anyone that ridiculously literal-minded, do we?) And even here in the cultural shadow of the cross, plenty of people "do" their religious practice in a way that no reasonable person should find fault with. Religion is just one particularly ancient and widespread way people have of solidifying tight bonds within groups. If religion as we know it disappeared completely, human beings wouldn't suddenly become hyper-rational lone wolves; something else would serve as the anchor for people to band together and exclude outsiders.

I hate a group of people who have a common purpose, because pretty soon they have little hats and arm bands and fight songs and a list of people they’re going to visit at 3 AM. So I dislike and despise groups of people, but I love individuals.

Lately I've been interested in things like the differences in individual versus group psychology, as opposed to the less-interesting ideological distinctions. It's especially interesting to see those differences in the context of a movement which generally prides itself on being above such atavistic irrationality by virtue of its heightened focus on reason. But honestly, if you read comment threads on posts like those above from the vantage point of a bystander with no particular sympathies, you can't help but notice that the participants sound indistinguishable from any other bunch of assholes fighting on the Internet. Cheap shots, non-sequiturs, sarcasm, posturing, and various other rhetorical fleurs du mal sprout up even in what you'd think would be the inhospitable soil of rationality.

As we were just talking about the other day, the nature of our thinking and the tenacity with which we defend our conclusions changes simply by doing so as part of a cohesive group. The Internet, by facilitating instantaneous communication between people separated by the superficial differences of geography and personal idiosyncrasy, makes it easy to believe that one's intake of news and information is more diverse than it really is. The old conversational topics we were taught to avoid in polite company, like religion and politics, are especially prone to gravitate toward balkanization and echo chambers when individuals in a more distant, impersonal medium can easily avoid having any substantial interaction with people who don't fit their customized preferences. And even with the best of intentions, the imprecise nature of language itself, combined with the flawed rhetorical and written talents that most of us have at our disposal, turns any mass communication into the children's game of telephone.

I doubt this would be news to anyone. And yet, there we have PZ in full stride, taking criticism even from allies as confirmation of his righteousness and as encouragement to be even more recalcitrant and hostile; using phrases like "the right side of history" in complete, uh, unscientific earnest like any good Christian or Marxist; proudly bragging about "reinforcing" his rudeness among his "tribe"; and circumventing reasonable consideration by using selective, highly inflammatory examples of religion at its worst in order to make a naked appeal to raw emotion in the form of bumper sticker platitudes about how not being outraged means not paying attention. I guess he believes that he and his tribe have already done all the important thinking that needs doing, or else they can always hit the pause button on the amygdala and rationally sort through their conclusions every now and then to make sure they're all still valid. Sounds likely. So, when the last reactionary has been strangled with the guts of the last priest, I take it that no one will ever need to act like an obnoxious jackass ever again? Why am I not optimistic?

But as I've said many times, being offended is not such a terrible thing, and can even prove useful. Sometimes my feeling offended is actually a case of being embarrassed over being jolted out of my complacency. And in some contexts, such as the slightly-removed environment of the online world, a person can feel offended or attacked without feeling overly defensive, as would be the case if they were being insulted in person in front of their friends, thus allowing them to change their mind rather than entrench themselves even more firmly in a desperate attempt to save face (it's at least possible, if not likely). What I actually find most tiresome about his shtick is the way he's turned his attention to sociopolitical issues with the same ham-fisted subtlety he uses in reminding us that creationism is wrong. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith over age-old arguments about where to draw the line between liberty and equality, over how important it is to have X-amount of racial/sexual diversity at conferences, over exactly what feminism entails now and what the best means of achieving its goals should be, or, indeed, over whether any of this naturally follows directly from atheism as a given, but he acts as if all that's needed to solve such problems is "reason", delivered with the brash certainty of loudmouthed adolescence.

Would You Give a Guy a Foot Massage?

Is John Travolta’s sexuality our business?

I almost did a spit-take when I saw that above the byline of my old friend Mary Elizabeth Williams. Is she actually going to take a strong stance in opposition to the progressive outing mafia, I wondered?

My surge of optimism was short-lived, as the column turned out to fit the usual MEW template: on the one hand, on the other, possibly this, maybe that, views differ, gosh, who can say. Hell, the headlines are probably written by SEO copywriters rather than the columnists anyway, so maybe I can't even give her credit for that.

But since she (or some staff monkey) asked, I'll answer: no. No, the fact that you've paid money to see Travolta play various fictional characters in movies does not buy you access to the details of his private life. The same applies to any celebrity, for that matter. You don't have the right to press-gang him or anyone else you suspect of being closeted, with or without good reason, into service in the It Gets Better navy. I mean, what, he's not important enough as an individual to allow him control over how he presents his own public identity, but he's nonetheless individually valuable to the gay liberation movement because his coming out would mean the world to, uh... some confused, small-town teenager who just happens to be a rabid Welcome Back, Kotter fan? How does that work? Is there a specific quota of out-and-proud celebrities that we're aiming for, at which point the homophobes will realize they're outnumbered and surrender?

It's amusingly ironic, given as how bullying has been such a recent cause célèbre among the same social-media set, but at what point do shitbags like Louis Peltzman achieve self-awareness and realize that they aren't any better, no matter how noble the ostensible cause?

Monday, August 13, 2012

For Here There Is No Place Which Does Not See You/The World Is Too Much With Us

Bethlehem Shoals:

A decade ago, the internet's signature feature was obfuscation. You could invent a new identity; embellish your life to make it that much more interesting; buff out the imperfections; or just hide without feeling like an anti-social creep for it. Message boards, chat rooms, and nascent blogs, all depended on a technology-induced veil, a curtain that shielded online actions. What you saw was what people had selectively chosen as representations of themselves. Sometimes, though, information flowed in the opposite direction. Insider-y knowledge that had previously been the mark of real-life, earned inclusion in a community now could be readily acquired online. The internet was an unstable space; it allowed us the ability to endlessly manipulate who we were and what we knew.

...And that was just it: Instead of the internet working against our real lives in provocative ways, it became an extension of them. The looking glass was now a mirror; instead of reinventing us, the web simply provided more of us to the world, and more ways to take advantage of the world around us. We speak of Yelping and checking in on 4Square as if these were activities, when they are simply the day-to-day cataloguing of our lives—or, even worse, a grimly detached version of modern life in which we aspire to be ourselves. Mediation presents itself as a friendly tool when in fact it creates distance between us and the ordinary.

...Instead of remaking the world, the web is an excuse for more of it at its most mundane. The remarkably lo-fi act of using a smartphone to scan a take-out place's tattered "Like Us!" print-out, hanging in the window, fading, and possibly torn around the corners, could not be more bound up in the material world—and everything that is utterly forgettable about it. For every artful employment of Twitter or Instagram, there are exponentially more folks using these applications, and of course Facebook, to amass digital waste in way the physical world simply does not allow for.

...But the extent to which this stream of endless disclosures of what we're doing, where we're eating, what we're listening to exposes, even revels in, the ordinariness of our lives places us far, far from the days of obsessing over what specific music or movies to list in our social media profiles circa 2002. Instead of self-creation cooked up behind the veil, we’re absolutely laid bare without even realizing it. Even as Tumblr and Pinterest turn curation into a commodity, Facebook and Twitter continue to rule the day. We can’t change who we are. Maybe the best we can hope for now is to keep our exposure limited to what it might have been before all this social media junk got started. Not because we’re so interesting or petrifying, but because the endless drivel of the ordinary is never flattering.

Find Me Another Hell

Tauriq Moosa:

Presumably, PB thinks that life-long prison-sentences are too cruel, since it is a “living tomb”. Capital punishment is not (or shouldn’t be). If we wish to be humane, we ought to simply execute people who do commit such crimes: not for deterrence but in terms of appropriate punishment. This is why execution should be allowed, instead of prison. I’m not sure how right this is, but it is certainly merits thoughtful attention.

I think there is merit to his/her thinking on capital punishment and I'm mostly persuaded by flogging. Furthermore the capital punishment explanation has shaken some of my own foundations for being opposed to the death penalty. I don’t think my arguments are as strong, now, given the overarching context and need for radical revision within our punishment mechanisms. Indeed, it is what PB calls a failure of the imagination that we default to imprisoning: even I, when opposing capital punishment, claim life-long imprisonment is a “better” option. It is precisely what “better” means that I need to start reconsidering.

My ambivalence hasn't really changed since the last time we kicked this topic around. What say you?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Leap of Reason Produces Monsters

Razib Khan:

In my post below in regards to Sam Harris’ recent interactions on the web I reasserted by suspicion of reason. This naturally elicited curiosity, or hostility, from some. I’ve talked about this before, but the illustration to the left gets at my primary issue. When individuals are reasoning alone they often have a high degree of uncertainty as to their conclusions. But when individuals are reasoning together they seem to converge very rapidly and with great confidence upon a particular position. What’s going on here? In the second case it isn’t reason at all, but our natural human predisposition toward group conformity.

...This is not to say that reason and rationality are not without utility. These are humanity’s great cognitive jewels. But great tools can be used to various ends, and true reason and rationality are very difficult. Mathematics for example is undoubtedly true rationality, with crisp and precise inferences being derivable. But most other intellectual structures are not so clearly self-evident as mathematics. Verbal logic and reasoning are riddled with the pitfalls of cognitive bias. Because most people share the same systematic biases it is very difficult for groups of individuals engaging in self-reinforcing masturbatory ‘rationality’ discourses to perhaps step back and wonder about their motivated reasoning.

When people try to “reason” with those they disagree with it is rarely a matter of convincing them that 1 + 1 = 2, rather than 1 + 1 = -2. Rather, their arguments tend to be embedded in a complex chain of propositions, with unspoken assumptions. You, as the reasonable person have axioms which aren’t out on the table, and these axioms may not be shared by the person whom you are trying to convince. Additionally, the chain of propositions may not be quite so clear across the two individuals. The most extreme skepticism of reason comes from those who we might term as “post modernists,” but even though this extremism is folly we do need to keep in mind that skepticism of truth claims are often rooted in the genuine malleability of interpretation. If the heuristics & biases literature does not ring a bell with you, and you do not have Asperger, I strongly suspect you’ve been engaging in motivated reasoning without even reflecting upon it. The main issue I have with Sam Harris (and many self-described rationalists) is that I think they underestimate the herculean task which true rationalism really is. It may not even be possible to construct a mathematics of morality, and we certainly aren’t close. In everyday discourse, even the highest levels, it is passion which has reason on the leash. And I do not even see this as problematic necessarily, for reason is a tool toward particular ends, which passion may define.

Speaking of which, what's the progressive atheist community banging on about today?

Tear it all down.

They’ve built cages for themselves and their children, and have beliefs that harm others. I can see that they’re quivering in fear at the modernists, the liberals, the gays, the atheists, all coming to expose their ‘worldview’ for the rickety tissue of lies and hate that it is, and I say…no mercy. No hesitation. No apologies. Break it apart, and set those people free.

Pointing and laughing is just one step in the process of liberating those Christians trapped in their prison of lies. I can feel pity for them, while I let reality crash into their delusions and send them scurrying. They fear change, but they must change.

Snort. I wonder if he stands around practicing his best hand-in-coat Napoleon pose in preparation for that glorious day.

The contentious issue for me isn't over whether public school curricula should cater to evangelical sensibilities, obviously. It's the blithe way that ordinary opposition to such efforts shades into this kind of pomposity and bombast. Whether I agree with the general impulses or not, I have no patience with the useless, self-congratulatory theatrics, or the malignant snarkomas that riddle the insular discourse among the commentariat. Reassuring yourself that the enemy "must" change in the face of your inexorable laws of social progress, when the whole history of humankind suggests that ignorance is far more resilient and deep-rooted than that, does nothing but inflate your own self-importance, especially when performing for the rest of the in-group. Are you actually trying to write something challenging and enlightening, or are you just playing to the groundlings?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Your Culture Will Adapt to Service Us. Resistance Is Futile.

PJ Rey:

We all know them: the conscientious objectors of the digital age. Social media refusers and rejecters—the folks who take a principled stance against joining particular social media sites and the folks who, with a triumphant air, announce that they have abandoned social media and deactivated their accounts. Given the increasing ubiquity social media and mobile communications technologies, voluntary social media non-users are made increasingly apparent (though, of course, not all non-users are voluntarily disconnected—surely some non-use comes from a lack of skill or resources).

The question of why certain people (let’s call them “Turkle-ites”) are so adverse to new forms of technologically-mediated communication—what Zeynep Tufekci termed “cyberasociality”—still hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by researchers. This is important because abstaining from social media has significant social costs, including not being invited to or being to access to events, loss of cultural capital gained by performing in high-visibility environments, and a sense of feeling disconnected from peers because one is not experiencing the world in the same way. Here, however, what I want to address here isn’t so much what motivates certain people to avoid smartphones, social media, and other new forms of communication; rather, I want to consider the more fundamental question of whether it is actually possible to live separate from these technologies any longer. Is it really possible to opt out of social media? I conclude that social media is a non-optional system that shapes and is shaped by non-users.

Technically, Social media is optional. No laws or formal rules require that we participate. As seen in the example above, however, there is a strong social cost to abstention. As an integral aspect of everyday life, social media is increasingly difficult to opt out of. P.J. Rey points this out in his recent discussion of Facebook exploitation. Here, I want to explore why and how this is the case.

Contemporary social interaction takes place in both physical and digital spaces. The social media abstainer therefore necessarily “misses out” on some of this interaction. From the example above, we see that abstainers miss more than just the latest gossip. Indeed, they seem to “miss out” on full social integration. This latter kind of missing out threatens a deeply ingrained human need for sociality, making the costs of social media abstention quite steep. To abstain from social media is to largely and (sometimes) voluntarily dis-integrate the self from the social collective.

You know, there are still substantial numbers of people who manage to find life worth living without a strong social media presence; it's just that tech-savvy media junkies tend to only recognize the existence of other tech-savvy media junkies. The rest of us are essentially flyover country on two legs as far as they're concerned. Still, I've been dreading the day when they look up from their toy phones long enough to wonder about us. It won't be long before amazed curiosity turns into something more sinis—oh, yeah? That was fast.

It’s not just love seekers who worry about what the lack of a Facebook account means. Anecdotally, I’ve heard both job seekers and employers wonder aloud about what it means if a job candidate doesn’t have a Facebook account. Does it mean they deactivated it because it was full of red flags? Are they hiding something?

The idea that a Facebook resister is a potential mass murderer, flaky employee, and/or person who struggles with fidelity is obviously flawed. There are people who choose not to be Facebookers for myriad non-psychopathic reasons: because they find it too addictive, or because they hold their privacy dear, or because they don’t actually want to know what their old high school buddies are up to. My own boyfriend isn’t on Facebook and I don’t hold it against him (too much).

But it does seem that increasingly, it’s expected that everyone is on Facebook in some capacity, and that a negative assumption is starting to arise about those who reject the Big Blue Giant’s siren call. Continuing to navigate life without having this digital form of identification may be like trying to get into a bar without a driver’s license.

I'm so old, I remember when the Internet was the escapist alternative to the herd mentality of small-town busybodies. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

I am a Berliner

Well, this is interesting. I just finished reading Michael Ignatieff's biography of Isaiah Berlin the other day. I just quoted from it yesterday. And here he is being interviewed about it:

IL: Yes, they are. But back to Berlin. You say that he was highly sceptical about the Aristotelian idea that people are "political animals". Is it possible nowadays not to be a political animal? How possible is it to stay out of it all?

MI: One of the freedoms that Isaiah valued, which is not very popular, was the freedom not to be a political animal. The luxury of a truly free society is that political involvement is a choice, not an obligation.

IL: That may be true regarding active political involvement, but there is also the argument that you may not be interested in politics...

MI: ...but that politics may take an interest in you. Oh, sure, sure. And he understood that. He understood that the freedom to be disengaged was possible only in societies like the British one in which he lived in for most of his life. Whereas there are other societies where politics taps you on the shoulder or knocks on your door and can carry you away. In that case, involvement becomes compulsory, in the sense that it's a matter of your survival and your dignity. He understood that. But a good society, I think, is a society where politics leaves you alone and where you choose to get involved or not. I think he was right to say that there are a lot of things that shouldn't be politicized. Healthy societies are societies that don't politicize everything. You choose the best judge, not the politically well-placed judge; you choose the best director of the orchestra, not the one with the best political friends; you choose the best editor for a magazine, not the one who has political connections. If everything is politicized, then everything becomes a zero sum game between those who are in and those who are out. Smart societies just don't do that because it means you don't get the best people.

That reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the book:

A second conflict of values—between privacy and participation—ensued. Against the weight of the whole republican tradition, which had always made political participation and citizenship the redeeming arena of human life, Berlin tacitly defended political quietism, or at least the liberty of those who wanted to keep out of politics. He was highly sceptical, therefore, about the idea held since Aristotle that men were 'political animals'. The desire to participate was simply the desire to be recognised by one's own group, and the desire to belong. There was no reason to suppose that participation, the exercise of citizenship, improved human character. Politics was an inescapable element of human affairs, he argued, simply because human goals were in conflict. Politics was not an emancipatory activity, merely a necessary one.