Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How many fallacies can one shirt hold?

Let me count the ones I see.

1. Obey the law, and you have nothing to fear.
2. Break the law, and you deserve to be tortured to death.
3. Rules #1 and #2 are applied equally to all Americans.
4. Police never break the law themselves.
5. When they do, they are never protected in ways civilians wouldn't be.

Oh wait, I get it...this shirt is for police officers!

Breathe easy, cops-- and hey, don't break the law. But if you do, and murder one civilian after another in horribly gruesome ways, breathe won't suffer the fate they did.

Especially if they're black.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

When doxing is okay

Doxing (from dox, abbreviation of documents), alternatively spelled doxxing, is the Internet-based practice of researching and broadcasting personally identifiable information about an individual. -- Wikipedia
In some cases, this "research" involves simply looking at the email address from which a message came, and including it rather than expunging it when you publish ("broadcast") the content of that email. Many bloggers have a stated policy of doing this-- if you email them, you accept that the content of your message and the email address might be made public on their blog.

Alanah Pearce, an Australian video gamer reviewer (via video blog), recently gained international attention by tracking down and contacting the mothers of the frequently underage boys who were sending her rape and death threats via email, Facebook messages, Twitter, etc.

I'm okay with these things.

I think what Pearce is doing is awesome, actually. Frequently when I see someone saying horrible things on the internet, I wish there was a way to find out if their loved ones could see it. Whether they know that their family member is, in their spare time, using that time to harass people, espouse bigotry, and in general be a despicable human being. I feel simultaneously a sympathetic horror for what this woman is going through, and a desire that couples generally would hang out in the same sorts of internet spaces as their spouses, and parents as their children.

But I would never try to enforce such a thing, because sometimes privacy and anonymity are very important and must not be violated. If you've been following Gamergate, you know that quite well. You might know that Felicia Day's personal information was published on the internet shortly after she wrote an essay expressing concern about that exact thing. You might know that Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian have both fled their homes after internet harassers published their home addresses and expressed an interest in paying a visit.

Some people refrain from even sharing their names online, because they are whistleblowers or fear other kinds of recrimination from their employers, because they are trans or gay but not openly so, because they are atheists but not only so.....there are all kinds of reasons why a person might not be doing anything wrong, but not want every aspect of his or her identity made known.

That's why doxing such individuals is wrong.

Rebecca Watson, noted skeptic and feminist who has been experiencing harassment and threats online for years because of these things, published an essay on Friday entitled Why I'm Okay with Doxing. That's not the type of doxing she was talking about.

The type of doxing she was talking about is the kind I mentioned earlier-- publishing the name and/or email address of people who made this information available themselves in the process of insulting, harassing, and threatening others.

The distinction seems quite clear to me, but perhaps that's because I actually read her essay. Several other people seem to have not made it past the headline.

Ken White of Popehat had an amusing exchange on Twitter with such a detractor, also on Friday, which I summed up thusly:
Accuse someone of breaking the law. When questioned, scramble frantically to find the law you accuse someone of breaking, which you didn't know existed when you made the original accusation. When questioned further, admit that it's not against the law. When asked for a moral basis for condemnation, scramble frantically to find one of *those*. Fail completely. Take ball. Go home.
The detractor charmingly and repeatedly referred to Rebecca as a cunt, which prompted the following tweet from Ken:

Which really addresses the crux of the issue.

Rebecca is talking about publishing the names and/or email addresses of people who are sending insulting and threatening material to her. Threatening people, whether over the phone, via email, in blog comments, via Twitter, etc., is not only immoral but also illegal. In spite of this illegality, going to the police about these threats is frequently a worthless and even counter-productive pursuit, which means that publishing the information of these people is, effectively, the only thing she can do.

Let me repeat: making the identities of people who harass and threaten her public, in the hopes that the public will become more aware of these threats and people making them, is really the best tactic at the disposal of people like Rebecca Watson. It is, arguably, the only tactic at their disposal.

I wouldn't have thought that "disclose your identity to someone in the process of threatening them, and you cannot morally or legally expect them to keep this information private" was such a hard line to take. It seems stupidly obvious to me. But apparently it isn't, and that's why I'm writing this post.

Doxing is sometimes okay. Such as when someone is harassing you, actively reaching out and sending messages to and about you which are libeling and/or threatening you, and you respond to them by publishing their name and/or email address, contacting their family (especially if they're underage), etc.

Doxing is sometimes not okay. Such as tracking down personal information of someone who is not harassing you and publishing it in detail, including contact information such as a home address which give the impression that you either intend or wish to encourage others to take physical action against this person.

Context, for chrissakes.

Friday, December 12, 2014

How to be more attractive to John Smith

A man who is sexist against women is also sexist against men, because he assumes, falsely, that all or most men are likewise sexist against women.

Is this a rule? I feel like this should be a rule. At least, I have not yet seen a counter-example.

This essay on Thought Catalog, non-encouragingly titled 13 Things a Woman Can Do to be More Attractive to Men, certainly isn't one. In fact, it should probably also be a rule that every such list should drop the "n" from "Men" and change it to "Me."

It's not worth bothering to take apart in its entirety, but I just want to examine one item to illustrate the sexist projection of the author, the not-at-all-pseudonymously-named-I'm-sure John Smith.
13. Stop Hoarding Guy Friends 
9 out of 10 of your guy friends just want to sleep with you anyway. Men know how other men think. The first guy that comes to comfort you after a big fight will also be the first one to say “he’s not good enough for you” in order to sabotage the relationship, and then he’ll be the first one to try to get into your pants after he convinces you that your man is a creep. It’s not about having trust issues. It’s about knowing how people act. Trust is earned, not immediately granted.
He says that 9 out of 10 guy friends just want to sleep with you, which would mean that they're not actually friends at all -- just one-night-stands-in-waiting.

Which tells you two things:
  1. John Smith is extremely unlikely to be an actual friend to a woman, but is simply a one-night-stand-in-waiting himself, and 
  2. John Smith assumes that every other heterosexual man on the planet is like him in this regard (statistically speaking, the 1/10 male friend could be gay). 
Now, sure, plenty of male friends of women want to sleep with them. But wanting to sleep someone doesn't disqualify most people from being able to be that person's friend in addition to the sexual interest. Women do it all the time, gay men do it all the time, and I'm sure straight men do it all the time as well. John Smith, apparently, does not.

John Smith is probably also insanely jealous (like hell it's "not a trust issue"), because of the aforementioned projection of his own "sex-only" motivation onto every other guy on the planet.

It's really interesting how the same people who are most likely to apply rigid generalizations to entire other groups of people are so often just as willing to apply those same generalizations to their own group. Generalizations applied rigidly are called prejudices, and ingrained prejudices are called bigotry. John Smith's bigotry against women, ironically, makes him bigoted against men as well.

Though he assuredly doesn't see it that way-- he thinks his belief that other guys see women in exactly the same way he does is just the Truth. His entire list would be more appropriately called 13 Things A Woman Can Do To Be More Attractive To John Smith. But then nobody would read it, because nobody gives a shit about what would make them more attractive to John Smith. And he probably knows that.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

So many questions about what Jim Garlow knows

From Right Wing Watch:
Earlier this week, Jim Garlow called in to the "Point Of View" radio program to discuss his participation in the Vatican's recent summit on marriage. During the course of the conversation, Garlow offered up a rather interesting argument against the acceptance of gay marriage. 
"All the people who advocate for so-called same-sex marriage ought to have to live in homes in which the plumbers who built them, or the electricians who built them, didn't understand the difference between the male and female end of piping or plumbing or of electrical as well," he said, "and see how that home works out for them." 
"It doesn't work," he concluded.
Does Jim Garlow know...
  • that plumbing and electrical outlets aren't literally gendered?
  • that while people didn't invent water or electricity, we invented the means of conveying them-- and named those means? In other words, that people precede plumbing rather than being modeled after it?
  • that people are, themselves, neither plumping nor electricity?
  • that it will always sound utterly creepy for homophobes to talk so obsessively about genitalia?
  • that countless same-sex couples have managed to make it "work" quite well, all over the world and throughout time, in our species as well as others?
  • that "Make it work" is in fact the catchphrase of a famous gay man with his own considerably larger and more fabulous congregation?
  • that if corresponding connectors and fasteners had been instead named "America" and "Gay Marriage," it would be an equally valid analogy?
  • that he has the moral reasoning skills and existential aptitude of a five year old child?
Actually on that last point I should be asking-- does this pastor's congregation know? And if they do they care?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Letter to the editor

Justice system ignored facts  
I don’t know whether to feel saddened or enraged from reading about the man choked to death on a New York City street. The sources indicate this type of restraint by law enforcement officers was banned 20 years ago, yet a Staten Island grand jury saw no problem with the outcome of the officer’s action (Dec. 4 Eagle).  
Quite a few years ago, I was hired to be the summer school librarian at an alternative high school in Wichita. An African-American student came in frequently to finish up his homework, so we began to share stories. One day he revealed that the glasses he wore were just plain glass. He said he wore them so he would look less threatening. On more than one occasion when he entered an elevator, a woman would get off rather than share the space with him. He hoped the glasses would render him less aggressive-looking.  
I have never forgotten his story. Evidently, after all these years, we haven’t made much progress in seeing past a person’s color. 
I see myself as a problem solver, but I cannot come up with a solution to the problem of a justice system that can ignore facts with such a degree of capriciousness. 
Suzanne Koch is my mom. Did I mention that my mom is amazing?

Dawkins leads charge, is startled by army

We Hunted the Mammoth is a good site to read if you don't know what the men's rights movement is. If you've ever heard the acronym "MRA" and not understood what it means, that's where I'd suggest you go (hint: the "A" stands for "activist").

So I guess it's only fitting that Dave Futrelle, author of WHtM, be the one to chronicle the fact that Richard Dawkins has never heard of the men's rights movement. And that Paul Elam, founder of MRA web site A Voice for Men and commonly recognized unofficial leader of the men's rights movement, was shocked to hear this.

Frankly I'm a little shocked, myself. See, it's not really that unusual to not know about the men's rights movement, or especially about Paul Elam, if you're the average person. But Richard Dawkins is very far from the average person in this regard. He has a dog in this fight, you see, and it's a little jarring to realize that he doesn't seem to know which dog is his.

Not only is Dawkins a self-proclaimed feminist who issues proclamations about what "true feminism" is, but he's a self-proclaimed feminist who has angered feminists again and again by making comments which are tone-deaf at best, and unquestionably anti-feminist at worst, on Twitter and in other places. He's a self-proclaimed feminist who is apparently a big fan of another self-proclaimed feminist who seems to specialize in anti-feminism these days, Christina Hoff Sommers.

Now, it seems to me that the difference between anti-feminism and MRA is a very small one, indeed. It’s as if Dawkins found himself a hole in the side of a mountain and moved into it, making friends with the bats and the blind fish and what-not, only to emerge one day and be utterly astonished when somebody asks “So Richard, what’s it like to live in a cave?”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I'm not angry about Matt Taylor's shirt

Nope, I'm not.

Matt Taylor apologized-- apparently sincerely. Nobody I actually know is angry at him now, if they were before.

 I'm angry at the horde of people who are:
  • Shrieking on Twitter and any other social media site that he shouldn't have apologized, because he did nothing wrong and they need him to be leader of their Fuck the Feminists Who Hate Sex and Freedom parade
  • Demanding that Rose Eveleth be fired for criticizing Taylor's sartorial choices
  • Apparently totally unaware that sexual imagery in the workplace constitutes evidence-- not conclusive, case-making evidence, but evidence-- of a hostile workplace in sexual harrassment cases
  • Drawing a sharp line between people who care about scientific achievements and people who care about not sending the message that the only thing that matters about women is how they look naked, and pretending that these are two separate and mutually exclusive groups. To the contrary, most of the complaining I've seen about Taylor's shirt is that it that it marred what otherwise should've been a celebratory occasion for everyone.
  • In general, reacting, whenever feminists speak up about anything whatsoever to say "Hey, that's not cool," as if they actually said "BAN THIS IMMEDIATELY AND SEND ALL RELATED PARTIES TO THE GULAG WITH THE POWER WE OBVIOUSLY WIELD BECAUSE WE RUN THE COUNTRY OR SOMETHING"
That's what I'm angry about.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Overwatch girls

Note: Follow-up posts here, here, and here.


Yesterday at BlizzCon, Blizzard Entertainment's annual conference in Anaheim, Blizzard unveiled a new game.

Yeah, I know, so what? New games are announced all the time. Heck, Blizzard announces new games all the time. So what was it this time-- a new expansion for World of Warcraft? Starcraft 2? Diablo? Maybe something new for Hearthstone (a TCG offshoot of WoW in app form) or Heroes of the Storm (a multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA game, still technically in technical alpha, based on all of the previous)?


Well, okay, yes-- new developments for many of these things were announced. But also a new game, as in an actual new franchise, and it is called Overwatch. Overwatch, to sum it up in one sentence, is a 6 vs. 6 team-based FPS (first person shooter) which takes place in various settings on a futuristic Earth, is cartoonishly-styled, and the playable characters are all....well, superheroes, basically. They're heroes with super abilities and traits, which I'd categorize as much more sci fi than fantasy (as in, mutations and rocket launchers, not dragons and magic).

In terms of character design, this opens up some huge possibilities. This is an entirely new game world which means that anything is possible, and it’s a futuristic world in which the playable characters (at least, the ones revealed so far) are—mostly—human. And a couple of robots. And one bespectacled gorilla, who is already a big favorite.

During the Q&A period following the reveal of Overwatch, the sole female audience member who addressed Jeff Kaplan (game designer for Overwatch) and Chris Metzen (senior vice president at Blizzard) asked about representation in character design. First, she complimented Overwatch’s diversity in terms of color, nationality, and body type of the characters introduced thus far. Then she wanted to know if skins would be available for the various characters to swap their genders around—that is, she wanted to know if it might be possible to play a male version of a character originally presented as female, or vice versa. Kaplan’s reply to this was (to paraphrase): “That’s not something we planned for—it sounds awesome, but we have no plans to do it” which means, effectively, “That’s never going to happen.”

Which is unfortunate, because the available characters for Overwatch aren’t actually very diverse, despite this being a sorta kinda stated goal. Kotaku, PC Gamer, Polygon, and probably other sites have articles up today describing a press conference for Overwatch which took place at BlizzCon, in which Metzen made comments to that effect:
"We've heard our female employees," he said. "And my daughter tools me out about it. She saw a World of Warcraft cinematic of the Dragon Aspects, and my daughter was like, 'Why are they all in swimsuits?' And I was like, 'I don't know. I don't know anymore.'" "I think we're clear we're in an age where gaming is for everybody. We build games for everybody. We want everybody to come and play. Increasingly people want to feel represented from all walks of life, everywhere in the world. Boys and girls—everybody. We feel indebted to do our best to honor that." 
He then elaborated regarding the new game:
"Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we've been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don't know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it's something we're very sensitive to. We want that to be part of who we are, what our brand is. I think [Blizzard president] Mike [Morhaime] talked in a roundabout way to that in his speech [at the start of BlizzCon]. It's something we're very cognizant of. We want girls to feel kick-butt. Equally represented." 
At BlizzCon, Blizzard revealed twelve characters for Overwatch, all of whom have character profiles at the game’s web site. You can see them all here in as much detail as you like, but I'm just including some images here so we know who we're talking about.

The dudes:

Now, you're thinking-- wait a minute, that's only five. I thought she said twelve total.

I left out one genetically modified gorilla (Winston, male) and one robot (Bastion, no gender). Zenyatta is also technically a robot, but I included him with the male characters because a) he's wearing clothes, male clothes, and b) he was referred to as a "he" during the Overwatch panels at BlizzCon.

Reaper and Reinhardt, first and second from the left of the dudes, are presumably human. Reaper (age: unknown) has a tiny bit of visible Caucasian skin on his arms, and Reinhardt's description on the Overwatch web site lists him as being 61 years old and previously a "highly decorated German soldier." Presumably that armored suit of his which makes him a hulking behemoth compared to everyone else is not just a suit of armor but also some sort of mech contraption-- that would also explain why each of his hands are roughly three times the size of his head.

Torbjorn, the munitions expert whom you'd swear was a dwarf if this had been World of Warcraft, is 57 years old, making him and Reinhardt the only currently known characters on Overwatch who are eligible for AARP benefits. Hanzo is a comparatively youthful 38, and Zenyatta is listed as a seemingly-meaningless-because-he's-a-robot 20 years old.

The chicks:

From left to right: Mercy (34), Pharah (32), Symmetra (28), Tracer (26), and Widowmaker (33).

That's right; the oldest of the female characters has not reached her thirty-fifth birthday.

Other things to note:
  • The only women not wearing high heels are Tracer (futuristic sneakers) and Phara (armored boots, to match her armored everything else).
  • Tracer and Pharah are also the only ones not wearing boob-shaped armor. Tracer has on a bomber jacket which was apparently molded to her exact cup size, and Pharah has...well, regular armor that happens to be electric blue. 
  • The faces of all female characters are visible, though Pharah has a helmet that she's just not wearing in this picture.
  • The racial diversity of the characters has apparently been left to the women-- Pharah is Egyptian and Symmetra Indian. None of the characters revealed yet are (known to be) black or east Asian.

Has Escher Girls seen this? 
And no, "blue" for Widowmaker doesn't count as a race, especially considering the way she acquired her color, which is-- I'm not making this up; it's on the web site-- because "her physiology was altered, drastically slowing her heart, which turned her skin cold and blue and numbed her ability to experience human emotion."

I can think of a couple of changes to one's physiology which would accomplish those things,
hypothermia and death from hypothermia, but neither of those works very well toward the end of making someone a sociopath assassin, as it did for Widowmaker. Presumably having cold blue skin makes clothing unnecessary as well, so she's wearing very little of it, and it also apparently renders possession of a normal human spine completely optional.

A commenter named StingRay02 on Polygon’s story created the following image of the silhouettes of all twelve characters:
Sexual dimorphism wasn't the goal; it was the starting line
Pictured: "Cowboy Man," "Katana Man,"
and "Tattooed Enormous Belly Man"
The slight, very similar-looking frames on the right are all of the female characters. The highly varied and significantly chunkier figures on the left are the males (with the two on the extreme left being robots Zenyatta and Bastion).

So the take-away here is that if you're a female character you must be young, thin, conventionally
attractive, and dressed to accentuate your figure (unless you're Pharah), but if you're a male character none of these things must apply. In the poster for Overwatch currently for sale on the Blizzard store, there are three additional "mystery" characters which haven't been introduced. All three are male, all are relatively large, and two are completely covered in armor while a third standing behind them is less so-- and also apparently hugely fat.

In the comments from the Polygon article I saw the following exchange:
I call shenanigans anytime a character has high heels in a combat setting. That is pandering to the male gaze, not crafting a cool character. Window maker is the worst with her broken spine, but Mercy and Symmetra are also doing that popped hip pose every time I see them. Tracer isn’t so bad, still tight clothes, but that is not inherently a bad thing, but more combat sensible poses, practical footwear….she and Pharah look more practical and combat ready.
They may be taking steps…but they are also still indulging in a little creative sexism.

"I call shenanigans anytime a character has high heels in a combat setting."
I think that’s a design choice to distinguish it’s a woman more than anything. I don’t look at heels and get a boner. I look at heels and think of them as something a woman would wear instead of a man.
My two cents.

I can see your point, but high heels are specifically made to accentuate leg muscles. I think if you want me to take your female characters seriously from a design standpoint, you need to leave the thighhigh boots, heels, and weird boob-exposing outfits on the cutting room floor. Any time I see a female "knight" wearing a breast plate that basically accentuates boobs instead of looking like actual protection, I die a little inside.
I mean, you can design your female characters however you want. I just reserve the right to think they’re stupid when you’ve got your female fighters trying to do shit in heels.

There’s an ape running around in a mech suite. I don’t think anything in this game is meant to be taken seriously.

No, it doesn’t need to be realistic, but I also appreciate when design choices are made that don’t pander to the male gaze. Pharah isn’t realistic at all, but by god she looks like she is ready for battle, doesn’t she? That’s what I want. Sell me that this person is geared for a fight. Not a real fight in the real world, but a fight all the same.

Fair enough. I personally don’t give two shits either way. Difference in opinion.
In case it needs to be pointed out, the "ape in the mech suit" is not sexualized. T_K85 has missed the point rather spectacularly, but pictor and Mr_McGrumpypants managed to nail it. Perhaps because they do give two shits (or maybe even more) about having options for playable female characters in a game which aren't limited to a very conscribed range of variations on a fashion model holding a massive gun.

To return to that Chris Metzen quote: "Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we've been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don't know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it's something we're very sensitive to." I wonder which "we" he's talking about there, and whether it includes himself. Presumably not, because how could you be "very sensitive" to not oversexualizing female characters, but then a) do it anyway, and also b) not know whether you oversexualize male characters?

Let me just answer that question: No, Blizzard does not oversexualize its male characters. It barely, if ever, sexualizes them at all. To sexualize a character is to make it look as if it is one of that character's primary goals to be sexually attractive. I can't think of a single male character in any Blizzard game who fits that description. It's hard to think of a female character who doesn't fit it. Okay, yes, Pharah (who originally, according to either Kaplan or Metzen-- I don't recall which-- was a male character called "Rocket Dude").

Why does any of this matter? Why am I harping on this so much?

Well, for the same reason that Metzen gave-- representation is important. It might not be "serious," but important and serious are not the same thing. If you want "girls" to feel "kick-butt," then it's important. If you want to honestly say that this new game reflects diversity for both men and women. then it's important. And as I stressed at the beginning of this post, the reason it's important when it comes to this game, Overwatch, is because Overwatch is a brand new enterprise.

Literally anything is possible-- there's no style precedent which has to be matched, the game is still very much in the design phase, and the game is set in a futuristic version of Earth which I don't think it's crazy to imagine would be more progressive than the one in which we live, right now. So why not design it to be? Why not assume that the characters which inhabit it would be more progressive, especially considering they're, you know, superheroes?

Well, some of them are-- some of them have apparently turned to the dark side and become mercenaries. Maybe they could be the backwards ones who think that men can do awesome things whether they're thin, fat, nerdy, thuggish, young or old, but women can only be pretty. And the heroes could reject that nonsense.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The cure for cancer

I love this because it illustrates some really bizarre assumptions and why they're bizarre.

Like the all-too-common-among-pro-lifers assumption that an unborn fetus represents absolutely limitless possibility. Unborn fetuses are positively magical that way-- they could cure cancer, end world hunger, invent a perpetual motion machine, anything! They could save the world in a thousand different ways! Instead of, you know, fates that could be considered more likely for unwanted children, which aren't nearly so sparkling and brimming with promise.

Whereas the actual already-existing person in this equation, the woman, is granted no potential at all. Presumably because of the fact that she's pregnant, which means that she's a woman (yes, obviously) but also the assumption is that she screwed up somehow (this is even granted in the quote, but it ain't necessarily so-- most abortions aren't given to teenagers who screwed up) and must therefore be a loser, slut, etc. who would amount to nothing whether she got pregnant or not.

Women? They don't cure cancer. Especially not the ones dumb enough to have unplanned pregnancies, amiright? Ha ha...ha.....ha.....urgh.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

#Inktober 2014

I got a late start-- not for any good reason, but because it just completely slipped my mind until October 3rd that it was Inktober-- but I'm participating. I'm posting drawings here, as well as on Twitter and Facebook.

As with last year, the quality varies. I'm trying to do something unfamiliar each time, and sometimes it just doesn't turn out well. But hey, that's the point, right? To practice. And to show the world what your practicing looks like, failures and successes alike.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Rat Queen Dee

Dee in conversation with her mother
I'm in the market for new comics-- but let's note that to me, all comics are basically new. I have read and loved Maus 1 and 2 by Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore's Top 10 series, but that's pretty much it. In thinking about what to start reading I came across some review or another for Rat Queens, maybe this one on The Mary Sue. It sounded like what I was looking for-- a good story, amazing art, plenty of humor, and female main characters.

Then I read that one of the characters is an atheist cleric, and I was sold.

An atheist cleric? Yep. Dee is the daughter of two adherents of the blood-drinking squid god N'rygoth. She rejected the faith of her parents and set out on her own to join an all-female band of adventurers called the Rat Queens (all of whom seem to be rejects of some form or another), in which she functions as a magic-user, primarily a healer, apparently drawing on divine magic even though she doesn't believe in any gods. When Betty, the smidgen (think halfling) thief asks how this is possible, Dee explains "I'm goddess enough." No, I don't know exactly what that means either.

That's in the first volume of Rat Queens, which is the only one currently-- the next one should be out in December. And let me stress that the entire thing so far is awesome. Everybody has a backstory, and of course the first volume contains a lot of exposition about those stories. Dee is but one member of a group of talented, badass, sarcastic women of various races who exist in a D&D style fantasy world and spend a good amount of their time making fun of it. But there are some very serious moments too, and they are sharpened by the levity with which they're contrasted.

The story is by Kurtis J. Wiebe and art by Roc Upchurch. They've done an amazing job, and I want everyone to see it. Definitely recommended.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Arguing: the low-hanging fruit

So I've talked in the last few posts about making good arguments by addressing the substance of your
opponent's position rather than attacking irrelevancies. I described the practice of strawmanning, which is constructing an inferior version of the argument you're trying to demolish because it's easier, and how that shouldn't be mistaken for actually defeating the position you oppose.

But what about when you're addressing a whole group of people who share a belief, and you deliberately choose to address only those who are saying the worst things, making the worst arguments, if they're bothering to make arguments at all? That is, what if you only pay attention to the low-hanging fruit? Is that also a kind of strawmanning?

Well, yes and no. It could be, but not necessarily.

Because here's the thing-- life is not philosophy. Philosophy is what humans do when they get time to stop and think without anyone trying to kill them or ruin their reputation, when there's food on the table and a bed to sleep in and there are no pressing issues at hand like legislators trying to pass laws that make it illegal to do things like philosophy. Steelmanning, for that matter, is something philosophers do when those philosophers are feeling particularly chill. An angry philosopher cannot be counted upon to steelman. Even though they should.

In real life, people are constantly making terrible arguments for terrible things, and horrifyingly, many of those people are influential (I would say "They're called 'politicians,' but politicians are merely the most visible of this sort). When that happens, it's important to point out those terrible arguments and say "Look at this stupid, hateful thing this person is saying," to minimize the potential ideological damage they can cause.

That's what a lot of bloggers do, and I respect them like crazy for doing it, because it's a tiring, endless, and often thankless task. My friend Ed Brayton has been pillorying terrible arguments on religion, science, and politics on his blog since 2003, or maybe longer. And he's never going to run out of material, because there will never not be people making these arguments. Often the same ones, for years upon years, sometimes re-skinned in order to continue arguing badly for a slightly different position. That's fighting the good fight. I don't believe in a Lord, but if I did, that would be the Lord's work. You know the quote usually attributed to Mark Twain, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"? We will always need people who help the truth put on its shoes.

There is something incumbent upon these pickers of low-hanging fruit to do, however. If you're going to do the-- again, very necessary-- task of addressing the worst arguments out there for the sake of diminishing their power, you must be careful to not pretend that these are the only sort of arguments that people who hold that position, people in that same ideological group, are capable of making. Unless, of course, they are.

What I'm saying is that you should not effectively straw-man people who hold position X as a group by deliberately choosing to destroy only the arguments of people who agree with position X but are crap at supporting it, and then acting as if you have defeated position X itself by doing so. You have not proven, for example, that man-made climate change is a lie by laughing at people who think that every time you drive somewhere, a polar bear starves to death. These people are wrong, but they do not speak for the truth or falsity of man-made climate change. Proving that there are environmentalists who are idiots does not prove that environmentalism is idiotic. Tugging at the low-hanging fruit doesn't bring down the tree.

Which is why, if you are asked to evaluate the merits of a position in general rather than to address specific arguments in favor of it, I'd say you are obliged to not restrict yourself to considering only the worst arguments. In fact, you really should ignore those arguments entirely and focus on the best arguments, because it's only fair to consider a position invalid if no valid arguments can be made in support of it. It's not the fault of someone who holds a legitimate position if there are people who share that position and are troglodytes, mentally or morally or (as is often the case) both.

Like steelmanning, this is not always easy to do. It's really, really tempting, especially when considering an issue that is personally relevant, to pick out the loudest and most obnoxious of those who oppose your position and make them the standard-bearers for the other side. But that is the seed of prejudice, isn't it? That's how people come to believe that all members of ideological group X are stupid or immoral by virtue of holding X position, on the grounds that some members of that group are stupid/immoral. That requires ignoring the existence of the more intelligent or moral members of that group and their arguments in order to maintain the belief that position X is untenable.

But it goes against our tribalistic impulses to think this way. It feels good to have ideological kindred who are in the right, and those who oppose us who are wrong, placing individuals on one side of that line or the other and leaving them there. Alliances of this sort are shaken up all of the time when it's discovered that somebody has views in common with people in that group, and that group isn't this group, but it still matters because people in that group are horrible and this group is good. Oh, you're a vegetarian atheist feminist...who owns guns? Go to hell! Gun-owners are a bunch of angry psychopaths. None of your other positions matter now.

Some of that tribalism and low-hanging fruit picking was, disappointingly, on display by Daniel Dennett in this article on Richard Dawkins's pattern of stirring up enmity on social media:
I thought Richard’s responses were right on target. If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are THEY condoning rape? And if they think rape and murder are always equally bad, they really have lost their bearings and do not deserve our attention. Richard has been immensely important.
The problem is, most of the people I saw reacting with hostility to Dawkins's tweet that "“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think," didn't think that at all. For that matter, I didn't actually see a single person claim that all rape is equally bad, "radical feminist" or no.

What I  saw was a lot of people saying things more along the lines of Ashley Miller's position, which was basically to point out that making blanket declarations about the relative significance of other people's suffering (out of nowhere, as in a tweet) as a supposed attempt to deliver a lesson on logic is a really callous and bizarre thing to do. Especially when those declarations might arguably be factually incorrect (i.e., that some victims of aquaintance rape, which is the majority of rape, actually suffer more than they might've if raped by a stranger, because of perception and treatment by others after the fact, and having to live with the violation of trust that acquaintance rape represents). And of course, that has precisely nothing to do with whether Dawkins has been "immensely important" or not. It seems clear that Dennett's only intention was to support his friend, and the most expedient way to do that was by picking some seriously low-hanging fruit.

Which is, I hasten to point out, a more reasonable assumption than to say he was simply strawmanning. You could say that literally nobody, anywhere, was claiming that all rape is equally bad. That Dawkins was strawmanning in constructing this person who allegedly holds this position, and then Dennett joined him in beating that strawman to death. But when you're talking about a position rather than a specific argument or person, you can pretty much count on there being somebody out there who does authentically hold it. I'm sure there are people out there who think all rape is equally bad. I'm equally sure that they're the least important people to consider when answering the question "What do you think of the criticism of Richard Dawkins's tweet?"

Again-- nobody is immune to doing this.

But it's still unfair and logically sloppy to do, and that's what I'm driving at. By all means, tear apart bad arguments when you see them. Practicing critical thinking is doing yourself and the world a service, and I'm sure you know that we could all, always, use more of it. But be careful, and be precise in doing so. Don't act as though you've taken down the queen when you've merely eliminated a pawn, even if the pawns in this game seem endless. Taking care to remember that there are good, intelligent people who hold positions you oppose, and their arguments are very likely to be better than others, is a good way to avoid ideological prejudice. When you are arguing against a position in general rather than a specific argument or person, steelman the hell out of that position.

And then when you've done so, keep that thought in the back of your mind whenever talking to people who hold that position, because hey-- most arguments people make in favor of anything, even the beliefs they hold most dear, happen in real life. Most people argue on their feet, with the weapons they've got at hand. As a consequence, they probably won't offer the best defense of that position possible, and they certainly won't do so all the time. And yeah, that includes you too.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Good Arguing: How to steelman (and why it's hard)

In the last couple of posts I've been exploring different ways in which it's possible to make bad arguments against someone's position by ignoring the substance of their argument in favor of some distraction from it or distortion of it, even a completely fictional version of it. The tactic of constructing an inaccurate version of an argument in order to demolish it is called strawmanning.

Strawmanning is easy to do, and advantageous when the only people you care about impressing are people who already agree with you, and who also aren't particularly concerned about you representing your opponent fairly-- they just want to see you rip him/her apart, or at least a sufficiently convincing facsimile thereof. And since it's very likely that the image of your opponent is already more of a caricature in the eyes of those who agree with you (that's tribalism, in a nutshell), the chances are relatively low that someone on your side is going to pull back from basking in the warmth and comforting glow of the effigy which you've just set ablaze to tug at your sleeve and point out-- hey man, that's an effigy.

A strawman version of your opponent's argument is easier to demolish for precisely the same reasons that the first little pig's straw house was easy for the big bad wolf to demolish-- it's flimsy. It was constructed in haste with little thought put into it (who lives in a house made of straw, anyway?), and takes but a few forceful huffs and puffs and logic to blow it to smithereens. So if you, rhetorical big bad wolf that you are, could actually choose to have the person you're arguing against live in a straw house rather than something sturdier, you would, wouldn't you? It makes everything so. Much. Easier. And you're angry, because damn that pig for having the gall to say...whatever horrible thing pigs say. Why should he get the benefit of a charitable, sturdy interpretation of his house I mean, argument?

Well, because that's what logic-- and fairness-- demand. You want your opponent to engage the argument you're actually making, rather than some shoddy imitation that's easier to dismantle, so shouldn't you extend the same consideration? And if his/her argument is really so pernicious and threatening, doesn't that make it especially important to make sure that you're addressing it accurately, in order to publically demonstrate its problems to every witness, so that they can avoid being taken in by it?  Does the group of people you care about convincing of the problems with your opponent's argument include the opponent him/herself? And if not, shouldn't it?

This is why steelmanning is so important. And so difficult. And so important.

Steelmanning is exactly what it sounds like-- you turn the analogy of the strawman on its head, and imagine constructing a stronger, better version of your opponent's argument. Perhaps even better than the one he/she initially constructed. You take the time to contemplate your opponent's concerns, including the unspoken ones, and address them. You create the most convincing, best possible version of your opponent's argument, and you lay it out for everyone to see. And then-- only then-- do you you show why it's wrong.

To the best of my knowledge, use of the term "steelmanning" to refer to this practice originated with Chana Messinger. To quote her on the subject:
But Chana, you might say, I’m actually trying to get something done around here, not just cultivate my rationalist virtue or whatever nonsense you’re peddling. I want to convince people they’re wrong and get them to change their minds. 
Well, you, too, have something to gain from steelmanning. 
First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments. This, by the way, also makes arguments way more productive, since no one’s looking for easy rebuttals or cheap outs. 
Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs. If nothing else, steelmanning is a fence around accidental strawmanning, which may happen when you misunderstand their argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have. Remember that you are arguing against someone’s ideas and beliefs, and the arguments they present are merely imperfect expressions of those ideas and beliefs and why they hold them. To attack the inner workings rather than only the outward manifestation, you must understand them, and address them properly.
Now, of course, the concept of taking on the most robust version of your opponent's argument, even if you have to construct it yourself, has been around a lot longer than the term "steelmanning" itself. You could simply call it arguing charitably. You could, as philosopher Daniel Dennett has been known to do, actually insert a stand-in for your opponent in the text of your own elucidation of your position, to fire objections and criticisms of that position in "real time," giving you the opportunity to answer those criticisms. Of course, when you have multiple opponents, this means you probably won't have the time and space to answer all of their potential criticisms. But again, you can choose the best of these and answer them-- or at least, the best of them so far as you can honestly assess.

Dennett outlines the practice of charitable criticism in his recent book Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, attributing it to Russian-American psychologist Anatol Rapoport:
Anatol Rapoport… once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. I have found this a salutary discipline to follow– or, since it is challenging, to attempt to follow. When it succeeds, the results are gratifying: your opponent is in a mood to be enlightened and eagerly attentive.
Sounds good, right? Sounds like a total "best practice" for argumentation. This is something everybody should be doing right? So....why is, when we look around, we see so few people actually doing it? So few people, when deciding how to depict a position they oppose, selecting materials by reaching immediately for the straw rather than the steel?

Well, I know one thing with certainty-- it's not because they're incapable.

There is no level of intelligence or education at which a person moves beyond having the incentive to strawman. The incentives, as I've described, include that that it's easier and faster, but also there is the fact that it's simply more satisfying to pin down and torture a good straw man when you're angry, and when you're speaking to people who are already angry for the same reason that you are, or whom you would like to make angry for the same reason.

A rhetorical crime has been committed, and by golly we want someone to answer for it. We want to haul in some guilty party and hold them to account, and when the guilty party is an argument, the penalties for getting the wrong man tend to be few. Violation of due process of the laws of logic for suspect arguments is not an offense for which most really suffer. We're biased in a multitude of ways, perhaps most predominantly in favor of our own sense of being right. Being right feels good. Righteous indignation feels good. Watching people whose righteous indignation you share royally trouncing an argument that you find offensively wrong?  Gosh, that's nice. That's why we value an intelligent, caustic, sardonic ranter on our side so highly. Perhaps more than is really healthy on a sociological level, we value these people. There's a reason for that.

But there ways to make steelmanning a great deal easier and more likely. Here are some I can identify:
  1. A polite disagreement, where passions are low. 
  2. Time is not a highly significant factor. This suggests that strawmanning is much more likely in verbal debates than in print.
  3. Opponents know each other. It's much easier to represent your opponent's position charitably when you're familiar with his/her views on other things which aren't directly related to the topic of contention. 
  4. Space, or rather the lack thereof, is not a significant factor. If you take the time to recreate a better version of your opponent's argument before answering it with your own, there had better be some room to do it. Which means that you're more likely to find steelmanning in a book than an essay or blog post. A blog post or essay than a verbal argument. A verbal argument than a sound bite. 
  5. A reasonable expectation of continued interaction, on some level. 

Steelmanning is possible for all of us, though. It's a best practice for all of us. We're not terrible people if we fail to do it, but it's something to aim for. It's good arguing.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Don't do this either

Okay, so we've pretty well covered how not to talk to and about people you disagree with, right? It can be summed up pretty easily by asking yourself the following question: Does this thing I'm writing/saying/drawing/etc. actually address the substance of what the person I'm talking about is saying/writing/drawing/etc.? Or does it attack irrelevancies? Because focusing on what someone says and addressing that, rather than changing the subject to their looks, their credentials, or anything else isn't just polite-- it's good arguing. It's Lesson #1 on Good Arguing, perhaps Remedial Good Arguing.

Another way to attack irrelevancies rather than the substance of your opponent's argument is to attack arguments your opponent never made. This is typically called strawmanning, although if you go the lengths of flat-out quoting them saying something they never actually said, I think that's called plain ol' lying.

The quote is suspicious to me right off the bat for two reasons: 1) I know that Richard Dawkins considers himself a "cultural Christian," meaning that he acknowledges the extent to which Christianity has shaped the culture in which Westerners live, and sees no conflict in appreciating those elements of culture as an atheist-- a standpoint which I wholly agree with, although I don't really like the term "cultural Christian." It's too confusing without the explanation. 2) I have gathered, though I couldn't tell you from where, the understanding that Dawkins has close to zero knowledge of and interest in video games. I'd be surprised if he knows what "RPG" means.

However, that's not going to be obvious to everybody. All that a lot of people know about Dawkins, people who despise him and people who love him, is that he's an atheist who opposes religion. And there's no shortage of atheists who would most likely agree with the first part of the quote (or rather "quote," I suppose-- putting scare quotes around the word "quote" is so meta), if significantly fewer who would agree with the second part.

I don't know whether John the Secular actually created the meme he tweeted, or just found it and commented on it. If the latter, then he's just guilty of being credulous. But that's an important part of not attacking irrelevancies-- don't be credulous. Don't just assume that a statement you see attributed to someone you want to attack is authentic, especially if it seems too "good" to be true. As in, laughably easy to discredit and mock.

It's possible the meme was made as satire, but if it's intended to be satire then it fails-- no clever point is made, and gosh, if you wanted to satirize Richard Dawkins it would be so easy to do better. There's ample material out there-- no need to create new, false statements to attribute to him.

If it's an attempt to satirize Dawkins' That's not how you do that, either. If they believe the quote, then again-- they're just guilty of accidentally buying a lie. But if you created it, or passed it along, you're guilty of selling it to them.

Making good arguments requires skepticism. And skepticism needs people who can make good arguments.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

It should go without saying

Yesterday Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins both published, on their respective blogs, a brief joint statement on how atheists should disagree. It's really unfortunate that such a thing should be necessary, but encouraging that it happened. The statement condemns bullying and harassment generally, and then goes on to cite specific examples of such:
In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.
It should go without saying, but this statement comes into the wake of some particularly disgusting instances of people doing exactly these sorts of things, and defending others who have done them. In the comments on this statement on Dawkins' blog, there are people continuing to defend this kind of behavior:
The reason that people make photoshops of her and her fellow travelers and make derisory comments about her is that they tried very hard to engage in honest discussion with her only to be met with conveniently selective moderation practices, ridiculous accusations of misogyny and a habit of playing the offended victim card to death. People might still have left her to stew in her own juice if not for the attacks on high profile figures over contrived offences. When bloggers jump on board with unevidenced accusations of sexual crimes then they can expect to be lampooned. The rationale behind the ridicule is that there is no point at all in trying to reason with her because she will not give an honest reading to what you say and will likely selectively moderate for effect, so why bother trying to engage politely with her.
No. See, that's not how it works.

Harassment is not wrong unless you can find some justification in your mind for a person deserving it. It's wrong, period. If you disagree vehemently with someone, you express this disagreement as an argument. You do not draw childish pictures of them making fun of their appearance. You do not call them demeaning names. You do not, in the same breath, endorse rhetorically punching someone because they won't listen to you and then, because they complained about the first punch, justify doing it again. You don't fake a punch and then give them two for flinching. That's what children and bullies do.

Personally, I see a false dichotomy between harassment and politeness-- there's a world of ways to be rude to and about people without acting like a five year old. But if you're unable to find a course of action in this realm, I would suggest not engaging with those people. No, going off and drawing a cartoon of them with a pig nose, or spreading around somebody else's drawing of such, doesn't qualify as disengagement.

Tribalism is a huge problem in the atheist movement, and my thoughts on that subject are muddled. I haven't honestly worked out when it's okay to draw lines in the sand and insist that "we" should no longer value what a certain person has to say because of what they've said in the past, or even continue to say, although I think Greta Christina's recent post on the subject is pretty damn persuasive. There's only so much time, and only so much attention we have to give, and it's valid to say that a person's actions have been so egregious as to disqualify him or her from deserving attention. That doesn't mean much when you're talking about someone's personal attention, but it means a hell of a lot when you're talking about who to invite to a conference or whose blog to host on your network.

There's no official code of conduct that people in the atheist movement are forced to follow. If someone behaves reprehensibly, group ostracism is really the only way to deal with it. As a consequence, we continually have people trying to influence the group against someone, or against an organization, because that person or organization is believed to have rendered all charitable assumptions about him/her/them unjustified. I couldn't tell you how many times I've seen someone say (invariably in the comments on the Facebook post of some prominent person in the atheist movement) that they've quit "the movement" altogether for this reason. I then laugh inwardly, bitterly, and move on, because the frustration and non committal nature of the statement is so palpable. "I wish I knew how to quit you," indeed.

Not all "infighting" is created equal. The existence of disagreement, even strong disagreement, does not justify pettiness and childishness. The fact that someone is a "public figure" does not justify it either-- public figures are still people. I don't think it's tribalistic to tell people who insist otherwise that their behavior disqualifies their views from consideration by people who want rational, respectful dialog, because it's always possible to find someone expressing the same otherwise worthwhile sentiment while not being a heinous asshole at the same time. We just have to follow up on this promise, and vote with our attention.

I hope we can. I think this joint statement is a move in that direction.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Things you might not want to say about hot car deaths

I live in Wichita, Kansas. Kansas is a place of extreme temperatures-- it can get bitterly cold in the winter, and deathly hot in the summer. Today, for example, the high is supposed to be about 106.

On Thursday, a baby died here in the heat. Another hot car death. She was 10 months old, and left in the car for two hours while it was 90 degrees outside.

In this case her was name Kadylak, and she was the foster daughter of two men in their late 20's who also have several other foster children.

If you live in any place where it routinely becomes very hot in the summer, you're probably familiar with the story-- the father forgot that the child was in the car. He went about his day somewhere else while she remained there. In that confined space, the baby died of heat stroke. The father is distraught. He didn't mean for this to happen. That father, in this case named Seth Jackson, wants to die himself, according to his mother.

On average, 38 children die in the United States every year from hyperthermia, or heat stroke, inside of hot cars according to the advocacy group Kids And Cars. Over 600 have died in this way since 1998. In roughly half of the cases, the parent/driver forgot that the child was in the car.

Proposals have been made for technological solutions to this problem; a way to force parents to remember that there is a small child in the car. A child who may be asleep and therefore making no noise him/herself, a child whose car seat is in the back of the car because he/she is too young to sit in the front seat of a car with airbag technology, a child whose car seat might not only be in the back of the car, but facing the back of the car so the driver won't even see his/her face without a mirror installed.

A high school student from Albuquerque (another hot place) named Alissa Chavez won an award last year for designing an alarm system called "The Hot Seat" which notifies the driver if a child is left in a vehicle. There are also, as you might expect, apps for that. Kids And Cars has a petition to the White House asking for funding to be allocated to the Department of Transportation to research technology (the nature of which isn't specified in the petition) to tackle the problem of children being left in hot cars, and also to "require installation of technology in all vehicles and/or child safety seats to prevent children from being left alone left alone [sic] in vehicles."

After so many years of hearing about children dying in this way, and listening to people's reactions to the stories, I've noticed a few trends in these reactions. Not positive trends. Trends that sound, quite frankly, a lot like concerted efforts at empathy avoidance. I'd like to address a few of these and explain why I find them so problematic.

1. "I can't believe he/she forgot that she had a child."

In the roughly 54% of occasions on which a child was left in a hot car because he/she was forgotten, it wasn't because the parent forgot that he/she had a child. He/she forgot that the child was left in the vehicle. Big difference.

2. "This parent must have been drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid/evil." 

In this case, at least,
Neighbors described Jackson and his partner as doting parents. 
"They are two of the most kind-hearted guys that I have ever met. And I hate that there's so much controversy right now with babies' being left in the car, because I truly don't feel from the bottom of my heart they would ever do this on purpose," said Lindey TenEyck, who lives across the street.

3. "This parent should be 'forgotten' in a jail cell for about 50 years and see how he/she likes it."

Never mind, your capacity to empathize is clearly broken. I dearly hope you have no children of your own-- not because you might leave them in a hot car, but because I can see you banishing them to Siberia the moment they first burst into tears at the hospital. They wouldn't even make it to car.

4. "I just can't imagine doing/having done this with one of my children." 

All right, this is the big one. This is the main thought I want to address.

The fact that you can't imagine something like this means very, very little on the one hand, and quite a lot on the other.

Your not being able to imagine something means very, very little, I should say, in terms of its truth value. Not being able to imagine something is called a cognitive constraint, in that it's hard to meaningfully process a concept if you lack the ability to get your mind around it in the first place. But that doesn't mean it's not true.

Plenty of people misconstrue evolution, for example, because they just can't get their minds around the length of time it would take for the genetic structure of a species of organisms to change sufficiently for their progeny to become a different species, and so you get bizarre straw man characterizations of evolution that have no correlation to reality, like the crocoduck for example.

Now, just because Kirk Cameron is unable to properly imagine how evolution really works, that doesn't mean that evolution doesn't work. It just means that his poor brain, for whatever reason, is unable to grok the concept. He can't grasp that evolution is true because the only version of it he's willing or able to entertain is a caricature.

Likewise, your inability to do something like forget your own child in the back of your own car might be a caricature of a different sort-- an unwarranted but entirely understandable mental distancing from the idea that such a horrendous tragedy could have ever happened, or especially could ever happen in the future, to one of your own children because of your own negligence.

Let me emphasize those two words again-- entirely understandable. It's entirely understandable to banish from your mind the thought of something like this happening in your own life, because if a parent went around seriously considering that any and all tragedies which have ever ended the life of any child could happen to his or her own children, he/she could be rendered paralyzed with fear. It's possible that this person would become unable to function as a parent if that happened, because parenting involves risks, and imagining the worst possible consequence of every risk has a way of preventing people from being willing to take any risks.


Okay, but here's the problem with that, and this is the part that means a lot, as I mentioned-- being unable or unwilling to conceive of yourself doing something, especially a thing which involves forgetting something important with disastrous results, has the effect of inhibiting your ability to empathize with people who have done that thing. People who-- this is important--  it's very likely also would've said that they would never forget their child in a hot car, who would have themselves condemned any other parent who did so as drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid and/or evil. Yes, I'm quite sure that Seth Jackson himself would've said that.

So what ends up happening is that when someone like Jackson does forget, and a child ends up dying, there are endless other parents out there, who aren't necessarily any smarter or more responsible or loving or conscientious, who nevertheless have to condemn what he did in the strictest terms. This person who is described by his neighbor as lying on the ground near his car, "practically in the fetal position," experiencing the sort of pain that no parent ever wants to experience. The kind no parent could ever forget. This person is assumed to be the worst sort of human being imaginable. And it's very likely that right now, he would not disagree.

Except the problem is, he isn't. He's a parent who made a mistake. The problem with shutting off empathy to this person out of a sense of self-preservation, or rather a preservation of the image of oneself as a good parent who would never do this, is that it doesn't fix anything. It does absolutely nothing to prevent this from happening again. And again, and again, and again. Which brings me to the last thought.

5. "Pushing for [insert proposed safety measure here] means blaming [insert manufacturer here] for this sort of thing instead of the negligent parent." 

No, it doesn't. No more than any other safety device invented since the beginning of time has meant this.

When you and I were babies, we didn't travel in super-safe car seats in the back seat, facing backward. Maybe we were in car seats. But they weren't the same kind, and they were probably in the front seat or maybe even on the floor. In such a position, I can't help thinking that our presence there, even while asleep, was more of a reminder to Mom or Dad driving us around that we were in the car.

Does that mean that the backward-facing seats in the backseat are bad, and the practice should be ended? No, of course not. It means that in the act of moving car seats to the back seat, which was done in the first place because of the introduction and standardization of air bags because one of those being triggered could be dangerous to a small child in the front seat, may have created a new risk of its own which deserves its own safety concern. It makes absolutely no sense to slam on the brakes (figuratively speaking) when it comes to this concern, and insist that this is where safety measures end, that nothing should be done to prevent parents from forgetting a child in a car because it's just their own fault. They're horrible people and deserve to suffer, and that's where it ends, right?


Do you care more about making sure parents suffer when their children die, or do you care more about preventing the children from dying? Because trust me, the first one is going to happen regardless.

Parents can make horrible mistakes. Good ones. Smart ones. Capable ones. That's the risk of being a parent-- you're going to screw up sometimes. If you're lucky, the results won't be devastating. That of course doesn't mean that it's all up to luck, but there is definitely a lot of luck involved.  It's okay to acknowledge that. It doesn't mean you're admitting to being a terrible parent. If it helps, you don't have to announce it to the world-- I'll do it for you.

I know that the pressure to appear perfect is neverending. But don't let that get in the way of empathizing with people who have clearly experienced tragedy, because they're already suffering enough. And certainly don't let it get in the way of supporting help for parents who need it. Because in the end, it's better that they get that help, isn't it?

Who knows, you might even benefit from it too. Or your kids will. Or their kids.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sex without fear

"Consequence" is one of those words that has taken on a connotation of the negative, even though the denotation does not require it. Strictly speaking, a consequence is an effect, an outcome, a result. That's all. Consequences are the reasons we do things-- if our actions had no outcomes, there would be no point in performing them. Everything we do, we do for the consequences.

The consequences of Colorado recently making some forms of birth control, IUDs and implants, free or nearly free to low-income women through the Colorado Family Planning Initiative have been very good indeed:
The teen abortion rate dropped by 35 percent from 2009 to 2012 in counties served by the program, according to the state's estimates. 
Young women served by the family planning clinics also accounted for about three-fourths of the overall decline in Colorado's teen birth rate during the same time period. And the infant caseload for Colorado WIC, a nutrition program for low-income women and their babies, fell by 23 percent from 2008 to 2013. 
"This initiative has saved Colorado millions of dollars," Governor John Hickenlooper said in a statement. "But more importantly, it has helped thousands of young Colorado women continue their education, pursue their professional goals and postpone pregnancy until they are ready to start a family."
If you're taking issue with my use of the words "free or nearly free" right now...stop. Yes, I know full well that "provided by the government" does not mean "free." Nothing is free. However, please read that first statement by Governor Hickenlooper-- providing birth control to low-income women has saved the state money. Quite a lot of money, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Nobody, that is, who is familiar with the notion that when women can't afford babies, they often can't afford abortions either, and so become stuck with those babies they can't afford to have. And then who becomes responsible for paying for those babies? The state-- which means all of us, via welfare.

So between the cost of contraception, the cost of birth, and the cost of welfare, contraception is chronologically the first cost, which also happens to be the lowest cost, and also prevents the following two costs. That, in a nutshell, is how the state saves money by spending money. Spend a small amount now, save a large amount later. You could call that an "entitlement" if the notion of chronology is tricky for you, but for someone with no such difficulty, it just makes common fiscal sense.

You'd think.

But no, the same people who trumpet fiscal responsibility for the government most reliably are, astonishingly, not in favor of measures like this. That is, of course, because their dedication to ending abortion in America does not lead to the ardent support of contraception that one might logically conclude they should have. And that is, unfortunately, because the goals of ending abortion and encouraging fiscally responsible government are both ultimately supplanted by yet another goal: to prevent "consequence free sex."

Now, let's ponder this notion for a moment. "Consequence free"?

Sex using effective contraception such as an IUD (the objectionable form of birth control cited by Hobby Lobby in its Supreme Court case, which Erickson is addressing in the above tweet, and which Colorado made attainable for women on low incomes) is anything but consequence free. The consequences of sex using effective contraception potentially include:
  • Intimacy between partners without fear
  • Pleasure between partners without fear
  • Bonding between partners without fear
  • Enjoyment and creation of memories between partners without fear
The fear in question, of course, taking two possible forms:
  1. Unwanted pregnancy
  2. STDs
So since it's clear that sexual intercourse using contraception doesn't prevent consequences, and that there are certain consequences which are in fact the point of having sex using contraception, desirable, good consequences, it appears that actually Erickson's tweet should have referred not to consequence free sex, but to fear free sex. As in, nobody should be able to have sex without fear of creating an unwanted pregnancy or contracting an STDs. 

Why should nobody be able to have sex without this fear? 

Because they don't think people—young people, poor people, unmarried people, gay people—should be able to enjoy "consequence-free sex." Because it's sex that they hate—it's sex for pleasure that they hate—and they hate that kind of sex more than they hate abortion, teen moms, and welfare spending combined. Knowing that some people are having sex for pleasure without having their futures disrupted by an unplanned pregnancy or having their health compromised by a sexually transmitted infection or having to run a traumatizing gauntlet of shrieking "sidewalk counselors" to get to an abortion clinic keeps them up at night.
Yeah, I'm inclined to think so.

So hey, conservatives? At least, social conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson? Try just saying what you mean, okay?

You don't think people-- especially women and gays-- should be able to have sex without fear. And it's easier to makes sure poor women and gays can't have sex without fear, because it's easier to make sure that poor people don't do anything that costs money. And contraceptives? They cost money.

Just say it. Sexuality should be controlled, and it's best controlled by fear, so you want to preserve the fear.

It won't happen, in the end...but hey, at least you can say you were honest.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Happy Father's Day

This year's Father's Day card: Gorilla dad.

 I say "This year's," like I do it every year. Actually this is the first year-- the first time-- I've designed a greeting card. But I really like how it turned out, even though it lost some detail by the time I uploaded it to the Walgreens site and had it made into a card. It was fun to do and felt very personal, so I'd like to do it more often.

The anti-homeless spikes

This Slate article has a collection of photos of "bum-free" additions to buildings and structures in public areas intended for the same purpose as the controversial "homeless deterrent" spikes in a London apartment block (the ones pictured below). Apparently they're a pretty common thing.

In Manchester I recall seeing shards of glass embedded in the tops of walls on a regular basis. Less obviously aggressive are dividers in public benches which make it possible to sit but not lie down. As you can see in the article, a lot of creative work has been put into making it impossible for people to sleep in public areas-- I wonder if that's actually someone's full time job. How depressing an occupation would that be? Does this person have any friends?

Some of my friends have posted approvingly an article about a group of activists who decided to pour concrete over the anti-homeless spikes in a shop window ledge at a Tesco Metro, which apparently resulted in the company agreeing to remove the spikes. First, however, they'll have to remove the concrete. I can't imagine that will be easy. It's a mess which doesn't look any better to sleep on than the spikes, quite frankly.

Tesco, for its part, claims that the spikes were there to inhibit "antisocial behavior" which customers had been complaining about, basically drunken loitering, and weren't intended to be anti-homeless at all. But obviously the effect is the same.

Still, to you well-meaning activists and supporters of activists out there....try talk before property damage, okay? And try thinking for a good while before that.

This is a bigger problem than a few doorways in London. And businesses aren't wrong for not wanting homeless people sleeping on and around their premises, though their methods of dealing with that are sometimes deplorable. When I first saw the doorway pictured below, it occurred to me that if the apartment block had installed a bike rack in that space instead, the same goal would've been accomplished without any of the outrage. And yet the effect would've been the same for any person who had wanted-- no, let's rephrase for accuracy-- felt forced to sleep there.

So on the whole, it's good that these spikes are getting attention because the homeless need attention. But the businesses aren't the villains in this story (at least, not the only ones) and it's going to take a lot more to solve this problem than railing against its symptoms.

I suggest focusing on positive approaches. Here's a good example.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Beliefs? I've got 'em.

This meme spotted on Facebook. It's far from the first one I've seen...hence this post.
Hat tip to Ed Brayton for pointing it out in annoyance. 
I have beliefs. Some of them are almost certainly false, but I still have them. I do the best I can to hold onto the true ones* and let the false ones go, but sometimes I fail.

I'm hardly rational, all the time-- I'm practically made of biases. I can try to correct for those, and realizing that I have them is a huge part of that, but I can't make them go away.

 My default state is not rationality-- rationality is what happens when I'm able to focus on an issue and carefully consider it without my emotions running high, using the tools I've been taught. Sometimes I use them wrong. I don't always use the ones I should.

I let the beliefs related to theism go, some time ago-- most of them, but I still tend to anthropomorphize all kinds of things, see patterns that aren't there or at least aren't there intentionally, and sometimes I'm guilty of magical thinking.

In all of these things, I am very like every other atheist out there. Because I'm also a human being, and that's how we work. If you consider yourself a rationalist, please stop pretending otherwise. That really isn't rational.

*Knowledge being justified true belief.