A few things I’d appreciate from future (post) election coverage

At the time of writing, it’s been a couple of hours since the scale of the swing to the Libs in Queensland became apparent, and to my mind, I reckon the Libs will be returned with a minority government. Not what I wanted, but I’ll learn to live with it. I don’t reckon Western Australia or the Northern Territory will swing it back to Labor. South Australia certainly won’t.

Either way, even if we don’t wind up with a Morrison government, there are a number of things about political discussion I’d like to see changing.

No More Petty Silver Linings

So Tony Abbott has lost his seat. Great. I guess. Is this going to influence policy terribly much? Because if it doesn’t change things for the better, it’s just a symbolic victory. Which is to say it’s not an actual victory.

When Howard lost his seat, I felt non-plussed, and now I’m clearer as to why; change was already overdetermined owing to swings in other seats, rendering Howard’s loss an irrelevancy. Nipple-twiddling over his political demise was pointless and childish.

Whatever you earn in the form of a morale boost is lost on alienating people who aren’t interested in political blood sport.

I regret my past involvement in similar episodes of pettiness.

Less preaching to the choir

This applies mainly to partisan outlets, or at least those with a bit of a leaning. The choir are going to believe what they want, dismissing what they don’t want to hear and exaggerating the importance of confirmatory news. These people don’t want to be informed, can’t be meaningfully informed beyond a certain point, so what’s the point of trying?

Okay, maybe to some extent outlets have to do this as a part of their business model, but if it could be kept to an minimum, that’d be great.

Cant

The accusation of “pandering” that gets thrown around by alt-right types isn’t entirely without merit. Sure, they often deploy it when its not true, and even when true, it’s usually a disingenuous means of dismissing information and argument out of hand.

That doesn’t mean that pandering doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean that alt-right are the only ones with a problem with it.

When pandering comes in the form of the uncritical and rote use of theory-heavy (and often co-opted) lexicon – “hey woke people, you know I’m one of you because I use the words” – it’s alienating. Nobody much wants to spend time learning to talk like one of the cool kids. They want you to get to your point with a bit of economy.

You’d think, for example, with the way some authors write, that the assumptions of Queer Theory were un-contentious a priori truths, necessary for the welfare and liberation of gays, lesbians, intersex and trans people. It’s almost as if some authors don’t realize that activism for gays, lesbians, intersex and trans people predates Queer Theory by decades, or that Queer Theory has actually elicited honest disagreement from progressive activists over the years.

The uncritical use of the folk versions of this kind of lexicon carries with it the (usually unexamined) implication that all of the disagreements have been settled, and material differences resolved, and pandering to the people who insist on this – effectively an erasure of movement history – can get downright toxic. Orwellian, even.

The average punter may not know the particular movement history, or even how to find it, but at the very least this kind of thing does tend to generate a gut-feel that undermines trust.

(I’m wondering if in the same vein as the term “scientism”, we need a word for the over-extension of concepts from literary criticism – but that’d just be more cant, wouldn’t it?)

Less gimmicky bs

I’m not going to nab a picture of it, because it’s too damn tacky for even me to post; that picture of the ABC politics team photoshopped as The Avengers. Gimme a fucking break, please, ABC. I take you seriously. Please do the same.

Letting News Ltd. die a quiet death

News Ltd. has slid into irrelevance. So once all the analysis of their decline is over, we won’t need to talk about them so much in future, right?

What’s the point of gloating? There are newer sources of misinformation out there that are shaping up to be much more dangerous than News Ltd is ever likely to be again – dangerous both to our everyday lives, and to our democratic institutions.

Trying to get one-up on your racist uncle at Christmas isn’t worth it, and prosecuting a grudge in the media for much the same reason is even worse. The public doesn’t need the importance of discredited news outlets being artificially inflated at the expense of more salient issues.

Post-electoral scapegoating

I suspect the public are pretty sick of this kind of thing, even, if not especially, from the parties and political poles they voted against. It’s bad enough when it comes from the floor, or the comments section, but when it’s journalists on Twitter, or tribal wankers writing in literary journals, it’s no favour to the public interest either.

So you lost? Who are we going to blame this time? Women, for provoking angry men simply by existing? Jews for not shutting up about antisemitism in the ranks? A lack of absolute ideological loyalty from allies, voters, volunteers and party members who never owed you that kind of loyalty to begin with? People who asked awkward questions at meetings and public forums that they were very well entitled to ask? People who didn’t see your glorious leader as some charismatic saviour?

All these and more, even when your losses could very well have been overdetermined by things like gerrymandering and voter suppression?

”Too many party members lack my moral clarity and sense of purpose, otherwise we would have made the right choices and our destiny would have been assured!”

No really, fuck off.

Take the loss and stop looking for ways to frame it on ideological or tribal impurities. At the very least, please consider getting out of the way of others on your team who aren’t such raving egoists.

Morose, misanthropic ideating

No, next-to-nobody likes Scott Morrison. Please, no whining that Australians love Scott Morrison. If a service station hotdog won a culinary event when the alternative was a shit sandwich, you wouldn’t conclude that people love service station hotdogs.

This isn’t to call Bill Shorten or anyone else a shit sandwich. What it is, is to say that it’s a fair observation to make that no Australian politicians are widely loved. So let’s not pretend that’s an issue in play, please.

Maybe Labor could do with replacing Bill Shorten. Maybe the Australian public could become better judges of character. Maybe the Australian public could curb its appetite for lively reality-tv-like characters.

Whatever the case, hyperventilating about the shortcomings of the Australian public, to the extent of peddling obvious falsehoods, isn’t going to do anyone any favours, least of all yourself – you’re harder to take seriously that way.

***

This is a non-exhaustive list, of course. But damn, political discussion would be a whole lot less alienating – at least from my perspective – if the above weren’t as common as they are.

~ Bruce

Liberal philosophers in the public arena

I don’t want to start by invoking that cliché about philosophers living in ivory towers, because largely it’s bullshit. People from given backgrounds are going to have tendencies in common with their peers, and sometimes these tendencies are going to be flaws that set them somewhat apart, sure. But you’d be wrong on the basis of that to try writing philosophers off as having nothing useful to say.

That being said, it’s sometimes painful to watch some of these flaws relating to public discourse play out over and again. In one form or another, I’ve seen all of the below instantiate at least a few times over the past decade, and it’s never satisfying. Even if only due to the medium it’s conveyed through, apart from confirmation of the dire, nobody seems to get much out of the exchange. With a real turn towards authoritarianism being evident in public debate, this worries me now more than ever.

***

As a rule – a loose one – philosophers, in their own domains, aren’t as prone to the same argumentative indulgences the rest of us take for granted. They are, for one, supposed to be more charitable when arguing with their interlocutors; instead of erecting a straw man of an opposing position, you erect a better version of it – a steel man.

However, when you’re dealing with canny, and/or unscrupulous sorts – people who would deny the truth of their politics without a second thought – the steel man can end up being tantamount to bullshit, if not a lie.

“Obviously he’s not talking about sending literal ethnic groups to the ovens. Perhaps he’s talking about conceptual races of ginger bread men! Yes! That’s it!”

There are few things more tragic than a naïve, liberal philosopher, over-generalizing their principles in practice, ultimately to the benefit of thinly-disguised grifters and fascists who’ll subvert and violate those very principles. That is except perhaps when didactically, they enjoin the rest of us to do the same as if we should be ashamed not to.

“How dare you suggest this man with a thesis explicitly promoting fascism is a fascist?! You’re just trying to limit his participation in public discourse through the use of smears!” – An obvious exaggeration, but you get the point.

Dear liberal philosophers, they can see you coming a mile away. You, and your vanity. The grifters, the narcs, the totalitarians, the authoritarians, the anti-vaxxers and other kooks; they know how you want to be seen and have no compunction about leading you into a state of contradiction. They can intuit that you’ll be blind to such self-contradiction, too, if your self-image is involved.

The fact that con artists hide their intentions is axiomatic, and the fact that fascists try doing the same up until the point that they’re confident of seizing power is well established. The fact that hypocritically crying “free speech” and playing the victim goes some way to helping them increase their power doesn’t help matters either.

None of this, of course, diminishes the importance of free speech. It’s just that it’s good to know who actually supports it.

My suggestion here is that it’d be good for philosophers operating in the political arena to consider themselves as much laypersons as the rest of us when it comes to spotting malice, and not to treat public spaces as places akin to their own classrooms. This isn’t to say to give the benefit of the doubt, but rather, not to be overly dismissive of the concerns of the normies when it comes to bad actors.

***

Then there’s the philosopher-on-philosopher, or inter-academic bun fights enacted through political proxies in the public eye. These are a spectacle to watch if you can avoid getting involved (which is hard to manage if you have a nagging conscience and a means to express yourself).

It’s weird what gets dropped from an argumentative repertoire when particular bugbears come into play.

Tell me, if you can, when Dan Dennett last used the four rules he adapted from Anatol Rapoport, when disagreeing with feminists or their allies. I’d almost settle for anything more than sniping. (And not that I have a problem with people getting stuck into the post-modern, but if Dennett was to follow his own rules outside of academe, you’d think he’d at least define “postmodernism” before commenting on it – ala say, this).

Of course, Dennett’s hardly the first person to forget their principles in a political argument. Humans in general have that failing, sadly. Even the least-crummy of our species.

Again, the bad actors can see this coming a mile away. If you think a canny apath or demagogue can’t see Dennett’s liberal hubris, and imagine a way to exploit it, you’re misguided. It’s Dennett’s minimal engagement in political discussion that mitigates this risk, but ideally non-participation isn’t the measure you’d want to use to do that.

***

I’m beginning to think it may be grounds for an Internet law: The more emotionally invested a philosopher’s online extolling of a given principle is, the more likely it is that they’ve take advantage of unjustified exceptions to it. And by “emotionally invested” I don’t necessarily mean a material interest, but rather a propensity for getting worked-up; red-faced and spittle-flecked, even if they don’t have any skin in it.

Political arguments on the Internet, being what they are, are fertile ground for this kind of failing.

I once knew a philosopher who’d go on at length about the tyranny of the majority, not just in terms of voting and state power, but in terms of suppression by private means; prevailing public opinion, political pressure and bullies. In the abstract at least, I agreed with him, and still do. In practice though, too often I can’t. I can’t generalize his sentiment, because he doesn’t apply it generally.

It’s no secret that in Western nations, atheist and rationalist communities tend be male-dominated, not just statistically, but in terms of power. It’s also no secret that within a number of these communities, there have been outbreaks of harassment targeted at women; death threats, rape threats, stalking, publication of home addresses with clear intent to incite further harassment.

Further, arising from this culture of nastiness, women, for the simple crime of speaking up, could find themselves blacklisted or subject to petitions calling for their exclusion from publication.

You’d think that someone who was deeply concerned about the effect that tyranny of the majority can have on open discussion, would be worried by the potential for suppression in a scenario like this. Well, yes and no. According to former philosopher friend, it was the very minority targeted with harassment that were stifling free speech. They were the bullies, allegedly. They supposedly had the weight of popular opinion behind them, even if readily available indicators of Internet traffic overwhelmingly said otherwise. They were the majority. They were the tyrants.

(Don’t bother pointing out that most men in atheist circles don’t behave like this. While likely true, former philosopher friend had a habit of treating silent bystanders as a part of the majority, in this case and in others, so your objection would be beside the point. To be consistent, he’d had to have called it in favor of the marginalized feminists, not the wealthy men with large fan bases.)

It probably didn’t help that former philosopher friend’s enthusiasm wasn’t distinct from his material interests, though. It’s always a bad look to run apologetics for a faction that allows poor behaviour, while simultaneously sniffing around its members for favorable blurbs for or reviews of your books.

In the public sphere, philosophy can get ugly. And stupid.

***

Separating the character of the person saying a thing from the thing they’re saying is a nice distinction to make if what you’re interested in is pure argument. If you can manage it, and you’re in the place for it, then yeah; great. The practicalities of advocacy in the public sphere don’t work like that, though.

Maybe you’ll criticize people for going the ad hom or tu quoque. Fair enough. They’re fallacies for a reason. Argumentational fuck-ups.

Maybe you’ll criticize folks for being too politically pure, too vain, for dismissing a truth told by a flawed person. And maybe you’ll be right. It happens. It happens too damn often, truth be told.

It’s also possible though, that making a distinction between interlocutor and argument is itself something that’s possible to be too pure, and too vain about.

“I distinguish between the truth of this statement, and the deplorable character of the person making it! The two aren’t contingent! Look at how rational I am!”

Well whoop-dee-doo. Here’s a cigar. Maybe you’ll tell folks to be more rational too, because that always works.

A couple of practical questions back on the topic of liberalism, again: Is it reasonable to expect that people will be convinced of the worth of free speech by an argument where the very advocates for free speech you cite clearly don’t believe in free speech themselves? Is it reasonable to expect that people will be compelled when they have grounds for just the reasonable suspicion that your sources don’t actually find free speech plausible, or are at best, actually ambivalent about it?

We’re talking ordinary members of the public here, not your students. Not people looking for a grade or for an academic pat on the head. And to be clear I’m not expecting perfection here; my choice of “clearly” and “reasonable suspicion” above are deliberate.

Advocacy for free speech in the public sphere is a practical concern. Something that may not matter to the truth state of a claim may very well decide the outcome of a given outreach effort in service to that claim. An interlocutor may not follow your logic, but may be an excellent judge of character, and to some extent, of who not to trust. Your being naïve about your allies and colleagues may not help in light of this – it may expose you as a rube, and paint your cause as untrustworthy.

I don’t know about you lot, but at the end of it all, I’d still rather live in a world where free speech exists, than live in a world where it doesn’t, but where philosophers can virtue signal to each other that they’ve all discussed the matter with the utmost purity of argument, in accordance with convention.

Accommodations must be made, but that works both ways. Liberal philosophers are going to have to sacrifice some of their academic sensibilities, at least when asking for the ears of the non-philosophers out there.

***

It’s generally good form, in terms of being compelling, to start out with your agreements before going on to state your disagreements. It’s also good form for philosophers to not be compelled by these kinds of tactics, so I’m going to give myself a pass here. My agreements, hence, are up-back.

Philosophers are more than welcome in public discussion; they’re needed. We wouldn’t have rights to discuss in the first place without philosophy. We wouldn’t have science, and hence the Internet we furiously tweet over, without philosophy. We couldn’t debate the worth of philosophy without philosophy, if only because debating the worth and role of philosophy is philosophy. And this is before even considering philosophers’ right to participate as human beings (or p-zombies).

Perhaps, intellectually, we’re heading for, or are already in another dark age. There’s clearly a lot to decry about the current state of public discussion, and obviously philosophy has a lot to say about it.

But the discussion between philosophers and the general public won’t ever approach academic perfection. Not only is the general public not a part of the academy, not only does a good portion of the general public lack a desire to be a part, it has every right to expect not to be. Philosophers can make a contribution, but they can’t set the terms of discussion without the requisite social contract. Which. They. Don’t. Have.

So perhaps philosophers need to leave the academic peacocking out back, and learn to know where they are and who they’re chatting with a bit better? And maybe leave Stompy McRagespittle off the team until he’s had the requisite therapy and/or shots?

~ Bruce

A Stroll Along Linear Park

Back in 2004 I used to take my canid little fella Joe for walks along The River Torrens / Karrawirra Parri between Klemzig and Athelstone. For legal and environmental reasons, his ashes weren’t spread there, but otherwise I would have liked to have done that. It’s a good spot for a dog, which you’ll discover for yourself if you go for a walk there yourself and meet the many good doggos.

On the 13th of this month, I went for such a walk myself and took a few snaps.

Admittedly, the subject of the first photo is something I’ve long considered an eyesore. But don’t worry; it gets better.

***

01 - AoG

“Influencers”, formerly Paradise Community Church, formerly Assembly of God Paradise, is one of the Hillsong Family of Churches. Don’t bother trying to form an ecclesiastical Venn diagram in your head – just remember it’s an Evans family gig. The same dank humus that Family First (now rolled into Australian Conservatives) grew from.

Years and years ago, we had to put up with “motivational speakers” organized by this church turning up to the public high school I finished my secondary schooling at – which included a visit by one Dave Roever of nutty Satanic Panic and Divine Destiny meeting fame. The Muslim students weren’t too impressed, as you can imagine. Nor were the Atheists among us.

That’s enough outrage. Time for something soothing.

Continue reading “A Stroll Along Linear Park”

Imagined History of a Never-Was: “New Atheism”

church-53192_640Jacob Hamburger writes over at The Point, asking what the New Atheism even was. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since Gary Wolf resurrected the term at Wired in 2006 in his oft-cited essay. Asking and mostly getting the same answer, over and over.

There’s really only one position in relation to “New Atheism” that I’ve ever been completely comfortable with: that it doesn’t exist, that it never existed, and that the term was a snarl word that only functioned rhetorically. The phrase “Gnu Atheism”, an altogether un-serious mutation of the term born a few years later out of a scam that snared journalist and vocal critic Chris Mooney, always seemed a far better candidate to be taken seriously, despite its obvious satirical bend.

People using the term almost only ever define themselves in relation to the “New Atheism”, rather than in the affirmative. Who called themselves a “New Atheist”? A notable exception would be the late Victor Stenger, who seemed quite innocently unable to realize how odd he was in doing so. Mostly the meaning of the term shifted and slid according to the short term requirements of authors and pundits.

One day Daniel Dennett could have been a “New Atheist”, and the next a bulwark against it. The critique was folly. “New Atheism” was a shadow puppet.

***

Supposedly coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf at Wired, the term was used much earlier in 1986 by Robert Morey in his “New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom”, and possibly earlier than that again. Tacking a “new” onto the start of any “ism” being an old formula that’s sadly never gone stale.

Wolf’s article is more restrained than either Morey’s thesis, or any number of the jeremiads using the term that would follow. He focused on three authors, none who called themselves “New Atheists”; Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris. This was shortly before Christopher Hitchens had entered the fray.

It’s weird, even humorous that Wolf invoked the late Paul Kurtz in contrast to the “New Atheists”, then of the Centre For Inquiry. In the 1980s, the afore mentioned Morey was lambasting Kurtz himself as one of the “New Atheists”. It was an old game and one Kurtz would have been aware of, especially on account of the matter of stridency; the man was a supporter and friend of the not-exactly-timid Madalyn Murray O’Hair who also came in for a smearing in Morey’s tome.

Criticisms of Dawkins, typical of the time, came down to him being “strident”, and being incapable of alliances with liberal-minded Christians (despite his cooperation with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the matter of creationism in schools). When you strip away the objections based on fiction, you were basically left with tone, which doesn’t have very much meat to it as far as purported ideological demarcations go. Anything that foreshadowed “Dear Muslima” was thin on the ground.

Wolf seemed even less capable of presenting a meaningful difference between Dennett and the likes of Kurtz.

***

Lashings of embellishments from a variety of authors in the following years didn’t flesh things out any further.

“They’re logical positivists!” (No “they” weren’t).

“They want to destroy Christian culture!” (Basically a re-branded War on Christmas fiction for people who imagined they were above Fox News).

“They support the Iraq War!” (Mostly “they” didn’t).

“Scientism!” (Having a poor conception of the boundaries of science does not a scientismist make, and at any rate, Harris’ philosophical silliness wasn’t widely adopted by purported “New Atheists” anyway – not unless you tweaked your definitions to perform an act of circular logic, at least.)

The worst part of these takes on the “New Atheism” though, wasn’t that they were untrue (although frequently they were). The worst part was that so little, if any of it, could be used as demarcation criteria. And when it was a suitable for demarcation, you’d find “New Atheism” being split off into other categories.

***

Even in the early days there was a whiff of sexism about the scene you couldn’t easily deny; Dawkins’ lilting waffle about the gentler sex; Harris’ bias for male pronouns; more overtly, Hitchens calling the Dixie Chicks “fucking fat slags”. Aside from how conspicuous it is that people wanting to bury the “New Atheism” at the time buried the lede on this one, this is still insufficient to demonstrate that there is (or was) a “New Atheism”. How would this sexism set the “New” apart from the “Old Atheism” – the old guard Wolf mentions?

Wolf wrote favorably about Asimov as an example of the old, but that guy was a complete shit to women; a serial groper, a condescending patriarch and completely unable to render women believably in fiction to boot. A demarcation criterion needs to be able to make a distinction, but “fucking fat slags” is a sentiment you could imagine ass-grabber Asimov getting behind, so sexism’s probably not going to do the job.

Maybe vanity and thin skin? No. I mean, Harris and Dawkins, and maybe Dennett could be accused of thin-skin, much like a number of other less known “New” atheists. But nice-guy Sagan’s “Butt-Head Astronomer” legal battle with Apple arguably tops any fit-of-pique the purported “New Atheism” could lay claim to.

Kurtz’s labelling of Ron Lindsay’s management style as Stalinist seems grounded in vanity as well. And the criticism of offensive cartoons – something he himself presided over but overlooked in a way suggestive of preening – brings us neatly back to the issue of confected difference.

The function of the “New Atheist” trope, at least from the secular progressive side, isn’t primarily to critique atheists. It’s a tool by which authors write about themselves in negative relief, a direct approach to extolling their own virtues being far too obvious. “Look at the New Atheism! [I’m not like that! Allow me to list the qualities I don’t have!]”

***

Back to Hamburger: So what came of “it”?

Hitchens is dead, for one. I think he would have objected to Hamburger’s attribution of the idea of liberalism ideally being grounded in pure reason alone. It’s almost as if Hamburger missed the discussion of “rationalist naiveté” – and Hitchens proximity to that discussion. Only Hamburger’s focus on that period is quite extensive.

And why the weird narrative tales? Non-belief and scientific rationality only becoming political causes after Hitchens joined with Dawkins et. al.? Harris “founding” the “New Atheist” genre, as if the other books by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens weren’t authored independently? That’s not how it happened.

I don’t think Hamburger is being mendacious. I don’t even think he’s writing his essay in an attempt to position himself with readers in the way that PZ Myers’ recent testimony-cum-denouncement so obviously labours to do. In a way, I suspect he’s naively fallen into the same trap Victor Stenger did, albeit from the opposite end of the pit.

It is possible to be unwittingly maneuvered into writing this kind of thing even if you’ve only passively adopted just a few questionable assumptions in good faith.

***

There are meaningful trends in the detritus of the readerships of the Usually Mentioned Atheists. You can find misogynists pretty easily. There’s a particular school of handwaving concerning the boundaries of science that’s been masquerading as clear and forthright ever since The Moral Landscape.

There’s been pride expressed over political ignorance and a related if often inverse dismissiveness regarding philosophical literacy. “You used a word that philosophers use! You’re one of those Politically Correct Ismists that are saying things! Now I know I can ignore you! Bwaha! You should leave the pub and leave me to stroke my most intelligent of beards!”

Depending on how the net has been cast, there are also more-or-less decent, more-or-less intelligent, and more-or-less anodyne sorts in there with more than salvageable ideas. But again, none of this is “New” and none of it is uniform across the purported “New Atheism”.

What can be done to collate meaning in all of this mess? Rather than giving the vague snarl word of “New Atheism” any serious coinage (or excessive dismissal in cases where no malice is evident), I think someone’s going to have to work out a taxonomy based on actual positions held, that actually matter taxonomically; something akin to John Nerst’s notion of the Pomo-oid Cluster, albeit for atheist authors post-2004. Or rather, someone should have tried this a long time ago.

Going beyond just the concept of a cluster and actually making a map of the territory would be immensely useful too, even if it wouldn’t take off in every-day conversation. At the very least people arguing in good faith could more easily avoid talking past each other, and a kind of convention for recognizing disingenuous railing against “New Atheists” could be more easily practiced.

As it stands, it’s too easy for woke-acting columnists to rail against “New Atheists” (The Guardian and Salon have offered up several examples over the years), just as it’s too easy for genuine criticism of atheist authors to be dismissed as disingenuous or hostile (which you can see for yourself if you crawl down this rabbit hole).

Forget how the various tribes of authors feel about this for a moment, and ask yourself “in a civil democracy, how does this particular form of ambiguity – this confected grouping – serve the public interest?”

~ Bruce

So, you want to send a friend request?

argument-1299108_640Facebook has this little “intro” segment you can fill in on your profile. If you’re even remotely garrulous you’ll feel just how small it is. You basically have room for a conservative sentence or maybe two.

If you wanted to use the opportunity to set boundaries, you’d be hard pressed to do more than just ask people not to be jerks. Sometimes you’ll have more to say than that. Owing to weirdos on social media, too often I find myself feeling precisely this way. Maybe it’s the same for you too.

So this is possibly how you’ve wound up reading this post. I’ll be sending others this way in future, too.

Like most people I don’t use Facebook automation. And I’ve been shy of accepting new friend requests for some time now. In fact I’ve blocked most of the people who’ve sent me requests in the past four years.

I’ve been thinking of opening things back up again, only this time without setting myself up to have to repeat myself each time nonsense flairs up. Hence this post.

***

For some reason I don’t get shouted at much anymore. I’m not sure why. Deep down among the minutiae of any number of topics, I hold what could be construed as controversial views – the kinds of things I’ve seen numerous other people scolded for. I’m good friends with more than one of the scolded. None of this has been secret.

A number of us conform to a particular pattern within the category of “politically homeless”; left-wing values; a disinterest in left-wing tribalism; an unwillingness to seek a new tribe in either the right or the reactionary center; a respect for critical inquiry and a willingness to commit to what and wherever that inquiry leads.

But oh. The kinds of friend requests this can encourage. If only I could stave some of them off with a few more words of warning, or at least lay down some ground rules in advance.

The moment you become politically homeless, suddenly you’re the potential ally… of weirdos.

Criticize the Clinton dynasty; get Bernie Bros and Jill Stein cultists crawling up your ass. Shine a light on the worst naivetes of little-l liberalism; wind up with a New Best Friend who thinks conspiracy theories about Monsanto are the apex of radicalism. Condemn Likud; get a friend request from the asshole with Rothschild memes running down their timeline. Criticize some technical or civic aspect of anti-racism politics; wind up with the racially-paranoid white guy who thinks you’re “just like” him in an imaginary shared oppression. Point out the mere existence of misogyny or homophobia in Islam; wind up with an acolyte of the Q-Society spruiking their crap at you.

Do anything remotely resembling courting controversy in good faith, and you’ll attract contrarians with delusions of Galileohood.

“I SOLVED ALL OF POLITICS WHILE HUFFING LEAD FUMES IN MY SHED!!1! MALCOLM ROBERTS WAS RIGHT ABOUT SOCIALISM!”

Of course it’s not just the weirdos drawn in by controversy or subculture membership or whatever else. Your friends can always argue among themselves and sometimes poorly; misunderstand each other; jump to conclusions about each other’s motives and so on. And of course, with each salvo you’ll get the pleasure of yet another social media notification.

Friends arguing with friends is fine. Friends using your space to burn each other down is not. Finding yourself politically homeless can leave you wide open in this respect, and it’s a good deal harder to manage when it goes off; you can’t always dismiss this kind of thing as easily as you can the anti-fluoride trolls.

***

Here’s the deal, then.

The odds are that a good number of the people on my friends list are people that I trust more than you. This won’t change just because on some specific points I may agree with you more than I agree with them.

As of writing, most of the people on my friends list have had the opportunity to demonstrate that while not perfect, they have, on balance, preferred to act in good faith. In the instances where they’ve opted to be pissy, they’ve opted to be pissy somewhere other than on my timeline and I respect that.

By accepting your friend request I’m not obligating myself to be your pal, much less your ideological underling. I’ve been accused of being “tuned in” or “with it” before, but I’m not making any promises. And it’s only my small neck of the woods anyway. It’s not like my antics are derailing discussion on the page of some important cause.

Just because I’m political doesn’t alter the fact that my personal space is not an organ of your political campaign. I’m not ceding you that much. I wouldn’t cede that much to my best friend.

While you’re commenting on my timeline, be as critical as you want of a given school of thought, only, try not to be condescending, or to presume authority if you haven’t even bothered to do your homework. (In fact, presuming authority even if you have done the readings isn’t particularly endearing – nobody likes that douche).

A lot of my closest friends are people who read and who’ve been reading for a long time. Spurious quotations of political authors you clearly haven’t read yourself probably won’t end well, and I’ll not rescue you from your embarrassment. (Yes “intersectionalists”, I’m looking at a lot of you).

Sass is fine. Sarcasm and satire are welcome. Abuse is not. Vex is not.

You can call a fascist a fascist, but don’t cry wolf about it on my wall. Radical feminists are not Nazis, “Nazi adjacent” or any kind of fascist.

Be as critical as you want of the idea of gender, but save insults like “tranny” for somewhere else. No matter how just the specifics of a given dispute you’re fighting may be, it’ll never make my timeline a space for vindictiveness.

And yeah, some things are always going to be out-of-bounds.

If you’re an anti-vaxxer, anti-Semite or flat-Earther; please just go away. Believers in Satanic conspiracy theories can catch the same bus.

Angry at women? Bye.

I may be vegan, technically, but that doesn’t mean members of any of the various vegan cults out there are people I respect.

“Gary Yourofsky has just been misunder…”

“Actually, PETA are…”

Bye.

Paleo-cultists can keep their pseudo-science and cod-anthropology to themselves as well.

If you’ve got five thousand friends, or you’re desperately aiming for that target, I’m probably very much not interested in your stuff either. I’m probably going to ignore you after I accept your friend request. No offense meant, but really…

Would-be public figures and artists who present as activists: by default I trust you less than the average person. Accept it. Or don’t. Just don’t complain to me about it.

And if you don’t like any of it, you don’t have to send me a friend request in the first place.

***

Fortunately a good number of people get this. It’s not always so glum, even on social media. It’s just there are narcissists out there in this world who view social media as their own stalking grounds, who will spoil things for others if given half the chance.

I don’t intend on giving them that much.

~ Bruce

Reluctant resolutions

And now for something a little less gripey.

Arbitrary, ceremonial resolutions aren’t something that I’m inclined towards. I think I may have even resolved one New Year’s Day to never have a New Year’s resolution – a promise I may be forced to break.

All my things seem coincidentally to be coming together at one particular point; January.

Next round of blood tests; the standard recovery period before I can properly get back into exercise; the re-opening of a few doors after the silly season and re-engaging with projects that I’d put on the back-burner in the lead-up to my surgery back in October.

This will force me to re-evaluate a number of things and make a number of life changes. Some things will change for good.

I’m apparently not allowed to ever attempt the really heavy weights at gym again for example. My hernia was large enough to get a first though, and the mesh is going to have its work cut out for it. A routine long walk may be on the cards.

The No Drama thing will be getting more of my attention, but will require more planning for anything specific. I’ll leave that to January, but will probably post a little something about the manifesto before then. A lot will be contingent on information given by groups that are presently closed for the festive season.

New Year’s Resolutions: You can’t escape them, it seems. Hopefully I’ll be more cheery-headed when they come due.

~ Bruce

Contemplating other hosts

As a rule, I don’t try to out the personality behind a pseudonym. Anyone still reading who can recall the days of Iain Hall versus (then) “Anonymous Lefty” know which side I was on. My sympathies haven’t changed terribly much, even if the specifics may have a little.

By default I also don’t really care about remembering or revisiting the birthnames of transgender people, and further, regard this matter as independent from the ontology of gender and/or sex, and hence of even less fundamental importance. There are no more innately male or female names than there are innately male or female colours or clothes. There are just gender conventions, and these should be optional.

“Jane”, for example, is a perfectly okay name for a guy, and if some fella had the awful misfortune to be named “Jayden”, “Nigel” or “Moonchild” by his parents, then I’m not going to begrudge him the change of name. The civics of this are obviously generalizable to include the name changes of transgender individuals.

(This is entirely separate to the psychology of changing name, which often seems comparable to the psychology of personalized number plates – something for the most part done by people altogether too self-regarding.)

So the rule stands – I’ll default to post-transition names, and nom de plumes, and pseudonyms and aliases and avatars and so on.

It’s not a rule without exception, though, and what I want to do in certain cases runs up against what is apparently new WordPress policy.

For those who don’t know, the “Gender Identity Watch” blog (among others) was bumped from WordPress some time back, initially being locked-out and thereby unable to download their own content to port elsewhere (the owners of WordPress.com, Automattic eventually relented and handed over the archives). The justification given, ad hoc, was that “deadnaming” was done, and that “deadnaming” was a violation of the Terms of Service. This will set a precedent, of course, and it’s also open as to whether or not the concept of “deadnaming” can be generalized beyond the transgender context, to include other folks who don’t use their birth names (“Hey! How dare you use my High-Security Prison Name!?!?”). That, and whether or not WordPress will one day, out of the blue, adopt such extrapolations as ad hoc policy after shutting down yet more blogs.

The given concern expressed by WordPress alludes to the idea that deadnaming (and misgendering) precipitate suicide attempts, something that unlike the consequences of say the denial of medical options for transitioning (in certain cohorts), I’m quite sceptical of. This belief appears to me to be commonplace manners, elevated to idée reçue, elevated to sciencey-sounding Internet folk wisdom, direly in need of some seriously rigorous investigation. Suicidality is serious after all, and it wouldn’t be the first time activist-pushed-beliefs have turned out to contradict best practice. Whether or not the given concern is even the actual concern though, is itself another matter entirely – one which I won’t be getting into.

That’s the current context, but what’s my exception to the rule, given that my general rule is still not to “deadname” or otherwise refer to people by names other than those they comment under?

Simply, I don’t respect the nom de plumes, aliases or pseudonyms of people who are abusers. If you write under a new or false name in the comments, abusing me or someone else, my instinct will be to use the name most commonly associated with your track record should you have one.

If for example, I feel the need to out an abuser in the comments, I reserve the right to do it, and assert that by commenting in the first place participants agree to these terms. This is generalizable to a cross-media context as well – if someone has been abused on Facebook, or Twitter, or in the print media, or the local Town Hall meeting, and it’s relevant to discussion here, I reserve the right. (Obviously, I don’t limit this to the mentioned context of transgender politics, it’s just that this is the case that’s recently raised the concern).

Here’s a few examples of the kinds of exploits I’m talking about that you’d probably want to avoid:

  • “But, I’ll commit suicide if you associate me with my past of sending rape threats to women online!”
  • “But if you associate my current abusiveness with my track record of abusiveness, I’ll get death threats from the Southern Baptist Church of Deaththreatology, who as a not-even-tangential side-note, are still a factor here! I’m the victim!
  • “But if you invoke my status as a registered sex offender and sender of dick pics by using my old name, you’ll be associating sex offending with the social group I’ve since publicly cozied up to!”

The first is emotional blackmail. The consequences of someone else sending rape threats are their own to deal with. If that kills them, it’s just something else horrible they’re responsible for. Don’t be gaslighted into thinking the duty of care for any given random abuser is yours – even if genuine it’d be a special case of suicidality, not the norm. You’re not their nurse.

The second is blame shifting. The initial abuse and the mentioned death threats are the responsibilities of other parties. You may very well play it careful for the sake of practicality, but this shit being brought to your door is not your fault.

The third is holding a social group – usually a minority – as hostage. Consider someone who’s been nabbed for being a sex pest while Pentacostal in the US, who’s then “reformed”, changed their name, moved to Kenya and become a Humanist who pesters women and children at conferences.  “DON’T OUT ME! THINK OF WHAT THIS ATTENTION WILL DO TO THE STANDING OF KENYAN HUMANISTS! AND THINK OF WHAT THIS WILL DO TO THE LOCAL GAY COMMUNITY! THEY’LL BE DRAGGED INTO IT TOO!”

If you’ve been around the traps long enough, and your eyes haven’t sealed-over in disgust, this kind of cynicism won’t seem entirely alien to you. Most people aren’t like this, and most of your interactions won’t be like this unless you’re very unlucky, or just happen to work with assholes for a vocation*. But when people do pull this bullshit, which happens on occasion, and if you’re running a page or a blog, you’ll want to have options available, including, but not limited to, being able to associate them with their track record to give context to something happening in the here and now.

In a practical sense, this often involves the use of their birth name, either directly, or by reference. This is not wrong for you to do, and unless you’re exceedingly gratuitous to the point of abusiveness, or use it as a means of deliberate incitement to violence, the abuser holds responsibility for any negative consequences they suffer as a result. Feel free to blame them.

This position won’t make WordPress happy, though. My understanding is that the ban on this kind of thing is categorical. So be it.

I’ll comply for as long as I have to, but I won’t like it. I’ll reserve the right, and keep that right in reserve until I can use it without the threat of ridiculous consequences.

If WordPress doesn’t change course on this, then I guess I’ll have to find a new digs elsewhere at some point. My disposition towards Twitter isn’t entirely dissimilar, incidentally.

~ Bruce

* Admittedly, this probably describes everyone who has to use Facebook or Twitter as a part of their work.