“I don’t know you”

I’m not sure if it’s just some eastern state thing I’m yet to familiarize myself with, or a genuinely hypocritical phenomena arising out of organized freethought; being dismissed on the basis of unfamiliarity with an interlocutor.

Basically, you’re in discussion with a self-identified free-thinker, rationalist, Humanist or whatever – often from New South Wales in my experience – and they try to shut you down with the likes of a cliquish “sorry, I don’t know you”. The thing is, the shut-down is neither pertinent to the content of what you’re saying, nor suited to the circumstance; it’s not like you’re actually in their personal space – as much as they may pretend to own the place, you haven’t crashed their tea party.

The setting will be a mutual friend’s Facebook timeline, or a freethought organisation’s page, or so on; an ostensibly neutral territory that may be purposed to someone’s whims, just not your interlocutor’s. The setting is somewhere where at base, the validity of what you argue isn’t contingent upon you having standing or being a stakeholder.

You’ll make your argument, you’ll make no effort to flatter or offend and you’ll make it critical, all of which is perfectly acceptable in any community aspiring to call itself a home to freethought. Then someone will snap at you – usually someone vain – sniffily asking “who are you?”, or otherwise proclaiming your status as alien as if it counters the content of your claims, or warrants that they not even be considered.

I mean, they can refuse to consider what you’re saying, and unless they have some degree of executive responsibility, you can’t expect to force them to tell you why. It’s just that they do tell you why, and the reason why is a bit shit. A bit shit, and a bit indicative of a deeper problem.

Not for the first time, I’ve just had a short discussion with someone online who imagines that they’re open-minded and critical, and that it’s the people who’ve blocked them that are failing to live up to the best rationalist ideals. And not for the first time, I’ve subsequently seen my argument dismissed on the basis of my lack of familiarity to an interlocutor.

The irony here, is the insistence on identifying as open and critical, while simultaneously enacting a motivated shut-down of an argument on the basis that it’s alien. In any given instance, this kind of contradiction is funny. The fact that it seems to get repeated so often is not. Certainly within communities aspiring to freethought it should be regarded as pathological.

Maybe I’ve just been incredibly unlucky in running into this kind of thing repeatedly, or maybe I just bring the worst out of “Freethinkers”, but the vain bunker mentality is not a good look for movements that advocate critical thinking and criticize cults.

~ Bruce

Netiquette

It seems a little bit self-regarding writing-up a comments policy for a small blog these days. Due to changes in the way people consume media online, and the frequency with which I post, I don’t get nearly as much blog traffic as I used to a decade ago. Furthermore commentary is largely something that’s migrated away from the blogosphere towards social media, which for the most part is out of my hands.

Why write a policy confined in scope to an outlet folks won’t use? Why put yourself in the position of being able to be questioned on matters of policy compliance for so little? What kind of reader would press for the precise exercise of such a policy in such a circumstance, anyway?

So this isn’t a policy document. This blog doesn’t have a comments policy. To paraphrase old Art, “I reserve the right to be a capricious bastard…”

Still, what makes for good discussion online is interesting and important, if elusive and ever changing. Instead of delivering edicts limited to an incredibly confined scope, this post serves as a discussion piece, should it be needed, wherever it may be wanted.

***

In the ‘90s, if you joined a discussion list or USENET newsgroup, and “netiquette” was enforced, the kind of edicts you’d see invoked often entailed technological concerns; top-vs-bottom-posting, cross-posting, HTML vs plain-text content and so on. If you were new to the conventions – that is if you hadn’t used email prior to the popular uptake of the World Wide Web – it was a bit like learning the conventions of CB Radio for the first time.

In 1995, Intel’s Sally Hambridge wrote a seminal text for the Network Working Group of the Internet Engineering Task Force; Netiquette Guidelines.  Being largely a response to an influx of “Newbies”, and geared towards providing a blueprint for policy makers at the time, the document has noticeably dated. For example…

“Never send chain letters via electronic mail.  Chain letters are forbidden on the Internet.  Your network privileges will be revoked.  Notify your local system administrator if your ever receive one.”

(Hambridge, Netiquette Guidelines, ‘2.1.1 For mail’, 1995)

By today’s standards, just over two decades later, this clause seems over-reaching and authoritarian. It’s certainly, in as far as the social media equivalent is concerned, un-achievable. If you were to contact your ISP to inform them you’d received a chain letter in 2017, maybe you’d get a reply from the help-desk, but you can pretty much guarantee that the sysadmins wouldn’t be that interested in your query.

What I’d like for you the reader to consider though, are the likely concerns behind, and the context surrounding this rule.

In terms of concerns, to this day chain letters and their equivalents degrade the signal-to-noise ratio in Internet discussion. The best case scenario is some mild entertainment, while the worst, especially when such spam is particularly both viral and dis-informative, is an effect that undermines democracy.

In terms of the context, in 1995 and discussed elsewhere in Hambridge’s text, is the reality that people often didn’t have their own Internet connection – often they had an account at work, or on campus, or so-on. The implication of this, not expressed so clearly in Hambridge’s text, although more obvious at the time, was that your sysadmin was a flesh and blood human being you may very well have even mingled with in meatspace; someone you basically had a pact with rather than someone institutionally removed from you to the umpteenth degree. The illusion that the Internet was a public space, rather than a construct built up on privately owned servers, wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now either.

There also weren’t the same automated bells and whistles more modern sysadmins have today, and this meant that they may very well had to have gotten up close and personal with your drama. Algorithms are copping a lot of flak lately, having introduced an array of self-perpetuating biases into democracy itself, but at base, they’ve saved sysadmins an awful lot of work as well.

So back in the day, if you handled yourself courteously – thus potentially saving your sysadmin an array of thankless and resource draining chores – you got your Internet privileges. Over a more manually-run Internet, over more obviously private infrastructure, saying chain letters were “forbidden” was a far more reasonable expectation.

***

Without wanting to sound ecclesiastical about it, one of the best ways to kill a comments policy, or any policy regarding discussion, is to use the letter of the law to violate the spirit of the law. You’ll see this in particular in any instance where someone who’s abusive online engages in a narrow parsing of the rules in order to confect the case that They’re The Victim Here(tm) – that everyone else just feels that they’ve been abused, but that objectively, by the rules, they’re the one’s engaging in wrongdoing.

If you’ve ever argued with a Men’s Rights Activist, or other, similarly querulous sorts, you already know what I’m on about.

I’m no doubt re-inventing the wheel by making this observation, but I strongly suspect that as technology ages, literal rules of communication, heavily grounded in the particulars of a given medium, are bound to act as an anchor upon civil, open discussion. This rapid dating of rules then further compounds the problem of the letter of the law being used to violate its spirit.

It wouldn’t have been out of place, for example, for a 1990s sysadmin to consider what someone did over a different Internet connection and a different medium, outside their purview. However, even late last decade, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for someone moderating blog comments to take Twitter harassment into consideration when considering who is or isn’t allowed to participate.

It’s not that the concerns have changed, it’s that the technology, the specific consequences, and hence the range of feasible implementations of the rules, have. This, I think, is true much more for online discussion than for say the conventions of formal meetings in meatspace.

New conventions were needed after Gopher gave way to the World Wide Web, the latter eventually bringing in an influx of “newbies”. Newer rules were needed with the explosion of Web 2.0 in the Aughts. Social media has subsequently thrown the specifics of a lot of this out of the window – supplanting the older technologies all while increasing the size of a user base that largely doesn’t care about how it was all done before they arrived, much less why.

***

So what, then? No rules? Maybe not here, but in general I don’t think it’s all a lost cause.

While the specific acts have changed – SkeezBros don’t ask “ASL?” on Facebook like they did on Yahoo! Chat, and you don’t have to manually accept that dick pic on Facebook the way you had to on IRC – the mentality of abusers has not. Instead of grounding the rules so heavily in tech, then, why not base them on something more persistent, like basic attitudes?

I can think of a few good reasons why this may present problems. It is easier for example, for both algorithms and humans to target cuss words, than it is to run your text through something based on the DSM-V. While something based on the DSM-V may provide insights into more far reaching behaviours than what the current tech used to enforce the ToS does, it would be more expensive.

That is until Facebook finds a profitable way to sell the results of a DSM-V-based test to the likes of potential employers, insurers and so on. (Assuming they haven’t already).

Ultimately though, I think that in as far as human involvement in facilitating online discussion is concerned – and at least until AI is more field-proven as democracy-friendly, I think humans should be more involved here – it’d be good for folks to familiarize themselves with a bit of human nature and its implications. (Viewers of Halt and Catch Fire can consider me Team Comet on this front.)

***

What sort of things about human nature? What kind of considerations?

At the risk of appearing to create a set of rules for this blog, here’s a list of a few things that come to mind. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it highlights the kind of attitude-based, rather than specific-tech-based approach to moderating online discussion I’m talking about.

This bit will probably blow out the word-count, so don’t feel obliged to not skip forward if you get the gist.

No media outlet, nor its authors, are apps on your computer.

Automated, near-instantaneous electronic gratification may have conditioned you to expect a certain response at the click of a button. But unless shoe-horned into inequitable conditions, humans don’t offer this feature to end-users. If you’re in the habit of being indulged this way, try to grow out of it, and certainly don’t expect it from actual people in discussions of contentious issues.

(Nor, if you manage to get humans to be largely compliant with such expectations, should you expect quality discussion; reduce a human to the role of a bot, then don’t expect them to produce output of a higher standard.)

If you still have trouble with this concept, consider taking your technological solipsism to a therapist.

You are not the editor of someone else’s media.

Unless you’ve got a heap of state power behind you, or a contract employing or otherwise positioning you as an editor, you’re not participating in discussion in that capacity. Bloggers etc. get to make their own mistakes in their own space. Think you’ve got legal recourse to change that? See a lawyer, or ask Napoleon The Boar.

There are occasions where a friendly, professional editor may chip in with editorial advice for an emerging writer, but even then, from what I can tell, said editors tend to observe and appreciate the emerging writer’s creative autonomy. Unsolicited editorializing is something I’ve only really seen either from people who aren’t editors at all, or who are recently-graduated, self-employed editors with massive entitlement biases. (Admittedly, my experience is limited).

If you try hard enough, maybe you’ll be a shit lawyer.

Lawyers tend not to push judges as far as some trolls try to push admins, because if they did, they’d be turfed for contempt of court. This seems funny to me, because a lot of Internet trolls appropriate the terms-of-art and dramatized rhetoric of TV lawyers.

Not that I think lawyers are perfect role-models, but I think folks cribbing their lines from Rumpole of the Bailey could at least emulate a little of his self-restraint (such as it is).

You’re not owed affection or affirmation.

Sure, people shouldn’t dehumanize you, but it’s not incumbent upon individuals, as individuals, to tend to your wounds after the fact – even individuals with opinions about the nature of the kind of dehumanization you’ve experienced. There are a lot of ways this matter can play out, politically.

Even if you’ve been dehumanized by an oppressor, conservatives may very well tell you to harden the fuck up. This wouldn’t be my approach. Rather, I’d argue that its the responsibility of a progressive state to cater to your psychological health via a universal public health care system. (That, and for the system causing the initial oppression to be overturned).

I can’t however, see myself as being personally responsible for providing this kind of health care; for a start, while interested in these kinds of issues, I’m not a qualified practitioner. Nor incidentally are most bloggers. You don’t need people like me tinkering around in your brain. Further, there’s a whole load to unpack here concerning the issue of individual action versus collective organizing (and how progressive causes have been undermined by such individualism).

This is where I’d find common ground with a number of conservative bloggers; it’s not our job as individuals. We’re not obliged to love you. We’re not personally obliged to provide care. Suffice to say that those who aren’t actually oppressed (yes you, MRAs), can reasonably expect even less sympathy.

“Practitioner of pathological behavior” is not an oppressed class.

The mentally ill may on occasion exhibit behaviour that is pathological towards other people, but as any number of people affecting social justice concerns have rightfully pointed out, pathological behaviour towards others isn’t something mental illness guarantees, nor that mental health prevents. We mentally ill are not incapable of occasionally keeping our shit together.

The corollary that some people seem unwilling to make, though, is that while the mentally ill may form an disadvantaged class, a predisposition to abusive behaviour does not qualify as membership in this class.

If you’re a clinical narcissist, and that’s the limit of your psychological flaws, then sorry, no, you’re not mentally ill and you’re not being stigmatized/oppressed on that basis. All this means is that you have a particular set of character deficiencies that makes you a pain, and that this may be of diagnostic use for people with an interest in that kind of thing (e.g. employers, prisons etc.). The pathology is in what you do, not in what’s being done to you.

This doesn’t make you a victim of SJWs/2nd Wave Feminists/The Family Court/Reductive Positivists/Psychiatry/[Insert Anyone Else You Wish To Scapegoat]. Nor, back on the matter of this piece, does it make poor behaviour on the Internet magically excusable.

If this is you, people get to exclude you from their spaces on precisely this basis, not in spite of it. No amount of trying to shoehorn yourself into a category where you don’t belong changes this.

Connotations

Intending your words to have different connotations than the ones people attach to them won’t change the connotations attached to them. Sure, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate that some, possibly many people may extend a degree of charity of interpretation to you. Yes, some other folks will vexatiously attribute any connotation to any word you use if it serves their ends.

But if you wind up with dishonest interlocutors, and they’ve not come to you, then a solution is as easy as walking away. Why spend time and effort at a blog, or Facebook page, or IRC channel, or wherever else where you’ll be intentionally misunderstood?

And if you’ve honestly been inept in your use of language, and you haven’t been abused for it, you’ve got an opportunity to learn. Why squander that by letting your ego get in the way?

Why would your very first instinct be to be skeptical of the sincerity of a person attaching different connotations to a word than you; a skepticism that kicks in before even a consideration of the semantics of the word, let alone the context your interlocutor argues from?

The bots have to pass a Turing Test, and so do you.

The Turing Test, put simply, is a test to see if an artificial intelligence can act so much like a human, that it becomes indistinguishable from one. There’s probably no good reason why actual humans should be held to a lower standard online, so it’d also probably be a good idea for people to lift their game to a level more convincing than that of an automated advertisement for penis pills.

Best not to make your contributions boilerplate if you want actual discourse. (Sam Harris fans, I’m looking at you, but not at you in particular).

You get no receipts.

So someone’s blocked/banned you from their own space online. Their reason: …

Get used to it.

***

It’s maybe a bit much to expect everyone with control over an online outlet to exercise judgement in-line with a thorough study of human nature. Despite the verbiage, I certainly haven’t reached that benchmark here. Like most people I haven’t majored in psychology.

To some extent, the success of a healthy place for open discussion is going to rely on the discernment of readers, at least in as far as supporting good hosts of discussion. A world where the likes of The Mind Unleashed and The Freethought Project can masquerade as the hosts of serious discussion, in front of millions no less, possibly hints at a need for moderated expectations. The mere existence of the Alt-Right as an Internet powerhouse makes this seem all the more daunting.

And not everyone who wants to host discussion in good faith – as is their right – can be a good student of human nature to begin with, let alone put things into practice. The hurdles are many, and it’s not the case that we’d all want to discourage argument in good faith, even if hosted a little ineptly.

As personally confronting as the prospect may be, I’m finding the prospect of judging people by their character, rather than moderating them according to the precise letter of their word or the formation of their metadata, is going to be the best way to be fair to the fair-minded. For all the risks, I’m hoping this outlook will be the more sustainable in the long run, for anyone who takes this approach.

~ Bruce

More Plebiscite Madness

800px-Rainbow_flag_breezeIt’s just been announced via the ABC and other outlets, that the planned marriage equality plebiscite – the non-binding plebiscite that will cost taxpayers a bundle just so that people can tick a box as to whether or not we arbitrarily give a group of humans their human rights – has a enrollment registration period ending on August the 24th. That’s basically a fortnight from now, as of writing.

The plebiscite already contains a massive potential source of sample bias in that being non-compulsory, it selects for more strongly held opinions, and it’s pretty much an established fact that conservative Christian fundamentalists for example, are dab hands at organizing their base to skew unrepresentative polls. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like Shannon Noll, but see then-fundamentalist Guy Sebastian’s Australian Idol win all those years back for an example of the power of fundamentalist poll skewing). A short enrollment registration period only further helps lower casual, non-organized votes.

This cynicism is sure to provoke apathy, and I have a number of friends who think this is a deliberate aim of the plebiscite. I don’t know that I disagree with them.

Still, as shitty as the plebiscite is, and as repugnant as the idea of simply voting on someone else’s rights is, there will be political consequences to the vote. If the anti-marriage equality crowd win this thing, then despite an unrepresentative result that would contradict more accurate polling, they’ll have a talking point to rally around. Politics has become more and more fact averse, so the political capital this would provide fundamentalists shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Why are those communist social justice warriors still trying to get gay marriage if we won the vote?!?! Why don’t they respect democracy!”

Further, the intrinsic lack of worth of this plebiscite, should the anti-marriage equality vote win, will not stop fundamentalists using it as a stick to beat parliamentarians, gays and lesbians with. (As if the plebiscite itself wasn’t bad enough in this respect).

If on the other hand the plebiscite indicates that a majority of voters want marriage equality, then while parliamentarians won’t be bound, the anti-marriage equality groups will have a huge rhetorical stick taken from them. It will, in a sense, alienate their lunatic platforms further from the rest of the Australian public.

It also offers, or improves the possibility, that cowardly equivocators in parliament will be further exposed and hung out to dry.

So, I’ll be registering and voting for marriage equality. Despite all the bullshit, I’d encourage others to do the same. (Albeit if the poll doesn’t get shot down before it gets to the postal vote – cripes this is getting absurd).

~ Bruce

Photo Source: Benson Kua (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike).

Circling The Abyss

“A blog on politics, society and life as viewed from somewhere in orbit between the precariat and the event horizon.” – Circling The Abyss.

That’s the tagline for this outlet, and while reasonably descriptive, there’s more to be derived from this blog’s title. “Circling The Abyss” is a humanistic comment on living.

In the most obvious sense, we’re all in a decaying orbit, caught in mortality’s gravitational pull. We’re all slowly drawn towards a metaphorical black hole, from which once reached there’s no return. I’ve noticed too, as time passes by, that the rest of the universe seems to speed up – a subjective analogue for time dilation, albeit one for the thermodynamically advanced.

The trick is to resist the downward spiral in as far as is feasible, all while living out what time you have as best you can.

A relentless, downward tug isn’t the only thing you have to contend with. Life gives you challenges. All sort of detritus can be pulled into your orbital path ; hardship, malfeasance and malady. Occasionally there’ll be the random happy accident too, which you’ll want to embrace.

And then there’s the humanism; the human solutions to the problems of living, both for yourself and for others; the orbital corrections and the engineered gravity assists; the human built meanings.

In general terms my own personal challenges are incredibly common. Like an awful lot of people I live payday to payday, never quite sure what I’ll do when and if there’s a break in my finances. Like a good number of people, I’ve fought and will continue to fight against a downward spiral into insanity.

There’s also the ever-present peril of losing perspective despite being amidst the rest of humanity; of shifting your gaze away from your orbit around the abyss, in order to mentally orbit your own navel. Solipsism solves nothing. Humanism is best done collaboratively, and in good faith.

For my own not-at-all-special part, and like many others, I’ll accept mortality and approach the challenges of socio-economic decrepitude with the best mix of solidarity, stoicism and epicureanism I can manage; the solidarity to seek a common good, a stoicism adequate to accept what is real, and an epicureanism sufficient to remain sane in the face of death.

This is what’s meant by “Circling The Abyss”.

~ Bruce

Depression and kindness

One of the many shitty things about depression is the issue of not being there for people, and not just in the sense of being emotionally distant.

A example of what I’m talking about that’s common for me at least, occurs when folks drop their belongings in public. When you’ve got a head full of cold porridge, and someone drops a card, or some cash or whatever else, you may be the first to notice, but you won’t be the first to act even if you’re physically well positioned to.

Someone else will come along, and scoop that thing up and hand it over, or at least point out to the relevant party that they’ve dropped something, all while you’re left there gurning or with a blank stare. If you’re a bit unkempt, as I am on some occasions, you’ll probably get one of those “better pick it up before that hobo grabs it!” stares too.

I reflected on this more keenly early this morning, after automatically performing a minor act of kindness and then having had it brought to my attention by the beneficiary. The levels of cold porridge in my skull have been at a particularly low level for a few months now, and this latest episode made me recall that only the day before I’d also been first off the mark in helping a senior citizen with her misplaced pair of gloves – all of which seemed quite out of the ordinary.

***

It’s been bothering me for decades, this cycle of little failures to be helpful, the occasional weird stares, and somewhat less frequent objections to my apparently inconsiderate nature. Mainly it’s the not-helping part that’s the worst, although it has to be said that my own subjective discomfort with this is only a small part of the equation.

Every now and then there’s been a small window of opportunity for an act of kindness that’s been missed because I’ve been too slow, all while nobody else has been around to pick up the slack. I’m left wondering, in terms of utility, just how much is being lost in aggregate across the human population just due to kind acts stolen away by mood disorders and mental illness.

Then there’s the kids to worry about. The hasty judgements (ala fundamental attribution error) I’ve copped on account of my sometimes-lethargy span back as far as I’ve had depression (i.e. as far back as High School). A couple of teachers were pretty quick to tell me I was some variety of bad person, but in their defense, this was in the years back before Beyond Blue was even an idea, and before a lot of GPs were even properly diagnosing depression. (I know, it’s a shit defense, but a shit defense is still a defense).

Still, the thought that judgmental teachers are still going to jump down kids’ throats just because they’re a little slow in expressing their consideration rubs me the wrong way. It’s a lot less excusable nowadays, not that it ever really was.

I don’t expect kids to be mollycoddled or showered with affirmations, but feeding them lies about themselves isn’t going to help them either.

***

There’s probably a hundred and one ways to extrapolate from what I’ve described here, and I’m going to stop myself right there if only because I’ve got a sample size of one. What I want to say in writing this, is just how easy it is to take the ability to be helpful for granted.

I actually needed it pointed out to me that I was being helpful – it just came that easily at no noticeable expense to myself, such that I was barely aware I did what I did. Now I’m thinking I may understand how people view mild unhelpfulness as both an exception and as pathological – it’s a bit like watching something autonomic switching off in that practicing little acts of kindness, normally, can come almost as naturally as breathing.

Though none of this means people are going to reach the correct diagnosis as to why someone’s kindness appears redacted when some of us aren’t first cab off the rank to help another.

~ Bruce

Contemplating Humanist affiliation

A number of years ago I left the Humanist Society of South Australia under somewhat of a cloud, ultimately opining in print at the end of an extended disclosure, that I didn’t have anything more I wanted to write about the organization specifically. Nothing much has changed in that latter respect; either in as far as I can tell, nothing’s happened that would make me want to comment further, or I’m left with smaller issues that I’ve been informed of that I’m not in a position to properly investigate before making a case. So don’t ask me to (thanks).

At any rate, after my departure, not wanting to sever with IHEU/CAHS affiliated bodies entirely, I did a brief mail-around of a couple of other CAHS affiliated bodies to see if they’d take a South Australian. Queensland didn’t reply, quite possibly relating to some pretty intense upheavals at an executive level at the time, while the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) did get back to me, and in the affirmative. So I joined the HSV.

***

It’s a fun fact that when you do anything remotely akin to whistleblowing in public, you’ll wind up being contacted by people who’ve either tried to blow the whistle themselves, or who have something they just need to get off their chest. I’ve had all sorts of feedback and information fired at me in the back channels, not all of it trustworthy, and even less usable.

But it’s the verifiably true stuff that you can’t or don’t know how to act on that’s the most vexing. The context of some of this stuff spans decades and countries, and it’s hard to tell if or how some of it can be meaningfully addressed; court cases from decades ago demonstrating malfeasance by a Humanist I’ve never heard of, who was then boosted by an overseas Humanist organization I’ve never had anything to do with are a little out of my scope.

People have told me things about individuals from the HSV, and they told me before I opted to join. I have no doubt that my joining pissed off at least one former HSV member who’d contacted me. The thing is, that while some of the info given to me was verifiable, it was hard-to-impossible to extrapolate from those facts, to the organization as a whole, or even the committee in particular. Stating that dickheads exist within an organization is a pretty insufficient critique. Functioning organizations have dickheads too.

In terms of cultural problems though, even at my distance from the organization – my membership is nominal and pretty much a mere formality – there are some pretty overt warning signs; the publication in the Australian Humanist (edited by a founding HSV member) a few years back of a poem that was zero percent critique of Islam, and 100% denigration of Muslims; a terrible defense of the choice to publish this poem and another work of garbage in the very same issue; a committee that wasn’t close to being properly visible, and so on.

Not a lot of evil, but a lot of things to make you consider how functional a group is.

In terms of my miniscule involvement – I’ve witnessed a couple of pathetic displays online by folks of influence within the organization myself, and have just recently witnessed one of the smarter ones – one with influence over a public organ no less – claiming that harassment, sexism and so-on within atheist circles is largely made up, essentially just because it’s obviously true. This kind of reasoning doesn’t bode well for an organization that’s supposed to pursue reason in service to compassion.

On the flip-side, at the very least the HSV’s organization and promotion of public events has seemed honest and professional. I can’t tell you how sick I’ve grown of seeing atheist promotional shenanigans, either from afar or up close; organizers publicly announcing speakers from serious projects prior to confirmation, only for those speakers to predictably fall through; promoting their own members as speakers with misleading titles, honorifics and superlatives, and peddling non-peer reviewed, untested and untestable crank hypotheses as central to public “seminars”. The HSV, however, possibly has the best average quality of speaker academically speaking, out of all of the Australian Humanist societies, and the speakers are promoted formally and accurately, without gimmickry. That ain’t nothing.

(No, I haven’t been to any of these meetings, being in South Australia during all the ones I’d liked to have attended, but I don’t need to to make the above judgements; a good number of the people speaking have published works they can be judged by.)

Of course, it’s not just the HSV that has merits and cultural problems. The NSW Humanists have quite an asset in Humanist House, and quite a liability in not having been forthright in discussion of how they fended off entryism from neo-Nazis, nor how it all got nearly as bad as it did in the first place. The Humanist Society of NSW has had changes to its leadership since then, and I’m not interested in castigating, or in investigating to see what miniscule portions of blame can be ascribed to specific members of the current executive, but still, it’s cause for pause. Things don’t ever go this badly without cultural problems being a factor, and a fresh new executive isn’t going to just make those problems up and disappear.

Then there are all of the asinine arguments and ideations that just grind away at you, turning your resolve to dust; “Public criticism of Humanist leaders betrays your oath!”; “Children are sexual beings!”; “I don’t care if they’re a demonstrably mendacious climate denialist, I’m interested in how they make me feel about myself!”; “Geert Wilders is just misunderstood!”; “I’m thinking of incorporating astrology into my counselling work!”; “The women who accused Assange of rape work for the CIA!”; “People should be able to fuck pigs!”; “If some of this finite publication space wasn’t allocated to voice sentiments at odds with the IHEU minimum statement, why, that would be censorship!”; “Michael Shermer is so cool *swoon*.” You’ll never be free of this kind of stuff, anywhere, but you’d think you’d encounter a little less of it from people in spaces purposed to rational, humane, critical discussion.

So basically, if I up and leave the HSV, it’ll be a choice between asking the ACT Humanists or the Western Australian lot if they’ll have me, or seeing if an overseas IHEU affiliated body will accept my membership (I’m thinking Humanists UK). I’d just like to be able to settle down, and ease my way into meaningful involvement, digitally, without having to worry about how a community’s accumulation of alfoil may influence my WiFi signal.

***

Increasingly I’m finding it difficult to credit Australian Humanist societies with the ability or even intent to pursue Humanist objectives. There have been a few recent positives – such as the turn away from awarding the AHoY Award to rather obvious celebrity choices, and the CAHS website has been improved dramatically.

But the speed with which time and energy can just be diverted away from intelligent, purposeful discussion, in order to service petty defensiveness and entitled bunyip-feudalism is just so damn discouraging. Too many Australian Humanists seem far too insular, and far too many are accustomed to being flattered as if flattery were the whole point of Humanism. The moment that Humanists of good will attain a little political momentum, that momentum risks being either co-opted for the purposes of virtue signaling, or shut down entirely.

I’ll continue to consider my options, and will ask around in due course.

~ Bruce

Still waiting for that bus (to fall under)

In October of last year, I wrote that metaphorically, I’m waiting for a bus to fall under. I made a few assertions that I honestly believe, but which have got other people – particularly women – in trouble when expressed.

By rights, at least by the standards of a lot of the discourse I’ve seen over the past couple of years, someone should have called me a transphobe, but nobody has. It’s not like I went out of my way to be inconspicuous either.

While I may have avoided inflammatory rhetoric, or strong claims that I’m not sure I can commit to, or statements that serve as answers to questions that I think are malformed, the post from last October was shared on social media by “known TERFs”. I saw the traffic come in, and yes, some of it may have been channeled via social media “bubbles”, but there was enough traffic from either open circulation or sources that have been ideologically policed, for me to be able to suspect an impending “TERFening”. And yet it didn’t occur.

I’m not actually intending to make a habit of harping on about transgender politics in future. This isn’t my gig. I’m not a stakeholder and I have other things I do want to write about. I’ve only got involved this far in because I think some of the elements that are pathological within trans-activism are generalizable, present in other forms of activism, and it’s these generalizable problems that I’m particularly interested in. While I’ll address these problems again in future, I can’t and won’t guarantee that it’ll be in reference to trans activism.

I’m nobody’s soldier in this, and all the blame here is my own, just so you know where to lay it.

However, because I didn’t get any tar, nor so much as a single feather the last time around, and because I want to be quite clear about where I stand for anyone who harbors any suspicions, I feel I should re-iterate. Allow me to repeat, re-phrase and add a few assertions more bluntly this time around:

  • Having an interest in dolls or the colour pink does not make a child a girl. Boys can and do like these things on occasion too, and would more often, only they’re discouraged from doing so.
  • It’s not bigotry for people to refuse to have sex with someone else, irrespective of whether or not that someone else is a member of an oppressed group. Sexual intercourse is not a part of the commons to be dolled out via social justice campaigns.
  • Nobody is obliged to find penises sexually attractive. Nobody.
  • “Women have a right to abortions” is a legitimate political statement.
  • The concept of the “cotton ceiling” may not have originally been intended as rape-cultured, but it’s at least acquired that status.
  • Telling women on social media to suck your cock because they disagree with you makes you a misogynist.
  • Without assuming gender essentialism, “cis” doesn’t mean anything.
  • Sexual discrimination, as distinct from gender discrimination, exists and is enforced by implicit and explicit gender roles, sexist laws and institutional biases.
  • Intersex people exist.
  • The violent individuals who bash trans people in public toilets are far more likely to be men who don’t read Germaine Greer or Julie Bindel than women who do. They’re far more likely to be men who are far more likely to pay attention to the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Sam Newman (i.e. not feminists).
  • Whatever their mistakes, laying blame upon radical feminists for the actions of violent men they have no influence over is disingenuous at best.

Each of the above statements has met at least two of three selection criteria to be listed, the first two criteria being necessary, and the third optional; I actually believe the statement; I have seen people castigated by purportedly liberal-left or radical-left individuals for expressing the statement , and that I have seen a good number of my reflexively GLBT-supporting friends essentially making the same statement themselves.

If the above really does make me a transphobe, and you happen to be one of my lefty friends reading it, the odds are that you’re a transphobe too and I’ve seen you being it. Congratulations. Although I suspect the odds are that you’re less likely to be called on it if you’re a man, you never know. I’ll leave you to ponder what you’ve done wrong, because obviously I’m not going to be able to enlighten you, what with thinking all of the above is just lemon-peachy.

Trans acquaintances reading this will likely already know about this far better than I could articulate, possibly having been told that they’re self-loathing transphobes for expressing similarly verboten sentiments. (From where I’m sitting, this kind of condemnation looks an awful lot like calling vanilla-gendered men “misandrist beta cuck mangina” just because they happen to believe in enthusiastic consent, personal boundaries and so-on.)

As for those who I’m not acquainted with, I suspect either you’ve got enough here to judge me by, or you’re not inclined to judge. If you are inclined to judge, but can’t find anything objectionable, I’m sure you can copy and paste something from somewhere that makes you feel suitably righteous. Either way, it’s your call, and I can leave things at this point knowing that I’ve been forthright and open.

If it comes to it, please be decent to one another in the comments. I’ve seen this stuff get nasty before. Now if you’ll excuse me, a bus has got me to catch.

~ Bruce