Medicated #04: If you can’t come out swinging…

Contra this time last year, I can sleep quite well, actually. Thanks for asking. Too well, in fact.

An appointment with the doctor has it that the source of a persistent narcolescence is likely something other than my medication. Apparently my SSRI of choice doesn’t do that.

To test the hypothesis, my dosage is being dropped by half.

Gym has been suspended, and then given the green light, owning to the need for an opinion on an umbilical hernia I likely first obtained when body surfing across Gawler Place. It was either that or a taxi would have ground me into road pizza. I’ll take the hernia, thanks.

As it turns out, it’s not so serious, and it would have been better (with the benefit of hindsight) had I stayed at gym. Gym helps with my depression. It also makes me sleepy.

Now I’ve been away from the blogosphere quite a bit this year, but don’t you think that means I’ve been doing nothing.

In my spare time, when not twiddling my thumbs, I’ve been trying to organise the drafting of a harassment policy for the Humanist Society of South Australia (HSSA). We’re going to do this democratically, or not at all, so that takes a little more time, work, and patience than if we were to opt the route of executive power. I like to think that discussion both makes for a better policy, and keeps the membership aware of why the policy is there.

In dribs and drabs of I’ve-got-to-get-it-finished-soon (although it really leads into an event in May), I’ve been working on an article I started in December of last year. Suffice to say, the fact checking, verification and investigation took longer than I thought, and I now know a bunch of stuff related both tangentially and directly to the subject, than I ever knew before.

Some of it I wish I didn’t. Some of it agitates my clinical depression.

I’m forced to ask myself; which is more depressing, the knowledge that a problem exists, or inaction on said problem? Because if inaction is more depressing, then being depressed into inaction is going to cause feedback.

Problem; Inaction; Depression; Inaction; More depression; More inaction.

It’d be a lie to say that I’ve been inactive, generally, but by fuck (which is sacred around here), I can’t half feel the blanket pressing down on me.

Which I guess is an improvement over the last twenty years. The blanket always did press down on me to some extent, only for the most part, I wasn’t aware of it. I guess the meds have been doing their work.

I guess the crux of it is that the blanket doesn’t give me room for a good swing and hit. The alternative is struggling?

I’ll labour on. I mean, you do that when you’re depressed anyway, as best you can. The trick though, is to find the things that motivate you, which contrary to the cliché, are not necessarily the things you love.

Burning moral outrage doesn’t burn in me like it used to, which has had the twin effect of helping me see things clearer, and investigate further instead of getting my jocks in a twist. But a little more impulsiveness along these lines would at least help me get my volume of writing up.

Of course, I don’t burn out, either, being as I am at the moment.

I can’t even act out anger for the rhetoric of the rant anymore. Or at least, not for an extended period.

Poetry, or at least poetic prose is starting to flow more freely, and with humanistic intents. One of the themes emerging the HSSA has been religion’s monopoly on hope, and it seems to me that a godless literary tradition could offer competition.

Short of the suspended critical thinking of some of the transhumanists, the selfishness (and self-serving readings) of the Randroids, or the totalitarianism of some of the worst of the 20th century’s godless dogmas, that is. A literary tradition that speaks to what good humans can do, without getting all bleary-eyed about it.

The thing is, human folly notwithstanding, there’s still reason for hope without recourse to divine intervention, or secular fictions. Denmark does it pretty well, and largely without recourse to deities.

I have selfish reasons for wanting to see these hopes recognised in my own time, and my own circle, if only to motivate me through my own depression. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t this side to it.

That being said, I’d like to think that this would be a good way to get out there, if not quite swinging. I’d like to think that it’d be a good way to help others, and to fulfil an ethos of contribution.

But more on that, hopefully soon enough.

I have things planned and in the works. We’ll touch base again, and hopefully (I’m not ashamed to use the word) I’ll have a little more to show for my efforts.

~ Bruce

Upgraded…

Just a short bit of news…

The Humanist Society of South Australia Inc, has now been officially incorporated (nice work, Pres and Secretary!) We now await the decision of the national council to see if we’ll be accepted into the national and global fold.

Also, I’ve been up-voted to treasurer. Uncontested. It is treasury after all.

In semi-related news, I’m considering adapting Keatingisms into my everyday language. Desiccated coconuts and spivs beware.

~ Bruce

…The Expert of Everything

Years of preparation have gone into breeding The Perfect Expert of Everything. Unfettered and unimpaired by having had to have read anything, but adept at entering into every domain and every conversation, the Expert of Everything threatens to make everyone else redundant, in their relentless quest to have things their own way.

Why do readings at University, when they’d only be re-inventing the wheel – they already know what it’s about, which is why they dominate discussion in tutorials.

This time has been better spent, by The Expert, honing their skills, lawyering Dungeons and Dragons games to their own advantage, and chairing debates on who would win out of Superman and The Hulk.

These skills, they then bring to every meeting, of every kind, for these skills are infinitely transferable. The Expert, can be identified through their use of earthy, common phrases, used to keep ‘in-touch’ with the laity.

***

‘Political correctness’: This phrase lets you know just what a dissident, and critical thinker you’re dealing with.

‘It stands to reason’, or ‘it just stands to reason’: The Expert, is reasonable in all things, including their most hastily adopted assumptions.

‘I’d argue that…’: The Expert doesn’t need to read, to keep up with the discussion (see ‘re-inventing the wheel’).

‘Aha!’: The Expert has encountered something like this before, and it was silly.

‘Haha!’: You have reminded The Expert of one of their past intellectual conquests, friend!

‘Hmmm…’: The Expert could say something, but doesn’t want to embarrass you.

‘Yes, but…’: This is how The Expert lets you know, mid-sentence, the you’re argument is going to go awry. The Expert already knows what you are thinking, and doesn’t want you to embarrass yourself.

‘X is often misunderstood’: Misunderstood by laypersons like you, not by The Expert, who doesn’t even need to read about these things (again, see ‘re-inventing the wheel’).

‘It seems like…’: The Expert is charitably allowing you to join the dots.

‘I can’t imagine…’: Logically impossible, despite what you may think you can reasonably imagine.

‘Hah hah haaa! [wink]’ (that’s three ‘haa’s with a key change in the middle, and a wink at the end): The Expert knows that you think they are charming, but are too modest to let you know.

Never under any circumstances, allow the commonality of this language lead you to believe that The Expert has nothing new to teach you, nor assume that any of their wisdom is borrowed…

***

Other, less definitive signs that you have an Expert of Everything in front of you are; possible beard ownership; likely penis ownership (even if diminutive), and an almost universal penchant for exaggerated or grandiose hand gestures.

(In rare cases, ‘tosser’s wrist’ – a symptom of compulsive twenty-sided dice rolling, often resembling a masturbatory gesture – may present itself to the observer).

***

The ecology of The Expert of Everything is that they often gravitate towards rationalist social groups; atheists, ‘Skeptics’, humanists, and so on. Intellectual and organisational resources are monopolised as competing minds are made redundant by The Expert’s sheer charisma, wit and genius.

While this may give mere mortal members a reprieve, such monocultures are inherently unstable.

The Expert may through a sheer act of will and self-approval, achieve ‘Mission Accomplished’ status for their social group, rendering the group purposeless. The Expert may see beyond the horizons of the group, and bring new purposes beyond the ken of ordinary members, thus unavoidably excluding them (this process may involve peanuts, imported Cherry Coke, and ‘character sheets’.)

Most likely though, is that the normal means of operation will atrophy while the group is dependent on The Expert, for everything. At some point when The Expert is needed elsewhere (which they always are), their dedication to a group will have to wane, leaving an unprepared people to fend for themselves.

You would be selfish and keep The Expert all to yourself?

***

If you don’t want to destabilise you Expert-friendly group, or you wish to attract an Expert of Everything to your existing, expertise-devoid, group, there are realities to observe.

By all means question The Expert (they’ll tell you all about that), but don’t undermine them, or waste their time with contrarian clap-trap. They have finite time on this Earth, and they are used of their opponents being self-evidently wrong, as this is always the case.

Make sure peanuts and beer are at hand, and if not that, then cheesy-puffy-things, and cola. The mind of an Expert of Everything doesn’t run on nothing – that would defy the Laws of Thermodynamics (which they’ll tell you about)!

Remember to disregard all evolutionary psychology as just-so-stories, unless they allow The Expert to justify their sexual proclivities, or their need for cheesy-puffy-things, or to explain the inherent attractiveness of their non-deodorized body. These things are self-evident, and hence need no empirical substantiation, ergo evolutionary psychology is true in these respects, Q.E.D.

In all other respects, if in doubt, don’t ask – you’ll be told. Unless you’re told to ask, in which case I’m wrong – I’m not an Expert of Everything.

~ Bruce

See also: Neckbeard.

Ethical vegetarianism and compromise

Early last week, I had a little chat via Twitter with the Spark The Conversation crowd on the matter of choosing between a principled but poor life, and selling out your morals to be wealthy. Notably, I’m a piss-poor lumpenprole.

I’m not sure what the boundary between developed-world poverty, and developed-world getting-by is in monetary terms, but I’m close. I get by on less than the aspirationals, although it helps that I don’t have a housing loan or children to burn money on.

So what would be the upside of my selling out? Well, I’ve been told it’s not too late for me to enter into the world of professional fishing. I could probably still make quite a bit of money this way if I applied myself to it.

There’s the obvious barrier of course. I don’t kill animals if I don’t have to, and I don’t get other people to do it for me; I’ve made an ethical decision not to be a party to inflicting this kind of suffering. Obviously, this rules out fishing.

There are degrees of commitment, and a spectrum of values in relation to the matter. Some people are weekend meat-eaters attempting to lower their environmental footprint, while others are lacto-ovo vegetarian every day of the week because it forms a Diderot unity with their newsboy caps and teashades. Others again won’t drink milk in order to keep the fairies at the bottom of the garden happy, and then of course, there are those who eat meat with an array of motivations for doing so (and those who don’t think about it at all).

Now unless you’re the vegetarian Übermensch (is that even possible?) or the last human on Earth, you’re going to have to deal with other people holding at least some of these values. You’ll have to treat these values as either rationally non-binding (within practical or definitional boundaries – I’ll spare us all the meta-ethics), or even just practically outside the realm of discussion. You’ll have to compromise at some point (even ending your association is a kind of compromise).

Which brings the discussion up to about last Friday night, when I was out having dinner with a couple of local Humanists. Vegetarians outnumbered meat-eaters two-to-one, and a conversation was sparked!

I was the overzealous new guy on the vegetarian block (it’s been about two years now), being a bit of a know-it-all (not that it got me into trouble), when I had the issue of compromise raised smack bang in front of my face. I managed to swerve at the last-minute, only clipping the corner of my ego.

I was feeling pretty happy with myself, having been able to say (to Spark The Conversation) that I’d chosen not to compromise myself, that this had saved me having to engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics, and that I had no regrets. But at what juncture can you practically compromise with the rest of the world, without compromising your values?

I have for example, let someone eat a hamburger in my house – months ago, mind you. Just how much then, has my moral agency contributed towards the demand for beef? What percent (if any) of a dead cow am I responsible for on account of this tolerance?

What if I did have kids? What if they refused vegetarian meals?

What happens if in the workplace, I become part of the chain-of-custody of an animal-product that involved suffering?

The rule I think, in preventing compromise from becoming moral bankruptcy, is down to how much agency you’re allowed by other people. That without allowing yourself to become too small, you make sure undesired moral choices are reasonably outside your control, and that within the scope of your agency, you consistently make decisions in-line with your values.

Then the question then becomes one of how to get on with other people in a way that either increases your agency, or at least doesn’t see it sidelined, in addition to challenging other people to think critically about ethics. Welcome to politics (and confusion).

~Bruce

Note: Spark The Conversation will be holding an event at the Melbourne Fringe Festival on the 1st and 2nd of October, where ‘Eloise Maree facilitates the participant’s engagement with their own personal truths and subjective opinions’. The event will be live streamed, and involve online participation via social media.

(Photo source: Davide Vizzini)

Atheist kindness

If there’s one particular argument over “who’s better and why” that I find disturbing, it’s the “theists do more/atheists do less to help the disadvantaged” trope. The PR associated with the “debate” over the issue has a way of making the vulnerable and disadvantaged, the very people who’s needs are supposed to be the purpose of the whole welfare venture, instrumental to other people’s self-image. Usually people who have more money than them.

Really, it seems quite selfish to me, this “we are kinder/just as kind”, kind of crap. You have these people who have a home, money and security, sponging off of the destitute for brownie points.

I’ve seen it in religious apologetics with the use of bad statistics, usually containing category errors which make unverifiable assumptions about those donating to charity. There are many avenues one can go by to help those in need, and most of them don’t discriminate against help on the basis of the life stance of the donor – hence they don’t exactly have a running census. You can’t just go and assume that all of World Vision’s work is the work of the religious – they seek donations from theist and atheist alike.

While I’m of the understanding that a number of church-based welfare agencies are pointedly non-proselytic (for example, it’s a violation of Centrecare’s code of ethics and social justice policy*), the same isn’t true of a number of religious aid initiatives. Let’s not mince words. Proselytism to the disadvantaged and vulnerable is predatory. It’s taking advantage of a lack of social justice to engage in coercion. Furthermore, it can get in the way of genuine relief efforts.

There are always resource bottlenecks in crisis situations. Even when infrastructure isn’t compromised, resources are finite and geared more closely to the supply and demand situation under normal circumstances. A large stochastic event drastically alters supply and demand in a way production isn’t geared to cope with. Take any of the serious Australian bushfires we’ve had in the past few years – we’re well equipped but in each relief effort you’ll hear words to the effect of “please no more clothes, just send food or donate directly to this fund”.

Storage space and transport are finite. Sending and storing things that aren’t needed doesn’t just not help – it can get in the way of relief efforts. A plane or truck carrying something that isn’t going to save a life could otherwise be used to transport something that could. In essence this is what John Stuart Mill called (and what economists call) opportunity cost.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that Haiti’s infrastructure was rubbish before the earthquake. It doesn’t take Einstein to tell that it’s even worse afterward. And it shouldn’t be beyond the average person off the street to be able to tell that a solar power bible isn’t going to pull anyone out of the rubble, or administer CPR, or set up a field hospital.

The easy answer to this is “ATHEIST CHARITY!!!” It’s an easy answer and like many easy answers, I don’t like it. For one, I prefer secular charity. There are two big, albeit not-necessary implications calling a charity “atheist” – either one of non-religious proselytism or exploitation for political ends: a response to the calculated stereotype that paints atheists as necessarily selfish (something the current Pope is guilty of spreading around).

It appears to be very easy for atheists to be baited into exploiting the beneficiaries of their charity, if only inadvertently. Take the recent “atheist giveaways“. Well meaning, no doubt. Needed, no doubt. And no signs of proselytism – that’s good.

But… Filming the needy at their most vulnerable – when they are asking for help – to produce a video showing how atheists can be nice, is not okay. It’s exploitative.

Sure, make a video arguing that atheists are nice people. Make a video promoting the cause of welfare. I don’t have a problem with either. There are however, right and wrong ways of going about it.

Helping people isn’t easy work, much less so when done properly. Just because the Vatican (and others) really has it in for atheists these days is no excuse to make great displays of kindness at any cost – including the cost of the dignity of the disadvantaged. This PR problem that has been foist upon us by others is the problem of said others – we shouldn’t be sabotaging our better inclinations just in order to respond.

Further to this. It should become apparent that in as far as the motives for helping people are concerned, I don’t think that the identity of the helper is particularly relevant. When I’ve done charity work, I haven’t, nor will I ever give a rat’s arse about who I do it with. At least in as far as religious affiliation is concerned.

Seriously, if you’re an atheist reading this, ask yourself “would I deny help from a theist in helping my fellow human?” If your answer is yes, then you’ve got problems. Sure, you probably don’t want to proselytise or be a party to proselytism directed at the poor – I can relate. But that doesn’t prevent you from working with religious people.

I know it’s not impossible because I’ve done it myself.

So what kind of “atheist charity” do you have if you have Christians and Muslims and fellow humans from various other religious affiliations at your side? You don’t have one. And if you aren’t church-based, and you don’t proselytise, what you have is a secular charity.

I’ve got a bit of a “faitheist” for a cousin, who likes to point out that there aren’t any atheist charities. Put simply, if you have a non-church-based charity that doesn’t proselytise and doesn’t care one hoot about who helps out, you’ve got as atheist a charity as many an atheist would ever want. Of course, these secular charities don’t stand out, but that’s not the point – they are numerous, but they’re there to help out, not to make a display.

Opportunity cost plays a part in this as well. Why waste energy on replicating welfare infrastructure that is already available to secular ends, even if the infrastructure just happens to church-based? Energy wasted on unnecessary replication of infrastructure is energy not spent on helping people.

That being said, atheists shouldn’t have their efforts frustrated either. There’s a lot of need in the world going unmet. So on the occasions that I’ve been made aware of secular not-for-profit initiatives aimed squarely at where need exists being discriminated against because of their non-religious status, I’m truly appalled. This comes down to opportunity cost as well.

A charity that serves X amount of utility, for Y amount of funding, displacing the utility provided by another contender (Z), where Xis being paid Y amount of funding to generate negative utility. Put more simply, they’re being paid to displace a better welfare agency and thus increase the need for welfare.

This can be put in even more sinister terms. Consider a thought experiment.

$1 million of funding is available to tender poverty relief. Using these funds, Charity A will alleviate $1.2 million of poverty; Charity B will alleviate $1.5 million of poverty. Due to denominational politics, Charity A gets the tender. The sinister aspect in this thought experiment is that the poor are paying $300,000 in opportunity costs so that Charity A can absorb $1 Million of funding into its infrastructure – along with all the political influence that buys – at the meagre cost of $200,000 (from tax-exempt income, of course).

This isn’t nearly as hypothetical as you may think. This, in various forms and with various sums, is essentially a lot of what happened with Job Network contracts under the Howard Government. Although the criteria for discrimination was more (albeit not entirely) secular – church-based institutions, along with more secular Job Network members, would be enticed carrot-and-stick to comply with new Job Network policy, attracting political influence at the price of giving political or religious validation to the Federal Government.

Concerns about what was best for the disadvantaged were pushed down the list of priorities as this religious-political horse trading was executed. Deserving, principled welfare groups (both church-based and secular) were themselves disadvantaged if they didn’t play along**. The needy being the end-recipient of this neglect.

The take-home message in all of this is that welfare agency, and not-for-profit attempts to better humanity’s lot in general, can be undermined when treated as political capital. Secular or not.

I am a big believer in secular welfare, and I think it the best way to bring about social justice – material needs being met with the best (albeit not infallible) guarantee of the preservation of human dignity. Not that I think for a moment that atheists have been selfish in the past, the renewed interest in welfare amongst the out-atheist community is to be welcomed. Just not as a PR exercise (why dignify anti-atheist propaganda with such a response anyway?)

In any undertaking of secular welfare however, we atheists need to keep in mind why we should be (not just why we are) going about it in the first place and let those justifications inform our strategies. We atheists are still quite capable of stuffing this up if we lose our way.

Perhaps instead of getting defensive in response to the fatuous “selfish atheist” charges, we just get on with the job and make explicit our expectations that our theist counterparts do the same. Appealing to them to join with us in opposing the treatment of welfare recipients as political currency.

~ Bruce

* Indeed, the policy goes beyond a “do not”, mandating that Centrecare workers take deliberate preventative steps against imposing their personal beliefs upon clients.

** This is all relative of course – even those that came through the process relatively unscathed weren’t at all happy about the horse trading for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the effect upon the provision of service.