Toxic Communities

Trigger warning for emotional abuse

This post over at Amusing Nonsense left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because of anything he said. Word by word, everything he said seemed pretty accurate and made sense. It’s just that it was a defense of New Atheists, and my sister’s two abusive exes were the first New Atheists I ever met, and that association, for me, will probably always be there.

The comments over there are consistently excellent discussions. On that particular post, a recurring topic was whether or not atheists are in danger of falling into the same traps of groupthink and extremist, mindless passion as most other groups. I don’t think it’s a danger; it’s an inevitability, because I have never met a political subculture where some factions didn’t fall into this trap. Feminists, liberals, queer communities, social justice advocates… every one of these groups that I (proudly) belong to has also contained rather sizable groups of people who I just have to avoid because of horrible petty bullshit.

In all of these cases, I have heard defenses that a person’s feminism/atheism/Christianity/-ism of choice had nothing to do with their overall shittiness, and thus shouldn’t reflect on the group they are a part of. For the most part, I agree with this. Any sufficiently large group will contain some awful people, and the group as a whole shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for this. However, I want to go a little deeper.

When you have someone clever, mean spirited and engaged in some sort of movement, they can often find ways to twist an ideology to serve their own purpose. For example, a New Atheist behavior I frequently saw was using religion as an excuse to separate a newly-deconverted atheist from their former friends. Religious people often come from circles where nearly everyone they know is religious. Often some former friends will cut a friend who lost their faith off, but usually some people will be interested in maintaining a respectful friendship. New Atheists can shame a lowercase new atheist for still having religious ties, or belittle their remaining religious friends to their faces and take said friend’s offense as proof that they are intolerant of atheists and bad, bad people. This is a classic predator tactic; cut the victim from their former support network, so they have no one to help them and may even be completely dependent on the abuser. In certain politically idealistic communities, it is common to have a reflexively derisive attitude towards those unenlightened outsiders, so this kind of behavior may not even be noticed as unusual, while some shy newcomer is being harassed or even beaten up behind closed doors.

Again, this is not a problem of ALL NEW ATHEISTS ARE EVIL!!! It’s an example of how even a good idea can be twisted. (Good ideas like “atheists should be as free to be open about their lack of belief as Christians are about their having-of-belief, and also religion should either get out of the public sector or be willing to share the space with everybody. And that’s actually everybody, not ‘epic Nativity scene plus a menorah in a corner somewhere’ everybody.”) And the trouble is that while communities are great at recognizing abusive tactics when they are shrouded in an ideology that isn’t theirs, they are terrible at recognizing the exact same tactics when the language used is their own.

So what’s the solution to this? I don’t think there’s a perfect one that will eliminate this happening ever. That would be like expecting weeds to not show up in your garden. You can spread down some mulch to minimize it, but sooner or later something will pop up. The only solution is to be aware that it happens, even in your garden. If you’re somebody who has the power to weed, then make sure you check for weeds.

And for those who don’t have that power, let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me and my sister. If you like the ideals that get passed around in a group, but often find yourself feeling belittled, bullied and ignored, or if you’re not but you feel like you constantly have to live up to high standards of behavior in order to not be treated that way, that means you’re in one of those weedy subgroups. Leave. It’s okay. If these ideas are as awesome as you think they are, somewhere out there is a group where people live those ideals without being total assholes.

My Original Sin

As a young Christian, I had a problem. I was too good.

I know, what an arrogant thing to say. I’m rolling my eyes at this moment, so let me take a moment to clarify. There were times I did bad things. I would promise to do something and then forget. I would leave my chores undone even though I knew mess really bothered my father. I, um… sometimes even though I knew God wanted me to give up something meaningful for Lent, the only thing I could think of that I loved enough to give up was Doctor Who, and I really didn’t want to give up Doctor Who. It made me happy when everything else felt empty.

See, that’s my problem. I’m trying to think of things that were bad, and that I would have considered bad at the time. There are things that I thought were right, but now regret. All the times I was arrogant and judgmental, all the times I proselytized at people who just wanted to get on with the theater rehearsal, all the misinformation I spread, all the gay-bashing I participated in. I also had shitty social skills and said hurtful things sometimes. Also, if you’re looking at, say, my childhood before I was seven or eight, there were plenty of times I lied or broke things or even stole. But I really wanted to be good. I was very motivated to live according to the rules that were taught to me. Recently I discovered a British comedy called “Would I Lie To You?” where contestants share weird anecdotes and their opponents have to figure out which are true and which are lies. While I was watching, I realized that from ages 7 to 17, I have no memory of lying. My sister can’t remember me lying either. I remember telling truths when I was terrified, when I felt certain that honesty would get me punished. I even remember telling the truth when I thought honesty would get me punished unfairly. The idea of lying was so terrifying to me I feel like I would have remembered it if I had. It’s hard to say for certain, but I’m fairly sure I went for about a decade without telling a lie.

My point is, once I was neurologically developed enough to have a reasonable amount of self-control, I followed the rules really, really well.

This was a problem because I was supposed to be a sinner. I was supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude at the great love my redeemer had shown me in dying for my sin. I was supposed to understand that all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that if I thought I was perfect, that just meant I was full of pride. All week, I would struggle to do good, and then on Sunday, at confession time, I would wrack my brains to think of something to confess, and the fact that I couldn’t think of anything filled me with guilt and terror.

This post reminded me of that. As a Christian I thought I was alone. I thought everyone else was easily caught up in this beautiful cycle of sin/forgive, and I was left out, because either I was too good to be forgiven, or too sinful to see my own sin. I wanted to confess my pride, and sometimes I did. It never felt adequate, because it was not a genuine confession that came from understanding that I had sinned, just a desperate prayer to cover my ass. Now, coming out of religion, I see my experience reflected so often. So many decent people, told again and again that they were bad.

In defense of character resurrections

(Note: all the character deaths/resurrections I’m going to discuss here are well past what I consider the Spoiler Statute of Limitations, but just in case, I’ll be using examples from Buffy and Season 2 of Doctor Who.)

A common view among genre fic fans is that resurrection of a character ruins the impact of the character’s prior death, cheapening the emotional moment. I used to hold this view pretty rigorously myself. As my philosophy of life develops, though, I’m starting to see it differently. There are a number of reasons why character resurrection shouldn’t be overused, but I’m no longer going to stand behind the “it cheapens the impact of the original death.” To explain why, I’m going to go into my personal philosophical journey a bit.

For most of my life, I had a very ending-centric view of life and its meaning. I’d have agreed with Aristotle that you can’t know if a life is good or bad until you’ve seen its end. I believed that the future outweighed the past, that a happy ending would make up for any amount of suffering, that a tragic ending meant all the joys and pleasures experienced on the way were worthless. It helped that I believed in heaven, and sometimes hell (although never the flamey-torture variety). From that point of view, someone’s ending state is vastly more important, because it’s eternal, while anything that happens to them in life is merely the blink of an eye. I extrapolated this same attitude to stories. Although, say, a marriage at the end of a romantic comedy isn’t eternal in the same way that an afterlife would be eternal, it serves the same purpose: if a story ends happily, I can go on imagining the characters being happy indefinitely. Happy is where they landed: it’s their ending state, their resting state, and there’s a kind of permanence or finality to it, as long as no further stories are told about them. To my teleological mind, how characters end up is the most important thing about them. I have a long history of being unable to understand how people could find a book or movie dark and depressing if it ended happily. As long as everything turned out okay in the end, it didn’t really matter how much the characters suffered in the meantime.

Obviously this view is very connected to Christian theology, although I knew plenty of Christians who didn’t see things this way, and there are probably secular ways to frame the same attitude. For me, though, my need to believe that the universe could have a happily-ever-after ending was inextricably linked with my belief in a deity; or at least, my fervent desire that a deity exist. It was a shift in that philosophy that allowed me to fully break away from a god and religion I no longer intellectually believed in.

The shift was profound and sudden; I can name you the hour, the place, the book I was reading, and the music I was listening to at the time. (10 am on a spring morning. The coffee shop attached to a grocery store in Decatur, GA. Remembering Hypatia by Brian Trent, which I never finished reading. “Bad Spell” by Judi Chicago.) I suddenly felt something I had never felt before: that it would be okay if I died in pain, in fire, if the last moments or hours or weeks of my life were unrelenting agony, and I never got an afterlife, a resurrection. It would be okay if I didn’t get a happy ending, because the ending would not negate all the good and beautiful things that had also been in my life. The ending is not somehow more real, more special than any of the other moments. This was not in any way an intellectual realization: it was an emotional revolution, starting in my gut and shaking my entire being. I spent most of the day near tears and acutely aware of the poignancy of each moment. I remember picking up one of the children I cared for at work and holding her tight, feeling the preciousness and fragility of her, of myself, of the simple trust and love a three-year-old can feel for a caring adult. She would suffer later in life. So would I. The closeness that was between us now wouldn’t last… I would take another job, she would grow up, and 20 years from now she likely wouldn’t even remember me. None of that made that moment of holding her on the playground any less real.

Over the course of the next few days the feeling faded slowly, and I went back to interacting with the world in my normal way. But my underlying philosophy had changed. A Doctor Who quote from several years later sums up my new philosophy: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

Back to stories, and character deaths. I was focused for a long time on the final piece of the Doctor Who quote: the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant. Even if a story, a relationship, a life ended unhappily, the moments of joy and beauty that occurred along the way were just as real, just as important, just as weighty. It’s only recently that I’ve begun seeing how the reverse is also true. Even if a sorrow ends, even if a pain goes away, even if everything ends up okay, that doesn’t make the pain and suffering that were experienced in the past less real, less important, less weighty.

So you see where I’m going with this. I’d argue that most of the impact of a character’s death (for me, at least) comes from identifying with the feelings of other characters in the story. The grief of the character’s loved ones is what really brings it home for me. I’m making that point because I think it’s also possible to grieve on one’s own behalf, as the viewer: being sad that you won’t get to enjoy that character any more. That kind of grief is much less potent to me, for two reasons. First, I can in fact continue to enjoy that character, by re-watching or re-reading. Sure, I won’t get any new material, but that is a sad fact of all fiction at some point, whether the characters live or die. Second, as deeply as I love so many fictional characters, they are not in fact my friends and family and lovers. Grieving for a character on my own behalf doesn’t approach the level of pain that grieving for them on the behalf of someone in-story who loves them. It’s through another character’s eyes that I enter that cathartic sorrow (which, in turn, allows me to process my own feelings about my own loved ones in complicated ways.)

Spike crying desperately over Buffy's death.
Gets me every time.

And the grief that a character feels when their loved one dies is still every bit real, even if they come back back. After a character resurrection, it becomes possible for me to watch through their death scene and think, “But it’s okay, she’ll come back and then they won’t be sad anymore.” And thinking that lets me escape a little bit from the oppressive grief I otherwise feel on their behalf. But it’s a false escape, it’s based in the idea that suffering isn’t suffering as long as it ends someday. The grief of the Scoobies when Buffy dies is no less potent and painful just because she comes back later. Their future suffering is alleviated — they don’t have to deal with the pain of missing her after she comes back — but the pain they felt in the past isn’t changed.

The Doctor and Rose, separated by a universe.
Doesn’t have to be a death either. Me. Sobbing. Every time.

In a way, a character’s resurrection can serve as a test of sorts. A test of the viewer’s ability to let go of the the ending-oriented philosophy that we so often use to soften blows in real life. If you are shaken with sorrow on the behalf of a character who’s just lost someone they love, do you let that sorrow be just as real, just as potent, when you’ve seen the future and know they’ll come back? Or do you escape the sorrow with the comfort of a happier future? (Not that that’s always the wrong choice. Sometimes I emotionally detach from stories because I just can’t handle it right now. But I really value the way that wholehearted emotional engagement with a story helps me process ideas and feelings I have in real life, even when doing so is genuinely painful, and if I’m going to do that I want to do it in accordance with my actual values and philosophies.)

On absolute truth and those disrespectful accomodationists

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accomodationist.

Orientation vs. identity: some thoughts on belief

When sexologists talk about sexual orientation, we often use some variation of the Orientation-Behavior-Identity model (OBI). The idea is that sexual orientation can be understood and discussed in three distinct aspects: a person’s identity, what they define themselves as, both publicly and privately; a person’s behavior, their actual sexual acts with different genders; and a person’s orientation, the natural bent of their attractions (which may or may not be innate or changeable, but which is much less subject to power of choice than the other two aspects.) It’s a helpful distinction, and clears up a lot of miscommunications about what it means to be “really” gay, het, or bi.

I wonder if a similar model would be useful for discussing religious belief. Is belief or unbelief in a deity (pick your favorite!) a choice? I would argue that at any given moment, a person does or does not believe in a particular deity. Analogous to the “orientation” piece of the OBI model, this is just a program that is running in your brain: you cannot choose to switch it on or off, although various paths you take in life may contribute to its running or shut it down. But it’s not subject to conscious, volitional will.

Then there is the “identity” component: whether you think of yourself as a theist, and usually a member of a particular religion, or not. This may or may not have anything to do with your belief orientation. There was a time in my life where I identified as a Christian although I no longer had the belief in God that I had in my earlier years. Similarly, anyone who identifies as an “atheist” because they are mad at God is not an atheist in the orientational sense: people who genuinely lack belief in a deity have nothing to be angry at.

Finally, there is the behavior component, which is independent of both orientation and identity. Attending church does not make you a Christian believer, nor do you have to call yourself a Christian to attend. And many people identify as members of a religion without engaging in any of the behaviors prescribed by that religion. Whether there are any behaviors that could be categorized as “atheistic” is an interesting question… I can’t think of any off the top of my head, although I can think of many that could be described as humanistic or skeptical.

What do you think? Useful categories for discussions of belief and unbelief?

The scandal of atheism

This excellent post by Greta Christina on why atheism is inherently confrontational did a good job of summing up why I felt acutely uncomfortable at times in my recent class environment. It was a class on sexuality, not religion, but the teacher was a Christian minister, and Christianity or theism in general did come up a number of times. While I enjoyed both the class and the professor very much, I had several moments of squirming in my seat thinking, “I wish I could say something to this… but I have no idea how to say what I am thinking without making this an intense, defensive discussion of theism and atheism.” So I kept my mouth shut.

I am not a particularly confrontational brand of atheist (although I am marrying one, in case you hadn’t noticed.) I pretty much never start discussions of theism, although I am happy to engage in them if somebody else does. With most people I encounter, I am more interested in maintaining harmonious connections than I am in expressing my thoughts and beliefs fully. Maybe that’s a weakness — I don’t know.

What I do know is that expressing my thoughts and beliefs openly, with many people, stands in direct opposition to maintaining harmonious connections. When I was a Christian theist, and engaged weekly in debates with two friends (one was an atheist, one a weirdly self-defined agnostic), I was explaining to them why I couldn’t date an atheist. I said, “Because he thinks I’m delusional.” I didn’t say this in a defensive or injured way; it was a simple statement of fact. I thought that I had a personal relationship with a being that he did not believe existed. That’s pretty delusional. To claim otherwise, for either of us, would be to deny the reality of my faith; to lessen the import of what I believed. Because my belief was in a real, absolutely existing God, not a God that could be “true for me” but not for someone else. For someone to say, “If that’s true for you, that’s great” was to mentally diminish my concept of God and then hand it back to me as a peace offering. To which I could only say, “No thanks.” I can coexist peacefully with people who I think are glaringly wrong on any number of important topics, but to diminish the importance of this topic was then, and is now, insulting to me. Anyone who didn’t believe that my God existed was in fundamental disagreement with me, and had to account in some way for the cognitive errors that gave rise to my belief. Anyone who pretended otherwise, I felt, did not fully respect my beliefs.

Now on the other side of the table, I can at least say that I give believers the same respect I wanted from atheists when I was a believer. I won’t mentally diminish their beliefs just to spare myself the discomfort of thinking, “but I think that’s wrong.” Depending on someone’s perception of God, of course, I may have very different assessments of the cognitive errors that lead them to believe something I think is untrue, but the socially uncomfortable fact is that I do think they’re wrong. I don’t go around telling them so: I realize most people don’t share my love of debate, and many of them, unlike Christian Ginny, might prefer a “If that’s true for you, great!” than an earnest confrontation. (If you recognize that I am a person who’s passionate about truth and loves philosophical argument, but has an almost pathological aversion to making people uncomfortable or unhappy, you will perhaps understand why most of my intimate relationships are with people who enjoy confrontation and debate.)

So what am I supposed to do? I hold an unpopular belief: a belief that some human beings, excellent and wise and moral and educated in many respects, are wrong about something important. I can’t talk about my perspective on religion without saying “That God/Goddess entity you believe in? The one that provides comfort and meaning and a sense of love and belonging to your life? I don’t think it exists.” That’s what it means to be an atheist, and I don’t know how I can talk for more than fifteen seconds about being an atheist without exposing that.

There are times and places where I feel doing that is worthwhile; specifically when I’m in a forum where intellectual debate is part of the goal, or where I am on the receiving end of a challenge. But in most social gatherings I prefer to hold my tongue, or to say quickly, “Well, I”m an atheist” and change the subject. And in this class, where we already had to cover too much information in too little time, I didn’t feel it was right to derail the conversation with a discussion of theism and atheism. (Also, of course, there’s the fact that the Christian minister was the person giving my grades. I really don’t think he would have been unfair or discriminatory, but people can surprise you in that way.)

So I kept silent, and I still didn’t know whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing.

Conflict, consent, and blirtatiousness

My new gentleman friend requested that I write about blirtatiousness. I assumed that he had made a typo, and thought, “What do I have to say about flirtatiousness? Other than how bad I am at it?” Then he sent me this link. So, okay, blirtatiousness. Stupid word, useful concept. The article linked to, after defining “blirtatiousness” (for those who don’t want to click, it’s basically a measure of how quickly and easily you say what you think), talks about problems in relationships where the woman is highly blirtatious and the man is not. But since my relationships tend to be the opposite, I’m not really interested in that, and if I wrote about it I’d probably wind up writing about the insane cultural pressure we put on males and females to act in certain ways, and, um… I write about that a lot.

So instead we’re going to talk about conflict and consent, because I’ve noticed sort of an interesting pattern. It’s related to my recent post about social status updates, and the core question is this: does a person always have the right to engage another in verbal/ideological conflict? Or is there a question of consent and mutual willingness that needs to be considered?

When put in terms of physical conflict, this is a no-brainer. I don’t get to decide I’m going to have a friendly boxing match with you: it’s something we both have to agree on. If I try to initiate a friendly boxing match by hitting you without prior discussion, that is what we call assault, and most of us will agree I’ve done something morally wrong… even if I back off immediately afterward and say, “Okay, no problem, we don’t have to fight, I just wanted to put it out there.”

On the face of it it seems preposterous to draw a comparison between physical attack and verbal challenge. Throwing a punch hurts someone, whereas questioning someone’s beliefs (for example) doesn’t. Oh wait… yes it does. Plenty of people feel acute emotional discomfort when somebody is challenging a cherished idea of theirs. Social conventions aside, a lot of people would suffer less from a moderate-strength punch on the arm than from a bluntly-worded “You’re wrong about this.” The pain of the punch lingers for a few minutes and then is forgotten… the ideological conflict tends to stick in the brain, to keep eating at you. What specifically bothers you will vary: perhaps it’s feeling that the other person thinks less of you; perhaps it’s the niggling fear that maybe they’re right; perhaps it’s the frustration of not having had a good response.

Blirtatiousness, I think, is a good predictor of how much the first and third factors will bother someone who’s been on the receiving end of a verbal challenge. According to the aforementioned article, high-blirt people tend to be less worried about whether others think badly of them, and by definition they’re more likely to be ready with a response. A low-blirt person, on the other hand, is likely to be plagued with anxiety that the other person thinks has a low opinion, and with frustration at knowing they have a response to the person’s challenge, but not being able to access it in time. So a low-blirt person is more likely to view the challenge as an unwelcome assault, and a high-blirt person is more likely to either engage in argument or dismiss it with scorn.

If I polled people on the question whether it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas in a non-debate forum (i.e. not a blog, classroom, editorial, etc) I’m guessing answers would correspond with the responder’s blirtation level. Overall I think our society comes down on the side of the low-blirters. It was interesting to me, in the article I linked above, to read that high blirters tend to be better-perceived socially: “The high blirters were seen by the others as more competent, sociable, emotionally reactive and extraverted than low blirters.” Since most of the high blirters I know also tend to have strong and controversial opinions, their readiness to say what they think is often a social liability. Our cultural norms act to protect the low-blirters from unwanted challenge, which they feel as a kind of assault.

If this were all there was to it, I’d tend to side with society, especially since I am a mid-to-low blirter myself (although I also have strong and controversial opinions, which is an interesting space to occupy.) But there’s that second reason I mentioned for people’s discomfort with ideological challenge: the niggling fear that the challenger might be right. It’s very easy for a person to protect themselves from questioning their own ideas by crying rudeness when another person questions them. And I don’t think that’s healthy. I think we would all do better in life if we questioned and reconsidered our ideas on a regular basis. (And yes, that is an idea that I have questioned and reconsidered.) So I don’t think “shut up about your controversial ideas unless the other person has indicated willingness to get into a debate” is the right answer.

I have to go back to work now, so I’m throwing the floor open: what do you think? Are you highly blirtatious or not? Do you think it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas without an invitation? What is your perception of the social conventions around verbal conflict, and do you think they should be different?

Slippery slopes redux

I’m listening to an episode of The Atheist Experience (#714, if you’re interested) wherein someone is tiresomely attempting to make the slippery-slope argument about gay marriage. First he tried to trap host Matt Dilahunty in hypocrisy by asking if he supported incest and/or polygamy, expecting the answer “no,” but Dilahunty gave the same answer I’ve given, which is that there’s no reason for the government to stand between consenting adults. He said he doesn’t see any reason to oppose incest between adults, provided they don’t conceive children, and he’s uncertain on polygamy (which, from a legal standpoint, I am too.)

The call then got really boneheaded as the caller alternately pretended Dilahunty hadn’t taken the wind out of his “hypocrisy” sails and accused him of supporting the slippery slope. Through the muddle one issue emerged: laws about marriage have changed in the past, and will probably continue to change in the future. The caller, and many people on the conservative side (using “conservative” here in the quite literal sense of “wanting to preserve current laws and customs”), use that fact as panic-fuel: if we change the laws about marriage in this way now, what’s to stop us from changing the laws about marriage in that way later?

What Dilahunty kept trying to communicate was that yes, laws have changed in the past, are changing in the present, and will probably change in the future, but in discussing and assessing each change, we are discussing that change only. Whether or not two women are allowed to marry is an entirely different question from whether or not two siblings should be allowed to marry, or whether or not one person should be able to marry three others, or whether or not a black person should be able to marry a white person. As society develops, ideas that were unthinkable become thinkable and then commonplace; ideas that were commonplace become suspect and then unthinkable. We change our laws to reflect our ideas. This happens all the time.

Now it’s true that most of us have a sense of morality that transcends the laws of our time. We’d better. Wherever your sense of morality comes from and however far it extends (personal, societal, humanistic, universal), the question whether to allow one form of marriage (or anything else) that we have previously disallowed still needs to be discussed on its own merits, without reference to any other form of marriage (or anything else) that is currently disallowed. The morality of allowing or not allowing same-sex couples to marry has nothing to do with the morality of allowing two siblings to marry. If, as a society, we ever being discussing the latter question, we will discuss it on its own merits.

The only thing incest, gay marriage, and polygamy have in common is that they’re all currently illegal in this country. Which makes me think that the slippery-slope argument comes from an ill-considered prejudice, an assumption that the laws and mores of one’s own time correspond to absolute morality. We’re accustomed to our society’s rules, they feel right and natural. But we are thinking beings with the ability to conceive of right and wrong apart from what feels natural to us; the ability to consider whether what “feels right” is, in fact, right by an external standard. This is an astonishing ability, one which few if any animals share to any degree. When faced with the question “Should same-sex couples be allowed to marry?” we can consider thoughtfully, weighing both the practical outcomes and the moral implications of the decision. Appealing to the slippery-slope argument is unworthy of us as a species.

Asking for it

Several months ago, some of my co-workers were telling a story of some teenage kids who egged an older man’s car, whereupon the man got out and started shooting at them, killing one of the kids.

“Tsk tsk tsk… that’s awful. Of course, the kids should have known better. Parents have got to teach their children you can’t do stuff like that.”

A couple of years ago, my friend M, who’s gay, was at a bar with a girl who was being obnoxiously hit on by two guys — they kept “accidentally” rubbing up against her, among other things. When they weren’t looking, M switched places with his friend, so that one of the guys found himself suddenly rubbing up against a gay man instead of a woman. The guy and his friend grabbed M by the throat and started beating him up.

Someone later said, “Well, yeah, that’s terrible, but he should have known better than to mess with drunk straight guys.”

An American pastor publicly and obnoxiously burned a copy of the Koran, and in retaliation an angry mob in Afghanistan killed a bunch of UN employees.

“He should have known better. He should have known something like that would happen.”

In talk about rape, victim-blaming is a huge problem: “If she hadn’t dressed like that/walked alone/flirted with a stranger it wouldn’t have happened.” There’s a subtle, pervasive misogyny in that kind of comment, but it also reflects a larger trend of victim-blaming that we seem to engage in. Somebody who is the victim of violence is talked about like someone who got struck by lightning while standing on top of the Empire State Building in the middle of a storm: Yes, that’s terrible and sad, but they should have known better. In a way, they were asking for it.

Statements like these imply that human violence is like an elemental force: if you get in its way, to some extent you deserve what you get. Which is… weird, when you think about it. Lightning is not a responsible agent. The human beings under discussion are… or we treat them as though they are. We let them hold jobs and vote and raise children. Am I really to blame for going through life assuming that the humans around me will not respond with disproportionate violence to any provocation?

I want to make it clear, before I go further, that I’m not in any way drawing an equivalency between the three provocations I mentioned at the beginning. The levels of guilt range from nonexistent (my friend M) to rude (Terry Jones) to misdemeanor (egging the car.) But in none of these circumstances was the response in any way warranted by the provocation.

So why do we do this? Why do we, when hearing these stories, focus our attention on the victim and what they did wrong? It’s as if we mentally assign the assailant to the “force of nature” category without a second thought. We don’t even think or talk about them, after the first “oh, that’s awful!” All our attention goes to what the victim could or should have done differently.

I don’t really have answers here… I’m looking for your thoughts. What’s up with this victim-blaming thing we do? Is it complete bullshit, or partially legitimate? I have a few ideas, but I’m curious to hear what other people think.


I have been a humanist longer than I have been anything else, philosophy-wise. When I was a Christian, I was drawn to the work of Christian humanists like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. I was unable to leave religion until I found a reflection of those core values of mine in secular humanism. The core value of humanism, to me, is simply this: The ultimate good, whatever that may consist of, includes the happiness and fulfillment of all human beings. It is not limited to that, but to construct an ideal “ultimate state of good for the universe” that does not include the happiness and fulfillment of all human beings is nonsensical to me.

So I reject a philosophy which holds that humans are fundamentally unworthy of happiness, freedom, or existence — a philosophy held by “Original Sin” fundamentalists as well as “humans are a blight on the earth” environmentalists. Undoubtedly we have our problems, our often-fatal flaws, but there’s not something about us that makes us less worthy than any other species or entity (plants, animals, gods, demons, aliens, angels, etc.)

Of course there are lots of definitions and ramifications. For example, under the category “happiness and fulfillment” I include not only wellbeing — comfort, security, pleasure — but freedom to grow, to expand our capacities. One of our needs as humans seems to be to become better, stronger, smarter, to be able to do and think things tomorrow that we are not able to do and think today. A comfortable prison is not enough; we need room to grow.

Coming out of that is a principle of absolute intellectual freedom. Any question may be asked, any line of inquiry may be pursued. We must be afraid of understanding too little, never of knowing too much.

Moral freedom is more limited, because our actions have an impact on the lives of others. Questions of what is right and wrong usually involve a careful assessment of an action’s impact, both positive and negative, and the various factors to be taken into account are dizzyingly numerous. But an action which has negligible negative impact, on oneself or others, is always permissible. Nothing is disallowed without an account of who it harms, and how.

I am inclined to believe that humanism is the native value of humanity, at our current stage of development. I think it’s a natural outgrowth of our sense of kin identification. While selfishness is natural to humans, absolute selfishness is actually rather difficult for us (more on that in a moment.) We tend to have a wider circle of being whose wellbeing is also profoundly important to us. Over human history, I imagine this circle has expanded from the immediate family, to the tribe, to the nation, to the entire race. It is still expanding, and I imagine that in the future it will encompass all beings with awareness, and maybe eventually all life. (Things will get fun if and when we encounter other species with our level of consciousness.)

My anti-value, the thing I most abhor philosophically, is the dehumanizing of others. To me this comes from narrowing the circle of tribal identification, saying “these people I care about, those I don’t.” Most militant ideologies have a way of dehumanizing their opponents, demoting them from the circle of “worthwhile, important, people we care about.” It happens in religious and secular movements alike, and it is one of the most evil tendencies I know of.

I am writing all this out because I am trying to place myself in the ideosphere. It is the first and fundamental part of my expression of what I believe, what I value, and what I’d like to do in the world. There will be more.