Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sex-positivity is a muddle

The following is a post I put up on The Asexual Agenda.

Several weeks ago, I was surprised to see the following quote, in an otherwise good post:
Many asexuals are ‘sex positive’ and therefore more than willing to have sex…
Whaaaaaaat?  Is that what “sex positive” means to the kids these days?  It used to be that being a sex positive asexual meant that you were “positive” about other people having sex.  So, when we have ~70% of asexuals self-identifying as sex positive, that’s what they’re trying to say about themselves.  The number of asexuals who are willing to have sex is lower than that.

I thought this might just be a one-time error, but some searching indicates that it’s somewhat common on tumblr, and has appeared at least once on AVEN. Most often, people contrast “sex-positive” with “sex-repulsed”.  This is a pretty egregious misunderstanding, because it’s collapsing so many different concepts.  It inadvertently equates people who are willing to have sex with people who are okay with other people having sex, and contrasts it with people who experience sex-repulsion.  A significant fraction (over half?) of the asexual community fails to fit these boxes, because lots of sex-repulsed aces are either willing to have sex, or are okay with others having sex.

The above definition of “sex positive” is a mess primarily because it completely fails to match the “mainstream” definition of sex positive in asexual communities.  But let me tell you, the mainstream asexual definition is a complete muddle as well.

Sex-positive, in asexual spaces, is variously defined as “okay with other people having sex”, or “celebrating all consensual sexual activity” or “feeling comfortable in the sex positive movement”.  So, for instance, take that 70% figure again.  The survey specifically defined “sex positive” as being okay with other people having sex.  But does that really mean, as the New York Times reported, that only 70% of asexuals are okay with other people having sex?  Or is it perhaps that a lot of people simply didn’t agree with that definition?  I mean, I’ve read a lot of aces saying that they don’t identify as sex-positive, and it’s usually either because they don’t want to be sex cheerleaders.

All these definitions of sex positivity are a muddle, not only because they contradict each other, but also because they mismatch the definition of sex positive in mainstream culture.  “Sex positive” is a term that’s been around since the 1930s.  It’s been associated with the free love movement, the 1960s sexual revolution, and later sex-positive feminism.  Do you really think all those non-asexual people were just trying to say they were okay with other people having sex?  The very idea is absurd!  And if you think those people only meant they were “celebrating” sex, that’s just as wrong.  Even the most conservative groups celebrate sex, despite the stereotypes.

The definition of “sex positive” as “willing to have sex” is a muddle because it fails to match the mainstream asexual definition of sex positive.  The asexual definition of sex positive is also a muddle because it fails to match the mainstream definition of sex positive.  But let me tell you, the mainstream definition of sex positive is also a muddle.  It’s a muddle all the way down!

Plenty of aces have observed that there appear to be two meanings of sex-positivity.  In some cases, people have argued one of these meanings is the correct one, and all the other people are not really sex positive.  But I don’t think this quite gets to the heart of the confusion.

To understand what sex positivity means today, it’s necessary to consider its current strong association with sex-positive feminism.  Sex-positive feminism arose out of the “feminist sex wars” in the 70s, which was a disagreement among feminists on the acceptability of porn and sex work.  Sex-positive feminism grew to encompass acceptance not just of porn and sex work, but also BDSM, polyamory, homosexuality, and bisexuality, not to mention standard feminist positions on abortion and contraception.  So sex-positive feminism is at its core about a bunch of concrete issues–and asexuality is not among those issues.

It’s easy to lose sight of all those concrete issues, and just think about the principle behind them.  For instance, the first line on Wikipedia was:
Sex-positive feminism centers on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom.
This is not unlike the many inspirational quotes we have about feminism in general:
Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.
-Marie Shear
But we should be able to see through the inspirational meaning.  The reason for these vague, idealistic, overly-inclusive definitions is that people want it to all be so simple.  “I believe women are people, so I must be a feminist, no matter that it’s a bad word.  That person is not a feminist, they must not really believe women are people.”  I guess It’s just too hard for people to say that maybe their opponents sincerely believe in gender equality, but have the wrong idea of how to achieve it.

But of course, it makes sense that asexuals care not so much about the concrete issues of sex-positive feminism, and care a lot more about the principle behind them.  Asexuality is not a core sex-positive issue.  To extend the sex-positive ideology to asexuality, we have to consider what sex-positive really means, underneath all the issues.  And as we can see in practice, sex-positive people do not consistently come down on the right side of asexuality.  It’s only natural that we would divide sex-positive people into two groups–the ones we like, and the ones we don’t like.

But I fear that there is only one group, not two.  It’s just one group, a group which hasn’t thought about asexuality all that much, and hasn’t come to any consensus on it.  Conversely, asexual people think a whole lot about themselves, but don’t seem to talk a whole lot about porn or sex work.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Against defining religion

What is a religion?  How do we decide whether something is or is not a religion?

One standard definition is that a religion is a community with ritualistic practices and an overarching supernatural belief system.  But it depends on who you ask.

There are at least a few good things that come out of philosophy.  The philosophical analysis of concepts and categories is one of those good things.  One important lesson is that concepts and categories don't necessarily have definitions.

It's worth learning about the prototype theory of concepts vs the classical theory of concepts.  (I will only introduce these theories, and if you'd like to read more in depth, there are better resources for that.)

The classical theory of concepts says that every concept has a definition.  A bachelor is an unmarried man.  A triangle is a polygon with three sides.  A chair is a piece of furniture intended for one person to sit on.  However, this cannot explain why many concepts have a strong association with particular items.  For example, why, when we think of a bird, are we quicker to think of a robin than an ostrich?  Why, when we think of a fruit, are we quicker to think of an apple than a plum?

The idea behind prototype theory is that most concepts have one or more prototypical examples which serve as focal points.  Other objects are judged by their proximity to the prototypical examples.  Prototype theory comes from psychological research in the 1970s (although it has some roots in Wittgenstein's philosophy in the 1950s).  Note that prototype theory is not necessarily a completely correct description of how we think of concepts, but it is a decent approximation, and a step forward from the classical theory.

When people attempt to explain what religion really is by coming up with a definition, they've gotten it wrong from the beginning.  On a fundamental level, religion does not have a definition, because that's not how we think of most words.  In the US, we tend to think of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  And then maybe Buddhism and Hinduism.  These different examples provide prototypes for what "religion" is. Any other objects are judged by their proximity to the prototypes.

Definitions of religion are essentially attempts to interpolate the prototypes, to identify common features so that we can more easily decide whether other things are religions or not.  In some sense, we know that Hinduism is a religion before we reflect on the definition of religion, before we even learn any details about Hinduism.  If your definition does not include Hinduism, then something is wrong with that definition.

But sometimes I see people using more nonstandard definitions of religion.  For example, religion as "any all-encompassing belief system".  This definition clearly is not an attempt to interpolate prototypes (or it's a very inept one), nor is it an attempt to describe how we actually think of the concept of religion.  I am forced to consider that these overly broad definitions are prescriptive rather than descriptive.

It's not that prototypes are above criticism.  For example, we here in the US have a bias towards certain religions.  To us, the prototypical religion has a god or gods, an eschatalogy, a sacred text, and it perpetuates itself through evangelism and inheritance.  But not all these properties apply to Eastern religions.  Maybe there are some good reasons to have such a biased prototype, but in this case we don't have good reasons.  It just comes down to ignorance and unfamiliarity with religions outside our immediate surroundings.  It comes down to western colonialism, because if eastern civilizations had more cultural power, they'd be the ones controlling the concept of religion.  Perhaps a prescriptive definition may help to remedy our cultural bias.

But for most prescriptive definitions of religion, I have to ask why.  Why is it good to consider, say, Marxism or Capitalism a religion?  We cannot draw any novel conclusions from a novel definition.  Although sometimes certain conclusions are made more cognitively accessible.  So what does this definition help us understand?  That's what I want to hear when people propose definitions of religion.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I'm in a vocal minority

As someone who identifies as an atheist, and who is happy to criticize religion (often called a "new atheist"), I know I'm in a vocal minority.  This is pretty obvious when I interact with the asexual community, where non-religious people constitute the majority, but vocal atheists are still yet a small group.  But it's been obvious for a longer time than that.  I went to college, I studied physics.  There are a lot of non-religious people around.  Atheists are a much smaller group, and new atheists are smaller still.  Despite being at a university with tens of thousands of students, we only managed a small and disorganized atheist group, and even there, not everyone thought of themselves as an atheist. All the numbers I've ever seen also confirm the trend, though I'd rather not dig into the data right now, so let's leave that as hearsay.

I don't think there's really that much to say on this subject, but I'd like to briefly explain my relationship to the "quiet majority".

I do not see the quiet majority of nonreligious people as allies, really.  I do not see myself as representing their point of view, or them as representing my point of view.  In fact, that's not even the relationship I have with other new atheists.  I mean, new atheists are not a very cohesive group, and there are some factions and prominent speakers that I actively dislike.

Non-religious people, as a general category, are even less cohesive than new atheists.  It's hard to even enumerate the different "kinds" of non-religious people.  There are people who still essentially have Christian (or other) views, but disassociate with religion for some reason.  There are people who are part of some "philosophy" like Taoism, but for some reason don't consider it a religion.  There are people who take stuff from multiple religions.  There are people who are culturally, say, Jewish, but don't believe in any of it.  There are agnostics who reject the term of atheism for philosophy reasons.  There are people who have other idiosyncratic views on the terminology, preferring things like "humanist" or "ignostic".  There are deists and pantheists.  There are "not that kind of atheist" atheists.  There are people who just don't think about it much, and thus it would be impossible to define their position on the subject.  There are atheists who think religion is bad, but just don't care to make any sort of deal out of it, or who even resent that I make any sort of deal out of it.  And probably a bunch of other stuff I haven't thought of, especially when we venture outside of US culture.  That's the other thing, I know new atheism is primarily a US/UK thing, though not exclusively so.

Yeah, it's really hard to generalize across such a disparate group.  Maybe some of those people completely agree with me on my criticism on religion, maybe we share other common ground.  But that's something we need to figure out on an individual basis (both by individual people, and by individual topic).  We can't rely on labels to do the work.

I do have some specific beefs with other non-religious people (not all non-religious people of course, but enough that I have that negative association).  I see other non-religious people as being the source of a lot of tone policing of new atheists.  It's all "atheists are being too angry, don't they realize that religion fulfills certain needs?" I still hear this sometimes, I think from people who don't realize that we've already heard it all when the topic was beaten to death in 2007-2011.

I have a beef with people who say they're "not that kind of atheist", because, well, that's obviously based on some kind of opposition to what I stand for, or for what they think I stand for.  You don't like me, I don't have to like you.  Along similar lines, I often, but not always, have beefs with people who identify as agnostic.  Not because I think there's something particularly wrong with agnosticism, but because some people choose that label because they don't like something about new atheists.  (I suppose I have the more general beef that self-identified agnostics are choosing to emphasize philosophical hair-splitting over more important topics, like religion's influence on society, but that's not as big of an issue.)

Lastly, I don't agree with all the supernaturalist non-religious people.  I oppose supernaturalism.

So this is all just to say, if I have any readers part of the quiet majority of non-religious people, I know you exist!  I've talked to people like you before.  You might be okay by me, or you might not be. I don't really know!  Hello.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Writing a novel: month 5

This month, I nearly completed my second chapter, and then I decided to scrap the whole thing.  I mean, the whole book.  So now I feel more at liberty to say what was going on in my novel, and what I think was wrong with it.

The basic ideas behind the book were "switching perspectives" and "anti-romance".  So I conceived of a structured novel where the protagonist goes through a series of four relationships, each one failing, and rightly so.  The first relationship is a friendship, the rest are romantic relationships.  I wasn't really imagining outright abusive relationships (abuse does not strike me as an enjoyable topic).  Rather, the relationships are created and destroyed because of social expectations of what a relationship should be.

The protagonist is not me, but naturally I draw from personal experience.  I've had a couple relationships that failed in this way.  The protagonist is (aromantic) asexual, but doesn't identify as such until the end (I never worked out the details of the end).  It's not a book about asexuality, but I use the character to underscore the power of social expectations, even when the desire is absent.

The "switching perspectives" part was also very structured.  For each relationship, I'd switch to the other person's perspective.  It would go in sequence A B A C A D A E A.  So nine chapters (or "mega-chapters").  I think, now, this structure was way too rigid, and possibly unworkable, and this became especially clear in the second chapter.  I spent a lot of time focusing on character B and their problems, but afterwards that character just drops from view.  It becomes a loose plot thread.

More generally, I had difficulty directing attention towards the most important conflicts, themes, and characters, and directing attention away from the more marginal aspects.  Stories are not much like real life.  In real life, everyone, including minor characters, have extensive back stories, and there's always more in every direction you look.  In a story, there's a lot of misdirection to get all readers to look at one thing, and look away from the boundaries of the story.  I was not very good at this misdirection.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that I have a very modernist aesthetic.  I like stories that are disjointed.  I like stories that do something clever with the narrative structure.  For example, in The Book of the New Sun, one of my favorite aspects is the way the narrator would omit certain incidents, and then later forget that he had omitted them.  One of my favorite aspects in The Unconsoled was the way that the protagonist sometimes looks at someone's face, and learns the entire backstory behind that expression, as if it were the most ordinary thing.  If I can't imitate at least a little of that cleverness, well, what am I writing a novel for?  It's a difficult thing to imitate, but it's worth the hard time I give myself.

Anyway, what should I do with this novel?  I still like the anti-romance concept, and I did sketch out a restructured novel with the same characters and same basic point.  But maybe it would be better to scrap everything and start with another idea.  Now I'm imagining some social sci-fi where a small group of astronauts travel to the future and have cultural clashes.  I haven't decided yet.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I support games criticism

How many people here have heard of #gamergate?  At first, all I heard was that it was a harrassment campaign against indie game developer Zoe Quinn, who made Depression Quest.  Apparently over something really petty, like her ex-boyfriend accused her of sleeping with a reviewer.  I didn't really read into it, because I think I've already seen enough harassment campaigns against women on the internet, and I already know it's not pretty.

But I did eventually read more about it, because I follow Giant Bomb's linkspam.  Apparently, there are some supporters of #gamergate who think that gamergate is more than just harassing women.  To them, it's about "corruption" in the games industry and games journalism.  It's about social justice bias.  It's about journalists getting too chummy with games developers.  It's about journalists failing to be utterly objective about reviewing games.  It's totally not about harassment, that's just a small minority, they say.

This deserves some major concern trolling.  Don't they realize that the entire image of their movement is dominated by the harassment campaigns?  Maybe they should be uniting under a different banner?

But even putting aside anything about harassment, the "gamergate" cause is deeply misguided.  This can be illustrated with an op-ed written by Jenn Frank about Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian.  Look at the footnote:
• The following footnote was appended on 5 September 2014: An earlier footnote, appended on 1 September, made clear that Jenn Frank had purchased and is a supporter of ZoĆ« Quinn’s work, although this is the first article she has written on the developer and that Frank has also briefly met Anita Sarkeesian. These facts had been included as a footnote by Jenn Frank when she filed her copy before publication but removed by editors because they did not fulfil the criteria for a “significant connection” in line with the Guardian’s editorial guidelines. However, the Guardian wishes to make clear that it was an editorial decision originally to remove the original disclosure, not one made by the author, and we are happy to have restored it in the interests of full disclosure.
There's a story behind this footnote.  Jenn Frank had added in a footnote disclosing her relationship with Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian.  The Guardian decided that this wasn't relevant to include, probably because the relationship is so tenuous as to be irrelevant, and plus it's an op-ed.  An op-ed is supposed to be biased, and supposed to express personal opinions.  But gamers found out about it, and demanded* disclosure, in the name of journalistic standards.  Apparently, #gamergate thinks it has a better idea of journalism than the Guardian, and their idea involves "objective" op-ed pieces with entirely irrelevant disclosures.

*The demands were backed up by a harassment campaign, which caused Jenn Frank to quit games journalism entirely.

Despite wanting games journalism to move forward, people are demanding that games journalism move backwards.  They want it to be a glorified buyer's guide.  Gaming is a hobby that really requires a buyer's guide because there's a big upfront cost and large time investment.  But is that really all gamers want? 

It's worth understanding the distinction between game reviews and game criticism.  Game reviews express opinions (yes, subjective opinions) on games, with the intent of informing buyers.  Game criticism also expresses opinions on games, but with the intent of considering wider cultural implications (or at least wider game implications).

For me, games criticism is the main reason I pay attention to gaming news.  Criticizing and understand games is a lot of what makes them fun.  I want to understand the design elements, the constraints imposed by the game industry, the structure of game narratives, the representation of women, and so on.  Basically, I like to talk about games, in addition to playing them.  And I'm convinced that all these vocal gamers on the internet... they must like talking about games too, or they would be playing them instead of mounting misplaced campaigns.

The other half of it is that games criticism is why I play games.  I had stopped for a number of years, but when Anita Sarkeesian started producing her videos, I got more enthusiastic again, and bought my very first home console (the first one since I've become financially independent).

One of the things #gamergate was outraged about, was an article declaring that "gamers are over".  People saw it as an attack on gamer culture.  And to be honest, I think the attack is entirely deserved, considering the legacy that gamers have produced.  We're literally talking gaming terrorists!  And while that's obviously coming from some small minority, you don't have to look very far in the comments to find people who think this counts as Anita Sarkeesian "playing the victim".

But that's just an "attack" in the sense that a criticism is an attack.  Now, the discouragement of games criticism, that's a real attack on gamer culture.  Without people talking about games and what they mean, what is left of gamer culture?  I think there would be nothing left for me.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The LGBTQA+ group blog

Earlier I talked about the main failure mode of group blogs.  On a tangential note, I'd like to talk a bit about a particular kind of group blog, the LGBTQA+ group blog.  I feel like this idea... usually just doesn't work.  If you enjoy reading a blog of that sort, or even contribute to one, I'm not telling you to stop, I'm just trying to identify problems with the model as a whole.

It sounds like a good idea on paper.  Inclusiveness is a strong value among queer people, and it sounds great to have a place where we include all kinds of queer voices.  Maybe we'll all learn a bit more about each other.  The problem is, that this requires multiple different voices, and it requires them to contribute roughly equal amounts.  As I explained earlier, it's very difficult to form a group blog where everyone contributes equally, and the pressure to contribute equally may just kill the will to write.

The second problem is that the topic is too broad.  This is fine for an individual blog, because it is the individual's voice that ties everything together.  For a group blog, the voice is less distinctive.  It lacks cohesiveness.  Who is the target audience?

Lastly, I've seen a number of blogs which include asexuality as one of their topics, and this has particularly strange consequences.  The asexual audience behaves very differently from the gay/lesbian audience, because there is relatively little asexual material out there, and lots of demand for it.  A queer blog that includes asexual voices really stands out--to the asexual audience.  Gay/lesbian people don't get nearly so excited about yet another gay/lesbian blog.  So we have this weird thing where asexuality is the most invisible identity, but occasionally dominates an LGBTQA+ group blog.

I think one exception to this trend is Queereka.  I don't know what they're doing differently, but it seems to work.  Queereka is a skepticism blog, so perhaps skepticism provides a focus for the blog, giving it the cohesiveness it needs.

I'm a long-time advocate of asexual inclusion in queer spaces.  However, I do not argue for ace inclusion on a priori grounds; it is not, in general, true that whenever we talk about X, we should also talk about Y. It is not necessarily the case that asexuality goes well with GLB, or for that matter, that GLB goes well with T.  Rather, I believe it is the correct choice given our current cultural context. There may be more specific contexts where putting the different letters of the alphabet soup together is not the correct choice. Queer group blogs is one particular context where maybe it doesn't work, or it's at least difficult to work.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The group blog failure mode

The other day I learned that Skepticblog, a group blog I used to read, is no longer updating.  This made me reflect on group blogs, and blogging in general.

Over many years of reading blogs, I've seen a number of group blogs*, including Cosmic Variance, Queereka, Skepchick, Friendly Atheist, Rationally Speaking, and of course I run a group blog, The Asexual Agenda.  Sometimes group blogs work well, providing a stronger update schedule, and allowing for dialogue within a single site.  Sometimes, they do not work very well.

*Specifically, I'm thinking of "closed" group blogs where the contributors are handpicked, not an "open" group blog where anyone can contribute a piece.

Group blogs have a particular failure mode where one blogger dominates the updates, and the others only periodically offer updates.  In my subjective opinion, the less prolific writers are usually worse, probably because they have less practice.  It becomes a bit of a death spiral, where the dominant blogger feels like they're being too dominant, and the infrequent bloggers feel like their writing doesn't match the quality or tone of the rest of the blog, and everyone ends up blogging less than they would otherwise.  In this failure mode, it seems like the group blog would be better off just being an individual's blog.  But it also seems inappropriate to say so, because it would discourage the infrequent bloggers, further contributing to the death spiral.

I think what's going on here, is there are multiple blogging "types", which we see reflected both in group blogs and individual blogs.  Some very small fraction of people blog frequently, obsessively, and for long periods of time.  I fall into this category, and so do most long-term bloggers.  Other people are initially excited, but quickly lose that excitement.  You basically can't tell what type you are without actually trying it.

If a bunch of people start individual blogs, most of those people will lose interest, and let their blogs die.  A smaller number will continue writing for a long period of time.  The prolific bloggers are the only ones we tend to see or remember, but I have reason to believe they are in the minority, because I know what often happens with group blogs.  If the same group of people gets together and start a group blog, usually only one or two people dominate, and the rest become infrequent contributors.

Crucial to the success of a group blog is a way of finding multiple prolific contributors.

One possible model, like we do on The Asexual Agenda, is to periodically call for new contributors.  Out of every batch of new contributors, there are some who are prolific, and we slowly accumulate those kinds of writers (or at least replenish them, since most people do eventually slow down).  Some people are less prolific, but still good because we screen for writing ability.  And since we have multiple prolific bloggers with different writing styles, hopefully these people never feel discouraged for having a different style.  Some people never contribute anything, which is also fine.  This model requires some level of popularity to maintain.  (It also helps that we draw from a lot of pre-existing bloggers.)

Since I opened this topic by talking about Skepticblog, I'm implying that Skepticblog was falling into this group blog death spiral.  Skepticblog is an odd case because all of its contributors are credentialed in some way.  It originally consisted of the full cast of a Mythbusters-like TV show pitch (which never succeeded).  Of course, credentials don't necessarily guarantee that someone becomes a frequent blogger, so Skepticblog has, throughout its history, been dominated by one blogger or another.  That's not why I stopped reading it though.  I just lost interest for more mundane reasons.