Thursday, October 23, 2014

On asexuality, atheism, and other news

On The Asexual Agenda, I have a post talking about how asexuals are impacted by the current split in the atheist community.  Note that The Asexual Agenda has a much stricter comment policy than I do here, so if you want to comment freely, do so here.  I'm not obligated to respect you though.

In the years since 2011, it's become increasingly obvious that the atheist community has become more ace-friendly in the feminist communities, and less ace-friendly elsewhere.  This is good for people like me, who mostly follow the feminist atheists.  But the median person in the ace community is a non-religious woman who does not participate in the atheist community, and I suspect they mostly have negative encounters with anti-feminist atheists, or even MRA atheists.  I think aces mostly don't know where it's coming from, so the purpose of my post is to explain it to that audience.

Speaking of feminist wars, I feel like in the last month or so, the atheist feminist wars have been eclipsed by the gaming feminist wars.  That is, by Gamergate, which is probably the reason I've been blogging about social justice so much lately.  Gamergate looks very similar to Elevatorgate, albeit on a larger scale, even getting major media attention.  Furthermore, it's been noted that there's overlap between gamergate supporters and slymepitters.  To long-time atheist bloggers like me, it feels like deja vu.

I'm not so much concerned about gamergate itself, which I hope will die after so much negative news coverage.  The harassment campaigns are a serious problem, but I'm more concerned about the greater number of people sympathize with gamergate's supposed "journalistic ethics" platform, which really consists of ending "SJW" bias.  I'm more concerned about the gaming culture which spawned this movement in the first place.  I'm concerned about the impact these people have on wider society, even when they're not talking about games.

In other news, next week I will be traveling.  So I'm declaring a blogging break.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Social justice has its problems, but social justice warriors are not it

A signaling dance

There are a lot of criticisms of social justice which are basically bullshit.  For example, "It's okay for video games to lack female representation because it's mostly men who play them".  Or the widespread belief in "reverse-racism" in the US.  It gets to a point where the criticisms aren't merely bullshit, but abhorrent as well.

On the other hand, any social movement needs some degree of internal criticism to keep itself heading in the right direction.  This is something I'm particularly interested in, because of my roots in the skeptical movement, where internal criticism is considered a virtue.  By disposition, I'm the sort of person who speaks up when he disagrees, and not when he agrees.

But because of all the bullshit critics of social justice, anyone who wants to attempt internal criticism has to do this elaborate signaling dance to prove that they're worth listening to.  In the past, I've called this the "vacuous critics" problem.  Merely saying "some of my best friends are gay/women/poc" is not enough because that's what everyone says.  Saying that you think that men and women should be treated equally is not enough because that's exactly what the anti-feminists say.  And there are a variety of other phrases, like "I'm not a racist, but..." that should be avoided because of their historical use.  In fact, everything social justice advocates say today to signal that they really are social justice advocates, that will eventually go out of date, because the vacuous critics will simply copy it.

I'm very conscious of the signaling dance, and I do it very deliberately.  For example, I know the title of this post "Social justice has its problems..." has negative signaling, because for all people know, the problems I have in mind are simply more vacuous critiques.  So I have to be specific.  Here are a few things I think are problems with modern internet social justice: the elaborate signaling dance, the social justice cryptolect, the demand for perfection, excessively criticizing people rather than ideas, oversimplifying the concept of "appropriation", and speaking up on behalf of small groups without sufficient knowledge of those groups.

So basically, I have a bunch of specific and narrow critiques.  But one phrase I will never use is "Social Justice Warrior" (or SJW for short). 

What is a social justice warrior?

"SJW" is a term that gained popularity on Tumblr, although you can see it now being adopted in other spaces.  If you've never seen it before, it's easy to think that it's a positive term, because fighting for social justice seems like a good thing to do.  But in fact the term is used pejoratively by critics.

I would never use "SJW" to criticize social justice, if only because it's a major signaling fail.  Talking about social justice warriors is like putting a big garish sign above your head that says "I think social justice is bad", and simultaneously shouting the same slogan into a megaphone so that even people who don't know how to read the signs can know you're an asshole.

And while I criticize the degree to which signaling is a part of social justice advocacy, I realize that it does play an important role.  By opposing SJWs, you effectively ally yourself with all the people who are anti-SJW.  I'm sure many anti-SJWs are in favor of social justice in general, and only opposed to particular advocates of social justice.  But those people are lending legitimacy to the rest of the anti-SJWs, which includes a lot of people who oppose social justice.

The problem goes a bit deeper than that.  There are many people who think they are in favor of social justice, but either don't understand it, or unintentionally work against it.  Saying "I'm in favor of social justice, but against SJWs," is a bit like saying "Some of my best friends are gay."  The problem is, lots of people say that, and talk is cheap.

It's useful to contrast "SJW" with another term that is used to criticize social justice advocates: TERFs.  TERFs are trans-exclusive radical feminists, self-described radical feminists who nominally support women, but who believe that trans women are simply men who are "appropriating" women's struggles.  "TERF" is a great term because it's clear exactly what we're criticizing about these social justice advocates: transphobia.  "SJW" is not clear about what it's criticizing, so it gets used by all sorts of unsavory people.  IMHO, it's increasingly used only by unsavory people.

What's wrong with a warrior?

Let's focus for a moment on the people who nominally support social justice, but oppose social justice warriors.  What does "warrior" add to social justice that makes it so terrible?

The first thing I notice about "social justice warrior" as opposed to just "social justice" is that it shifts the focus from an idea to a person.  The message I'm hearing is, the ideas are good, but these particular people are bad advocates.

And it's funny, because focusing on individuals rather than ideas is exactly one of things I would criticize social justice advocacy for.  There's a tendency to make people jump through hoops to prove themselves worth listening to.  And if they miss a hoop, they're just a white cisdude blinded by their own privilege, and have nothing worthwhile to contribute.  In other words, we know the rest of their ideas are bad, because we've already judged the individual behind them.  This is the sort of thing anti-SJWs complain about too.

So when people criticize social justice warriors, there's more than a whiff of hypocrisy.  I guess it's nice to know that criticizing individuals rather than ideas is a universal tendency rather than a social justice one.

The other connotation of "social justice warrior" is that of war.  The thrust of the critique is that SJWs wrongly treat social justice as a war.  In other words, SJWs are sort of like this guy:

But what does the war metaphor really mean? Does it mean that SJWs are too zealous, they just care too much?  Does it mean SJWs are underhanded or violent?

If it's saying SJWs just care too much, I just don't see that critique going anywhere.  It's just one of the banalities of modern life on the internet that other people are extremely interested in stuff that you are not interested in.  Why is this a problem?  If people care a lot about social justice, isn't that laudable, more than anything else?

I already feel like I'm reading too much into the term "SJW".  It's not clear what it means because it doesn't mean anything in particular.  It's just a generic pejorative.

Don't be another vacuous critic

As I said above, social justice advocacy today has a bunch of specific problems.  "Social Justice Warrior" is a term that succeeds in identifying exactly none of those problems.  If pro-social-justice anti-SJW people have any decent critiques, then they seriously need a better way to express them.  Maybe one that doesn't ally themselves with the anti-social-justice anti-SJW people.

But I suspect that most pro-social-justice anti-SJW people do not have very decent critiques, because if they understood what they were criticizing, they would not have adopted the term "SJW".  Anti-SJWs are just more vacuous critics, exactly the kind that necessitate the entire signaling dance that I so dislike in social justice advocacy.  They are part of the problem.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Writing a novel: month 6

Now that I scrapped my first novel idea, this month I started from scratch again.  What happened was comically similar to what happened when I started from scratch the first time.  That is, first I came up with a social sci-fi idea, and then settled on an anti-romance with an unusual narrative structure.  Well, now you know where my heart's at.

The first novel idea I had was based on the premise of mind-cloning.  We have a 1st person protagonist who participates in psychological research, and they copy her brain state.  A generation later, the copy is uploaded to a robot, and so begins our story.  A generation later, another copy (or copies) is uploaded, and another story is told in parallel.

The idea is not really about mind-cloning.  The point is to examine the way that culture recursively reacts against itself over generations (and to do so without changing protagonists!).  And the other point is to watch the protagonist piece together facts about her past lives, constructing self-serving narratives about them.

Then I got another idea, which is the one I'm currently working on.  The basic theme of this novel is the construction and deconstruction of romance.  It's the story of a couple, told through the eyes of a friend.  This friend constructs an elaborate narrative, with a rather loose relation to reality.

One of the major principles of writing fiction is "show, don't tell".  This is usually a pretty good rule.  In a few cases, it's actually better to tell than show, often because you're describing something of only marginal importance, and don't want to give it the whole rigamarole of vivid prose.  However, for writing an unreliable narrator, I take a third approach: show AND tell, but what I show and what I tell are perpetually in conflict with each other.

Here's why I think this novel idea will work better than the last one.  I have a strong "plotter" tendency, in that I tend to plan things out.  And then, in the writing, things don't turn out the way I expected, and getting things back on track involves large contortions.  But for this novel, I made a conscious decision to not plan things out.  I don't know exactly what will happen to the characters.  This seems to work well so far.

Monday, October 13, 2014

7th bloggiversary

This blog is 7 years old, which is 70 in blog-years.  At this age, the blog begins to become forgetful.  Like, I forgot my bloggiversary was actually last week.  I also worry about forgetting that I already wrote about something, and then writing about it again, possibly expressing a contrary opinion on it.  No matter.

This year, I introduced a new topic: my attempts to write a novel.  Another new addition was the Best of Skeptic's Play page.  I was too lazy to sift through a thousand posts and find the best ones, so I just link to all my bloggiversary posts.  It turns out my bloggiversary tradition of picking out my favorite posts of the year was good for something.

Without further ado, here are my favorite posts from the past year.

Physics and math!
Quantum Mechanics for skeptics, redux
Sleeping Beauty and Quantum mechanics
Infinite Utility

I am oppositional
Christian doubt
Atheist and skeptical student groups are such clusterfucks

Dear Allies
Social justice as cryptolect
Sexual assault in (gay) party culture

How to argue
The cost of knowing
Why I am ambivalent about skepticism

Why video games are so flammable
Fractal Maze 3
Japanese "herbivore men" hold up a mirror to our culture

Friday, October 10, 2014

Where did the tone wars go?

The most fascinating things I've seen in the internet atheist community was the great "tone war"--and the subsequent disappearance of that war.

It used to be, since I started blogging in 2007, the biggest "schism" of the atheist blogosphere was between those who believed atheists needed to be more diplomatic and accommodating to religious people, and those who believed that the atheist movement is just as outspoken and angry as it should be.  I remember the inter-blog arguments. I remember the name-calling. I remember the mainstream articles.  And then the argument stopped suddenly in 2011.  It basically got replaced by Elevatorgate.

This can be artfully illustrated with the trajectory of the meme "Deep Rifts".  It was originally used by an external critic, who witnessed one of the skirmishes in the tone wars and decided this meant atheism was tearing itself apart:
...atheism was last week rent by disagreement, proving that the need for petty, internecine squabbling runs deeper in the psyche than the need to find meaning in existence. The question that is dividing its leading proponents is how much they should be evangelising about their lack of faith. Should they adopt a live-and-let-live approach to the religious? Or should they be shouting their atheism from the rooftops in an attempt to get all the blinkered throwbacks to see the light?
At the time, PZ Myers (who has participated in basically every controversy in the community) found this ludicrous. There was an argument over the best strategy, but it was hardly new, and not something so major that it would destroy the atheist movement.  Because it was so ludicrous, "Deep Rifts" became a bit of a meme, used to mock anyone who over-exaggerated the tone wars.

Several years later, "deep rifts" becomes a phrase used with complete sincerity.  And now it refers to the feminist/non-feminist split in the community.

If I had to advance a theory as to what happened, I would say that the "outspoken" side of the tone wars won.  The losers fell silent, or they were persuaded, or they're considered outsiders.  And then the winners proceeded to have a much more divisive argument over feminism.  When I think of the big players in the feminism argument, I think of PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Jennifer McCreight, Greta Christina, DJ Grothe, Sam Harris, Thunderf00t, and so on.  I associate almost all of these people with the outspoken side of the tone wars (even if they've never made a statement about it, it's clear from their styles), and the most notable exceptions are the people involved in organized skepticism (who were frequently in favor of nicer approaches).  Nobody talks anymore about Matt Nisbet, Chris Mooney, or... well, I have trouble even remembering who else was on the "accommodating" side.

As for why the outspoken side won, I'm very biased.  I think they won because that side was more correct, and people were smart enough to realize this.  I think the "outspoken" side successfully framed itself as the more inclusive side, as allowing people to take a variety of approaches, whatever suited them.  I myself take a very polite style, but I'm still on the side of the angry atheists, because I think other people have good reasons to be angry.

But also, I think the criticism of the tone of the atheist movement came from a lot of external critics.  This is no accident, because the winners of the tone war were the ones who decided who is internal and who is external.  But frankly, there were some people who were just always going to be external.  It's long been fashionable in mainstream media to criticize the "strident" tone of Richard Dawkins, just like it's been fashionable to criticize him for not addressing "sophisticated" theology.

One thing to ask is how the tone war affected the current state of the atheist movement.  Is it a good thing that the angry outspoken people won?  It's arguably caused some degree of harm.  Some of the biggest problems with the feminism split come from the harassment campaigns.  People often justify their abuse by saying it's free speech.  If the "nice" side had won, would these harassment campaigns have happened anyway?  If the movement valued politeness, would we be able to slow the harassment down by appealing to that value?  I don't know, it's really hard for me to imagine such a world.

Even though the tone war spanned many years, not everyone knows about it, either because they weren't involved in the movement, or they weren't watching the right parts of the movement, or they weren't there at the right times.  So I still see people criticizing the tone of the atheist movement occasionally.  I don't know what to say about this because we... sort of already won that argument?  And it turns out that when the atheist movement had problems, they were pretty much orthogonal issue to the tone war.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Racism" as a term

Earlier I mentioned the possibility of a new series, where I look at "privilege", "normativity", and "-ism" terms, as they are used in a social justice context, and try to seriously evaluate the language we use.  I think this series will not happen, because I was not immediately inspired to right more.  However, I'd like to share some thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of "racism".

"Racism" is a term with deeply negative connotations, and conjures of images of slavery, lynchings, segregated schools and buses, the illegalization of intermarriage, and so on.  That's basically the kind of racism I learned about in grade school.  We learned about MLK Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, etc. every year in February.  The message appeared to be, racism is really really bad, glad we're past that.  This did not prepare us for the current generation of racism, to put it lightly.

Today's racism looks different.  Maybe a lot of that is perception, because we view the past and present through different lenses.  But today, many people will express "colorblind racism".  They say they don't see race, apparently ignorant of the evidence showing ubiquitous implicit biases.  "Colorblind racism" also spawns "ironic racism", where people joke about having racist attitudes because they find it so unimaginable that any ordinary person could actually be racist.  In the meantime, there are all these de facto inequalities between Black and White people, and instead of actively addressing the problem, colorblind racism appears to advocate ignoring the problem until it goes away.  Or alternatively, it puts the blame on "Black culture" (via The Barefoot Bum).

This is troubling not just for US ethnic minorities, but for any other marginalized group currently fighting for rights.  It paints a bleak picture of the future.  In the future, will people believe that the fight for LGBT rights are over, despite continuing implicit prejudice and de facto inequalities?  I hope not, I hope something about it is different.

But I meant to discuss the word "racism".  In some ways, today's racism is a consequence of the very word "racism", and the mythos it has acquired. "Racism" is a victim of its own success.  Everyone in polite society has been convinced it's bad; it's so bad, in fact, that it doesn't look like anything here in the realm of mere mortals.  For some people, not even someone who shoots a Black man unprovoked lives up to the cartoon villain we visualize when we picture a racist.

Part of the problem is that "racism" (the system) and "racist" (a person) are so closely associated.  If something is racism, that must mean there is a racist somewhere.  Thus, we must be imputing great moral responsibility on this unlucky individual.  They are to be cast out of polite society, put among the ranks of Hitler.  As humans we have a lot of strong emotions regarding moral judgment of people.  When someone is beyond the pale, it colors everything that person does.  When someone is alleged to be beyond the pale, people really freak out because they're afraid of the power of that moral judgment.

Strategically, we have basically two choices: we can play up the personal moral responsibility, or play it down.  The first strategy is advantageous because it provokes strong emotions and gets people to care.  But the disadvantage is that it often provokes strong negative reactions, because people have trouble accepting the idea that anyone should be morally responsible for something so terrible.

In fact, there are a few cases we actually don't want to hold anyone personally responsible, at least not to such a great degree.  Often, when we talk about racism, it's not the individual statements or actions we care about, but all the institutional forces behind it.  Other times, we want to talk about implicit racial biases, which are thought to be very widespread.  In these cases, we as a society have responsibility, but the responsibility is diffuse, not belonging to single individual.  I don't think anyone is trying to say that most of polite society should be cast out from polite society.  And yet, when we call it racism, that's the message implied, just because of the connotations of "racism".

"Racism" is a fine word in many cases, but it sure would help if we had some alternative.  Another word with clout, one which does not impute as much moral responsibility.  Alas, I know of no such word.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Take the AVEN survey

Here's a project I've been working on:
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) is performing a large-scale survey.
We are looking for any respondents who are part of the asexual spectrum, as well as people who are not part of the asexual spectrum. This survey includes some sensitive questions about sexual topics. Please distribute this announcement.

The survey is open for some time. Later, statistical results will be published, providing crucial information about the demographics and needs of asexual-spectrum people.

The survey can be accessed here.For any inquiries, please see our FAQ, or e-mail

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Icosahedral flower

Last month I taught a modular origami class!  Sorry, no photos of that.  I have moral misgivings about posting photos of 7-year-olds without parents' permission.  So you get an unrelated photo.

Icosahedral Flower, an original model, based on something from Tomoko Fuse.  I don't have much to say about this one.  It consists of a "belt" of five triangles, capped on both ends.  The cap on one end is a giant flower.  There are three distinct types of units, so you can forget about teaching this one to children.

So, teaching children, eh?  More like, the children were teaching me.

I've done enough modular origami that I have trouble accurately estimating the difficulty of putting these things together.  It's not just that I think everything is easier than it really is, it's that I had a mistaken view of the relative difficulty of the various steps.  I had imagined the hardest part as folding the individual units, since that's what takes up the most space in an origami book, and it's what I have to learn anew for each model.  But beginners seem to have much more trouble putting the units together.

As a result, I may have picked some models that were more challenging than I had intended.  The units were very easy to fold, but the tabs and pockets weren't especially clear, so kids had trouble figuring out how to put them together.  Luckily, the kids, rather than getting frustrated, grew more and more engaged.  The entire time I was barraged by questions--many kids simultaneously asking for help on different steps of the process.

Next time I will be much better prepared.  For instance, I initially expected that some kids would be perfectionists and go too slowly, but the opposite was the case.  I have this idea to have the kids use pencils to mark where the folds will go.

Also, previously I thought it was important to pick models that could be of various sizes, so that kids with different skill levels could make either 12-unit or 30-unit versions.  I don't think that's necessary.  The important thing is to have units that have clear pockets and tabs.