Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The tone argument, in retrospect

In an earlier post, I talked about the "tone argument" in the atheist blogosphere, and how that argument basically disappeared in 2011.  The tone argument accused atheists of being too angry, too mocking, or otherwise uncooperative.  Of course, mockery and anger are two very different things, but all these differences tended to get glossed over, and I'll gloss over them here as well.

Because I saw so much about the tone argument, and because it so suddenly disappeared in 2011, whenever I see anything resembling the tone argument, I think to myself, "Ugh, we already resolved this argument years ago!"

However, this is excessively dismissive of me, and basically amounts to relying on popular opinion.  What if the popular opinion is wrong?  What if it's only popular among the people who remained in the atheist communities?  Furthermore, even if popular opinion is correct, we need to examine the extent to which it is correct.  I have never believed, for instance, that anger is completely correct in all situations at all times.

So here I present a serious treatment of the tone argument, with the benefit of hindsight over years of atheist blogging.

Angry atheism is a stereotype

The key to understanding the tone argument in an atheist context is understanding that the angry atheist is a stereotype.  The stereotypical atheist is rude, strident, loud, smug, and a general asshole.  I can't tell you how many stories I've heard of people who knew an atheist in high school who argued vehemently with anyone who would listen.  I do not doubt these people existed, but it's odd how angry high school atheists become the prototypical atheist, and whenever atheists are nice, it's such a reversal of expectations.

It's easy to see the cultural underpinnings of the stereotype (in the US), even without being a great student of culture. Religion is considered to be a bit of a taboo topic, even more than politics.  It's not something you're supposed to bring up at dinner.  And if you identify as an atheist, you are explicitly saying that you disbelieve all the major religions in the US.  Your very existence is far too impolite, far too loud, far too angry.

The consequences of this stereotype--like the consequences of any stereotype--are far-reaching and complex.  On the one hand, you have people who simply say that the stereotype is wrong.  "I'm not angry!" they say, or alternatively, "Personally, I'm angry, but lots of atheists I know aren't!"

On the other hand, you have people who reject the implicit norm behind the stereotype.  "What's wrong with being angry?" is the question.  And so these people talk up the value of being angry, and in the process become angrier than they would be otherwise.  Additionally, they will be more likely to frame things in terms of anger, even if the same emotions wouldn't be framed as anger in other contexts.  I don't think atheists are any more vocal than US liberals, for instance, but liberals are far less likely to think of themselves as "angry" or "strident" about their views.

So you basically have two groups pulling in opposite directions.  There are atheists who play down the stereotype, because the stereotype is wrong.  And there are atheists who play up the stereotype, because they argue that there's nothing wrong with fitting the stereotype.  The "tone wars" of atheism started out by outsiders applying the angry atheist stereotype to atheists.  And then the conflict burned on because of conflicting ways for atheists to deal with the stereotype.

So whenever you think of atheists as angry, the two questions you have to answer are, "Are you sure that they're as angry as you perceive?" and "What's wrong with being angry?"

Is anger useful?

Besides being an issue of stereotypes, anger (or lack thereof) is also a big part of how a social movement operates.  If you're a rationalist-idealist, you might believe that you can persuade everyone by arguing calmly and rationally, but "rationalist-idealist" is practically a contradiction in terms.  Truly calm and rational arguments would mostly succeed in getting everyone to tune out.  For instance, it takes a very special kind of person who is willing to read loooong blog posts, and blogs already aren't exactly models of rigor.  Anger and mockery are important and necessary tools to get people to pay attention.

And yes, it is true that arguing angrily can turn people off.  I'm sure you can even find some SCIENCE which says as much.  But I am extremely skeptical of the SCIENCE, because it ultimately presents a very limited part of the wide range of settings of a social movement.

Try to imagine the most stereotypical setting where atheists argue against religion.  For me, I imagine an everyman atheist and an everyman Christian arguing over a game of chess.  Or maybe there's an atheist with his Christian family at Thanksgiving, and there's some conflict over the practice of saying grace.  Maybe the scientific studies apply to those sorts of "normal" situations.

But you know, neither of those "normal" situations has ever happened to me.  Arguing with people one-on-one just isn't a thing that happens on any regular basis.  The truly normal setting for me is I blog, and some people freely choose to read it.  Most of the readers are already atheists.

What about other settings for arguments?  Say that you're not talking with religious people at all, but talking with other atheists and trying to build a community.  Say you're not an everyman, but a trans woman, and you're dealing with religious people who insist you're really a man.  Say you're an activist, and you're trying to convince politicos that you're a force to be reckoned with.  Say you aren't using anger as a tactic, you're just genuinely angry, and the ability to express that anger is your main motivation for getting into activism in the first place.

Scientific studies might provide some useful insights about the way people think.  It's good to know a bit about the backfire effect.  It's good to know that expressing anger tends to make you angrier, rather than "venting" it.  But I deny that this means that a social movement should not use anger or mockery in general.

Is anger honest?

Aside from whether anger is effective as a strategy, there's also the question about whether anger is an honest strategy.  We're frequently stuck in this situation where it doesn't matter who is right about the argument, it matters who wins.  But in the atheist movement and rationalist community more generally, we tend to value honesty, and we generally want to win arguments if and only if we happen to be on the right side of the argument.

There certainly appear to be some cases where anger is unfair, or encourages confirmation bias.  For example, anger pushes some people out of the conversation.  And it often appears that angry people are more likely to "dig in" to their mistakes.

But perhaps not everything is as it seems.  While some people would feel pushed out by an angry argument, other people would feel pushed out of a conversation where "calmness" is enforced, especially in the presence of a stereotype which makes them appear angrier than they really are.  Furthermore, when I looked up anger and confirmation bias, it appears that anger tends to decrease confirmation bias.

I am less sure about mockery than about anger.  I have seen many instances of atheists mocking religions where I thought the underlying criticism was incorrect or unfair.  But I could be wrong about that too.  Maybe my perception is distorted, and I simply attribute these things to mockery when they're unrelated.

We can also ask the same questions about whether "friendly" tactics are honest.  One of the most effective ways to convince people of something is to make personal connections and socially surround them with opposing views.  We're used to seeing this tactic used by religious groups.  It's difficult to tell people, stop being so friendly, but it sure feels dishonest in some way that's hard to place.


The tone argument is wrong because it's based on a stereotype of angry atheists.  Not only do people perceive atheists as angrier than they really are, they underestimate the value of anger in a social movement.  Lastly, while anger sometimes appears to be associated with cognitive biases, it's far from clear that it is any worse in this regard than being friendly.

In my opinion, the ultimate reason the tone argument fails is because it overreaches, trying to make a universal statement about the value of anger.  But in a social movement there are so many vastly different contexts that it is difficult to make any universal statement.  If at some point, the "angry" atheists were to argue that everyone should be angry all the time, then this argument would similarly fail.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Personal thoughts on the four campfires of art

Scott McCloud is a cartoonist, and the leading theorist of comic arts.  In his book Making Comics, McCloud proposed the idea of the "four campfires of art", also known as "tribes of art" or "passions of art".  It's a way of dividing art or artists into four types.  But perhaps it's better understood as dividing art into four aspirations, since any particular artist or work of art can draw from multiple campfires.

For a description of the four campfires, here's a good blog post, or you can see what McCloud himself says in his TED talk or in this interview.

Image taken from McCloud's TED talk.

In addition to those links, I offer a very brief description:
  • Classicists focus on beauty, and mastery of the artform.
  • Animists focus on content, trying to present their story or ideas in the clearest way possible.
  • Formalists focus on form, exploring the contours of the medium.
  • Iconoclasts focus on truth, especially by targeting artistic conventions which gloss over truth.
Though McCloud is coming from the perspective of comics, they also may apply to other art forms, such as fine arts, literature, movies, music, and video games.

I find these four campfires to be personally validating, so much to the extent that I cannot offer any general commentary on them, and only offer my personal feelings.

I take one look at the four campfires, and it's blatantly obvious which one I fall into, both in my appreciation of art, and in my recent attempts to write a novel.  I'm an iconoclast. I really like fiction that deconstructs common tropes.  I like art that turns common moments into objects of fascination.  When I set out to write a novel, I end up writing a novel about a narrator whose major flaw is too much trust in tropes.

I also appreciate formalism and animism, but the campfire that is hardest for me to understand is classicism.  I think the category somewhat suffers from its association with "classic" art, because I think that most of the time when artwork gets immortalized as "classic", it's not because the artist set out to do so.

For example, is Shakespeare a classicist?  A lot of Shakespeare focuses on the details of the plot, and linguistic wit of the characters, both of which are animist values.  However, regardless of artistic intention, perhaps classicism is the main thing people get out of Shakespeare today, if only because the other values don't age as well.  I don't know, I don't really care for Shakespeare.  Or classic works in general, really.

I find the four campfires personally validating, because I really like art, but this is hard to explain when I'm not much into popular art, and dislike most classic art.  Also, my favorite thing to do with art is complain about it.  But it seems there's still a place for me at one of the campfires.

Which of the four campfires would you say you value most?

Monday, November 17, 2014

How identity is like a democracy

This was cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.  I always end up writing these essays which almost exclusively concern people in the asexual community, but I thought readers here might find it interesting since it applies to identity politics more generally.

Why do the kids these days have so many words and identity labels?

That's the question we ask year after year.  But isn't that funny?  If it's the same thing year after year, why does it seem like kids these days are especially bad about it?

It's certainly true that some years provide more fertile ground for words than others.  For example, there were a lot more new asexuality-related words in the years 2000-2010 than in the years 1990-2000.

But a lot of the perceived change is an illusion.  Previous generations also had lots of words and identity labels.  Some of those words became established, and now you take them for granted (eg hetero-/bi-/pan-/homo- romantic, gray-A, demisexual).  But for every successful word, there were a dozen unsuccessful words.  You don't see them anymore, because they died.

I can provide many examples, being on AVEN since 2009, and having read a lot of community history.  There were the "sensual" orientations, such as homosensual, etc.   There was primary and secondary romantic and sexual attraction (ugh).  There were all the alternatives for gray-A and demisexual.  There were the concepts of "gay asexual" or "straight asexual", which were synonyms for romantic orientation.  And a bunch of other terms that failed so quickly that they're hardly worth mentioning or remembering.

You might think of words as having definitions, a collection of necessary and sufficient conditions.  But first and foremost, words are tools.  We don't adopt words merely because they apply to us, we adopt them if we find them useful.

Here are some of the things identity labels are useful for:
  • Identifying something about yourself, so that you may better understand it.
  • Feeling like you share an experience with other people who also use the word.
  • A tag to collect similar discussion.
  • A way to communicate something about yourself.
  • A rallying call for a community or social movement.
Note that most of these things require that you are not the only person using the label.  You can't use an identity label to share experiences if no one else uses the label.  You can't communicate with it unless you're in a context where enough people understand it.  You can't organize a social movement unless a lot of people are on board.

That's why, when words become unpopular, they don't just die a little.  They die completely.  Most people just don't have a use for an unpopular label. 

Using an identity label is like voting for it.

When you adopt a word, you are saying, "This word is useful to me."  And you are also giving the word more power.  You are opening up new ways to use the word.  And this is a good thing, because it means that the best words, the ones that most people find useful, become the successful ones.  The ones that people do not find useful become unsuccessful.

Crucial to this process is the freedom to vote.  People need the freedom to determine if a label is useful to them, or if it is not useful to them, independently of whether the label technically describes them.  If people are required to use a word just because it describes them, then this would ruin the whole process and lead to the creation of bad terms that we all use but no one likes.

It's certainly acceptable to campaign for or against a word.  Many established words became successful because someone campaigned for them.  For example, "demisexual" originally had success because AVEN user OwlSaint campaigned relentlessly for it circa 2008.  And I've campaigned against words before, like the primary/secondary attraction mentioned earlier.

On the other hand, there are certain campaign strategies that seem unfair.  For example, it seems unfair to outright tell people, "You shouldn't use that word," or, "Sounds like you're ____," especially when you're saying it to baby aces who see you as an authority figure.  You should be teaching baby aces how to vote, not telling them which way to vote.

I also think it's unfair to go straight to the public and use new words in visibility efforts.  That's taking too many shortcuts, and you may just be advocating a word that will die later on.  But there is a large gray area here.  In my history of doing presentations, I've been far too conservative, hesitating to use words that later became much more popular.


Once a word becomes established, it may stick around for a long time.  But that doesn't mean that there is no longer anything to vote on. 

We also vote on the meanings of words.

The asexual community is especially prone to thinking that words have clear definitions with necessary and sufficient conditions, because that's the way the word "asexual" is usually presented.  In fact, this idea is widely rejected in cognitive science and philosophy of language.  Most words don't have necessary and sufficient conditions, they have "prototypes".  Whether something belongs to a class or not depends on how similar it is to the prototype.  Stereotypes are basically a kind of prototype, so when people complain about stereotypes, they're trying to broaden a word away from a particular prototype.

The result of all this, is that words can be fluid.  Definitions are attempts to pin down the meanings of words, which is an extremely useful thing to do.  But definitions are not the ultimate reality of what those words mean.

In particular, there is always a lot of negotiation of the boundaries between words.  For example, if you experience just a tiny bit of sexual attraction, how much is needed to push you from asexual to gray-A?  If you yourself are on that boundary, that's for you to decide!

Just as we need the freedom to vote on which words to use, we also need the freedom to vote on what they mean.  Therefore, people should feel free to use a word even if by your preferred definition, that word does not describe them.  This allows us, as a community, to negotiate what are the best meanings for existing words.

This democratic process is the way that our language has been created.  Please continue voting!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Writing a novel: Month 7

This month I made modest progress on my book, finishing a few chapters.  I stalled for a bit while writing a chat log between the narrator and protagonist.  The narrator lies a lot, so the chat logs serve the purpose of being more reliably true.

Let me take this opportunity to talk about one of my major inspirations.  Let me tell you about Homestuck.  Explaining Homestuck to people is an exercise in absurdity and futility, so much so that "Let me tell you about Homestuck" has become a meme.  But it will help that I'm not actually trying to convince anyone to read Homestuck, I'm just trying to explain what it is.  (See the author's explanation for a more persuasive effort.)

Homestuck is a webcomic, and an epic satire of video games and the internet.  Unlike most webcomics, it makes full use of its online medium, including animations, music, hyperlink shenanigans, flash games, and more.  And Homestuck is really really long, longer than the entirety of Harry Potter, and more dense too.  Despite the high barrier to entry, it is extremely popular, with a very active fandom.  Most notably, Homestuck fans were able to raise 2.5 million dollars for a spinoff video game.

I've been reading Homestuck since the beginning in 2009, although I don't really participate in the fandom.  I honestly think Homestuck is one of the greatest works of my generation.  But I'm not trying to sell you on it, so I don't feel the need to explain all many great things about it.  I'm just going to pull out one aspect that I find inspirational.

Homestuck captures the modern communication age better than any other work of fiction I have ever read.  Homestuck is about a bunch of kids who live across the world, but who can nonetheless be close friends, through the medium of instant chat.  They are all excited to play a video game which promises, among other things, to provide a means for them to meet each other.  As someone who spends a lot of the time on the internet, that's touching.

Aside from that, all the characters, the humor, and the entire aesthetic of the comic has clearly been shaped by the internet age.  It's a world where people can have really obscure hobbies, where writing style blends into personal identity, and where ideas are often imported from the fandom.

The ways that other works of fiction deal with the communication age doesn't even come close.  Just think of all those movie plots that rely on no one having a cell phone.  If we can't handle cell phones, how will we ever handle smartphones?  And think of all those google-search and email montages.  Who thought those were a good idea?

Even cyberpunk.  I haven't read much cyberpunk, because it kind of makes me angry, but from what I can tell, it's based on a bunch of tropes that were attempts to predict what the computer age would look like in the future.  I read part of Snow Crash (and then stopped, because the hacker hero archetype really annoys me), which envisioned an internet a bit like Second Life.  That's nice, but I'd like to see more fiction with the benefit of hindsight.

I started talking about Homestuck because I mentioned that I was writing some chat logs.  Honestly, the idea of fictional chat logs is so closely associated with Homestuck for me, that it makes me feel like an imitator.  And a poor one at that, since I'm pretty sure I'll never be as good a writer as Andrew Hussie.  On the other hand, I would really like to see modern communication and its aesthetics to become more common in fiction, to the point where it no longer feels like an imitation of any particular work.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I support a guaranteed basic income

I've been a radical social liberal for a long time, but agnostic about most economic issues.  Macroeconomics is black magic, after all.  Nonetheless, over the past few years my economic politics have skewed more and more liberal, even though I don't blog about it much.

For example, one hypothetical policy I would support is a policy of giving everyone money.

That's a policy that I never would have supported when I was younger.  Even when I was a teenager, I understood that money is a fictitious entity.  If everyone had more money things would just cost more.

Put another way, say we had enough bread and houses to provide food and shelter for a million people.  If you gave everyone money, then prices would just rise until only a million people can afford bread and houses.  The same number of people would starve and go homeless, because it's not really a money issue, it's an issue of how much resources we have.

On the other hand, if you give everyone the same amount of money, that has the effect of redistributing wealth.  It would reduce inequality, basically.  And there really would be fewer starving and homeless people, because we would invest less in producing luxury goods for the most wealthy, and invest more in producing additional bread and houses for the poor.

One thing that colors my view is that I'm part of the millenial generation.  I'm entering the workforce in a time when unemployment is higher than ever.  What do unemployment rates say about our society?  It's possible that it means we're just allocating resources poorly.  But the other interpretation is that we have a surplus of labor.  We're too efficient at producing the goods that we need.  This is a bad thing only because employment is the primary way we distribute money.  If individuals can't find jobs then they're in financial trouble.  The easy solution is to distribute money by other means.

I think the unemployment levels are really just the tip of the iceberg.  When people are desperate for jobs, they'll accept worse jobs.  I'm coming from a cynical grad student perspective, and one of the things I despise is the workaholic culture in academia.  People expect you to work longer than normal hours.  And in order to advance to professorship, most people have to spend years in postdocs for low pay.  You just have to put up with it, because there are too many other people who want your job.

There are also governmental jobs which provide no real value to society.  They're just there because governmental employees can vote, and therefore vote to maintain their own jobs.  I would rather just give those people money instead of having them waste their time to get it.

Why a guaranteed basic income?  Why not welfare instead?  There are two reasons, one economic, and the other social.

Earlier, I learned a bit about how welfare works in the US.  People are awarded a certain amount of money, with a certain percentage of their income deducted.  And in order to remain eligible for welfare, people need to eventually find a job.  But if we have a surplus of labor, why require people to find a job?  And deducting a percentage of people's income amounts to an effective tax on the poorest people.  By giving everyone the same amount of money regardless of income, we remove that effective tax (not to mention cut down on bureaucratic costs).

Welfare also has a social problem, since they're perceived as handouts rather than money that is rightly owned by its beneficiaries.  Taking welfare amounts to admitting that you are unable to provide for yourself.  But this isn't really a matter of individual failure, it's a matter of correcting an economic problem that comes from labor surplus.  Thus, nobody should feel bad about receiving money.  If wealthy people receive the same amount of money, it would be harder to stigmatize.

Anyway, I have the impression that this puts me way to the left of US democrats.  Although to be fair, libertarians often support a similar policy under the heading "negative income tax".

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Diluting" the meaning

Content note: brief nonexplicit discussion of sexual assault

Recently, someone in the comments accused me of using "sexist" too loosely:
I also take umbrage with the casual and loose way in which people throw around the words sexist, racist, islamaphobia, etc. It gets to the point where EVERYONE can be determined to fit into the insanely loose definition of what constitutes one of those caricatures.
But this is just one example of an attitude I've heard from many people.  Whenever anything is called sexist, homophobic, etc., we're said to be "diluting" the meaning of those words.  We're taking attention away from the more serious problems of outright sexism and homophobia.  I've heard the same said about sexual assault.  When we use "sexual assault" to refer to situations where the victim is drinking, we're diluting the meaning of sexual assault.

I have a zany proposal: Yes, I am diluting the meaning, and I am correct to do so.

Seriously, I would love it if sexual assault were punished more often, but more lightly.  I don't like that people who are convicted of sexual assault basically have their lives ruined because sex offender registries exile them out of many urban areas.  I don't like that I would feel bad about reporting sexual assault, because it's unlikely I would believed, and even if I were believed, it could hurt the accused far more than I want to.

I would love it if sexism and racism were recognized to be not just a few bad apples, but a dilute set of attitudes that affect us all.  I think this makes people uncomfortable, because how can EVERYONE be bad?  But let's frame it another way.  Instead of making it about us vs the baddies, it's now about self-improvement!  What a lighter world that would be!  Furthermore, I think this more closely conforms to the way that prejudice actually works.

Another problem with the stronger definition of sexism/racism/homophobia/etc. is that it gets our personal identities all tangled up with the attitudes.  For instance, consider this quote from the above commenter:
The idea is that when you cherry pick a quote, especially a joke, to make a blanket condemnation you are ignoring what [Bill Maher] actually supports.
No, but here's the thing: I was not trying to make a blanket condemnation of Bill Maher just on the basis of one quote.  Maybe he is otherwise an okay person, what do I know?*  The commenter is saying it's so unreasonable to condemn a whole person just based on one attitude.  You know what, I agree!

*To be fair, I do know that he's an antivaxxer, and I condemn him more strongly on that basis.  Some of this animosity towards Maher may spill over into my other comments about him.  But that's largely an independent issue, and obviously not everyone who makes sexist jokes will be an antivaxxer.

And that's exactly why the meaning of "sexist" should become more dilute.  Right now, "sexism" is so strong that it's reserved only for people who are all around terrible about everything.  It would be better if instead it referred to some particular thing, not a whole person, that is objectionable.  It would be great to disentangle personal identity from sexism.

In summary, I wish we could recognize sexism/racism/homophobia/ sexual assault/Islamophobia/etc. more frequently, and also be less punitive about the times when we do recognize them.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sexist jokes and Bill Maher

I'm a member of the atheist student group at UC Berkeley, known as BASS, and apparently they recently launched a blog.  The first post is about Bill Maher, who was invited as a commencement speaker.  Some students, especially the Muslim student group, did not like that Bill Maher was invited, and they started a petition to stop him.

I basically don't care about Maher speaking at commencement, because I already hate commencement.  It's a long boring ritual that we're strongly pressured to participate in whether or not we personally derive anything from it.  Anyway, I'm not an undergraduate, and it's for the undergraduates to work out.

What I find shameful is the defense of Bill Maher in general, and the defense of "sexist" jokes (in scare quotes because my opponents are contesting that they are sexist):
...let’s take as an example a Tweet that Bill Maher made recently, saying “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists for so long before you have to slap her”.
Now, I agreed with him that the Tweet was objectionable, but I also saw that the moment he started arguing over whether the term “sexist” applied to it, he gave the conversation away to the forces of nonsense.
Calling something sexist just means that it's objectionable, particularly with respect to the gender axis.  If he agrees that it's objectionable, then it hardly seems necessary to argue a point we already agree with.  He appears to be operating under the view that "sexist" is to be reserved for things that are LITERALLY HITLER, whereas my definition of "sexist" is apparently too loose?  It seems clear to me that a looser definition of "sexist" is simply a superior one, because then maybe I can actually use it every so often on things that exist in the real world.

The author then goes on to talk about the real world harm of the tweet:
“It perpetuates the stereotype of women as irrational and insane.”  In whose mind?  Yours?  Maybe if you’re an idiot.
Wow, what a great example of people believing that if they're smart enough, they can overcome cognitive biases.  Only an idiot would ever be taken in by stereotypes.

You don't need to look very far to find lots of research on sexist jokes, and how they affect attitudes towards women.  Here are a few examples from one study:
How many men does it take to change a lightbulb? None let her do the dishes in the dark.

Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the sink!
These jokes are, of course, "ironic", because no one actually believes that women have small feet so they can do housework.  The lightbulb joke only mentions a specific woman, and not women in general.  In fact, that one's really making fun of lazy men, not women.  Only an idiot would be affected by these jokes.

Look, we can argue back and forth whether Bill Maher's humor is qualitatively different.  But we don't know if it's sufficiently different, because I didn't see any studies that looked at the finer gradations of sexist humor.  I don't think the problems with Maher's humor can be dismissed out of hand as something that only affects idiots (and certainly not ourselves!).

Oh, and take a look at this concern trolling:
If Feminists attack people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, then – in the public perception, at least – Feminism comes to entail attacking people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, and that’s all anyone needs to know to safely dismiss the brand altogether (e.g. "Feminists?  You mean those people who say you can never call a woman crazy, even if she's trying to kill u?").  If you want to brand yourself as the kind of person who throws a fit whenever a public figure says something unflattering, don’t be surprised when people stop listening to you, even about real issues.
People focus on quotes because it's actually a lot more effective than saying "Bill Maher is islamophobic" or "We have a problem with islamophobia."  "Oh?  Can you give an example?"  Yes, here are some quotes.  No wait, Alex Freeman advised me not focus on quotes, and surely he knows best.

Alex Freeman proposes that instead we focus on actions.  For instance, Bill Maher is my goddamn enemy because he is anti-vaccination, and I got into skepticism precisely to oppose that sort of nonsense.  But let's not focus on anything Maher said about vaccines or Louis Pasteur recanting germ theory on his deathbed.  Let's focus on his actions, and any actions he directly inspired.  I don't know of any such action, so I guess Maher's off the hook!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Trillium Bouquet

Impatient Trillium Bouquet, by Meenakshi Mukerji.  Textbook for scale.

Today I have a simple model, from Meenakshi Mukerji's "Blintz Base Bouquet" series.  They're all based on the blintz fold, which is simply folding all four corners of a square to the center.

There's one interesting about this model, math-wise.

Each unit consists of two colors.  The major color (blue, light blue, green, or purple) makes the structure of the unit.  The minor color (red, pink, or light pink) is simply inserted for color's sake.  There are twelve units total, making up the twelve edges of an octahedron.

What's interesting is that both the major and minor colors constitute "proper symmetric" colorings of the octahedron edges.  But they are distinct colorings, because there are four major colors, and three minor colors.  Furthermore, the twelve units have all twelve possible combinations of major and minor colors.  Isn't that elegant?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gay/Bi men need feminism too

Feminism is a tradition of social critique that usually focuses on the problems faced by women.  However, I see the connection to that tradition to be the essential aspect of feminism, not necessarily the focus on women.  A lot of feminism today tries to focus on intersectionality, because in order to fight for women, we need to fight for POC women, queer and trans women, women with disabilities, and women of all body types. Furthermore, feminists often look at gender norms and the way that they hurt both women and men.

Gay/bi male cultures and spaces are usually dominated by men.  Naturally.  But even when there are no women around, feminism is still needed.  I say that with all seriousness, and with no irony.  Gender norms affect men, and they affect queer men too.  And frankly, men's movements which have tried to tackle the problems faced by men have mostly been gruesome jokes, not to mention frequently homophobic.  Anti-feminist men's movements have been nothing less than a curse on our gender, and on all male-dominated spaces.  What gay/bi men need is feminism--and I don't mind that the word focuses on women, because it's sure better than associating with the traditions of men's movements.

A lot of ideas in feminism are directly applicable to gay/bi men.  For instance, there is the idea of the male gaze.  In the context of men who like men, the male gaze does not reinforce gendered power structures, but it does place excessive focus on what gay/bi men find attractive, or rather, what is conventionally attractive.  The result: body image issues are the bread and butter of gay culture.  And it's funny how many articles there are complaining about the issue, while still showing the same photos of conventionally hot guys.  Just as an example, take this article, which a friend recently shared:
Being gay is tough enough as it is, but having to deal with the pressures of not feeling worthy because I don’t have a 6-pack makes me not have that Gay Pride that everyone always boasts about.
And also:
...the thing that bothers me the most [about this site] is the lack of other types of gay men in photos attached to the articles.
...He says, under a rather decent-looking photo of himself.

Yes, this is the kind of person who has body-image issues in the gay community.  It's no surprise that gay men disproportionately suffer from eating disorders.

He then goes through a nice-guy routine (another applicable concept from feminism):
Out of anyone you’ve ever dated I would be the one to treat you the way deserve to be treated. I wouldn’t look at other guys, I wouldn’t make you feel unwanted, and I would never go a day without telling you how much I love you.
This whole attitude is part of the problem, because he's so focused on getting attention from the most conventionally attractive guys, while giving no attention whatsoever to guys less attractive than him, even though they too might "treat him the way he deserves to be treated."  The thought that anyone else might be as "nice" as him is not even considered.

Here's another article which a friend shared: "Is discrimination on Grindr killing gay sex?"  It deals with the well-known widespread racism and body-shaming on Grindr.  While I agree with the general point, the article also says stuff like this:
What does someone in the 1 percent of Grindr's sexual economy look like? He has white skin, he has a weight that begins with "1," he is cisgender, in his 20s, completely able-bodied, has a full head of hair, has either slightly defined or very defined abs, has a dusting of body hair, is masculine and is HIV-negative. These men are what you might call "sexual gatekeepers." Just as the 1 percent of America's economy has unlimited access to the services and privileges they need, Grindr's 1 percent has the privilege of determining who has access to them and when and where they will get serviced.
I find it bizarre to compare the most conventionally attractive men to 1 percenters.  In straight dating, this would be the equivalent of blaming the most attractive women for not giving out sex more freely.  Nobody is obligated to give other people access to their bodies (and don't even get me started on sexual assault in gay/bi cultures).


Based on multiple discussions, I know one of the most common responses to problems in gay/bi male culture is "Straight people have the same problems too."  This may well be true, and I have no idea because I have basically no experience with straight dating.

I suspect that gay/bi men have some things better, and also some things worse.  For instance, racism among gay/bi men appears worse. with many people openly expressing their preference for white men only, and lots of people talk about or even identify as "rice queens" (white men who like asian men) or other similar terms.  The straight equivalent, "yellow fever", is far less common and more pejorative.  It's true that people have their preferences and they're hard to change, but how is it that straight people manage to be so much more polite about it?

On the other hand, comparing to straight people often seems like distracting from the point.  I don't want to wait around for straight dating culture to improve so that male/male dating culture can be dragged along behind it.  Comparisons to straight people are welcome to the extent that they move the discussion forward, but both straight and gay/bi cultures need to be challenged.

(Note: After time of writing, but before time of publication, I noticed Everyday Feminism talking about the same subject.  They don't use the concept of male gaze though, which I know I'm not using in a super precise way.)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

In the face of public criticism

You may not have seen it, but in the last month I was the target of more public criticism than I have ever been previously.  The story is that I'm on the committee which worked on this survey of asexual communities (no longer collecting data, preliminary findings now posted).  I would say the survey is not particularly professional, but neither is there anything horribly wrong about it.  Accordingly, the negative feedback we get is fairly mild.  But we do get some criticism, simply because we're a big target.  We have over 10,000 participants, mostly from Tumblr--and you know, bloggers, they're complainers.

But I'm not going to talk about the specific critiques.  I just want to talk about the experience of getting public criticism.  Public criticism is interesting, because we all engage in it, but few people ever experience much of the other side.  Despite this, we all build mental models of how the targets of criticism react, and how they should react.

The committee, as I said, is not particularly professional, we're just a bunch of disorganized volunteers.  So we didn't bother to come up with an official response to feedback.  We all respond as individuals.  There was one person who thought nearly all the critiques were correct, and felt really bad about themselves.  Another person thought nearly all the critiques were wrong and ignorant--but didn't say anything publicly.  As for me, I use my skeptical values to inform my response.  But I'm well aware that skeptical values are just high-minded ideas, and not practical tips for this specific situation.

Public criticism makes you experience a lot of irrationality.  My closest point of comparison is when I was in a dysfunctional relationship.  In the relationship, I went back and forth, day to day, between thinking the relationship was great, and thinking it was terrible.  In response to public criticism, I went back and forth, day to day, between thinking it would be good to respond to something, and thinking that it would be a bad idea to respond.  Either I'm being irrational on one day, or irrational the day after, although I don't know which it is.  When experiencing these kinds of emotions, I found it was always good to wait a day to see if they were at least time-consistent.

The reason for these conflicting emotions is that there are many conflicting values and priorities.  I want to be able to admit errors and avoid being defensive.  But I also want to be honest about the things I think are not errors.  I want to explain to people why we did what we did.  But I also want to be practical and act in the survey's best interest.

Yes, a big part of it is that explaining the whole truth is not really in the survey's best interest.  If I say too much, I can bias survey results in multiple ways.  And then, it's like I'm using the truth to create lies.  Honesty conflicts with itself!  Another problem, if I slammed a critic for saying something wrong, that would discourage other people from giving feedback, even if those people have good feedback to give.  That feedback is needed to improve future surveys.

To make peace with the fact that some people will just never know why they're right or wrong about the survey, I find it useful to think about the power dynamics here.  The survey team is like the brain, and the complainers are like the feet.  The brain has nearly complete power over the feet.  The feet can only complain.  Sometimes we should not act on the complaints, because we need to walk this hike and there's no way to do it without making the feet at least a little uncomfortable.  Sometimes we should act on the complaints, like if we accidentally walked over some broken glass.  In both cases, the complaints of the feet should be acknowledged and validated.