Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shut up and listen

This “shut up and listen” nonsense is getting tiresome.

This is what PZ said:

So my internal conversation when I’m feeling that way is “OK, that was a bit weird. Shut up. Think about it. Do they have good reason to think that way? Maybe I should consider where they’re coming from more.” My plan is to listen and learn here.

It’s perfectly clear that PZ is saying shut up and listen to what’s being said, have a think about it and then respond.  Don’t interrupt, don’t talk over people, don’t trust your immediate gut feeling. It;s entirely possible that by listening you’ll find out that your gut reaction was wrong or at least worth re-evaluating.

PZ is not saying that you should never argue with minorities. He’s saying that it’s good practice to listen to them first. Surprisingly many people don’t do this. Surprisingly many skeptics don’t do it, which is strange. My own reactions were the first thing learned to be skeptical about, they are what led me to skepticism in the first place. I read a lot of pop-science books when I was a kid. Some of them were woo masquerading as science and I wasn’t sure what to believe. My immediate reaction to what I read was not a good indicator of what turned out to be true. Isn’t that what skepticism is? Isn’t that all PZ is saying?

But this is what Ron Lindsay and others took from that message:

But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.

Relax, Ron.  Nobody is trying to shut you up. Nobody is likely to succeed if they tried. But people have been shut up. You know who? Members of minorities with communities who are bullied into silence or ignored or constantly interrupted and shouted down or who have to work harder than majority members to get to the same place or who have to pretend that an unfair situation or position is not.

THAT is why we ought to shut up and listen. When we’ve done that, we might have changed our opinions a little. We might still have some points to make and we should make them. But then we should listen to the answers too.  We might never agree, but we’ve given it every chance.

Isn’t that the least we can do?  Isn’t it the most human and skeptical thing we can do?

I’m not saying we should give every opinion equal weight. This whole issue is about members of (in this case) the skeptical/atheist community who are interested in applying skeptical tools to the issues they care about or about examining those issues in the light of atheism or religion.  There is no possible negative consequence of listening. The worst that can happen is that we disagree and go back to whatever we were doing.  So shut up and listen.

Friday, May 17, 2013

How we used to live

I used to think that agnosticism was the only intellectually defensible position on the existence of gods.  Chances are, so did you. It was a popular idea.  We can’t know that there isn’t a god, so we ought to be open-minded, right?  I always leaned heavily toward atheism but I’d say that while I called myself an atheist this was a matter of convenience and I was technically agnostic; just as near to atheism as made no difference. Richard Dawkins makes the same point in The God Delusion; he rates himself as a 6 on a scale of 1 to 7 where 7 is someone entirely convinced that there’s no god. 

On Richard’s part, this is likely a display of bending over backwards to display apparent intellectual rigour.  We need to be ‘agnostic’ about everything, of course, It’s important that we accept things only provisionally and change our minds if the evidence says we should.Who's Being Menaced By Elves?

But the fact is that we don’t say we’re teapot- or unicorn-agnostic. It would never occur to us to say that we don’t believe in elves. But the dice are loaded when we talk about gods.  Suddenly we have to justify our lack of belief in something that obviously doesn’t exist.

Russell explained this pretty clearly in the 50s and he wasn’t the first, but the notion has proved hard to let go of.  We can dismiss other fanciful notions out of hand but we have to apply undue intellectual rigour to the equally foolish idea of god?

It’s disturbing that god has become the default position even among us atheists, but that’s where we are.

I’m an atheist now. I’m a 7 on Richard’s scale. I don’t believe in any gods and I don’t think there’s any evidence that could convince me that any exist.  We need to stop apologising for not believing in bullshit.

And that’s what the furore about new atheism was and continues to be: some people – even some atheists – think we should apologise for not believing in things that are obviously not true. It still amazes me that the default answer is god rather than, say, no god.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why have an age of consent at all?

Because children need extra protection.  We know this: many children have been manipulated into dangerous behaviour by paedophiles. They lack experience and often lack confidence.  There’s an imbalance of power and authority between children and adults and a tendency of children – partly instilled by adults – to trust authority. Why is the age of consent (in the UK) 16?  Well, it’s fairly arbitrary, I guess, but there has to be an age and until someone can think of a way to empirically demonstrate that another age would be better, I find it difficult to argue with 16.

Some children under the age of consent are capable of making good decisions about sex but the point of a consent age is that adults are not qualified to make that judgement and – of course – do not always have the well-being of children in mind.

Nevertheless, Barbara Hewson - a prominent barrister specialising in reproductive rights – believes that the age of consent should be lowered to 13 to end the persecution of old men.  She writes:

I do not support the persecution of old men. The manipulation of the rule of law by the Savile Inquisition – otherwise known as Operation Yewtree – and its attendant zealots poses a far graver threat to society than anything Jimmy Savile ever did.

Hm. Whoever said that Savile was a threat to society?  I think the point is rather that he was a threat to children. Besides, I’m no fancy barrister, but it seems to me that if there are problems with the Yewtree investigation then we ought to deal with those issues directly rather than to make it easier for people to abuse children. Isn’t that just magicing the problem away?

Now even a deputy speaker of the House of Commons is accused of male rape. This is an unfortunate consequence of the present mania for policing all aspects of personal life under the mantra of ‘child protection’.

Unless it’s an unfortunate consequence of his having raped someone.  And what’s with the ‘even’? Are deputy speakers supposed to be immune from accusations?

By contrast, the goings-on at the BBC in past decades are not a patch on what Stead exposed. Taking girls to one’s dressing room, bottom pinching and groping in cars hardly rank in the annals of depravity with flogging and rape in padded rooms.

Certainly not. Neither is burglary, but we still punish the perpetrators.  The fact that things could have been worse don’t mean that the victims haven’t been hurt. I know a few victims of relatively mild (if there is such a thing) sexual abuse. It hurt them. It hurt them like bullying hurts people: they felt powerless, used and worthless, decades after the event. One was terrified both when the abuse happened and in the periods between abuses. One victim finds it difficult to trust people, decades after the abuse ended. 

Anecdotes to be sure, but my point is that for the victims of supposedly mild abuse, these events are not necessarily trivial. And furthermore, Hewson knows perfectly well that many of the allegations of abuse are much more serious. Many involve sex with children, for example, rather than ‘bottom-pinching’. Trivialising the alleged offenses catalogued by Operation Yewtree is profoundly dishonest.

Hewson then describes charities including the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) as ‘moral crusaders’ and ‘pressure groups’. She says they have a “vested interest in universalising the notion of abuse.” I have no idea what this means, let alone what interest in such things organisations like the NSPCC could possibly have.  They are a charity. Established and run to prevent cruelty to children. The clue is right there in the name. The NSPCC does vast amounts of excellent work at protecting children and I have no reason to suspect that they want to do anything other than protect children. Neither, I suspect, has Hewson.

The problem with this approach is that it makes abuse banal, and reduces the sympathy that we should feel for victims of really serious assaults

If that’s the case (and I’m not at all certain it is (to be fair, Hewson provides a reference which I haven’t read. But to be fair to me I can’t do that easily. It’s a book which is not in our library)) then it still doesn’t mean we should ignore lesser offences. If Hewson recommended that we keep things in perspective and treat more serious offenses more seriously, I’d agree. But she’s actually saying that certain types of abuse not be treated as abuse at all.

This is a theme with Hewson. For example:

Touching a 17-year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt, are not remotely comparable to the horrors of the Ealing Vicarage assaults and gang rape, or the Fordingbridge gang rape and murders, both dating from 1986. Anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality.

Again, so what? The fact that there are worse things does not mean that a bad thing has not been done.

It’s interesting that two complainants who waived anonymity have told how they rebuffed Hall’s advances. That is, they dealt with it at the time. Re-framing such experiences, as one solicitor did, as a ‘horrible personal tragedy’ is ironic, given that tragoidia means the fall of an honourable, worthy and important protagonist.

This is a worrying thing indeed for a lawyer to say.  The fact that they ‘dealt with it at the time’ doesn’t mean that (Stuart) Hall wasn’t a danger to other children.  It doesn’t mean that he didn’t commit offences – possibly serious – against other children. His ‘fall’ is not about what he failed to do, but about what he got away with and what he obviously would have done if he had the chance, assuming for the moment that he’s guilty. If he is guilty, then he is quite obviously not honourable (!) or worthy (of what?)  I’m all for the assumption of innocence, but Hewson takes this to an obsessive extreme by apparently assuming the allegations are either false or not worth caring about.  She seems to think that the soft spot a few aging people like me might have held in our hearts for him (personally, I couldn’t stand It’s a Knockout) is more important than any harm he might have done to his alleged victims.

Hewson finishes in extraordinary and baffling fashion:

It’s time to end this prurient charade, which has nothing to do with justice or the public interest. Adults and law-enforcement agencies must stop fetishising victimhood. Instead, we should focus on arming today’s youngsters with the savoir-faire and social skills to avoid drifting into compromising situations, and prosecute modern crime. As for law reform, now regrettably necessary, my recommendations are: remove complainant anonymity; introduce a strict statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil actions; and reduce the age of consent to 13.

One of the most important and basic skills a skeptic can cultivate is to notice when someone makes it seem as though societies can only do one thing at a time. That’s Daily Mail thinking.  We can have laws that protect children and teach children to protect themselves. In fact, isn’t that what we urgently need to be doing?

But there’s another monkey-wrench of the skeptical toolkit hidden in there too.  Be skeptical whenever anyone says that education is a magical cure for any particular ill. Education is crucial and more is more, but it doesn’t solve every problem.  Unwanted teenage pregnancies and STIs still exist, despite (in some places) education. When I was a kid in the 70s there were lots of public service adverts about not getting into cars with strangers, but people still did. I keep telling my cat why scratching the sofa to shreds hurts everyone, but she doesn’t seem to listen.

Education is crucial, but it doesn’t seem right to punish people who flunk. Those kids who got in people’s cars would be the first to say they made a mistake but I think they were punished enough.

So, to Hewson’s recommendations. What would they achieve? In the context of Operation Yewtree, they might make a few celebrities sweat less. But I can’t see how they would prevent abuse of law and I sure as shit can’t see how they would protect children.

I have some worries about the media focus on this investigation. There certainly is an element of hysteria in the way some of these allegations are reported. There might be a problem with the operation itself, I don’t know.  But bad men did bad things. Changing the law so bad things are no longer illegal is an astonishing response, especially for a lawyer.

Changing the law so there are better checks and balances might get something done without throwing children under any busses.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

The greatest harm the Castro brothers have done is to men, of course

I know we are a species of skewed perceptions.  Douglas Adams said it in a typically brilliant way:

“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time

But look at this.  Someone is saying that the greatest harm done by the Castro Brothers in Ohio – those men who imprisoned three women for a decade – is to men.

Ophelia writes about it here.

The truth is, this was the worst that could happen for anti feminist public relations at the moment. If this guy – Mr Castro – only knew how much damage he has done to men by doing this.

The case is such a gift basket for feminism, that I almost suspect it is fabricated.

A species of skewed perceptions and insane priorities indeed.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hateful comments about women aren’t always about rape

When a woman complains on the Internet, we know there are going to be rape threats. And important clarifications that the woman in question is too old or ugly to rape.  But most negative Internet comments about women – at least about non-specific women – are, if anything, more depressing. 

For example, look at these comments. WARNING: they were written by Daily Mail readers.  The story is about how lots of British women dislike the sight of their own naked bodies.  Let’s be clear, this was the conclusion of a poll by a diet company and reported by the Daily Mail, so we shouldn’t do anything as rash as believe anything at all that is written but in this case, that’s not the point.  The point is the comments.

Let’s suppose the story is true and 60% of women hate the way they look naked. Let’s strain our brains to figure out how that state of affairs might have come about.  My guess would be that the worlds commands women to look a certain way and complains when they don’t. In public. All the time. It tells women who are widely agreed to be impossibly beautiful that they’re looking a bit rough. Then it tells all women that if they don’t look like movie stars, there’s something wrong with them.  Because – and this is the overall message – the only real purpose of women is to look nice. 

That was my guess, but it turns out I was wrong. The real reason, according to the readers of the Daily Mail, is that those women really are are fat and ugly and they are right to feel bad about themselves.

I was serious about that warning, by the way. Some of those comments are very horrible. They range from saying that women are disgraceful for not looking how a particular man wants them to look to people saying it doesn’t matter whether a woman likes how she looks naked since the only thing that should matter to her is whether her partner is happy with the way she looks. Lots explicitly say that women should work harder to look good for their partners.

I was going to quote some of the comments to mock the DM readers, but they really were too horrible. I’ll content myself with pointing out again that this story was in THE DAILY MAIL: a newspaper that uses as many column inches as possible to criticise women’s bodies and obsessively praise the bodies of very young girls in bikinis.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

More of this ‘iced-cream’

I should point out that the thing you should take home from my last post is the link to the original source, which you can see here: http://vimeo.com/64941331 for your convenience.

This is an example of not pushing a metaphor too far and it gets it exactly right. But here’s some more ice cream anyway.

Giving up some of my scoops

A nice quote from here but via here:

I am a feminist. I think there's enough ice cream to go around, but it does mean those of us with 3 scoops might have to give one or two up

THISMUCH. Giving up scoops is hard but I have plenty of scoops to spare. For a long time I didn’t notice that some people had hardly any ice cream at all while I had lots. Then for a while I thought “get your own ice cream, you moocher”. Now I realise that I didn’t really want all that ice cream in the first place and it’s much more fun to share.

Unfortunately, like all metaphors, this one breaks if you push it too far. Which – needless to say – I did. I’m a computer scientist, what do you expect? For one thing, nobody’s going to want my second-hand scoops.  So let me be less poetic: some things, like wages and access to services are limited resources. You’re welcome to some of my scoops. Some things, such as respect, are not limited. So I won’t stop anyone from having as many scoops as they want.

So in conclusion I ruined the metaphor. But we all got to think about ice cream, I guess.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Why to be cat people

Or pet people. Why would anyone voluntarily become someone who spends nights out looking at their watch because they have to be back to walk the dog or who suddenly can’t just go away for the weekend because the cat won’t feed itself?

The answer for me is that within the next 15 years or so, Fortran will die. And a big part of me will die too. That’s why people have pets: because in no time at all they become as big a part of your life as anything else.

It became almost impossible to imagine A World Without Fortran less than an hour after she moved in. She’s a strange cat. She purred contentedly all the way home from Blue Cross in her carrier (and still likes going in there, even after some trips to the vet involving needles)  but was very nervous and upset when we let her out. At first, she was weird about food and space. From what the Blue Cross staff said, I think she’d been neglected by her previous owners. She was rather small for her age, underweight and nervous about unexpected things.  For instance, she constantly begged for food then wouldn’t eat it when anyone was watching.

And then over the last year, she changed. She became happy. She became satisfied with her life like only a cat really can.  She still has some odd habits. She won’t eat food unless it’s in really small pieces. She loves bacon but I gave her a bit the other day and she wouldn’t eat it because it was slightly too big. When I tore it in half, she ate both halves without a thought. She has developed crazy rituals which become increasingly elaborate over time. She has one particular toy (annoyingly, a candy cane with a Christmas tree tied on with a bit of elastic) which she drags around the house like it’s her kitten. Recently, she’s started dragging it into our room at some point in the night. When I get up, I close the door and Fortran waits until Liz wakes up then bounds up to get her toy. She used to leave it on the landing so she could get it whenever she wanted, but for some reason denying herself access to it for a little slice of the day has become important to her, I don’t know why.

So she has issues, but I wouldn’t want a cat that didn’t. But this is the point: we’ve been able to create an environment for this creature which has made it become happy. And doing that was a joy. Changing our lives to accommodate the damn thing was the opposite of a chore, in the end. When a cat goes from nervous because it was mistreated to bold because it feels comfortable, the amount of good in the world has just increased.

Fortran has her own room (ffs, she even has her own sofa). But she has gradually annexed two other rooms and treats those as her own too. It’s like she has her own flat inside our house. We just clean it and stock it with food.

She’s part of our lives. Like the lines between the pieces of a jigsaw. And our lives will never be the same because of that.

So tell me again why you aren’t a cat person.