Contextualizing money

I'm bad with money.  And I don't want to think too hard about that, because it makes me feel sad and overwhelmed.  So I'm going to talk about food instead for a little bit, then circle back.

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This is a Ze Frank video, about cholesterol.  It's called Cholesterol.  In it, Ze talks about the impulse that persuades him to make bad food decisions, and has put him in a state of health that reduces his projected lifespan substantially.  He describes a voice inside his head, that decides what's going to happen ("He'll tell you not to have the sandwich.  And we've already established, that's happening." [emphasis mine]) even though it directly contradicts the advice on healthy eating he literally just got, in the building he was walking out of at that moment.

I used to have a problem with healthy eating.  I mean, I still do.  I ate an entire Ben & Jerry's ice cream today.  But I've got my problem in control to a level where I'm pretty healthy -- two years ago, my weight fluctuated between 240 and 260 pounds.  I'm 5'9", so that's not healthy.  And if you're thinking, "The BMI is total crap, it's possible to be healthy at that weight!" -- you're right.  But I'm not a weight lifter.  None of that extra weight was muscle.  I wasn't healthy.

But my mental block about dieting was so massive that I could barely even begin to do anything about my health.  The only times I ever lost any was when I got dumped, and I'd drop twenty or thirty pounds because I wasn't eating because I was sad.  Or, when I was working every day around the holiday season, and barely eating enough to keep myself from passing out at work, where I was standing up for eight hour shifts every day.

And I didn't decide to eat healthy.  That never happened.  What I decided was to switch my lifestyle around food.  I took up Weekday Vegetarianism. ([TED talk] [Vlogbrothers video])  That worked, for several reasons:

(1.) Meat is bad for you, and eating substantially less of it significantly improved the quality of my diet.

(2.) There are several reasons for doing Weeekday Veg, so it was easy for me to avoid annoying self-justification arguments about whether I should make that decision, both with myself, and with people whom I didn't want involved in my dietary choices.

(3.) It created a concrete, easy to follow commitment that allowed me to limit my consumption without thinking too hard about why I was doing it.

(4.) I was doing it for myself, on my own terms, so I didn't feel like I was doing it just because people expected it of me.

My weight dropped at a healthy, steady rate of about 2 pounds a week, until I leveled out at 195, which is where I've been for, so far, all of this year.  I'm still not skinny.  I'm not the embodiment of any ideal of beauty in Western culture.  But I'm not unhealthy, in the way I was before, and I feel ethically better about my eating decisions than I did before.

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Now, I said earlier in this post that I had a whole Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  Which is fine.  I do that sometimes, and I'm not worried about it, because it's not my whole diet and it's not every day.  Reasonably frequent bowls of ice cream have still been better for my health than reasonably frequent burgers, chicken and steak.[1. Especially considering that I didn't skip the ice cream when I was still eating meat every day.]

But I bought that ice cream.  And if you've been following my blog, you know I'm in quite a lot of debt.  But I had some money, so I ended up spending it.

I hate having money.  It makes me feel uncomfortable, unsafe and guilty.  Having money, and relying on money, always implies that I risk losing that money, or losing access to money.  I hate having bills, too, for the same reason.  I hate that money is a thing, though I recognize and acknowledge its utility.

I hate money like I love steak, and I don't know any easy way to control my spending.  If I could, I'd just give all my money away to charity, but while that solves the problem of having it, it doesn't solve any of the problems of not having it.  I haven't yet figured out any way that better spending can be a lifestyle choice, the way Weekday Veg is.  People's advice for lifestyle changes with money generally seem to be, "Be better with money."  It's not that easy, and that approach has never worked for me, with anything.

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Sometimes, I hear people talk about a "Welfare state," like it's some sort of evil system that only people who want to lay around all day and not do anything would want.  But when I think about my money problems, I tend to find myself fantasizing about exactly that kind of system.  I would happily work a full-time job, doing whatever the government decided I was needed for, as long as I didn't have to end up with money as a consequence.  I want a place to sleep, food to eat, the freedom to do and say what I want in my free time, to possibly earn enough admiration in an artistic field to shift into doing what I want to do for my living, and access to the resources like libraries and workshops in which I can do and say those things I want to.

don't want to have to be an accountant.  I don't want my success in the world to be contingent, not just upon my talents and dedication within whatever field in which I might excel, but also my talent at keeping track of finances and spotting good deals and financing plans.

When I think too much about money, I get wrapped up in that daydream, and anger at the unfairness that the system in which we live artificially enhances the success of people who are good at money over people who are good at anything else, like engineers and teachers and medical workers.[1. Until they're making enough to hire someone good at money.]  And that anger makes it difficult for me to accept the world I do live in, and makes it difficult for me to explore solutions to my financial problems that don't rely on the civilization I live in being fundamentally different.

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So, that's it.  That's my money problem, wrapped up in a neat little psychological, socialist-idealist bow.  I'm hoping that having this out of my system and up on the internet will free up the mental space necessary to work with the capitalist environment I've got [1. Which has loads of advantages, don't get me wrong, and I do see the practical and theoretical problems with my socialist fantasy too -- I'm talking about my fantasy here, not making a serious Utopian proposal.  Please don't jump down my throat about being a commie pinko fascist.] instead of getting angry, daydreaming, and stress-spending fifty bucks on scratch tickets and booze.

Ethics and the Advertising Model for Web Financing

The Vlogbrothers have had a lot to say on YouTube in the past few days about the relationship between advertising and content on the internet -- the tricky ethical terrain, the financial needs of creators, and the fact that we all want this whole internet thing to stay free. I haven't known what I wanted to say about this, until I watched Hank's song today, and more specifically, the rant afterwards:

The American eyeball -- more generally, the affluent eyeball, and yes, you are affluent if you have an internet connection fast enough to watch YouTube videos -- is one of the most valuable commodities in existence on Earth right now.So valuable, in fact, that many amazing services can be offered, for free, in exchange for nothing more than those eyeballs.

I don't like advertisement. [...]  But the internet is built on the idea that this stuff should be free, so that's problematic, because advertising is then the only model.  And if you want YouTube to be free, and yet continue employing thousands of people, you're gonna have to look at ads.  But if you don't want YouTube videos to be supported by ads, and you don't want them to be free, then we should talk about that.

If there's a way to make an online company that doesn't rely on users providing their psyche and their behavioral habits to be put into a collective commons that is then auctioned off literally to the highest bidder, then let's have that conversation.

(Emphasis mine)

For the most part, I'm okay with advertising.  I feel conflicted about the fact that advertisers get to practice psychological manipulation on us, but I don't mind getting to watch YouTube for free in exchange for occasionally being annoyed by having to click another button before I watch my video after waiting a whole five seconds.

For a lot of people right now, it seems like the solution is just to feel conflicted.  Some people (like, recently, Tom Milsom) decide to forsake advertising revenue altogether, but a lot of people choose to go with the ads, hope they do relatively minimal cultural damage, and try to create art that's good enough that it's worth passing ads to see it.

I think we can do better than that, and I think we should -- and there are three levels on which I would like to see change.

Individual creators' control

Artists should have the right to decide what kind of ads they want on their content.  I imagine an interface in which creators would be able to select particular ads to put on their content, specify categories to let through, specify particular categories to exclude, or just automatically take the highest-paying ads that they have access to.  Advertisers, too, would have the option to make their ads available to everyone, or blacklist or whitelist particular users.

Institution-level ad curation

At an organization-level, websites that rely on artists to create the content that makes their site valuable should do some amount of broad filtration.  The parameters by which they filter should be explicitly stated in an easy-to-understand format so content creators know what they can expect in terms of advertising.

Case:  Project Wonderful

The poster-child example for these first two levels is Project Wonderful, an ad company designed for artists by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics.

From their website's about page:

They use a mechanism called 'infinite auction,' where advertisers bid on how much they're willing to pay for ad display time, and the highest bidder is automatically charged the lowest amount of money that will beat all the other bids.  Advertisers are only ever charged for the time their ads spend up on the site, and creators get the most anyone's willing to pay for their ad space at the moment.

I don't think that the Project Wonderful system could be directly transposed onto YouTube, but if they were to renovate their advertising system, this would be a good place to get inspiration.

Government-level advertising standards

This category is pretty self-explanatory:  we need better legislation protecting us from misleading and exploitative ads.  I wrote on Wednesday about the DSHEA, a bill passed in 1994 that makes it easier for companies to lie about the medicinal value of their products, and harder for the FDA to catch them doing it.  Food and medicine aren't the only areas where we're not very well protected against false or misleading claims.

This isn't something that individual artists or companies can do anything about directly, but if we adopt more proactive control over what we advertise, we might be able to start breaking down this cultural assumption that ads are entirely good or entirely bad, opening the way for popular political support of legislation that helps to manage false advertising effectively.

Economic drawbacks

Of course, if all my suggestions are implemented, it will necessarily decrease ad revenue for creators and networks.  The more selection creators have, the more the market gets divided and the more intelligently individual advertisers can direct their money.  When networks and governments impose quality control, the effectiveness of manipulative and dishonest ads are severely crippled, so the ads that make their owners the most money, and therefore are worth spending the most money airing, aren't legal anymore.  As John Green explains in his video on ads, You ARE The Product,

Corporations actually have a really good idea of how advertisements affect your behavior.  In fact, there are many thousands of people who are working full time to make sure that the ads you see are worth more than they cost.  To put it succinctly, almost by definition, advertisers buy you for less than you're worth.

I would argue, though, that the dip in revenue would be worth the gains, because in the long term, the more we, as a nation and as a world community, make our information standards, the more thoughtful and responsible we will become.  People are at least in part a reflection of their media landscape, and a more intelligent media landscape means a more intelligent citizenry, a better-run country, and ultimately, a positive-sum world community that will increase value for everyone.

April's Charity Debt: Electronic Frontier Foundation

Last month, I wrote that I was going to start keeping a list of charities -- once a month, I'd add a new one, and a $5 debt to them.  My goal is to prep myself for donating a percentage of my income consistently to charity, once I have income. The charity I chose last month was Planned Parenthood.

This month, I'm adding a $5 debt to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).  The area they work in, keeping the net free and protecting human rights in digital environments, is some of the most important work being done in the industrialized world.

I do realize that both of my charity choices so far have been directed towards charities that operate largely in the US, and pretty much entirely in the industrialized world.  This is because I don't feel comfortable donating to charities helping the impoverished worldwide before I learn more about the areas my money will be going to, and what kinds of charity actually helps people in a lasting, sustainable way.

I've heard good things about Water.org via the Vlogbrothers and Wheezy Waiter, so they might be getting some of my money in the future.  And the worst I've heard about Kiva.org is that they're only pretty good, not really, really good.  I took them up on an offer of $25 dollars of free lending, but (since I don't have it) haven't put any of my own money into it.

So I finished the second draft of my novel

By that I mean, I've finished covering the printout of the first draft of my novel with green ink, and am about halfway through typing up the second draft.  I'm pretty happy with the novel where it's at, though there are a couple of scenes I intend to go through and add, or rewrite, entirely -- the third draft is essentially going to be spot edits. I typed fifty pages up on Saturday, and that was long and painful and awful to do, but it's necessary work.

On a more personal note, I don't mind doing necessary work, even when it sucks.  I'm okay with going through the arduous task of retyping my entire novel, working through the annoyingly poorly scribbled green edits, over the course of several hours.  It's not fun, but it's not emotionally painful.

I'm willing to work much harder, in fact, to complete the sort of necessary but unpleasant work that leads to me finishing something like a novel, than I am willing to work towards creating something I don't care about, or creating nothing at all.

There's a lot of work out there that adds up to essentially nothing.  There are jobs that support systems I don't just care little about, but that I actively disdain.  There's a lot of stuff in this world I don't like, and people put a lot of work into making that stuff.

It's not just that those jobs are hard.  I'm okay with hard work.  I like hard work, insofar as I like going to great lengths of effort to create things I think are important.  What I'm not okay with, what I'm not willing to do, is hard work to create things I hate.

I love writing.  I think it's important, and I think it makes the world a better place.  So I'm going to do about 100 pages of not-very-fun typing in the next five days or so, happily.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Carbon negativity

While I was cooking my lunch earlier, I watched Hank Green's most recent episode of SciShow like five times.  It's about climate change, and it's scary.

Now, I believe in climate change.  (I feel weird that I even have to say that.)  But I also believe that we're unlikely to convince a significant portion of the American public that climate change is a real thing -- I especially think we'll fail to convince enough people to force meaningful change on corporations or convert away from fossil fuels before it's absolutely necessary.

So it occurs to me that the best way to deal with that social problem is for people who do think climate change is a real thing to try to go carbon negative, finding ways not just to minimize their carbon output but to actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in their daily lives.

Of course, I have no clue, whatsoever, if this is possible.  The extent of my knowledge about carbon negativity is that, on a large scale, things like huge forests act as carbon sinks, sucking up the extra carbon, which, yes, does reinforce my favorite solution for all the world's problems (put everyone in giant cities with vertical farms and let most of the world go back to wilderness) but doesn't really help me pursue lower net carbon in my daily life.

So I hereby resolve to try and learn more about my carbon consumption.  Where I can, I'll cut down on my carbon intake.  If I can, I'll start doing things that actively reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  And as much as I can, I will endeavor to resist losing the world as we know it to one of the above-outlined apocalyptic scenarios.

Text, Context, Subtext

I stayed up far to late last night, and spent a little bit of time re-watching old Vlogbrothers videos, and this one got me thinking:

If you didn't watch it, the key quote to my point (which I quote here unironically) is:  "It's impossible to pull a line or a sentence or even a chapter from a book and understand the meaning of that section. Because as much as it pains us in this soundbitey twittery world, text means nothing without its context."

Now, I generally agree with that claim.  I don't think you can really understand the meaning of any given line from a book or poem unless you've read that book or poem, and know at least a little bit about the context within which it was written.  Of course, recontextualizing it can allow it to take on new meanings, that the original author might never have intended.  But in a larger work, authors can work pretty hard to develop a sense of context and subtext that inform the interpretation of every subsequent sentence.  For example:

"Oh yes. Richard and Anthem 2.00. Susan, that thing has got to be in beta testing in two weeks.  He tells me it's fine.  But every time I see him he's got a picture of a sofa spinning on his computer screen.

That's from the book I'm currently reading, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and won't make proper sense if you haven't read much of the preceding page and at least one chapter that turns up later in the book.  In fact, that sentence might turn out to have significance I can't even begin to appreciate now, before I've finished reading the entire novel.

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So, obviously we can't take a single sentence and assume we've got the whole context.  But on the alternative end of things, do you have to understand everything, know everything, have an intimate appreciation for the whole of the history of the universe, before you can claim to appreciate anything within its proper context?

That belief cracks under even the slightest pressure of pragmatism -- if there has to be a level of context we can deem 'close enough to live by,' that's certainly not it, because you can't live by it.

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My question, then, is:  is there any way to design a sort of criteria test for figuring out how much context one should provide?  Does such a test or standard already exist?  Ideally, it would be clear enough that anyone with a reasonable interest in whether they're miscontextualizing would be able to apply it, and transparent enough that in cases of obvious exceptions, one should be able to explain why the rules are different in that case.

I get mail!

So, I recently wrote an article for my school paper about why you shouldn't donate to the Salvation Army. It got responses. It got the first responses this paper has got this semester not directly from a current or former staff member. (If I remember correctly.) The responders were angry. One claimed that I do not have a soul. My favorite argument came up, in a letter preemptively insisting that free speech guaranteed my obligation to print their letter.

I don't intend to address the attacks on my character in my response (which will follow the printed letters, unedited) because it's irrelevant and I don't want to waste page space validating their attacks.  But the comment about my soul really bothered me.

I don't have a soul.  Neither does the letter-writer.  Souls don't exist.

But even if you disagree, it's illustrative of the predominant view in the United States that not being religious makes you evil that people consider it an insult on the very core of one's ability to be moral to claim that a person "doesn't have a soul."

Beyond that, though, I've noticed more and more that people seem to defend much more vehemently and with much more emotion and energy positions they don't really believe are true than positions they are firm in.  With the one exception of the civil rights movement, in which both sides fight bitterly, but only one tends to be on shaky ground, the other motivated by outrage at the massive dissonance between the obviously immoral reality and the incredibly clear solution of not marginalizing people based on irrelevant qualities.

I'm guilty of it, myself -- it's not a quality I'm particularly proud of, but I don't think anyone reading this could honestly argue that they don't feel that impulse.

It's not something you simply lack, if you're a good person.  It's a tendency one has to be mindful of.  I try to develop checks to confirm with myself whether I'm irrationally defending a position I don't really stand behind, because I feel I've been backed into a corner.

I don't think that's the case with the Salvation Army piece, and I intend to calmly defend my article in a follow-up response to the letters.  But, while I understand the motivation that lead the writers to respond, I don't respect or admire it.

Just because an orginazation calls themselves a charity doesn't mean they can't be assholes.

Boycott the Salvation Army

This post isn't actually about the reasons you should boycott the Salvation Army (though you totally should). I write for the newspaper at my school, and, being hard-pressed to come up with a topic for the upcoming issue, I decided to take the suggestion of one of my fellow staffmembers and write about the bellringers that begin to pop up around this season.

The thing is, my position isn't exactly likely to be popular.

For those of you who don't know, the Salvation Army is a proactively homophobic organization that devotes resources to acts of discrimination.  I don't support them, and I think it's morally irresponsible at best to give them your change.  (I don't care how warm and fuzzy it makes you feel.)

In the back of my mind, it bugs me a bit that I know this will probably be my least popular article this semester.  It seems like it should be really morally straightforward -- it's a bad idea to support organizations that suppress human rights.  It's not like the SA is the only organization out there that helps poor people.  Goodwill is around, so are various secular soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  There are hundreds of other charities you could devote that money to, as well.

But the SA has ingrained themselves in the Christmas culture so thoroughly that people take it like an attack on the very notion of charity when you point out the fact that that particular organization is made up of total assholes (and a great many part-assholes and less well-informed employees and volunteers who (a.) should have done better research or (b.) couldn't get a better job.)

As a general rule, I think it's a bad idea to donate money to people on the basis that they happen to be standing by with a bucket.  While I do believe most charities have good in their hearts, a lot of them don't necessarily have sense in their heads.  An irrationally run charity can do more harm than no charity at all, and it's a lot harder to do research in the thirty seconds it would otherwise take to just walk past the annoying beggar and give that same change to (a.) a real homeless person who can use it for food or (b.) go home and use that guilt you have from walking past the bellringer to motivate you to look up a charity worth supporting and send them a fiver.

Some of the text of this post might make it into my article...

The valid ad hominem

[Note: I intend to use some mildly NSFW language in this post.  I don't know why I'm so anal about warnings on  that topic, but I am, so, well, shove it.] The title of this post is slightly misleading, but gets at the heart of what I want to say.

Thesis:  I think there are circumstances in which it's valid, in an argument, to call your opponent an asshole.  I think there are circumstances in an argument where the fact that your opponent is being an asshole is grounds for rejecting their argument.

The particular case I have in mind is when your opponent is arguing in bad faith, which I will define here as pursuing a purpose other than the reasonable and fair resolution of the argument.

You can identify when someone is doing it by the feeling you get during the conversation.  If your opponent says something, and you feel stricken by an inability to refute it, because it's inconsistent with the basic presuppositions necessary to stage the conversation, they're being an asshole.

It's hard to respond, because what they say is usually something that would be perfectly valid in a certain kind of conversation, but which is, or should be, self-evidently invalid in the one you're having.

For example, if you're arguing with your boyfriend (let's assume you're monogamous, committed, and open to relationships with men) because he got head from a girl at a party the previous night, you might claim, "You cheated on me."

If he were to respond, "The construct of cheating in a relationship implies ownership, which is ethically indefensible," he's an asshole.  Not because that's an indefensible ethical position, but because if he believed that, he should have brought it up at the start of the relationship.

It's not that he has to be wrong for his point to be invalid.  It's that his point is inappropriate in scale to the conversation that's going on.

Another good word for what he's doing in this conversation is being pretentious.  Ask me some time and I'll rant about that word for hours, but in this case it definitely applies.

On that count, I feel I should point out that it goes both ways.   Throwing out abstract ethical arguments in a specific-case conversation about a real, immediate issue can be pretentious.  It isn't always -- your hypothetical boyfriend had told you about his views on cheating early on, bringing up that you knew that was how he felt would be legitimate.

But it's also pretentious to attempt to pull an abstract conversation down to the level of immediate, every day life.  This is something a lot of people who aren't liberal arts majors do.  (There are definitely people who don't, and I love them for it.  If you can tell the difference between a conversation you understand and one you don't, and subsequently contribute or not based on that knowledge, thank you.  From the bottom of my heart.)  People who do this are assholes.

For example, if you and your hypothetical boyfriend are having a conversation about the nature of truth, and he says, "Ultimately, there's no meaningful difference between truth and lie -- all language represents a distortion of reality in such a way as to make it convenient for other people to handle.  It's impossible to make a true statement."

And you respond, "Bullshit -- it is, for example, true that you cheated on me last week."  You're being a pretentious asshole.  (We're assuming this is a different conversation entirely, not a continuation of the earlier one.)

In both examples, one of you is refusing to play ball by the implied rules of the context.  In these cases, I think it's okay to just call the other person an asshole.

Why?  Because implied rules of context are complicated.  I could talk about them for hours, and probably wouldn't be able to get most of the people I talk to to understand what I meant.  It's about as reasonable to expect someone to be able to explain exactly what someone's doing wrong when they break those rules as it is reasonable to expect the average man-or-woman on the street to explain the financial crisis.

People tend not to like thinking of their minds as being too complicated for them to explain.  It's outside our comfort level in a way that accepting that our circulatory system is too complicated for us to explain just isn't.  Assholes exploit that discomfort by cheating in ways most of us can't articulate, and don't really want to have to think about.  Often they'll use the subsequent tongue-tied phenomenon to declare success.  But that doesn't make them right.  It makes them assholes.

Religion and Ethics

Yesterday, I wrote a post about not wanting to talk to my friends about why I'm depressed.  Obligingly, one of my friends responded with this comment:

So what are your thoughts on religion and ethics? Do they have to go hand in hand or are they seperate?

This is a fun question, and one I've thought about a lot.  So I want to take some time to break it down.

My first point would be to say that I don't think religion is intrinsically unethical.  I don't think that religion makes you a bad person, and I want to be very clear about that because that's an assumption a lot of people make about my point of view, since I'm critical of religion.

To start with, though, I should explain what I understand morality to be:

Morality starts with values.  Values are the presumed end-goals of actions, things that are considered a priori good, for the purposes of individual morality.  Most people, for example, see the well-being of thinking or feeling entities as being a priori good.

All morality has to be founded on an arbitrary decision like this, because there's no way to work back to a first principle that demonstrates morality as a natural law.  You can't get an ought from an is.

From that point, it's easy to establish moral goals based on one's criteria.  Morally good is defined as things that work towards the goal, morally bad is defined as things that work against the goal, and morally neutral is defined as things that have no noticeable effect on progress towards the goal.

The important thing to note here is that the moral value of an act is determined by its actual effect, not just whether one believes it will be effective. One might have the best intentions in reducing animal cruelty, but no matter how sure the person is, adopting dogs and secretly starving them is not a good way to achieve that goal.  It's morally wrong, even if the person believes it isn't.

We have a word for that causal dissonance -- we call it superstition.  False beliefs about causality seriously hinder a person's ability to make moral choices.

And that's where religion can contribute to immorality.  Religion consists, in part, often in large part, of unjustified claims about reality.  The addition of bad data to an individual's moral decision-making process often results in morally unjustified, or unjustifiable, conclusions.  If, for example, one believes in an afterlife, and one believes that this afterlife can consist either of eternal suffering or eternal happiness, and one believes that a major deciding factor in which afterlife one goes to is whether one has homosexual relationships, one might feel morally obligated to attempt to prevent homosexual relationships from taking root.

That act would be wrong.  Because there probably isn't an afterlife, and even if we can't say there certainly isn't, we certainly can't say we have good reasons to make claims about what it's like, or how one gets there.  Given the legitimate evidence available, the only morally relevant outcome of those supposedly justified actions would be the emotional and sometimes physical suffering of gay people.

So, to answer the question: Religion is at best morally neutral, but usually at least a little bit morally detrimental.

Memory, Ethics and Amy Pond

This is a Doctor Who post.  These are totally my favorite kind of posts, you know.  Also, spoilers. Amy Pond's journeys with the Doctor have been a central part of the narrative of series 5 and 6.  There have been plenty of recurring themes throughout her time with the Doctor, but I've just noticed that one in particular neatly bookends her adventures, and crops up a few other times in between.

Amy and the Doctor pointedly disagree on the ethics surrounding memory, and this disagreement highlights the perspective differences between a deontological and consequential ethical system.

Amy appears to believe that the moral value of an action is contained within the action itself -- for example, she still holds herself accountable for murder (or, at least, for deliberately allowing someone to die) in the alternate universe in the season finale, even though it never happened.  And in the second episode of series 5, she can't imagine how she could be held accountable for her actions in the voting booth, when she tried to persuade the Doctor to leave Starship UK, because her memory was wiped of the event, so she lost the perspective basis on which she judges the value of her actions.

This quality of her perspective also crops up in the Doctor's death scene -- she feels she has to do something about it, because it's not about whether the Doctor should or shouldn't die.  It's about whether she did, or tried to do, something.  In "The Girl Who Waited," she and Rory (more Rory, who was there for the event as it occurred) obviously have a problem with having abandoned older Amy.

The Doctor, on the other hand, is a fairly strict utilitarian -- to his mind, the consequences of an action are the only thing that determines its moral value, and that value is determined by whether it causes suffering to conscious beings.

In "The Beast Below," he doesn't care that Amy doesn't remember choosing to try to get him off Starship UK.  He cares that her decision made it more difficult for him to save the star whale.  And in the case of older Amy, he doesn't feel a wrong was committed because the second Amy will have never existed.  This view has also apparently rubbed off on River Song, who consoles Amy that she didn't commit murder because the timeline in which the murder took place didn't happen.

If you haven't already guessed, I think the Doctor is right -- it matters what happens as a result of what you do less than it matters what you did in the first place.

Talk to you tomorrow.

The awkward space between pro-medicine and anti-corporate medicine

I got my meds adjusted today. I think I've mentioned before that I suffer from depression, but I'm not certain I've ever actually said I'm medicated for it.

I find the whole area of the question of medication slightly uncomfortable territory.  My relationship with my psychiatrist (that's the one who does the prescriptions, as opposed to my therapist) is a bit tense, in large part due to major pharmaceutical companies' persistent pressure to push sales of their drugs.  Because of this fact, I'm never sure whether or when the influence of drug reps begins to be a bigger factor in my psychiatrist's recommendations than my best interests as a patient.

So I do a lot of research on my own, and I pretty much self-prescribe.  I run it by my psychiatrist, and if she agrees, I am prescribed.

It's a sort of a tense position, being pro-medication, but still opposed to the way the existing medical industry handles it.  Right now, drugs are pushed for he sake of selling drugs, which is irresponsible and wrong.  People are prescribed medications they don't need, in higher doses than they need, switched from medication to medication to keep up with the patents, and kept on drugs longer than they might need to be.  But on the other hand, not all psychiatric disorders can be handled with therapy alone, and for some people, lifelong medication may be the best possible route.  If a person has diabetes, they don't use insulin just until they work it out with their therapist.  Why should brain chemistry be any different?

Beyond that, I'm a transhumanist; I'm pro-drugs even in cases where the justification provided is "I want the drugs."  I think that's a fundamental right.  But I don't support abolishing the prescription system, at least not right now, because that wouldn't result in a more egalitarian drug distribution.  It would result in pharmaceutical vultures convincing more people to take even more drugs, with less testing and less control, in irresponsible combinations and circumstances.

The role of a doctor, or a psychiatrist, should be to guide their patients to better medical decisions, and pharmaceutical companies undermine that role by splitting doctors' loyalties, putting money against patient care instead of with it.  But it's hard to be understood when you hold that position, as well as the position that some people just should be medicated.  And at the moment, it's impossible to tell where the line between those groups is.

More About the Bechdel Test

I said earlier that I'd say a bit about whether going out of my way to pass the Bechdel Test in writing counts as a quota. There are a few places I can take this, but I don't want to get mired into a conversation about affirmative action that I'm not entirely qualified to speculate upon, especially when it would take me very far afield of my point.

My point being: yes, it is, if you define a quota as a specific, proactive effort to include a certain proportion of different sorts of people in fiction.

The reasons for doing it seem obvious to me, but the aforementioned artistic dishonesty whingers tend to have a problem with that kind of thing.  So, because I think it's sort of embarrassingly paternalistic to explain why one should try to write inclusive fiction, instead I'm going to point out the assumptions one makes in not trying.

  1. You are perfectly egalitarian and utterly without bias, bigotry or unjustified beliefs.  Not going out of your way to compensate for the things you're intuitively wrong about betrays a certain amount of belief that you're not actually intuitively wrong about anything.  Or, in the very least, that you don't care if you're wrong.
  2. Your culture, and its conventions towards storytelling, is intrinsically well-adjusted with relation to all minority or marginalized groups.  Or, alternately,
  3. You are completely unaffected by your culture's storytelling trends:  where your story reflects tropes that dominate contemporary fiction, it is only because, in your story, those were he best possible place to go.
  4. You are utterly capable of proactively resisting implicit subtext in your works, and never risk implying something you didn't intend to, or would be actively bothered to have implied.

In short, not making any effort to be inclusive in one's writing means you think you're a storytelling god.

Or, you just don't care how your writing affects people -- and if that's the case, please quit.  Now.

The Bechdel Test

I said I'd blog about this yesterday, so here it is: The Bechdel Test.  If you haven't heard of it, it's a quick test to measure presence of women in movies.  A movie passes the test if it…

  1. it includes at least two women
  2. who have at least one conversation...
  3. about something other than a man or men.

[source]

If that seems easy enough, try to work out whether your favorite movie passes.

The reason I keep it in mind is, having been raised in a male-dominated culture and surrounded by largely male-centered entertainment, it's not instinctual for me to account for the existence of women in my work.  I tend to need to take a certain amount of active measures to ensure that there are women in my fiction for reasons other than dating the men.  I hope I'll get better at this over time, but for now, aiming to pass the Bechdel Test is a good way to ensure that I have women in my fiction who've been characterized beyond who they're attracted to.

I also want to pre-emptively discuss a criticism of this approach that comes up slightly more than I'm comfortable with.  Often, when I explain to people why I make certain decisions about my writing, this being one of them, they'll say something to the effect of:

But isn't that artistically dishonest?  Shouldn't your art flow from your mind in its most pure state?  Aren't you corrupting your artistic vision by trying to shoehorn it into these cultural pressures and litmus tests?

Well, no.

First of all, my artistic vision is not to promote the gender roles I happen to have grown up with.  Representing women in my work is part of my artistic vision, and when I'm focusing on some other aspect (such as terrifying the reader, or making a point about robot rights) I don't want that to fall out of focus because, hey, if it's not specifically a feminist story there doesn't need to be women in it.  Avoiding that mentality would, in fact, be exactly the point of the exercise -- if I didn't do that, women in my fiction would end up being exclusively present for sex or for feminism, which would make it way too easy to read into my work and come to the conclusion that I think women break down entirely into 'well-behaved, feminine objects' and 'angry, horrible feminazis.'  I don't believe that, and I don't want my writing to make it seem like I do.

Secondly, the purity of the first draft is a myth that I think deserves to be done away with on its own.  The thing that springs into my mind when I start writing is not necessarily (in fact, virtually never is) at all polished or worth reading.  It's the raw materials I'm going to carve into a good story.  And aiming to meet standards like the Bechdel Test gives me better raw materials to work with when I start shaping the next draft, because it means I'm less likely to have to work engagement into a story about a bunch of dudes sitting around a poker table drinking whiskey and talking about their conquests.

I will probably blog more on this topic later, but those are my initial thoughts on the Bechdel Test, and on consciously aiming for non-stereotypical standards in fiction.

Later today:  Quotas! Is this one?  Do they help?

Humanism and the death penalty

John Shook makes a case against the death penalty on humanist grounds, at the Center for Inquiry website.  It's a short, compelling piece, and I recommend reading it.  Here are some quotes and commentary.

Dominated by that vengeful spirit, the criminal justice system encourages prosecutors to chase a conviction of whoever they can, rather than the truly guilty; it distracts jurors from the lofty standard of reasonable doubt; and it lets supervisory courts forget their supreme duty of justice for all. In that heated atmosphere of swift vengeance, the criminal “justice” system mostly executes the poor, the disadvantaged, and racial minorities.

The pragmatic argument: even if you agree that killing people is okay, the system we have doesn't work.  We kill the innocent, the poor, and the marginalized.

Pro-deathers should broaden their principles. Governments exist not merely to deliver criminal justice, but to protect and defend the lives and rights of everyone. When a government executes an innocent person, it violates the ultimate justification for its own existence.

Right on.  The point of government is to protect its people, not kill them.  I realize this makes some people uncomfortable, but criminals remain citizens.  If we want to abdicate responsibility for the people we imprison, the answer is exile.  I'm sure there are countries out there that will take them.  But if we're going to keep them here, we do have obligations to treat them like human beings, and that means not killing them.

And finally, the argument in a nutshell:

Humanism stands for valuing the lives of all, individual human rights, justice for everyone, and governments that defend all of their people. These grounds alone are sufficient for abolishing the death penalty.

The Humanist Case against Capital Punishment

via Friendly Atheist

On giving offense [2]

Yesterday, I wrote about an extremely annoying encounter with my arch-nemesis.  At the beginning, I said I wanted to discuss:

[...] offense — giving offense, taking offense, accountability for offense and validity of offense.

So, I'm going to get into that, in the abstract, today.

I.

In any given instance of offense, there are necessarily two parties:  I'll call them the speaker and the listener.

There are three things in this argument that I think are obvious, but I'm going to spell them out anyway.

Offense is, a form of pain.  I'm going to take it as read that, all else being equal, less pain is better.  That's how I'm calibrating 'good' and 'bad' in this argument.

Human life necessarily contains pain -- we cannot eliminate all pain from human existence, and we can't reasonably expect someone to put themselves through more pain than they would be relieving in another person in choosing to take any given action.  In a phrase, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

No instance of offense, nor any pain, occurs in a vacuum.  Every occasion is subject to the variables of its circumstance, culturally, situationally, personally.  So, for example, racial slurs are more offensive in a culture with a lot of racial tension than attacks on one's doily preference.

II.

So, there's obviously a moral component to this issue.  From there, we can isolate two popular extremist positions, both of which are, I think, obviously incorrect:

Placing the blame entirely on the speaker, and placing it entirely on the listener.

The first is incorrect because it would require everyone to know the minds of everyone they could possibly communicate with, then only ever say things that won't offend any of them.  I don't think I have to explain why that's impossible.

The second, which was the position of my conversational partner yesterday, is obviously wrong, because 1.) people don't have complete control over what they hear, and 2.) people don't have complete control over what they feel.

In some cases, finding someone to blame is counterproductive, anyway.  Offense is often accidental, and as a society I think we'd be better served if everyone made an effort to learn how to give and accept criticism of their statements.  (At present in society this is still pretty unfair on marginalized groups, who are far more often on the receiving end, but as it stands, marginalized people tend to be forced to develop these skills anyway, and it wouldn't hurt for more broadly privileged people to learn them, too.)

III.

But what about people who are being deliberately offensive?

Ricky Gervais said of his Golden Globes presentation early this year, "No one has the right not to be offended." [Emphasis mine. In looking for a source, he was not the only person I found to have said that, he might not be the original source.]

I think this is true, but I would add another point, to go hand-in-hand with that one: No one has the right to a platform.

You may have a right to say whatever you like.  But you do not have the right to demand that people listen to you, or to demand that other people participate in promoting your voice.  You can start a blog, but no one is infringing on your freedom of speech by not linking it.  You can hold a rally, but no one is required to attend.  You can send letters to your local paper, but no one is required to print them.

IV.

I think the reason that this discussion gets so sticky is that we tend to try to leave out the key element.  In most conversations, we try to come to a common understanding that, hopefully, transcends our separate values.  But you can't transcend values in talking about offensiveness:  being offended is what happens when there's a clash of values.

The pain that comes from being offended is the experience of cognitive dissonance and frustration.

So, offense is a moral issue.  But it's not a moral issue in and of itself -- the suffering caused by giving offense can't be automatically attributed to the speaker or the listener.

The way to determine who's wrong in an instance of offense being given or taken is to unpick the underlying values dissonance, and resolve it.  The person who was in the wrong is the person whose values were wrong.

Now, obviously, sometimes that's impossible.  There are many cases in which there's no right or wrong to be found, there are many cases where peoples' values are simply mutually exclusive.

V.

But there are also cases where values are fact-based.  Sexism and racism are, for example, both based on the same motives (human well-being) being filtered through demonstrably wrong reasoning processes.

There are, therefore, cases where the same joke might calculate to a different outcome in different circumstances. Take, for example, the same racist joke, told by:

  • A white man, sincerely == The speaker is at fault.
  • Daniel Tosh, a self-consciously highly offensive comedian == ambiguous, with arguments to be made for his offensiveness versus the acceptability of his particular contextualization.
  • A member of the target group, tongue-in-cheek == most likely acceptable, though debate on that question is possible.

IV.

Finally, is taking offense valid?

Yes.  I think this part is pretty unambiguous:  values are not universal, and they will clash.  We react, intellectually and emotionally, to those clashes. There's no getting around that, and it's simply not legitimate to blame someone for an emotional experience they're incapable of avoiding.