Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Just when I thought I was out …

October 22, 2014

… they pull me back in.

I think I mentioned before that in my misspent youth I posted a fair bit on some feminist discussion groups … meaning groups that discuss feminism, not necessarily groups that were feminist. If there’s a difference between the two. I get kinda confused over that. Anyway, I used to talk a lot about feminist issues. I even tried to take a philosophy course on feminism in my last year, and then dropped it because I thought it would be far too restrictive. (I ended up taking the same course with the same professor later during my actual Philosophy degree, and it wasn’t as bad as I might have thought. If you’re curious, I took it because it counted as an Ethics course and was in a convenient timeslot). Anyway, after my first year in Philosophy, my interest in feminism fell off, mostly because there were so many more interesting issues in philosophy to deal with in general than feminism. And so for a long time I stopped talking about it.

And yet I find that I read more and more comments on it, and feel the desire to talk about it more and more. Why? Because it’s flippin’ everywhere. Feminism and feminist issues seem to have come back into fashion, and I can’t even read about video games anymore without coming across it. Heck, I can’t even read atheist sites anymore without seeing lots and lots and lots of discussions over specifically feminist issues, either inside atheism or not.

Case in point: this post by P.Z. Myers. He got sent a comic by someone, which he disliked, and commented on. And then he found that the comic wasn’t the original one, but was an altered one of Rebecca Coren’s.

So, let me first comment on what that person did: it was wrong. Not because he used her images without attribution, because he actually did that. No, it was terribly wrong and terribly dishonest because in altering the message, he made it imply that Coren was saying something that she not only didn’t say, not only said the opposite of, but that she absolutely under no conditions would support. I’m not sure about the etiquette of altering images, but you really ought to make sure that if you do you make it clear when you do, so that we know a) where the original came from and b) also can see what the original message is. Heck, I once didn’t include a cartoon by Shamus Young in an editorial because I couldn’t get permission to do it. Altering it and posting it without noting that? Really bad. I’m not going to go ad hominem on him, and say that his point is invalid because of it, but if I’m going to call out Jerry Coyne for being dishonest for doing less, I gotta do it here.

That being said, let me go on to talk about Coren’s actual cartoon, and the issues it raises. Her cartoon is here.

Essentially, the argument goes like this. A man asks a woman why she is a feminist. She says it’s because she believes in equality. He says that she should call herself an equalist or egalitarian. She replies that she calls herself a feminist because her main focus is on the unequal status of women. He retorts that that means she only cares about women, which is not equality. She then rephrases it to point at him and say that he, specifically, is the reason that she is a feminist.

Somehow, this is supposedly an argument about people who don’t actually have a problem with the term feminism, but instead have a problem with gender equality. Don’t believe me? This is her caption for it:

So sick of people who pretend their problem is with the word “feminism” rather than the concept of gender equality.

Except … the way her “heroine” puts it is indeed problematic. She believes in equality … but then wants to be known not for working for equality, but instead for working for the equality of a specific group. Again, not on a specific set of issues, but for a specific group. And, on top of that, it happens to be the group that she’s in, and so effectively she’s saying that she wants to be a feminist or work more as a feminist so that she can work on the issues that most impact her. And when challenged on that, her response is to essentially say that the person challenging her has some kind of actual problem, and that he as a person is why she’s a feminist. Again, she doesn’t say “THAT is why I’m a feminist”, meaning the idea that if you want to work primarily on equality for women it means that you only care about women (presumably that’s the problematic one, although it could just be the idea of reverse sexism at all). No, he’s the reason … not the societal attitudes, not the overall consciousness around gender issues, not even the idea of privilege. Him. Thus, she replies to his comment, justified or not … with a personal attack. And it can’t be described any other way. And feminists wonder why people who disagree with them often feel like they are being attacked as persons, and not just having their ideas challenged?

Now, is there an argument that Coren could have made and, maybe, wanted to make? Well, the general argument made over this is that the focus has to be one women’s issues because women are far more disadvantaged and are far less “equal” than men are, and so have the more serious issues to work on. Thus, it’s only logical to focus on the most serious inequalities first. The problem is that this doesn’t work at all against a claim that the feminist movement should be rolled in to the egalitarian movement to do that, because presumably if this is the case they can objectively demonstrate that, and any egalitarian movement worth its salt will indeed need to prioritize what they work on. The only main difference in this regard is that an egalitarian movement might actually decide that an issue of inequality towards men is actually a bigger problem at the moment than the top issue for women … which, if objectively true, is actually a good thing. Additionally, an egalitarian movement will have an easier time seeing commonalities among the various groups, purportedly dominant or not, and so be in a better position to decide that perhaps working on one issue — even if it’s one that primarily affects men — might end up being the better one to pursue because its underlying issue is one that, once solved, will solve a lot of problems even if it isn’t, in and of itself, the biggest problem. The ability of an egalitarian movement to have the global or big picture view is a huge advantage that a feminist movement cannot have without being an egalitarian movement with a different name.

Now, this global view can itself be a problem, with a fear that alongside all of the other issues — race, sexuality, religion, etc, etc — that gender issues might end up far, far down the totem pole. And there are reasons for this, mostly because while women are discriminated against, they also end up being part of pretty much every family group, which means that while the income in a family may not be under their control, they tend to get it. Women, under patriarchy, are as poor as their husbands are, and so the issues that really have to be addressed can often seem like middle-class issues … or the result of economic class and not gender. So there may be reason for feminists to say that these issues are still important and need to be considered as such, and that inside an egalitarian movement they might get swarmed under. The problem here is that this still doesn’t justify a specific feminist movement, focusing on women specifically. All this justifies is the idea that egalitarian movements might have to have submovements, like “gender egalitarianism” and “race egalitarianism” and “sexuality egalitarianism” to allow people to focus their efforts on specific issues without having to declare that they care more about those issues than the others. And in these movements, the above advantage still applies: if the purported dominant group is facing inequality, they can still work on it if it’s the most serious inequality of the time. So, again, under this sort of movement, if women’s issues really are the most important, then they would still get more attention, and so feminists would only have to fear women’s inequalities not being addressed if they aren’t objectively the most serious at the moment.

Now, feminists can counter than in that sort of movement, men’s issues will be given more priority because, they argue, they always are. Putting aside whether this is indeed actually correct, remember that this would be in a specifically egalitarian movement, full of people who are dedicated to equality. If you can’t make the argument with them that women’s issues are important, you have a much more serious problem … and you aren’t likely to get any further by calling yourself a “feminist”. Ultimately, you’re going to have to convince egalitarians that your view is right.

At this point, the only other objection is that this argument is semantic. We aren’t arguing over what to do, but just over what it’s called. The issue is that this is not an argument that feminists can make, because feminists have argued for decades that language matters, and that language should be inclusive. If you don’t want to imply that feminism is all about women’s inequality and not about gender equality or equality in general, then you shouldn’t call it “feminism” which implies that, when “gender egalitarianism” or “egalitarianism” are available, just as you shouldn’t say “mankind” instead of “humankind”. Either the feminist here has to abandon one of the tenets of feminist philosophy, or else it “It’s just semantics” works against them; if there really is no difference in the term, then choosing a more inclusive term is better. And if there is, then you are accepting that you really do only care about women … and then the person’s challenge actually starts to make sense.

So, feminists … which is it?

Calculating Humanity

October 19, 2014

For those who were hoping that during this blog run I’d return to Philosophy in Pop Culture … well, you might be happy today. Or not. Because I’m continuing the series with this post, picking up the next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy”. It’s by Timothy Sexton, and is called “Calculating Humanity”. In it, he attaches Jeremy Brett’s version of Sherlock Holmes to the Nietzschean Overhuman, as opposed to the Underhuman that the “calculating machine” depictions of Sherlock Holmes make of him (which includes the interpretation of the creator himself). While a big part of that argument is about Brett’s Holmes doing things with a lot of style, the part I want to focus on is the issue of superiority, and the sort of superiority that Sexton thinks that Holmes has. And to do so, I want to use another character in popular culture that reflects a bit of an irony here: Data from Star Trek, the actual calculating machine that takes on the role of Holmes, at least in part, to better understand humanity. I think that Data has a far superior form of superiority than Brett’s Holmes, which means that if Brett’s Holmes is the Overhuman and Data, as a calculating machine, is the Underhuman, then Data is actually the better human of the two.

Note that I’m not an expert on Nietzsche at all, so don’t take this as any kind of comment on Nietzsche’s actual comment. Go talk to Dan Fincke about that. I’m just talking about the forms of superior people and personalities discussed here.

So, how does Sexton describe his superiority?

What if the drive behind Sherlock’s need to solve cases was about “striving for excellence … striving to overcome one’s neighbor, even if only very indirectly or only in one’s own feelings”?

What this suggests to me is that for Brett’s Holmes, being superior, being better than everyone else, is a goal. It’s something that’s important to that Holmes, something that Holmes strives to be and strives to demonstrate. Again, not solving cases; solving cases in and of themselves is unimportant. No, what’s important is being better than everyone else, and solving cases is just the means by which that Holmes demonstrates that.

Now, of course, being overly modest isn’t necessarily a virtue … but that’s where we can get a better way to be superior from Data. In an number of cases, Data flatly states that he is superior to humans. He is aware that he is stronger than they are, that he knows more than they do, that he’s faster than they are, that he has less physical limitations than they do, and so on and so forth. But whenever he states this, he doesn’t state it as something he is either proud of ashamed of. He states it as if it is nothing more than a fact; he just is superior, and that’s that. It’s not important to him to be superior, it’s just a fact that he’s superior there.

To see how that attitude is better, consider what happens when the person finds out that someone else is superior to them. Brett’s Holmes ought to be devastated, and should take any measures necessary to try to beat that person. Beating that person, in and of itself, has to be a goal … even if they actually can’t be better than that person. In the Holmes mythos, it seems to me that there is someone superior to Holmes: his brother Mycroft. The calculating Data Holmes can indeed simply state that Mycroft is better than he is, and feel no rancor about it or any bitterness, or not allow it to influence his own behaviour or see it as something that he has to work to overcome. Mycroft might well just be naturally better, and that’s fine. Data Holmes will just do what he does and what he’s good at. Brett Holmes, however, can’t be as sanguine about it, because being superior is important to him … and it just isn’t important to Data Holmes at all.

The best kind of superiority is the superiority of fact: it just is the case. You just are better than them at something. It doesn’t make you better as a person or them worse, it’s not a sign of success on your part and failure on theirs, it just is. If someone is inferior to you because they just don’t work at it or don’t work at it properly, there is no harm in encouraging them to do that properly … even if it means that at the end of it all they end up better than you. If you are inferior to someone only because you don’t work at it properly, strive to work at it properly.

The proper goal — and I think Fincke would argue that the proper Overhuman — strives to be the best they can be, not to be better than anyone else. If you are the best you can be and better than others, that’s fine. If you are the best you can be and inferior to others, that’s fine, too. It’s not about being better than anyone else, but about being the best you can be. Data gets that; I don’t think Brett’s Holmes would.

And I game alone …

October 18, 2014

The other day I got invited to a party
But I stayed home instead
Just me and my pal Johnny Walker
And his brothers Black and Red
And we game alone, yeah
With nobody else
Yeah, you know when I game alone
I prefer to be by myself

The above altered lyric actually has nothing to do with the article I’m going to talk about, or anything I’m going to say, but after finding out the name of the person who wrote it, I’ve had that stuck in my head … and now you can as well.

The article I’m going to talk about today is by John Walker, mixing personal experiences with commentary on the whole thing. So let’s get into it:

GamerGate (GG), since its beginnings, has unquestionably been a formless, undirected collection of people with wildly disparate aims and desires. To say, “GG thinks X” is a meaningless statement, since there are those who are participating who only want to know that the games journalism/criticism/coverage they read is not affected by corruption, all the way to those who are sending terrifying death and rape threats to women in the industry, with a wide spectrum between. While there are various attempts at grouping together specific aims or objectives, these again widely vary, from desires to see game sites publicise clear ethical guidelines, to the desire to “destroy” sites that do not adhere to particular standards/styles/beliefs. There are those who wish to see “politics left out of games coverage”, and those who wish to see writers with “SJW agendas” out of work. There are those who fear games themselves will be negatively affected by progressive criticism, and those who wish to scare female developers and writers until they are too afraid to participate in the industry.

Identify the group as one aspect of this, and other aspects will step forward in disappointment/fury/confusion in response to this understanding. It’s intangible. And I believe perhaps its greatest weakness is that it seems to have no idea that it is.

You know, this description reminds me of my impressions of the Occupy Movement: a group of disparate people with very different aims and no central organization. I think that this is more a reflection of modern activism than anything about “Gamergate” in particular. The advent of social media allows you to reach more people with your message than ever before, but that growth comes with a price: less control and less organization. When you had groups of people in separate official groups … well, it was often still hard to separate what others did and support from what you do and support, but at least you could disavow the group, and you knew who the members of each group were. That’s hard to do today, and amazingly hard to do in social media. Which is why in these sorts of discussions you see people trying to attach groupings to people, often by where they post, like 4chan or the Slymepit or things like that, as a way to divide the us from the them. It may be a weakness, but it is indeed the way things work now.

I absolutely believe that there are many who have been part of the million tweets made using this tag who are horrified by the horrendous abuse and criminal attacks that have come from within GG. I know that there are those who identify with GG who have benign aims, and are personally hurt or upset when they see people identifying GG as a misogynist cause, or a cruel, bullying agenda. I appeal to these people to consider whether GG is ever going to be a place that accurately reflects them or their desires.

The problem is, as discussed above (and in the comment to Walker’s post) that there may not be any such place. Even using the GG talking points will get those who make them attached to the purported misogyny that’s been associated with GG as well. And even then, because these things can’t be controlled, the same people whose words are giving that impression will show up there and start everything all over again. So saying that they should move somewhere else either tells them to move somewhere that no one is paying attention to, or is just forcing them to start over, build attention … and then have the same claims made against them. It’s a no-win situation.

Alternatively, the people who are being criticized could sort the good points from the dreck, and pay attention to those who make reasonable points in a reasonable manner and ignore those who are being abusive. It’s a radical concept, but it might just work.

Now, I’m not interested in the specifics of GG, so his personal experiences with it and his discussions about how he’s not sure what the goals are aren’t things I’ll address here. So I’ll move on to the discussions of politics and bias. He invents an example of a game that contains some nudity and sexual stereotypes, and three different types of reviews, one of which seems to celebrate that, one which condemns it, and one which deliberately ignores it. He says that all three are political:

All three reviews are inherently political. Choosing to mention this specific feature of the game is a political decision, whether to condemn or celebrate. And crucially, choosing not to mention it is a political decision too. Not thinking it worth mentioning, also, is born of a political position on the matter. Indifference to something of importance to others is, of course, a political position. You cannot “leave the politics out of games coverage”. Politics are inherent. What is instead meant by this demand is, by its nature, “Leave politics I don’t adhere to out of games coverage.”

Well, first, there’s a false dichotomy here, assuming that either one has to mention it and take a stand on it, or else not mention it at all. The non-political review can simply point out that it’s in the game, and leave it up to the readers to decide if that is good, bad or indifferent. If that might be important to people who are reading the review, then it behooves the reviewer to mention it. But the reviewer doesn’t have to judge it, at least not in and of itself. They can judge how it works for the game itself, and point out if it works or if it doesn’t, or if certain audiences are likely to have problems with it or enjoy it, even with a “If you want to rescue bare-breasted women from koalas, this is the game for you!”. So you don’t have to ignore things that might be important to your audience. Second, when people say they want politics left out of game reviews, they usually mean that they want to leave politics out of game reviews. So commenting that the game relies heavily on stereotypes of women or even on the damsel in distress trope is okay. Commenting that this turns it into some kind of anti-woman game or represents women as nothing more than sexist stereotypes is pushing it. Commenting that these sorts of depictions are bad because they perpetuate those stereotypes in the real world is going too far, because at that point you stop treating the game as itself and evaluating itself as itself and start evaluating the game in a political and social context. Which is not what people care about when they read a review. That’s something that, in my opinion, you can do in a commentary, like what Sarkeesian is trying to do. I think that a lot of people’ biggest problem with her is not what she’s trying to do, but that she doesn’t seem to be doing it very well, and seems to be treading over old turf in a much longer form with less research. But that’s neither here nor there for now. The key here is that you don’t need to talk about “politics” in games in order to highlight what’s important to your audience in a review, and the idea that you can’t leave politics out of a review seems to equivocate on politics.

And now we move on to objectivity:

There is an attempt to avoid this reality from GG by attempts to invoke the even deeper fallacy of “objectivity”. I’ve written at length on why objectivity is literally impossible for a human being, and further how deeply unhelpful it would be in games coverage. It’s immediately obvious that one cannot review a game objectively – one can only attempt to describe a game’s intended features while unavoidably infecting such an attempt with conscious or unconscious subjectivity. And describing a game’s intended features is the job of the publisher, and is already taken care of in descriptions of games on any gaming store. Objectivity is obviously not desired, but instead the term is used to suggest a politically “neutral” position on very specific subject areas. Attempts at neutral politics are obviously impossible, but more to the point, remains political.

One should always be very suspicious of an argument that sounds like — and in this case, is pretty identical to — “We can’t ever be totally objective, so let’s not even try”. Especially when one is talking about journalism. When I criticize things, I try to be objective, which means that when I, say, criticize Smallville for screwing up Clark’s secret, I really think that, objectively, they did that. Now, this can’t be completely “objective”, because it is defined relative to a work and the goal of the work. So if the creators said that in that episode they were trying to make Clark look like a moron, I’d accept that … but then point out that their handling doesn’t give that impression. These sorts of commentaries aren’t totally subjective, and in fact rely on separating what you like from how the work works as a whole. Did you know that I once wrote a review of Persona 4 that gave it a 7? You know, one of my favourite games of all time? And that the only thing I’d change about it is my comments on its replay value, because the better handling of the dungeons leads to less grinding which makes it easier to replay than Persona 3? I love the game, but I’m not blind to its flaws. I also gave “Sakura Wars: So long my love” a low score despite loving the game. This, to me, is what reviewing should do: tell you what the game is about so that everyone can know what they’re getting into. Having your own style and interests come out isn’t bad, but must always be in the service of informing others about what the game is like. That’s not just listing the features … and you aren’t required to say that the features are good. Again, just like in Smallville, I can note what they did and comment that it doesn’t work whether or not I like it.

And of course the pretence that it’s about neutrality is patent nonsense. By requiring neutrality on those specific subjects, such as anything regarding the representation of any group of people, it is a tacit endorsement of the opposing political position. The desire to mute criticism of the representation of women in a game is a tacit endorsement of the representation of women in the game. And again, of course, anyone is absolutely entitled to endorse that representation if it is their position. But it’s a position.

Why is it that someone who says “I’m not getting into this debate”, according to so-called “progressives”, is always supporting the sexist/racist/whateverist side? Why can’t the other side say that by not explicitly defending those representations they’re taking the side of those who want it changed? Sure, they can argue that by not opposing the status quo you’re saying that it’s fine as is … but if someone actually and legitimately doesn’t care, shouldn’t that be their reaction? It’s sort of an idea that everyone should care one way or another about it, and so has to take a side. I don’t want to necessarily take a side. In some cases, I want to say, at a minimum “I don’t even play those games; why should I have an opinion?” Why can’t I think that the one side is overstating their case for what these representations are but that the might have a point buried in there? As Walker says in the beginning, there are a wide range of positions here, and so this can’t be reduced to a mere desire to mute criticism. In some cases, it might merely be a desire to have you … not … bring … it … up … in … every .. review. Or a number of other positions.

Neutrality on a topic is not supporting either side. Neutrality is, at its essence, at the very least thinking that it isn’t important enough to you to mention for those who don’t want to talk about it themselves, or thinking that those sorts of discussions aren’t appropriate for the piece you’re doing if they want others to not do it. If you can’t convince people that they should care or that it is appropriate, don’t gripe that they’re demanding some kind of impossible standard. They ain’t. They may be wrong that neutrality is appropriate on that issue and in that piece, but it is possible and is desirable.

GG is, in its suggestion of wanting to leave the politics out of games coverage, arguing for the continuation of the current politics represented in the games. Arguing for the continuation of the current politics is obviously fine! People want to see their own politics reflected, because it contextualises the game within their own worldview, and is therefore more useful. Wanting games coverage that comes from this same worldview makes complete sense, and finding that the majority of coverage does not is obviously frustrating, or simply unhelpful.

I want game reviews to be apolitical, neutral and objective. I don’t want them to reflect my own personal politics, mostly because that would be very hard to do and, bluntly, I don’t want you trying to guess what my personal politics are. In reviews, give me the facts, and let me decide how that interacts with my politics and my worldview. In commentaries, give me your view, the view from inside your own worldview … but then present it as if it is coming from there, as if it isn’t objective fact, and most importantly be willing to have as many worldviews as you can represented on that topic … ideally, not by you (unless you’re a philosopher, at which point it can work.) If gaming sites are overly represented by so-called progressives, then they should look at getting more diverse worldviews in there, just as they would if they are overly represented by men, women or bleached blondes from the planet Schwartz. Let the people decide what’s right and what’s wrong.

It’s quite disingenuous to assume that people who want neutrality want their own views reflected, as opposed to them not wanting to have to wade through an entire article advocating for worldviews that they are dubious about to get to the facts of the matter to figure what they think about the issue. They might also be suspicious about those facts if they know that you feel strongly about a position, because not only do people sometimes consciously lie in those situations, they also unconsciously shade their arguments that way. At least trying to be neutral — not just look neutral, but be neutral — helps with that … and allowing other views ensures that most people get to hear, at least, both sides of an issue.

I’m biased – ho BOY, I’m biased. Biased in favour of progressive attitudes, of equality, of fairness and representation. I’m also biased in favour of games being good, rather than rubbish. And my interpretation of which is which is, like every other human, rooted in my bias. I wear my bias in the open, for reasons of integrity. I’m proud of myself. I want everybody to be able to say the same.

This is a rather dishonest statement … and both the sad and good thing about it is that I think he’s actually being totally genuine here. But look at how he represents his bias: all good things. All things that he can say “How can you be opposed to any of this?”. Well, you can agree with him on all of those things and still think he’s wrong. And even still think he has a bad bias in there. He has ideas of what makes a game good, of what constitutes quality, fairness and representation, and progressive attitudes. Describing his bias this way sets it up as if there is only one way to get those things, and that if anyone disagrees with him they must be opposed to those things. This couldn’t be further from the truth. And yet so many social progressives always argue this, and always set it up so that if you don’t agree with them then you are against those good things, and so are bad, and so need to be opposed. Which is just one more reason why separating oneself from GG will never separate you from the charges of misogyny, because for so many opposing their progressive views and values is enough to make you misogynistic in and of itself.

The first thing people need to do is stop claiming to represent equality, or fairness, or goodness, or whatever. You don’t. You represent your own view of the world, which many mean that you strive for those things, but not that you have the inside track on them. Even a call for equality may not, in fact, produce actual equality. But saying, as Walker says here, that you’re biased towards those really, really good things — intentionally or not — sets up anyone who disagrees with you as having to oppose those things … and that’s a very, very unfair way to frame a debate.

Are Gamers “Over”?

October 17, 2014

I’ve been reading a number of the articles around (sigh) Gamergate, which is an extension of debates that have been happening for quite a while now. And so I think I’ll actually take a look at some of them in detail over the next few days. Note that I’ll be looking at the posts by, for lack of a better word, the “progressive” side, because those are the ones I’ve come across. If someone wants me to take on posts from the “Gamergate” side, feel free to link them and I’ll comment on them. Note that I won’t take on the post that are nothing more than abuse; I think that abuse is wrong and bad and all of that but don’t feel the need to engage in things that are void of content … unless people think that it does have content.

Which leads me to the first post I’m looking at, Leigh Alexander’s post in Gamasutra that might have caused Intel to withdraw its advertising. Now, I have to admit to a bit of a bias, but it’s a biased based on experience. The instant someone talks about their getting a massively angry response to a calm, measured and reasonable post that just make some good points or raised some criticisms, I always assume that the initial criticism was no where near as reasonable as they are making it out to be, and that the angry reaction wasn’t as angry as they are making it out to be, because of a funny thing called “human nature”. And while I won’t say that the angry reaction wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be — because that drifts into talking about how much of the abuse happened and/or was abuse which I really, really don’t want to talk about — I will say that the reasonableness of the article has been greatly overstated.

Start from the title. Now, I’m not sure that Alexander is responsible for the title or if that’s something that Gamasutra did, because I know that editors of gaming websites will do that. But the title is not a good start:

‘Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.

Now, normally I don’t talk about an overall impression of a post or make an overall argument based on it until I get further in. I certainly never do that starting from the title. But if there is a point to Alexander’s post, it seems to be based around that first sentence: that the market for games has expanded far beyond those who were traditionally considered gamers, and so in theory games can be made that don’t have the traditional attributes that appealed to those people. Actually, even that’s probably being overly charitable, because while the point is good the text … well, it doesn’t really support it. But we’ll see more of that as I go through it. But anyway, it’s a reasonable point that can open up much reasonable debate to talk about the market being beyond traditional gamers, and even to argue that it should. Great … so, now, what’s that “‘Gamers’ are over” point doing? Well, nothing except call out and look down on that traditional market, when for whatever their flaws these were the people who kept gaming going and got it to this point. Why would you start an article about gaming with a title that essentially insults anyone who might have in any way considered themselves part of that culture, whatever it is? Heck, I call myself a “Not-So-Casual Gamer” … am I over? I thought that I represented the future of gaming; people who don’t have the time to dedicate to playing games but for whom it’s still a major hobby. As I said, not a good start.

It doesn’t get any better when you get into the text, though:

I often say I’m a video game culture writer, but lately I don’t know exactly what that means. ‘Game culture’ as we know it is kind of embarrassing — it’s not even culture. It’s buying things, spackling over memes and in-jokes repeatedly, and it’s getting mad on the internet.

I fail to see how that is any different from any other kind of culture, at least in Western society. You don’t think that, say, Canadian culture which includes a love of hockey doesn’t involve buying things related to that, like tickets, jerseys and other souvenirs? Do you not think that Canadian culture doesn’t often involve the same memes and in-jokes? And have you really not been on the Internet long enough to know that “getting mad on the Internet” is, essentially, what the Internet does? Tell ya what: go make an insulting comment about Canadians and see if you don’t get some anger on the Internet about it. I’ll wait.

(Okay, no, I won’t wait.)

Moving on:

It’s young men queuing with plush mushroom hats and backpacks and jutting promo poster rolls. Queuing passionately for hours, at events around the world, to see the things that marketers want them to see. To find out whether they should buy things or not. They don’t know how to dress or behave. Television cameras pan across these listless queues, and often catch the expressions of people who don’t quite know why they themselves are standing there.

Wait … what? What is she going on about here? This looks like her trying to describe the gaming conventions like E3 or PAX or whatever, but it seems to bear no relation to what I’ve ever heard about them. Now, I don’t attend them myself, but this just seems odd. And problematic.

First, “They don’t know how to dress or behave.” Um, says who? By what standard? Where’s your evidence? In this sort of vacuum, this looks like nothing more than a vague shot at the social skills of gamers … and gamers being immature, mostly male people with no social skills is one of the most insulting and yet continually referenced stereotypes of gamers. And it probably isn’t true.

Second, “To find out whether they should buy things or not.” Yes, this is a promotional event, where marketers try to convince them that their products are good enough to buy. The implication here is that these people are just here to be told what to buy. She carries this them on later in the article:

This means that over just the last few years, writing on games focuses on personal experiences and independent creators, not approval-hungry obeisance to the demands of powerful corporations. It’s not about ‘being a reviewer’ anymore. It’s not about telling people what to buy, it’s about providing spaces for people to discuss what (and whom) they support.

Except … among gaming culture, there already was growing commentary and concern about review sites and how they were, essentially, for sale to the highest bidder. Popular enough that Shamus Young could make it the punchline of a comic on the Escapist and expect at least the majority of the audience to get the joke. There have been accusations of a link between review scores and advertising dollars for a long time now. Among gamers. That doesn’t sound like a group of people willing or happy to simply seek the approval of powerful corporations, and simply waiting for them to tell them what to buy. Even the events are showcases, but many people who attend and who get at least some attention don’t just give glowing reviews. For example, Josh from the Twenty-Sided Diecast went to one of these things and criticized The Old Republic, the big game at the time … and I criticized his critique. In general, gamers have always resisted this sort of incursion, and been more likely to be cynical of advertising and the like. Perhaps they are subconsciously prone to hype, but then we all are, so that’s not really a valid criticism here.

Oh, and the perception of women in gaming magazines and press? Shamus poked fun at it back in 2009. Even that issue isn’t one that’s been ignored in “gaming culture”.

‘Games culture’ is a petri dish of people who know so little about how human social interaction and professional life works that they can concoct online ‘wars’ about social justice or ‘game journalism ethics,’ straight-faced, and cause genuine human consequences. Because of video games.

But, obviously, those who are advocating for change online aren’t in any way concocting or participating in online wars. and nothing they do has any real life consequences, right? It’s all the bad and evil gamers taking video games too seriously when, really, they’re not that important, right?

Look, you can’t get into an argument that has Anita Sarkeesian in it and then retreat to an idea of “Oh, come on, this is all over video games“, because if Sarkessian has any point, it’s that this isn’t just limited to the domain of video games. The whole reason we’re having these debates is because of the idea that this extends beyond games and into “real life”, that the depiction of women in games both reflects and influences the way women are seen and treated in the real world. You can’t make that point without sounding like a hypocrite … and without relying on yet another of the stereotypes of gaming, and one that you ought to be trying to refute: that gaming is light, immature entertainment, with nothing to add to an overall culture. It’s low brow entertainment, less important, mature and influential than even television.

And again, she seems utterly uninformed about how the Internet works, if she thinks that online wars over journalistic ethics and social justice are new. And aren’t started by the people she seems to be claiming are on her side.

Lately, I often find myself wondering what I’m even doing here. And I know I’m not alone.

At this point, so are we. You don’t seem to know what the culture is, and so seem to have such a disdain for your audience that you are starting to sound like a non-humourous version of Statler and Waldorf:

Why do we always come here? I guess we’ll never know. It’s like a kind of torture, to have to watch the show.

Maybe if it bugs you that much … maybe you should, indeed, just stop coming out to watch the show. There are lots of things that you can do that will relate to things that are, say, more relevant to “real life”.

(Okay, yes, I’m being a bit snarky here. I admit it.)

This is what the rest of the world knows about your industry — this, and headlines about billion-dollar war simulators or those junkies with the touchscreen candies. That’s it. You should absolutely be better than this.

Okay, I call myself a “Not-So-Casual Gamer” for a reason. The reason is the fact that while I play games a fair bit, and do follow some of the various gaming sites and news, I’m not really immersed in games to that extent. So I know a bit more than the average person but still know less than you’d expect from someone who takes games more than simply casually. I bring this up so that everyone will have the full context to appreciate the import of this next sentence:

I have no idea what these things are that she thinks represent what the world knows about the gaming industry.

So, either she has no idea what the world outside of gaming circles knows about the industry, or she’s so steeped in
gaming circles that she’s using a short-hand for events that they’d get, but the rest of the world wouldn’t. And I think it’s the former. Even the Quinn/Sarkeesian/Whedon type comments are things that I didn’t hear through gaming, or even through mainstream news. I heard about them through “progressive” sites, which a bit of minor mention on some of the gaming sites I read. And the big gaming press who’ve jumped on the subject. So maybe, just maybe, there’s some truth to the accusations that if people really do think that this is what gaming’s about it’s because the “progressive” gaming press is representing these things as IF that’s what gaming’s all about.

As an aside, if you look at those same progressive sites, you’ll note that they aren’t just saying this about gaming, but about everything. So as an issue, it’s not one particular to gaming either.

You don’t want to ‘be divisive?’ Who’s being divided, except for people who are okay with an infantilized cultural desert of shitty behavior and people who aren’t? What is there to ‘debate’?

Well, for starters what gaming culture actually is. You later dismiss the idea that the people who are acting badly are a minority, mostly with a comment that even if it’s true it doesn’t matter. You ignore the large parts of gaming culture that have effectively been on your side for years. You ignore the fact that a lot of people are making criticisms and not harassment. You’re being divisive because you’re trying to draw sides in this, and placing anyone, it seems, who doesn’t agree with you completely or even agree with you loudly enough to be in some kind of infantilized cultural desert.

Look, if you want to avoid charges of being divisive, you should probably be more careful about how you generalize your claims and how you make up your divides. Rants rarely succeed at doing either.

Right, let’s say it’s a vocal minority that’s not representative of most people. Most people, from indies to industry leaders, are mortified, furious, disheartened at the direction industry conversation has taken in the past few weeks. It’s not like there are reputable outlets publishing rational articles in favor of the trolls’ ‘side’. Don’t give press to the harassers. Don’t blame an entire industry for a few bad apples.

Yet disclaiming liability is clearly no help. Game websites with huge community hubs whose fans are often associated with blunt Twitter hate mobs sort of shrug, they say things like ‘we delete the really bad stuff, what else can we do’ and ‘those people don’t represent our community’ — but actually, those people do represent your community. That’s what your community is known for, whether you like it or not.

When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum. That’s what’s been happening to games.

Now, let’s think about this for a second. A big theme of this post has been a disdain for the big corporations and, presumably, media outlets telling people what to buy, and them then buying it. This seems to be seen as pathetic. And yet, here, what’s being advocated for is gaming sites creating or curating the culture of their audience. Essentially, she wants these gaming companies to tell gamers what their culture ought to be. See, the whole point of letting forums, for example, run mostly free is so that they reflect the culture, not define it. Sure, gaming sites can decide what sort of experience they want to present, and in their articles they can decide what to advocate for or not advocate for games and even gaming culture to be a certain way … but at the end of the day, ought they dictate it? Ought they delete opinions that suggest that, say, female protagonists won’t work? In what way does she want them to create and curate this culture? She doesn’t say … and that’s scary.

That’s not super surprising, actually. While video games themselves were discovered by strange, bright outcast pioneers — they thought arcades would make pub games more fun, or that MUDs would make for amazing cross-cultural meeting spaces — the commercial arm of the form sprung up from marketing high-end tech products to ‘early adopters’. You know, young white dudes with disposable income who like to Get Stuff.

Um, actually, more likely to kids and teenagers. Less people with disposable incomes and more to people with lots of time on their hands to play games. Again, remember that the most durable reputation video gaming has ever had has been that it’s for kids and teens, and not for adults. Kinda like cartoons, except that it’s more acceptable to play them as a teenager and in university. But ultimately, the overall theme of games and marketing for it has been at markets that are doing it until they grow up. Now, this is changing, which is where I think I better represent the present and future of gaming: people who have disposable incomes but not much time.

As an aside, that whole “high-end tech” market? That’s cell phones and Iphones and tablets and stuff like that. Not really gaming consoles. People buy gaming consoles to play games, mostly, and so buy the latest to get the latest games with the best graphics and best features. After all, one of the main pushes for consoles over PCs is that they are significantly cheaper to buy to play games on; PCs always won on being able to do more for you than play games. So, really, I think all that I need to say about this paragraph is “Citation needed”.

Suddenly a generation of lonely basement kids had marketers whispering in their ears that they were the most important commercial demographic of all time. Suddenly they started wearing shiny blouses and pinning bikini babes onto everything they made, started making games that sold the promise of high-octane masculinity to kids just like them.

Didn’t that start more from television than from games? Yes, games ended up being aimed at that market because they were the people who had the time and the money to play them, but they weren’t the only medium that aimed at that market, and they arguably had the best case for doing so, given games’ reputation as being composed primarily of that demographic … something that movies and television certainly didn’t have going for them.

By the turn of the millennium those were games’ only main cultural signposts: Have money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun. Be an outcast. Celebrate that. Defeat anyone who threatens you. You don’t need cultural references. You don’t need anything but gaming. Public conversation was led by a games press whose role was primarily to tell people what to buy, to score products competitively against one another, to gleefully fuel the “team sports” atmosphere around creators and companies.

Somehow, I feel I should say something here. This seem like an important paragraph. And yet it also seems devoid of anything even resembling a point. It also seems completely wrong when you actually look at games beyond the big market FPSs. RPGs, for example, generally didn’t go this route. JRPGs absolutely didn’t … or do they not count as reflecting gamers considering that two of the three main consoles reflect their culture. I decry the dominance of FPSs as much or more than anyone, given that I don’t play them, but even those games are trying to be about more than big guns (insert guitar here). This is so far removed from what I consider gaming that I don’t recognize it. I recognize some of it in Internet culture. I recognize some of it in consumer culture. I don’t recognize it in gaming.

And as for needing nothing more than gaming, or having cultural references … every gamer I know cares about and talks about other media. Like comics. Like, heck, Joss Whedon, which is why his statement mattered. Like movies and TV. Everyone in gaming knows what Jennifer Hale did other than Mass Effect … which includes her cartoons. (I love her character in “Totally Spies”). Games love to insert pop culture references in their games and gamers swoon over them. As do video game based webcomics. What, then, culture is she talking about? I have a theory (it could be bunnies) but I’ll save it for the end.

It makes a strange sort of sense that video games of that time would become scapegoats for moral panic, for atrocities committed by young white teen boys in hypercapitalist America — not that the games themselves had anything to do with tragedies, but they had an anxiety in common, an amorphous cultural shape that was dark and loud on the outside, hollow on the inside.

Seriously? You went there? You went there in a manner that basically say “Well, it’s no wonder that people thought that violence in video games was causing violence because your culture reflected that sort of thing”, when the biggest complaint about those comments were that the people making the complaints didn’t know what the games really were, or were about, and instead yanked a couple of scenes from the worst of the games and then claimed that that was what games were about? You’re blaming gamer culture for the misinterpretations of gamer culture fostered by people who didn’t understand it and so were scared of it? Do you not see how this makes you look just like them, like someone who doesn’t understand gaming culture … and is therefore scared of it?

Which wouldn’t be a problem except that you’re claiming to be involved in or part of that culture. Something ain’t right here.

Yet in 2014, the industry has changed. We still think angry young men are the primary demographic for commercial video games — yet average software revenues from the commercial space have contracted massively year on year, with only a few sterling brands enjoying predictable success.

I’d like to see a citation for this, at least in part to make sure that you aren’t talking about profit as opposed to revenue. Because from my admittedly casual knowledge of games, the revenues and numbers of units sold, overall, are massively higher than they used to be. I know people who comment on games who are flabbergasted over how much revenue games make. The issue is that the budgets are much higher now, things cost so much more, so profit goes down. This leads to a lot of games spending lot of money, making lots of money, and ending up losing money at the end of the day. So this may not be a problem with the market, but with how games are made.

Also, let’s assume for a minute that she’s right here. Those sterling brands? Those big market games? They aim at that primary demographic and, arguably, are the games that best hit that market. What really successful brands or games are aimed outside of that market? What new brands that are wildly successful aim outside of that? Outside of The Sims and maybe Minecraft? It’s not a good argument for the death of a demographic to talk about how the only games that succeed commercially are the ones that aim at it.

That being said, I’m not really up on modern games. So if anyone has examples of games that succeed and don’t appeal to that market, I’m all ears. (The LEGO games, maybe?).

It’s clear that most of the people who drove those revenues in the past have grown up — either out of games, or into more fertile spaces, where small and diverse titles can flourish, where communities can quickly spring up around creativity, self-expression and mutual support, rather than consumerism. There are new audiences and new creators alike there. Traditional “gaming” is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug.

No, that’s not clear. It’s not clear at all. The age demographic for games has, in fact, increased … and a lot of those are playing those big brand games that are mentioned above. One of the big pushes to have games be considered as more than just for kids is indeed the fact that more and more adults are playing them. And despite the indie market and things like Steam allowing more outlets for smaller games, I haven’t seen any evidence that these smaller games are enjoying massive sales and revenues, indicating that the people who played the commercial games are no longer playing them.

As I read this post, it sounds more and more like a form of cultural snobbery, an argument that the games that Alexander likes are the games that everyone should like, sort of like people who look down on people who prefer rock and roll to classical music or diner food to French cuisine. The games that “traditional” gamers play aren’t creative; they’re based on nothing more than consumerism. And still make more money than those “fertile spaces’, I imagine. After all, you don’t claim that a genre springs up around consumerism unless you want to take arguments of “People are voting with their wallets” off the table, and you don’t gripe about a culture based around people being told what to buy unless they aren’t buying what you want them to buy.

Now, again, as me, I’ve heard about games like “Gone Home” and “Depression Quest” and while I think that they are interesting ideas and can even do some good … I doubt I’d ever play them. Because when I play games, I play them for fun. To be entertained. I can definitely take some mature themes, and some thoughtful story lines. But I want there to be more to that in a game. And sometimes I’d just rather play baseball or golf for something light. As games, those new and creative games probably aren’t going to hit the mainstream, any more than really serious movies and literature have taken over those genres. The broad appeal games are always going to exist. All games will not be Depression Quest, or Gone Home … and they shouldn’t be. So all that’s left is to figure out what those broad appeal games should be.

(And no, this wasn’t the theory I referred to above. It’s still coming).

This is hard for people who’ve drank the kool aid about how their identity depends on the aging cultural signposts of a rapidly-evolving, increasingly broad and complex medium. It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share.

No, it’s hard for people who built up a genre and are being told in a dismissive and condescending manner that what they want not only isn’t what most people want (they know that), not only that they have to drop what they want and cater to the desires of most people who didn’t find it cool before but now do (which is one of the reasons they invented their own genre/culture), not only that their genre is juvenile or infantile (they’ve heard that for years), not that it’s shallow and devoid of and really meaning (ditto), but that it’s actually bad for society, and that they have to give that up because these people, these bandwagon jumpers say so. They’re being told that their genre has to change because other people want in, and they can reasonably ask why in the world they should have to change to let other people in. If other people don’t like it, then they can do something else. After all, they don’t wander into, say, the genre of romance novels and demand change. They just don’t read them. So why does it all have to be about you? You have mainstream culture; leave ours alone.

We also have to scrutinize, closely, the baffling, stubborn silence of many content creators amid these scandals, or the fact lots of stubborn, myopic internet comments happen on business and industry sites. This is hard for old-school developers who are being made redundant, both culturally and literally, in their unwillingness to address new audiences or reference points outside of blockbuster movies and comic books as their traditional domain falls into the sea around them. Of course it’s hard. It’s probably intense, painful stuff for some young kids, some older men.

Yes, these content creators aren’t saying the things you want them to say, or making the games you want them to make, and this makes them bad. They should just see the rightness of your cause, and eventually they will. Oh, they will. Because you’re going to have a cultural revolution, and it will sweep them all away.

I expect that this would more effective and meaningful if the description of this wonderful new culture wasn’t made up of vague motherhood statements and vague statements of disdain for what has gone on before. Her post was not exactly short; she had more room to talk about the world she wanted to see, especially since she could have replaced some of the more egregious stereotypes of gaming culture with discussions of what this brave new world is going to be, so that we can judge it. One of my biggest gripes about all of these discussions is their focus on the negative, and that’s a gripe that I have in spades here.

But it’s unstoppable. A new generation of fans and creators is finally aiming to instate a healthy cultural vocabulary, a language of community that was missing in the days of “gamer pride” and special interest groups led by a product-guide approach to conversation with a single presumed demographic.

This means that over just the last few years, writing on games focuses on personal experiences and independent creators, not approval-hungry obeisance to the demands of powerful corporations. It’s not about ‘being a reviewer’ anymore. It’s not about telling people what to buy, it’s about providing spaces for people to discuss what (and whom) they support.

Two points:

1) Why can’t gaming be a competitive space? Sure, I want it to be an honourable competitive space, but games have been competitive and co-operative. And a co-operative space ain’t gonna be that friendly.

2) A review that in some sense doesn’t tell me what I want to buy is useless. I don’t want to hear who you support. I want to hear what the game is like. Just as I don’t want someone talking about Agents of Shield to talk about how they love to support Marvel and Joss Whedon, I don’t want to hear someone talking about a game to tell me how much they love Zoe Quinn. I don’t want to hear about your personal experience unless I think it’s relevant to the personal experience that I’ll have playing it. So this seems to me to be the death not of gamers, but of games. If you can’t attract casual gamers like me, you’re going to miss one of your better markets. And casual gamers don’t have the time to sift the details of the game from the personal experiences; they want to know what the game does in as simple and easy a manner as possible, so that they know where to put their money.

Look, games are primarily a product. That means that it is indeed about things that people buy. You can’t cut that out completely in favour of … something else.

Developers and writers alike want games about more things, and games by more people. We want — and we are getting, and will keep getting — tragicomedy, vignette, musicals, dream worlds, family tales, ethnographies, abstract art. We will get this, because we’re creating culture now. We are refusing to let anyone feel prohibited from participating.

Sure, you can get those things. But that’s not what the complaint is. The complaint is not that those things are out there, but that those things are being presented as being better than the things we have now. That these thing are going to replace what we have now. That the things we have now are shallow and not deserving of attention, and so that it’s a good thing that they will go away. At the end of the day, this entire post is about Alexander ranting about the games that she doesn’t want to see and insisting that the games that she wants to see reflect a real culture and how games should be, with heaping loads of condescension and stereotyping of gamers. No wonder it made people mad.

Now, the promised theory. In reading this, it struck me that a lot of comments seemed aimed precisely at mainstream, big market, blockbuster games. But gaming has always been about a lot more than those sort of games. And gaming recently has lamented the fact that, like the Hollywood blockbuster, all you get are the games that appeal to the masses, and to the preferred demographics. And while indie games and Steam and things like that have allowed small games to branch out, the mainstream has become more and more polarized. In short, games have become and are becoming a lot like movies.

The reason for this, I think, is that games never actually did have a culture. Games were generally like movies or board games or television: something that people did, not something that they were. Gamers, then, always had more than games, and understood that. As an identity, gaming was something that they enjoyed, not something hey were. So gaming culture, when there was any, was a mix of memes and references mixed from other genres, and cultural stereotypes imposed on it from the outside, reasonable or not. But as games advanced and gamers aged and yet still enjoyed playing games, there was a push to have games be seen as a more mature and serious form of entertainment, at least on the same level as movies. This means that you need to have games as art, and games that send a message. But if we look at movies, the mainstream is, in fact, never those types of games. The mainstream are the entertaining often dreck like, say, the latest “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie. The mainstream is the shallow, and no one would try to derive a “movie culture” from the mainstream.

So right now, games are going through growing pains. The main gaming sites, I think, want gaming to be taken as seriously as at least some gamers do. So when these games come out that hit that arty and serious spot, they get attention from the sites. Maybe more than they deserve. And gamers who don’t necessarily like that sort of game hear rave reviews about how great it is, play it … and then wonder what was so great about it. And complain. And get the equivalent of “philistine!” in response. And the people who want more of those sorts of games grumble that the mainstream doesn’t like them. And then they attach that to some kind of gaming culture, when there is no such thing, and they’re just gleaning it from the new mainstream purchaser of games, as opposed to the equivalent of “gaming buffs”. Essentially, it’s like judging “television culture” by reality shows as opposed to people who, well, take television seriously. And then that culture gets attached to “gaming buffs” as well, who might well support the more serious games, or who might have reasons to not like them or, well, whatever. Add in a heaping dose of superiority, and then we have a fight, and an argument over what gaming culture should be when there has never been a culture there in the first place, meaning that it starts to look like people who want gaming culture are, in fact, inventing a culture and trying to impose that on gamers, and of trying to make people hold views or like things not because they are good games, but because they give the right message … or to remove things because they give the wrong one. To get diversity in games, we don’t need a culture war. Games were already plenty diverse. We just need to make sure that we judge games by what they are and what they’re for, and allow all sorts of games to get their day in the sun. Articles like Alexander’s are never going to achieve that; you can’t advocate for a cultureless genre by insisting on a certain culture, and any imposition of culture will leave people out. And people like Alexander not only can’t guarantee that they’ll win, but the evidence from all other genres is that the more serious and arty forms and even the forms that allow more diversity don’t win; they become niches. So they don’t want to fight this as a war, and so if there is a war, the best way to approach it from their side is to insist that there isn’t and need not be one … not set out to win it.

And Alexander wants to win it. That’s not what we need right now.

What does atheism entail?

October 15, 2014

P.Z Myers has, for quite some time now, been talking about atheism and what it entails. Basically, he’s continually railed at “Dictionary atheists” who insist that atheism means nothing more than “Lacks belief in gods” and insisting that it does and should mean much, much more … and usually, that “much, much more” means liberal values. He insists that this follows from atheism, essentially arguing that once you stop getting your values from gods, you have to get them from yourself and other humans … and that this then leads to the values that he holds.

So it should be clear that for Myers — and, I’d suggest, most of the others on the side of this “revolution” in atheism — his atheism and his liberalism (for lack of a better word) are deeply intertwined. He doesn’t seem capable of seeing one without the other. And so, to him, it seems like his atheism entails his liberalism, and essentially that his atheism caused his liberalism; he takes those stances because he can’t help to as an atheist. The problem is that for him and Benson and most of those people, it’s almost certainly the other way around. Instead of them becoming atheists and then waking up to issues of race and gender and sexuality and all of those other liberal goodies, they most likely became atheists because they started waking up to liberal issues and noticed that religion didn’t fit that. Or for a completely different reason altogether, such as they never were theists or were sick of the clashes between religion and science or, well, whatever. And since these processes might have all been happening at the same time, it’s easy to see why they might think that their atheism caused their liberalism, even though it likely didn’t.

Because that’s what Myers is going on about again in this post, claiming that atheism does or should entail liberal values, and decrying those who think that there is no essential relation there. He first addresses a tweet that he thinks is incredibly stupid:

Im just dont agree with the whole trying to make atheism into some kind of belief system.

Myers replies:

I guess we atheists are just so especially special, that none of our ideas are beliefs, but just simply embodied reality. I have gotten so many emails from atheists insisting that we can’t acknowledge a speck of opinion or mere belief or even emotion, or it means that atheism is exactly the same as a religion. We must insist on complete denial that what atheism is is an interpretation of the nature of the universe.

When you’ve built your entire movement around not holding mere “beliefs”, but instead basing your views on reality, yeah, you probably should expect people to react badly when you start defending having a “belief system”. And it’s probably not a good idea to then turn around and say, essentially, “Pfft. Facts.” Or imply that atheists might, in fact, hold things that are just beliefs but are not based on reality, or that some of the things that you think are true are just opinions, or are based on an emotional reaction. Especially in the middle of a discussion where the biggest problem people have with you is that you are trying to drive an agenda based on belief and emotion rather than on facts. Seriously, in what world is it reasonable for a rationalist of Myers’ stripe to say in response to “I don’t want us to turn into a belief system that is self-supporting rather than fact-based” that, hey, sometimes you just gotta be one of those?

Sure, atheism is an interpretation of the nature of the universe. It’s an interpretation that says that there ain’t gods in it. What does that have to do with anything else?

I think it’s a really good interpretation, and it has the advantage that it’s built on a framework of evidence, and it’s a far better and more thorough explanation than anything religion has ever had to offer, but let’s not pretend that it can be somehow absolute. Jeez, next thing you know, someone will reject the entirety of philosophy, or tell us that science isn’t a philosophy.

Okay, first, a lot of atheists have been doing the former. Second, science itself almost certainly isn’t a philosophy; you can have a scientific philosophy, or science can be naturalistic, but science itself is a method for discovering things about the world, not a worldview itself. And finally, what sort of explanation is atheism beyond, again, there ain’t gods there? Atheism is not inherently naturalistic, and so while you can come from naturalism to atheism that isn’t necessary. Thus, it is possible to be an atheist and believe that ghosts exist. Naturalists who come to atheism through naturalism would have a contradiction there, but atheists that don’t come through naturalism wouldn’t. Myers yet again is tracing his own personal path and personal beliefs and the worldview that he holds that contains atheism and insisting that atheism entails that worldview. And that’s just plain false … and is precisely what the people Myers is mad at are complaining about, the conflation of a specific worldview with atheism coupled with the insistence that that is what atheism really is.

And, again, how can he think it a good argument to say that his view isn’t somehow absolute, in a way that implies that it might not be factually true … when disagreeing with people who don’t want to adopt it because they don’t think it necessarily true?

He then moves on to an article by Michael Luciano. He quotes Luciano saying this:

There’s a weird trend that’s been slinking its way through the social justice community, whereby so-called New Atheists are being denounced for supposedly failing to embrace liberal causes such as diversity and equality.

Myers replies:

That’s a lovely sentence. What “weird” trend? Why, the weird ideas of diversity and equality. How freakish! Such absurd, alien ideas would have to “slink” to sneak their way into the company of true rationalists, like atheists. Mr Luciano seems to think this is causing some phony problems.

Or, perhaps, that “supposedly” was a really, really important word, and his main thrust was that these people were being accused of failing to embrace those causes either because they a) didn’t immediately agree with everything the social justice community suggested had to happen or b) didn’t think that going out and doing every single social justice thing suggested was something that atheism qua atheism was supposed to do. The evidence, for example, that Harris doesn’t embrace these issues wrt women? That his language use isn’t inclusive and he thinks that an aggressive and combative environment might appeal more to men than to women. That’s pretty much it. And for whatever Dawkins has said, for the most part the most you can say about him is that he gets some things wrong … and you have to ignore the things he has done, like funding childcare at atheist conferences to help ensure that more women could attend. Whatever else D.J. Groethe might have done, he also was in charge of a push to include more women speakers at TAM. It’s funny that none of that should be considered when they happen to disagree over harassment policies or whether there can be degrees of rape or why there are fewer female active atheists than men.

Luciano again:

Apparently, atheism has a “race problem,” or maybe it should be called a “white male problem.” Whichever the case, it appears atheism also has a “shocking woman problem.”

Myers replies:

All of these problems must not be real, since they’re only apparent and all get the scare quote treatment.Apparently, we must diminish these so-called problems so that we won’t have to deal with them. This is an astonishing degree of denial, especially since the next thing he does is quote Sikivu Hutchinson, a black woman, talking about the things that white atheists fail to address. Luciano verifies her point by continuing to ignore them, and further asserting that these aren’t real problems that atheists must deal with.

So, let’s assume that Luciano doesn’t think that these are necessarily problems, or at least are necessarily problems that atheism itself has to or take the lead in fixing. Myers response is … to rant about how dare Luciano quote someone saying that these things are problems and then act as if those problems aren’t really problems, or at least problems for atheism … despite the point of the article being to argue that they, well, aren’t problems. What in the world has Luciano done there, at that point in the article, that that’s bad except disagree with this:

“It is a privilege of the white atheist movement to disavow issues of economic inequality,” Hutchinson said. “We should be looking at these issues of social justice and secularism in an intersectional way.

“By addressing issues that are culturally and politically relevant to communities of color, we are addressing a range of things that are not typically addressed within the mainstream atheist movement.”

Remember that, as Myers quotes Luciano again:

Did I sleep through some radical redefining of the word ‘atheist’? It’s always been my understanding that an ‘atheist’ is someone who simply lacks belief in deities. That’s it. Somehow, though, it’s suddenly incumbent on atheists to take up certain social and political causes, and that’s just silly.

Essentially, the reply is that atheism doesn’t entail, say, having a certain position on economic equality. Or having to be intersectional. Or looking at issues that are relevant to communities of colour, just because they are relevant to that community. Atheism is about not believing in gods, and an atheist movement should be about the issues that are specific to the group that doesn’t believe in gods. Sure, it may have to care about economic inequality to do so — because some of their members might not have the money to participate and they might want to do something about that — and there may even be some intersections between the various groups that impact how to go about promoting the interests of atheists, but that doesn’t seem to be what Hutchinson is after. She and the others seem to want atheists, as atheists, and as part of the movement to advocate for social justice issues, even if that doesn’t directly impact most atheists, or atheists as atheists. And the immediate reply to that is the one that they’ve been getting: if you want to do that, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be something that is officially part of the atheist movement … especially actually adopting the ideas as some kind of official doctrine.

Myers’ reply to the above quote:

No, you didn’t! You just conveniently ignore some of the words. Here’s a definition for you: “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”. There is an important word in there: “person”. Atheists are people. These dictionary atheists are always quick to forget that. People have responsibilities to each other, and further, the rejection of religion and the understanding that the universe, and we human beings, lack any kind of grand purpose, shapes the pattern of those responsibilities. You simply cannot pretend that atheism is meaningless outside one philosophical abstraction.

Um, they don’t forget that atheists are people. They know that. They understand that atheists are people, and as such have responsibilities to each other … and also, as Myers seems to forget, that they have their own values and opinions and beliefs. Again, atheism does not entail any specific set of beliefs, beyond lacking one in gods. Sure, being an atheist cuts off certain options, but there’s still a lot of room to maneuver there. For example, atheism doesn’t entail any particular morality. An atheist can be an Egoist, a Utilitarian, a Virtue Theorist, or even a deontologist. The only thing they can’t be is a Divine Command Theorist. So, no, atheism is not meaningless … but it’s not determinate either. Atheism is part of a worldview, but there ain’t enough there to make it a worldview in and of itself.

But it’s the next sentence that really drives it home:

Well, I suppose you can…but then how can you find any reason to even be an atheist?

What reason do they need beyond, at a minimum “I don’t find the evidence for the existence of gods compelling”. Even to identify oneself as an atheist the only reason they need is “I am one, and I’d like you guys to a) know we exist and b) stop trying to impose religion on me, please”. What other reasons should they need? No, I think it reasonable to translate Myers’ statement here to this: If being an atheist doesn’t make us superior to theists, morally, socially and intellectually … why be one? In short, unless being an atheist makes Myers feel superior to others, like a better person than others, then he’s not really interested in being one. This interpretation does seem a bit harsh … but it’s the most reasonable one given a claim that one has no reason to be an atheist unless being one entail not only a worldview, but a worldview that Myers does think is overwhelmingly superior to the alternatives.

The others are pointing out that being an atheist doesn’t make one inherently better than anyone else … and that hinting that it does is the first step to being the sort of belief system that you’re fighting when you fight theism.

Myers continues:

There’s also a really low bar set here. Valuing diversity — the idea that atheism should be equally welcoming to all races and sexes — and valuing equality — that everyone in that community should have the same status — are such basic ideas that it’s shocking that anyone could regard their promotion as a sign of a corrupting conspiracy by Social Justice Warriors. Who the **** would argue with those ideas? Virtually no one. Definitely no one that we would want to accommodate in the atheist movement.

Including most of the people you’re arguing with. They don’t want to build a movement that excludes people, they just don’t agree on what has to be done to do that. In some cases, they’re wrong. Heck, even if they’re wrong in almost all cases, that’s what the debate is about, to that extent. The other thing they’d like is to not be rejected as an atheist because they don’t accept the same notions of social justice as you do.

Demanding that part of the responsibility of being an atheist should also mean being a decent human being who wants to build functional, useful communities doesn’t sound like a particularly onerous expectation to me.

Build a functional, useful atheist community? Sure. Build society that way, and to the standard that you set? Nope. And you can ask how functional and useful you’ve made the community with these rifts that you arguably started but that you certainly want to maintain, by refusing to accommodate those who don’t agree with you?

That’s also a pragmatic reason to support diversity and equality, even for the Libertarians among us. The issues that many white males care about — such as separation of church and state and science education — becomes an easy no brainer if we’ve got 100 million atheists in the US. But the only way to get to those large numbers is to also recognize that there are other issues that people would like us to work towards. Ignore that and be forever marginalized and frustrated.

So, considering that religious people tend towards conservativism … how good do you think you’ll be at converting people to the movement if you make it synonymous with liberalism? Conservative atheists, I’m sure, would love for you to take on, say, high taxes, or advocate for the war on Isis, or all sorts of things. Are you going to accept that argument from them as a reason to adopt those values? Of course not, because you think them wrong. So why should they accept that argument from you if they don’t think you’re right?

If you want those 100 million atheists, the best way to get that is to advocate for atheists, on the issues that impact all or most atheists. All atheists, no matter whether they are liberal, conservative, or libertarian, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, whether they support same-sex marriage or not, whether they support Occupy or not … no matter what worldview they personally adopt. This doesn’t mean that you can’t criticize their other positions, but that you can’t criticize them as not being good or proper or right or respectable atheists because of it.

Also, as an aside, isn’t it a bit odd for Myers to describe separation of church and state and science education as “issues that many white males care about”? Aren’t these just issues that atheists in general care about? Sure, non-whites may care more about racism, and women may care more about feminism, but isn’t that something to be settled by them prioritizing instead of them trying to push those issues in the group that really should care more about those concerns? If atheists won’t push for those things that directly impact them as atheists, who will?

The real problem isn’t sneaky liberals in the atheist movement. It’s lazy thinkers who see atheism purely as an entitlement for their social group rather than a responsibility to the whole of humanity.

Or, rather, people who see atheism as a position on one topic as opposed to a position on all topics that have ever been relevant to humanity.

The final “criticism” is vintage Myers. Luciano has an image of ten people that he thinks were criticized in this manner, with the caption “They’re right. You’re wrong”. Myers’ reply:

Really? They’re just “right”? On everything? Yeesh. That’s an appallingly stupid image.

Can we also purge the hero-worshipping authoritarianism from this movement?

Um, no, given the context, Luciano seems to think that they’re right in this case and you’re wrong. Perhaps, like the tweet referenced higher up, this is something that Myers will eventually delete.

Or maybe you just don’t like HIM …

October 13, 2014

Let’s play a game of “You Just Might be a Don Quixote”, starring Ophelia Benson. Remember that for our purposes here a “Don Quixote” is out gamely tilting at wind wills in support of a cause, seeing giants where none exist. Well, Benson has decided to comment on Sam Harris … again. What did he do wrong this time:

I went to his blog to look for his post on liberals and Islam, and in the process of looking (which I haven’t completed yet because I paused to say this) I read the first sentence of the first post.

From time to time one discovers a person so good at his job that it is almost impossible to imagine him doing anything else.

It’s just odd, and stubbornly clueless, that even now, even after a big disagreement with a lot of feminists about the way he talks about women, he does that. I think most intellectual types have learned not to do that by now, and it sticks out that Harris hasn’t. The End of Faith was like that on every damn page, and after awhile I couldn’t stand it any more.

So what is he stubbornly clueless about? Oh, right, he used “his” in the statement in reference to “person”. Which must mean that he thinks of men as the default and women as the other, and so, hey, this is proof of his sexism! Right?

Or, perhaps, that she’s seeing giants where there are none. The issue here is that Harris, in context, ends up referring to a man. And it’s perfectly reasonable in the context of a discussion where you are going to end up referring to a man to, well, refer to it in the general statement. In fact, despite what Benson says here:

(There’s a bit of extra humor in the fact that he did manage to say “a person” instead of “a man”…but just couldn’t manage the follow-through.)

… it actually would have worked better for him to say “a man” in the above and make it abundantly clear that he was talking about that specific person, and not making a really general statement. In order to claim that he’s acting in a sexist way — even unconsciously — you’d have to argue that this reflects his thinking of “male” as the default … and particularly as “male” as the default or the common or the normal with respect to that really desirable behaviour. But since in this case he’s referring to a man specifically, even unconsciously the most reasonable conclusion is that he simply thought of it in the context of that person, not as a general statement. And presume that he would do this if the situation was reversed.

Now, the counter to that is what Benson said: that he did this in “The End of Faith” a lot and so it’s consistent with how he writes. I skimmed through the first few pages and he does talk a fair bit about “man’s inhumanity to man” and things like that, and uses the male pronoun for a lot of cases. Of course, that’s in a section where he’s talking about people like suicide bombers and the like, and especially where he’s talking about negative traits. I do recall that he often tends to vary his examples more often, sometimes choosing male examples and sometimes choosing female ones, and often uses female ones for positive assessments even if the context is such that they aren’t what you’d commonly see there, or rather that they aren’t traditionally female roles. Sure, being hesitant to assign women a negative trait is probably still sexist under the broad definition of the term, but it’s not something that I’d think feminists would get that upset over.

And Harris may simply be unable to think, in writing, in the supposed “gender neutral” terms. It may sound odd to him to use “they”; even though I use it, it does still sound odd to me. He may simply be used to doing things that way, and so the best response would be to simply say “Can you at least alternate the default once in a while?”. Not an insistence that he’s being stubbornly clueless. BTW, note that using the term “stubbornly” there requires conscious interaction there: you can’t be stubbornly resisting something that you simply aren’t aware is a problem or an issue.

Before going back and skimming “The End of Faith”, I thought that this was a prime example of Don Quixotism: seeing a giant in something and going out bravely to fight it despite reality not being that way. Now, I still think it’s an example where the problem doesn’t justify the complaint, although I will concede that this is one case where Harris might want to teach himself to clean up his language use a bit, even for no other reason than to get people to stop complaining about it. This case, in isolation, is absolutely not a problem; if this is indeed standard and Harris has not learned to at least in general do it differently, then it’s something that he might want to work on.

What it says about him in general, as a person, as a feminist? Not one thing.

It was good …

October 12, 2014

So, in Jasper’s post, there was also this, which I didn’t comment on there:

As for the non-hedonists – then I’d disagree with them. People can suffer, and few people want to suffer. The goal of the average person is to minimize their suffering, and maximize their enjoyment of life. A visit to the nearest hospital (assuming you can wander the rooms) will make this readily apparent.
That’s what we want, so we consider it preferable and good.

One thing I’ve noted in many of the debates over morality is that there’s a bit of conflation going on over the term “good”. Sure, we consider suffering to be “bad” and enjoyment to be “good”, but the conflation is to then use the word “good” to mean “morally good” and then argue that, of course, since everyone agrees that this is good/desirable then that’s what morality should be based on. It’s just obvious, isn’t it? And it’s not just Jasper who does that; Russell Blackford’s car analogy relies heavily on the conflation of “good” with “morally good”.

The big issue is that “good” isn’t really a universal term. Instead, it’s defined relative to a domain. And you can’t directly translate one kind of good to another domain. For example, if I say that Spike was a good villain in Season 2 of Buffy, I clearly don’t mean that Spike was a moral villain in Season 2. In fact, it’s clear that he wasn’t morally good, and that if he had been morally good he wouldn’t have been a good villain. So you clearly can’t use the sort of things that make for a good villain to make a morally good person. The same thing holds for food; when we consider what makes food taste good, that’s also clearly not the sort of thing that makes for moral goodness. No one would ever try to argue that adding a pinch of cinnamon can make our actions morally good. And yet, that’s exactly what people like Jasper do when they insist that our practical desires can define what it means to be moral.

The big issue I have with this is that it leads to a very shallow definition of morality. In their minds, morality is supposed to reflect our desires and let us achieve them. But morality is supposed to shape our desires, not merely reflect them. Ultimately, we’re supposed to shape our desires to reflect the true and moral good, and subordinate our practical desires to that true moral good. Without that, morality is nothing more than practical desires, and moral reasoning becomes practical reasoning, and as we’ve already seen ends up with morality being pointless and useless.

In short, morality is not supposed to give me what I want. I’m supposed to want the moral good. And this conflation buries that.

Moral Frameworks

October 11, 2014

I replied to a post from Jasper on “What Would JT Do” with a long comment about morality. This is kinda cheating, but I figured I’d reproduce it here as a post because it highlights a number of very general issues. The original post is here.

Note that I’m going to focus more on your moral framework here than on the theistic moral framework and their arguments for that, since I think it more important at this point … and it lets me talk more about what I actually think, which is a very good thing [grin]. I’ll also go out of order and likely quote less than the last time.

Well, to start, I strongly recommend you read “The Emotional Construction of Morals” by Jesse Prinz if you haven’t already. He’s a relativist like you, but he does an excellent job of outlining the opposing viewpoints and how they matter to his view, and I think he has a more credible structure for his relativism than you do.

Because despite what you say, you are, indeed, a full-fledged relativist. The objection you raise against relativism is this:

This is why I don’t buy into “Moral Relativism”… that it’s “correct” that each society’s version of morality is necessarily “good”, relative to that society.

Which means that you oppose one specific type of relativism: cultural relativism. But relativism is not just cultural relativism. When philosophers talk about relativism at a basic level, they tend to use “individual relativism”, that what is moral for an individual is defined relative to what an individual believes is moral. The reason is that using that it is much easier to see the problems that relativism, in general, has. Cultural relativism is popular in serious debates because it has much less problems than the alternatives and is also the one that has the most empirical support. In general, relativistic views are popular because we can all see that individuals and societies disagree strongly about what is moral and we’ve had a massively hard time finding a more objective morality to replace it. So then it seems reasonable to suggest that maybe, just maybe, there isn’t an objective morality at all.

Relativism, in general, just says that morality and moral judgements are meaningless outside of a particular defined group (that’s different from the group of moral agents). That grouping can be as small as an individual and as wide as a species. Your argument seems to suggest that for you, that grouping is a shared evolutionary history. There are two main problems with this move (although I concede that you didn’t go into massive detail on it, so I might be oversimplifying it):

1) The evidence for cultural relativism works against your view, as humans roughly share the same evolutionary history, even in terms of morality, and yet have radically different ideas of what is or isn’t moral, sometimes as wide as whether the individual should sacrifice their interests for that of the community or not. The evidence for individual relativism also works against you, since even there we know that individuals with the same evolutionary history also have radically different moral intuitions at times. So it’s hard to justify your grouping as being an actual grouping at all.

2) In order to make it what you’re calling objective — note that when I talk about an objective morality here, you should probably just insert “non-relativistic”, so when you say yours is objective that doesn’t count as an objective morality to me — you’re appealing to evolved properties, so that you avoid the issue that individual and cultural relativists have of the moral frameworks being essentially arbitrary. The problem is that you are still selecting what evolved properties count as moral and which don’t, without a good argument (I think a good argument is not possible). For example, you select empathy, and while most people at least currently think that empathy is related to morality, we can still ask why you don’t also consider in-group/out-group thinking or self-interest as equally important to morality. Well, perhaps you do, but even as presented here you are highlighting the “nicer” ones, but there’s little reason to think that the nicer ones are necessarily the ones that are more relevant morally. Without an argument for how to select which evolved properties that impact our behaviour are the moral ones before you go look to see what evolved properties we have, your view is just as arbitrary as the individual relativist, the cultural relativist … and the theist. And, in fact, the theist is arguably LESS arbitrary than you are, because they at least DO have that argument.

Ultimately, though, and most relevantly here and for understanding my view, you still have the problem that all forms of relativism is: if moral judgements are meaningless outside of the grouping you talk about, how do you apply them in any meaningful way to those outside of the grouping? In your case, the problem is in applying your judgements about morality outside of those who accept your moral framework, which could mean people who do not have quite the same evolved views of morality as you do — for example, it is known that autistics tend to take a more Kantian view of morality, and you clearly don’t accept that — or, more importantly, people who for whatever reason explicitly and, they think, rationally REJECT your moral framework?

Under a relativistic view and I think a consequence of your view when you say “I think you’re immoral” or “I think you’re a horrible person morally” or “I find your view abhorrent”, what you are saying is pretty much the same thing as “How can you eat that?” or “How can you listen to rock music?”. There’s no fact of the matter there for you, so it does come down to a matter of strong opinions. And so when you say “It is morally wrong to watch a baby drown when you can save it”, if someone did indeed reject your moral framework their response is the same as yours to those who don’t accept your moral framework: a declaration that they do not care. Your judgement of their morality is utterly meaningless to them, because it cannot overturn their OWN judgement of their OWN morality based on their OWN moral framework.

And this works right up to the point where you try to treat your moral judgements AS matters of fact that others have to consider. The Problem of Evil, for example, depends on it being a matter of fact that an action or inaction on God’s part is immoral. The argument is this:

1) If God exists, then He must always act morally.

2) X is an action of God.

3) X is immoral.

Therefore, God doesn’t exist (or isn’t moral).

Now, under your view, you have to treat 3) as having the rider “in my moral framework”. And note then that whether or not 3) is true depends on the moral framework of the person reading the argument. So to theists who think that the morality of a action depends on what God says is moral, this is clearly false. And so the argument fails. And it fails for ANY moral framework that doesn’t agree with you about the morality of X. And it fails for any moral framework that isn’t SURE about it. At that point, it’s not an argument anymore … except to people who share your moral framework. Who are not the people you are generally arguing with here, as you yourself do seem to accept.

But worse, in my view, is this:

It’s not a question of demonstrating it to them. If they don’t follow my moral framework, and if they disagree, I’m going to think they’re immoral too. I can try to explain it… and they can either buy it or not.

If they don’t think morality is about harm and benefit, and are doing things to harm people, and reduce their benefit, I will do everything within my power to stop them.

To which my only reply can be “Well, let me go get my baseball bat, and then we can hash it out” [grin]. Because without a way of demonstrating that it is just a fact that your moral framework maps to the proper moral facts and that it is just a fact that I am immoral, all you have to enforce your moral judgements is force: physical force, social force, economic force … whatever. You don’t have a rational demonstration by your own admission, which means that no one else can be rationally compelled to accept it. At which point, it looks to someone like me like you want to impose your own arbitrary morality on everyone just like you say the theists want to impose theirs.

When I talk about an objective morality, again all I mean is that there is a fact of the matter about moral questions. There is a fact of the matter about whether in any particular situation it is moral to allow that baby to drown when you could do something to save it, and that doesn’t depend on what moral framework either the individual or the observer is using. Which implies that there is indeed a moral framework that produces appropriate moral facts. And the evidence for that is that everyone seems to want to be able to say that someone else who is using a different framework than themselves did indeed do something morally wrong that they need to correct or atone for even if — and often ESPECIALLY if — their own moral framework doesn’t consider that wrong. If you do that, then you have to consider that there are moral facts outside of moral frameworks, and that moral frameworks can identify those facts incorrectly. And the fact is that most people do indeed try to do that, giving prime evidence that to most people morality is objective, and that there are moral facts of the matter.

Apology of Intent …

October 9, 2014

So, a while back, Greta Christina wrote a post about intention and magic. She referenced it again in talking about Sam Harris recently, and since Iwrote a post a while back talking about intention as well, I thought it might be good to talk about it.

She starts with these two quotes:

“I didn’t intend you hurt you. I am so sorry. Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, but I can see that I failed to do it, and in fact I did something that hurt you. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless. I am really sorry. Please let me know if I can do anything to undo the damage or to make things better. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

“I didn’t intend to hurt you. So why are you being so mean to me about it? Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless — so it’s not fair or right for you to tell me how I hurt you and why you’re angry about it. Let me tell you, at length, how your criticism is hurting my feelings, and how you should have expressed it differently.”

These are, of course, as she points out completely different statements What she wants us to pay attention to in the second one is this:

Notice the lack of apology in the second statement. Note the lack of any concern being expressed for the damage that was done. Note how the hurt feelings of the one who did the injury are being made a higher priority than the injury itself. Note the lack of any expressed intention to change the behavior.

Yes, that’s true. The first one is someone who has done something clearly wrong and that they should have known not to do, that hurt someone else. The hurt done was completely and totally their fault, and they’re taking full responsibility for what happened. The second one is someone who has done something perfectly reasonable and understandable, and the other person for some reason ended up hurt by it, mostly because of things about them specifically. In short, the person was not responsible for the hurt, or at least wasn’t responsible for the hurt in a way that should encourage them to act differently, and they are upset that the other person is insisting that it is, in fact, completely their fault.

The important thing to note here is that these are not, generally, statements that you ought to apply to the same situation. The first is what you say when you have clearly done something wrong; the second is what you say when you have done nothing wrong and someone is bound and determined to be mad at you anyway.

The other important thing to note here is that in most real-life situations when we have to deal with someone saying or doing something that inadvertently hurts someone’s feelings, things are not normally this clear cut.

Let’s look at the example she gives of someone stepping on someone’s foot. Now, as I’ve commented before, in general if I accidentally step on someone’s foot, I’ll say “Sorry”, but it’s not because — or at least not always because — I think I’ve done anything wrong and have to/am apologizing, but mostly as an expressing that I’m sorry that the person was hurt. There are a number of cases where I stepped on their foot but they were in the wrong; they stood too close or moved the wrong way or stuck it out to get the ball and I couldn’t react in time or … well, whatever. So if in those cases they turned around and demanded that I fully apologize for hurting their foot, well, rather obviously I’m not going to take that well, and am going to react pretty much in line with the second statement, with an angry and possibly hurt “Why are you demanding that I take responsibility for the pain that you more caused than I did?”

This goes double when the reason the other person is hurt is because of something they are assuming about what you meant to say or do — or, to relate it back to the topic of the post, what your intent was. If they are hurt or taking offense because they assumed that your intent was to hurt them, then the right response is to simply say “That wasn’t my intent or what I meant”. A simple statement of fact, not a statement of apology or a statement taking full responsibility for that hurt. If at that point the person still rants at me that I hurt them and was wrong to do so and need to apologize, my answer would definitely be “Why should I apologize for something I didn’t do?” and things will not go well.

Now, things are usually more complicated than that, as people will not phrase things in a way to ideally express their intent and others won’t always be so incredibly hurt by a misunderstanding. But I think the whole post misses two important points:

1) She focuses on the hurt feelings of the person listening, and judges it all from that perspective. But the issue is that just because someone’s feelings are hurt doesn’t mean that that person is right to have hurt feelings. This should be obvious to her because it’s one of the main arguments used against the “Don’t be a dick” form of accommodationism: that my criticism of religion hurts the feelings of those who are religious doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t criticize religion or criticize it in that way. The same can apply when you talk about social justice issues. So you have to be prepared for people to argue that you are indeed being too sensitive or reading into the statements and that they did nothing wrong. Sometimes, they’ll be wrong. But sometimes, they’ll be right.

2) Someone can indeed have legitimate hurt feelings from these sorts of interactions. If you interpret someone that you know in a way that assumes that they are sexist or racist or have some kind of immoral agenda, or in fact have some kind of agenda that they themselves oppose, it will indeed hurt their feelings that you think of them that way. They may well ask — legitimately — why after all the support they’ve given and all of the effort that they’ve put into being a better person with regards to race, gender, religion, etc, etc that you still think of them as, effectively, just the same as those who not only didn’t stand with you on these issues but instead completely opposed you. Even if they are wrong or there’s an actual disagreement, why are your feelings so hurt? Why does their being wrong on this one issue mean so much, and is seen as such a betrayal? In a sense, just as you may argue that their statement shows what they really think of you, your reaction shows what you really think of them … and for those who are trying and are indeed better, that’s just as much if not more of a slap in the face.

Especially when it comes to social justice stuff. I think that if someone is getting defensive about their slut-shaming language, or is getting pissy about the word “cisgender,” the chances are very good that they have had (or at least have seen) this conversation before — and are choosing to ignore it. And that means that the hurt is intentional. That means they know that what they’re doing is hurtful, and are choosing to do it anyway.

I agree with her here. I think a lot of the time those who get that defensive over these situations have heard it before: have had someone jump down their throat for making a statement that some people interpret incorrectly and then insist really meant that no matter what the person says, or jump down their throat for not using the preferred terminology of the person doing the jumping despite the fact that they disagree that it should be used, and then have them retreat to “My feelings were hurt!” as a reason to insist that the person is wrong, the offended person is right, and no argument shall be brooked. For someone who spends so much effort being concerned about hurt feelings, the lack of empathy for people who feel — rightly or wrongly — that people are indeed looking to find offense in what they say is puzzling.

Working for a Living

October 7, 2014

So, I’ve been hearing a bit about ensuring that the minimum wage is, in fact, a “living wage”. This idea of a “living wage” seems to have become another “argument from buzzwords” that have become so common in discourse. I mean, seriously, how can anyone be opposed to companies being made to pay a “living wage”? Shouldn’t they be paying people enough to live on? Why wouldn’t a company want to do that, other than their being money-obsessed utter jerks? So, of course the minimum wage should be a “living wage”; it’s just obvious. Isn’t it?

Well, things are, of course, much more complicated than that. The first question we have to ask — that I haven’t really seen asked — is why a minimum wage was instituted in the first place. Once we know why we have a minimum wage, then we can ask if that minimum wage should be the equivalent of a living wage. Note that arguments that show that the minimum wage has not increased at the same rate as inflation — a common argument used to demonstrate that the minimum wage needs to be increased — don’t actually have to ask this question. This is because it’s perfectly reasonable to say that for whatever reason we decided to set the minimum wage at a certain dollar value, we wanted to have it have that much dollar value in order to satisfy that reason, and inflation decreases the effective dollar value of that minimum wage. It is literally the case that a wage of $8 an hour in 1970 is not the same as a wage of $8 an hour today in terms of real effective dollar value. So if we thought that an effective wage of $8 an hour (say) was what we needed in 1970, we need it to be higher now because of inflation. So if those pushing for an increase in the minimum wage just wanted to adjust it as per inflation, they actually do have a pretty solid argument for that without asking what a minimum wage is for. If they want to go further, then that’s another story.

But let’s assume here, for the sake of argument, that we agree that the purpose of minimum wage is to ensure that all jobs pay at least a living wage. Hey, great, everything’s solved, right? After all, that would pretty much be true by definition, and so we can all agree to raise the minimum wage to what we consider a “living wage” and we’re all done here, and anyone who doesn’t would have to be arguing against even having a minimum wage, so that’s all settled: if you don’t support eliminating the minimum wage, you have to agree with increasing it to the wage we’re calling for, QED.

Well, except that we have two other questions about a “living wage”: Living for whom, and to what standard of living? The first is to ask just who — or, rather, how many — should be able to live off of a minimum wage job, because we have a wide range of households to consider. Everyone, I think, would agree that a single person should be able to live working a minimum wage job, and I also think everyone would agree that the household in “Just the Ten of Us” wouldn’t be able to, and would need at least another job, and probably two ones that pay more (or some additional assistance). That’s a pretty wide range. So, do we think that a family of four should be able to live off of a living wage, if that’s their sole income? A couple without children? A family of five or more?

The second is to ask what standard of living they should be able to have on that “living wage”. Pretty much everyone would agree that a living wage ought to include food, shelter and clothing at a minimum. And pretty much everyone would agree that it shouldn’t include a yacht, or a new car every year. But that still leaves a pretty big range. While many would agree that it should include at least some luxuries, how many luxuries should it provide? Is the Internet a luxury or a necessity in today’s world? Is a car? I think it obvious that we should expect people on the low end of the income scale to have to sacrifice some things to make their budget — there’s no reason they should be able to get anything they want, or even things that others have — but by the same token we don’t want to have to say what is and isn’t too much of a sacrifice for them. For me, I would find it much easier to drop cable and, well, almost anything else before the Internet, while for others the opposite is true. So what’s a reasonable standard of living?

These questions, though generally unconsidered, form the heart of many of the debates, and especially the debates over how nasty and greedy companies like Walmart and McDonald’s are for not paying high enough salaries. I think that most people and most companies don’t really think that you should be able to support a family of four on minimum wage or what they generally pay most of their employees. They expect their jobs to be reserved for secondary incomes, students, single people starting out, people taking early retirement who want a little more money, and so on and so forth. And their jobs are good for that because they are generally unskilled jobs — they don’t require a lot of education or experience to do well — and also tend to be reasonably flexible when it comes to hours since they are open seven days a week and include mornings, afternoons and evenings. Try getting that amount of flexibility in most manufacturing jobs. And I think that most of these companies would be perfectly happy to attract people who just want to make a little extra money, and aren’t trying to raise a family on it and aren’t trying to turn it into a career (even if some of them may work there for their entire lives); they don’t want someone who is using it to raise a family of four.

And so when the primary earner loses their job, and now that secondary income is now the only income, to them it looks like a rather tragic temporary circumstance: the family simply doesn’t have enough income to support themselves. And so as a reaction to these tough economic times, the company turns to the social programs of the society and says “Here, let us help you use them to get you through these tough times” … and then be totally shocked when they’re accused of being totally insensitive and looking at things from a privileged view and relying on taxes to support their businesses by underpaying their employees. Because it’s not like they asked anyone to try to support a family of four on what they were paying, and if someone was a sole breadwinner for a family of four and decided to get a different job that would allow them to support their family I don’t think these companies would begrudge them that at all.

Now, you might be reacting with outrage towards my characterization of the companies, most likely miffed that I made them seem, well, not greedy. Well, there is indeed some greed motivation here as well, or perhaps not so much “greed” as “cost efficiency”. Companies want to pay the lowest salaries they can to get the people they need who can do the job they need to get done. So companies that require rarer skills or more education pay higher salaries because without doing so no one else would do it. Also jobs that are more of a strain physically — or are at least perceived as such — or are considered more unpleasant in some way also tend to pay more because if you can make the same without having to deal with literal crap at times most people will choose not to deal with the crap. But if companies can hire the people with the skills they need at a certain low wage — say, minimum — they’ll pay them that. If they can’t, then they’ll naturally increase their wages as long as they can still make a profit doing so.

So one of the issues with “McJobs” is that there are a lot of people who are willing to at least try to do them for that wage. And that demand might be increasing.

The reasons, it seems to me, are multiple. First, the economy is not doing well, and so a lot of the better jobs are full or are losing people. And people don’t want to leave them if they have them. Second, more and more jobs are moving towards actually requiring some skill to do; you probably need to have more education now to be a secretary administrative assistant than you did in the 70s. And as we move towards a more information-driven society, all of the new jobs will require more skill and education than the new jobs in the past did. Third, more people are getting an education, meaning that jobs where you might or might not have needed education now can select only from people who have one to fill those positions. Fourth, I keep hearing that manufacturing jobs are decreasing, and those were the jobs that often combined higher wages with a lesser skill level, at least initially (experience usually helped, though). And finally, with lower marriage rates and higher divorce rates, it seems to me that there are more single income households out there, and thus the income from the job has to carry pretty much the whole household, which it didn’t before.

And I’m sure there are millions of other factors as well. But the main point is this: service and “McJobs” are more and more becoming a main source of income for a household, if not the main source of income for a household … and they were never meant to be that. A couple both working “McJobs” can probably support a family of four, but if one of them loses their job they’ll be immediately underwater, especially since it’s unlikely that even a couple working two minimum wage jobs is going to build up much savings. And minimum wage jobs tend to have a lesser chance of advancement as well, so if you start there you’ll probably finish there. And since more people are relying on these jobs for their income, there’s more demand for these jobs, and so companies know that if someone leaves for any reason they’ll be able to find many people who will work for that wage, and so have no incentive to increase it.

At the same time, do we really want these jobs to all have to pay a wage that can support a family of four? Because that’s pretty significant, and can only cause companies to see if they can get away with less employees in order to maintain their profit margins. If labour costs are very low, companies don’t have to worry much about overstaffing, especially in service jobs where you can lose a significant amount of business if you don’t have someone available to serve someone and they get ticked off and leave. So it’s easier to hire an extra person than it is to risk ticking off customers. But if labour costs are higher, companies definitely want to ensure that they don’t have people sitting around doing nothing, unless doing that can generate more income to cover that. Yes, more people working helps the overall economy … but it might not help that company much. Thus, singles, people using it as a secondary income, and students might find it harder to them to find a job because the companies have to pay them more than they actually need or want.

I’m not sure how to go here. I think it’s fair to treat minimum wage jobs as jobs you take when you can’t get anything else, but I don’t like them being jobs that you take when you can’t get anything else and the alternative is starvation. But perhaps t’is just me.


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