Archive for September, 2014

How NOT to do critical thinking …

September 16, 2014

So, the whole mess that started over three years ago with Elevatorgate and that led to discussions of harassment policies, and to Atheism+, and to not Atheism+ and all sorts of other things … hasn’t died yet. The latest big issue is over something that Sam Harris said that people had a problem with, as it might have implied that women weren’t as good at critical thinking as men. Sam Harris tried to clarify it, and a number of people, including P.Z. Myers have taken it on.

I want to focus on Myers’ discussion of Harris’ comment and response, because I think it highlights a number of problems with the critical thinking skills of these people who claim to value critical thinking above all. For anyone curious, I’m going to give Harris a bit of a free pass on that because despite the fact that I think he’s not all that great at reasoning, in this case it was an off-the-cuff response and his reply, while a bit huffy, didn’t seem to be overreaching that much.

So, Myers’ first shot is about the title of Harris post, which was “I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for”. Myers’ reply:

Wrong. Right from the title, he gets it all wrong. Here’s how he could easily defuse the whole situation: acknowledge that what he said was wrong, and move on. “I spoke off the cuff, and I said things that were invalid and perpetuate the problem of sexism in atheism. I apologize, and will try to do better.” Over. No problem. We’d all be able to move on, and would appreciate that he’s trying.

This is a depressingly common statement. Essentially, it boils down to this: in a situation where people think that something you said is wrong, and are angrily denouncing you as a terrible person or as having some kind of deep personal flaw for saying it, the right thing for you to do is simply say “You’re right, I’m wrong, and I’m sorry” … even if you don’t think what you said was wrong. No, the right way to respond to people who you think are saying things that are wrong or that are interpreting you wrong and unfairly is to simply agree that they’re right, apologize, and leave your own opinions buried deep inside your mind where no one will ever have to see those ugly, ugly things again … even if you’re convinced that they’re true.

Okay, okay, this is definitely a bit of hyperbole … but only to the extent that I’d be ascribing a conscious intent to them. Arguments like this only work when a) you’re right and b) you’ve demonstrated to that person that you’re right. Once you’ve both agreed that, yes, you were right and they were wrong, then the right response is for the person to admit that they’re wrong and apologize. But before that, there is no reason for them to so meekly accept your position. This goes doubly is they think you’ve misrepresented their position, as their first duty is to say “Okay, that’s not how I meant it” and correct it. They might, if they are being excessively polite, apologize for being unclear, but that’s as far as it goes.

And no, simply angrily asserting that you’re right and posting some links isn’t demonstrating that they’re wrong.

The current fad of unconsciously building “Because I’m right” into your suggestions of what people should and shouldn’t do is a source of great annoyance to me …

Anyway, moving on. In a response to part of Harris’ post saying that he wasn’t talking about all atheists, just the active ones, Myers replies:

Yes, we know. We’re not idiots. We understood exactly what you said, which is that actively engaged atheists are men, because reasons. That’s actually the question…why do you think that is so?

Um, Dr. Myers? Greta Christina — you know her right? She blogs at your network? — accused him of doing just that:

Sam Harris is just factually wrong. Globally, there is no gender split in atheism. Globally, women and men are religious, not religious, and convinced atheists at about the same rate. In fact, globally, women are slightly more likely to be atheists than men (although that difference is small, probably too small to be significant).

It’s a really bad move to so dismissively argue that he didn’t need to clarify a point because everyone knew what he was talking about when it was a point that people had claimed he was just factually wrong about and called him out angrily over. Just an FYI.

Now, I don’t like to break up paragraphs too much when quoting, because context is actually pretty important to understanding what people are saying, but this next part just screams for doing that to really get the full impact of the issue:

Why? Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? It often is …

Translation: Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? You’re right that it is, but why would you argue that?

If nurturing is indeed generally associated with femininity, which it often is, and if you accept that it often is, then what’s the problem here? You look like you’re demanding proof of a point that both of you accept, for the most part.

Now, being completely fair, Myers does have another objection:

…because of early culturization and because of widespread assumptions about the nature of women, but you yourself asserted that these differences were intrinsic — “that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” — rather than perhaps some phenomenon of social conditioning that might be corrected by men being perhaps a little less belittling.

So, the underlying complaint is not about saying that women tend towards nurturing as opposed to more aggressive postures, but instead assuming that it is innate. Okay, but there are two problems with this as a criticism of Harris:

1) He concedes that in his reply (in one of the earlier points:

3. My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture.

So, sure, it might be cultural, according to Harris, and/or partly biological, according to Harris. Who can say?

2) Whether biological or cultural, that doesn’t invalidate it as an explanation for why you don’t see as many active female atheists as active male atheists. As long as women are drawn to a less aggressive approach and atheist conferences have that more aggressive approach, less of them are going to find it appealing. Thus, the question for Myers et al is “Is this true? And if it is, how can we change it without losing the aggressive approach that we all personally — male and female — love so much?”

Myers goes on:

What you did was clearly place the blame for the situation on the essential natures of women, rather than recognizing that it’s a consequence of the social environment…in which, perhaps, the existence of male leaders who are dismissive of the capability of most women to contribute leads to more women feeling less interested in contributing. Perhaps the fault lies in people like you, rather than in the women who are reduced by your attitude?

Now, above Myers was talking about enculturation from childhood … which is obviously not something that Harris himself is going to have or have had a major influence on. Here, it looks like he’s talking about the culture or social environment of the conferences, and not in the “We’re not nurturing” way and more the “Women can’t contribute” way … which Harris never asserted and, in fact, again, denied:

Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.

If Myers had simply repeated the ideas of ways to make conferences more welcoming to women, that would have been a far better approach than this seeming criticism that missed the mark entirely. The only way this can be even a reasonable criticism is if it is based on an argument that the more aggressive style is the only way to contribute, which Harris never says and Myers ought not believe.

I could continue on through the comments about “My best friend is X”, but they again aren’t much of an argument, so I won’t bother. Suffice it to say that if you want to actually address and refute what Harris said … you really ought to deal with what he actually said, with arguments and evidence … especially if you want to claim to respect “critical thinking”.

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This blog …

September 14, 2014

People who follow this blog — all five of ’em — will have noticed that over the past several months my updating has become even more irregular than usual. This is due to a combination of having too many things to do and having nothing to do and so being too bored to bother. This is something that I want to try to change.

So what I’m going to do is, starting in October, I’m going to try to post at least one post a day for a while. But the trick I’m going to pull is that since a lot of the stuff I want to talk about either isn’t topical or was topical at one point but has now gone out of date I’m not going to actually sit down and write a post every day. I’m going to try to write up some of the things that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while in my spare time and then schedule them to appear in October, allowing me to get things ahead to take the pressure off. We’ll see how that works.

Look for the first of these October 5th, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t see any posts before then. Just that most of those will be aimed at being more topical.

And this is the problem with arguments about women in video games …

September 6, 2014

So, here I am, looking for something to play, and browsing through my set of games, and I come across Mana Khemia and the sequel, Mana Khemia 2, and I noticed something important: the second Mana Khemia game included the ability to play as a female protagonist. The second game is only about 5 – 6 years old. So how come all of the people looking for games to at least give a choice of protagonist never mention it? Sure, it’s a console game and not necessarily a popular game, so it might be a bit obscure … but these are the same people who’ll mention indie games that I and most other players have never heard of, and also claim to actually do research on games. So how did they miss it?

And how do they miss the long list of other games that are just in my collection? Like the Fatal Frame series. Like Silent Hill 3 (which shouldn’t be obscure). Like Persona 3 PSP. Like Clocktower 3. Like Rule of Rose. Like Haunting Ground. Like Obscure. Like Final Fantasy X-2. Like Suikoden III. All of which are games that either only have a female protagonist, or which have a choice of male or female protagonist, or which has a female protagonist play an important part of the game. And that’s not even getting into the games I have on the PC that allow that.

Sure, it’s absolutely the case that male protagonists dominate games. But if one game not allowing a female playable character in multiplayer is such a big deal how come games that make an effort to make their playable characters female get absolutely no mention and no press? How come every time this topic comes up listing the games that actually did it reasonably is done grudgingly, with people finding excuses to not count the games?

Look, small companies and franchises — like a lot of them above — are the most likely to be swayed by the argument that they can increase their sales by including a female protagonist, either as an option or as the main character, because they need them more than a large company or a large franchise does (as they’ll get sales with the standard approach anyway). For them, doing this could make them stand out, and standing out will get them attention that they can’t afford to pay for. So they’re more likely to do extra work if they think it will pay off, and maybe turn them into a franchise that people will know and buy on sight (see, for example, Team Persona and the Persona series).

And that won’t work if people don’t constantly call attention to their attempts to do it!

If you want more female protagonists in video games, stop being so negative, stop ignoring games that try, and stop nitpicking the games that try and get it wrong. Give gaming companies a reason to listen to you, and stop giving them reasons to ignore you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick a game to play … which may or may not have a female protagonist. And I’m fine with that either way.

The No-Win Situation of Violence Against Women in Video Games …

September 1, 2014

Anita Sarkeesian and her “Tropes vs Women” analysis of video games has been fairly controversial for a while now, which I suspect is an understatement on the level of saying that a thunderstorm leaves things “a little damp”. While I obviously don’t support death or rape threats or anything on that level, I do think that those things happening shouldn’t make what Sarkeesian says immune to criticism. Surely the whole point of her videos is to promote discussion of these issues, and that means the acceptance that, maybe, just maybe, she’s actually wrong in her description of what’s going on.

I’ve been wanting to go through most of her videos and analyze them in detail, but as anyone who follows this blog knows I’m pretty lazy when it comes to things like that. But I’d like to single out something in her latest video, which highlights a problem I have with most of the analysis on social justice in video games and gender in video games specifically: the idea that no matter what a game company does, it simply cannot win when it comes to criticism on that score.

Her criticism in the previous video was about women being used as objects to satisfy the sexual or violent urges of the players, and being encouraged to do so, as this is considered good or useful in the game. In this video, by the end, her criticism seems to be about violence against women being treated as a bad thing, and that it being used as a way to signal that either the villains or the player are immoral is, well, also bad. Why? Well:

What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.

The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.

So, essentially, the criticism seems to be that portraying a world where violence against women exists — even if it’s presented as uniformly immoral — ends up normalizing violence against women and treating it as simply part of the world, which she argues impedes us considering it wrong and trying to oppose it in the real world. Which boils down to the idea that you can’t portray violence against women as something to be opposed because then people won’t be motivated to oppose it, which really doesn’t seem to make any sense. She had the glimmerings of a better argument earlier:

So when games casually use sexualized violence as a ham-fisted form of character development for the “bad guys” it reinforces a popular misconception about gendered violence by framing it as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers. In reality, however, violence against women, and sexual violence in particular, is a common everyday occurrence often perpetrated by “normal men” known and trusted by those targeted.

It is a not unreasonable criticism to say that the presentation of the violence against women is such that it’s seen as something that only evil people do, as a character trait of truly and totally evil people. But the violence of that sort isn’t done by people who are, in fact, evil in that way, and so what it does — inadvertently, we have to assume — is teach people that only really evil people are abusers, and that therefore that if someone isn’t totally evil, then they couldn’t possibly really be an abuser. The problem with the analysis is that even in the examples she gives, that’s not what’s happening. It’s not the case that the games are establishing the characters as evil first, and then assigning “violent towards women” to them as something that’s just to be expected. Instead, it’s the other way around: the violence against women is used as a “Kick the Dog” moment to establish that this person really is evil. So it’s taking violence against women as an example of something that is so evil and so immoral that the instant we see someone engaging in it, we know that they aren’t good people, and in fact are really bad people.

Which somewhat contradicts the idea that violence against women isn’t really considered “wrong” in our society. To use violence against women this way, it must be the case that the vast majority of people who play the game see that sort of violence as being utterly heinous; otherwise, it wouldn’t work to establish the person as being bad or evil. So when we see that action, we all think “That’s terrible! What a horrible person!”, based entirely on what we think about violence against women. That means that we have to think that violence against women is terrible and horrible, since that’s what drives our emotional commitment to that person being bad for having done it.

But here is where we see the no-win situation this sort of analysis places game designers in. Reward violence against women? That’s bad and sexist. Treat violence against women as a bad thing to be opposed? That’s bad and sexist. The only move left is to leave it out completely, which Sarkeesian actually advocates … but in a crapsack world it’s utterly ridiculous to think that you’d have all forms of evil except violence against women for some unknown reason. The world doesn’t have a respect for basic human rights … but someone it got feminism. But on top of that the accusation could be made that the game is sanitizing and ignoring the real-world problem of violence against women if it leaves it out completely in a world where there should indeed be violence against women. At which point, the company can’t win: including it positively is sexist, including it negatively is sexist and not including it is sexist.

Ultimately, it seems to be the case that if you want to motivate people to work to end something, what you do is present as something that everyone should be motivated to change and present as something that can be changed. Sure, in the real-world you aren’t likely to stop domestic violence by hunting down and killing abusers, but you don’t normally get justice for your family by hunting down their killers either. If video games have any impact on society, it’s not from them being taken literally, but from the effect of the subtle messages that they convey through their medium. And Sarkeesian has to admit that in many of the examples she lists in this part that the message is “Violence against women is bad, and you should oppose it”. If this subtle message permeated society, well, I can’t see that as being a bad thing.

The Artistic Problem with Copyright …

September 1, 2014

So, when I was looking for as many episodes of “Just the Ten of Us” as I could find and enjoying all of them, and also reading comments people made about the show, and noting the critical reception that it received — which was generally good — and that it was a show cut short way before its time for business reasons that didn’t include “its ratings are too low”, a real problem with copyright became evident to me. See, from what I read Warner Brothers, who controls the rights to the show, were fairly aggressive in getting videos that were posted of the show removed from youtube through copyright appeals. Which is their right. But the problem is this: without that … no one can watch the show. There are no DVD releases of the show, and no indication that there were ever be DVD releases of the show. The cable channels that show old shows that are syndicated seem to have no interest in showing it (or, well, anything beyond a few really, really popular shows, which is another problem). Warner Brothers doesn’t seem to have any way for people who would like to watch the show and who might well be willing to pay for that privilege to actually do that.

The problem is that, in general, works like this are always in at least some sense artistic works. Acting and writing, even cheap and cheesy sitcoms, is art. Sure, the primary purpose of the work is to make money — which would make it not really “art” by my definition — but there’s no doubt that it has artistic elements, at least, in the sense that the writing is trying to tell a story and elicit certain emotions and the acting is trying to do the same thing. And when a work is simply no longer available anymore, all of that is lost. Whether worthy of praise or worthy of derision, you simply don’t get it anymore. You can’t use it to compare generations and how people thought, you can’t use it to trace progressions of, say, sitcoms from that time to now, you can’t use it to point out things that it might have done that more shows could use today … it’s gone. It’d be like refusing to allow even libraries to loan out books that are out of print, no matter how classic they might have been if they aren’t deemed “popular” enough.

Now, I completely understand the desire of companies to preserve their ability to make money on the products they own, and support them in doing so. But this always fails in cases where the product simply isn’t available for sale. If the company isn’t willing to sell me the product if I was willing to pay for it, on what grounds can they complain if I try to get it in any way possible, even if that means that I get it for free? Especially in relation to youtube videos, as almost everyone will still prefer it as a download or a DVD than as a youtube video. The focus on preserving their ability to make money even when they aren’t making money on the product and are unwilling to try to make money on the product only makes it so that some really good shows, games, and so on are lost. That seems to be somewhat tragic, and certainly frustrating.

As an aside, it seems cosmically unjust that “Pink Lady and Jeff” got a DVD release, and “Just the Ten of Us” likely never will.