Rage Against the Machinery

I thought I would share some of my thoughts and feelings about the intersection of people and systemic oppression.

They are somewhat complicated.

I myself have been an “instrument of the machine” (and still unavoidably play some part within it), as we have each likely been in big and small ways. In recent years I have become much more conscious of the world around me, not the least of which including a burgeoning understanding of human psychology and social systems. I simultaneously feel culpable for supporting oppression as I have prior to this awareness (and do not simply absolve myself ethically), yet fully understand the deterministic nature of the universe and its impact on me.

This is to say that in a quantum mechanics kind of sense, I am merely a product of my life situation and experiences (and other “random” events). Yet, I take on the onus, not because I believe that myself or anyone else can exist outside of cause and effect by sheer will or completely self-determined moral character, but because it is practical to do so from the perspective of human experience.

It’s a practical matter.

It is practical in that it guides my thoughts and actions toward ethical self-improvement and self-awareness: a mindset of ethical responsibility. If I’m not invested in the experience of others with respect to my actions, but only the defense of my own character, then by definition defense of my character is all I will accomplish. I will not change my character, nor the experience of the other person.

It is also practical in that it offers the greatest possibility of communication and restoration. The process doesn’t need to be about figuring out who’s to blame, explaining away and justifying (rationalizing), in an effort of returning to status quo. Instead, I can take responsibility for my actions (even if I feel that there was no way I could have done differently given what I knew at that moment), have empathy for the other person’s experience with respect to my actions (regardless of my experience or good intentions), and cooperatively strategize ways of avoiding unnecessary hurt. If needed, you can explain what you’re doing and ask for reciprocation. The best way to ask for it is by simultaneously showing that you’re willing to do it. Focus your efforts on those who are willing to reciprocate because it needs to become reciprocal in the long term for progress to be sustained; It’s also part of maintaining healthy boundaries.

UR doing eet wrong!!1!

This stands in stark contrast to the now typical, violent defensiveness exemplified by people trying to externalize responsibility, defend their character (ego) and avoid any resolutions which require personal effort, self-evaluation or change. I’ve seen many people (including myself in many past and even recent occasions) react to another’s expressions of experience and feelings, with anger and dismissal. The argument is often that they could not have done any differently (which as a matter of determinism may actually be true). “I couldn’t have known that my actions would hurt you, therefore it’s not my fault, therefore I’m not a bad person, therefore you should not be feeling that way towards me” (so stop feeling that way or you’ll be to blame for this continued conflict). It is a desperate act of self-preservation driven by the conscious or subconscious idea that others are out to destroy your character. You might want to investigate your own life experience to see where this pattern has come from.

Not just for lovebirds.

It should be obvious that this relates to interpersonal relationships. These words probably conjure up thoughts of happy (or not so happy) romantically involved partners, but I want to stretch that definition a bit. As I’ve alluded to above, I view relatively simple human interactions expanding into complex social systems. The product of this effect is called an emergence. To affect the complex system you need to somehow affect the individuals and their basic interactions. I believe that this failure to resolve rather than blame is one of the basic units of interaction that create or at least support structures of oppression within society.

Fallacy? How Humerous

There is a kind of is-ought fallacy that says, “Because I will not always be able to avoid offending or hurting you, I can not be held to such a standard of behaviour. Therefore your expectations are unreasonable”. Or in other terms, “I am this way, so you ought not to ask for me to change.

Now, taking this idea of deterministic social behaviour and applying it to other people I see the enactors of oppressive behaviour in a similar light. They are absolutely the products of their situation and experiences as much as I am. That is to say that in a given snap-shot in time, they could not have been anything other than exactly what they were at that moment, given their collective experiences and situation. This is not an ideological justification that it ought to be this way, but a mechanical explanation of why it is this way. In this light I simultaneously have a kind of empathy (though more like sadness and frustration at the unfortunate reality), and yet unwaveringly denounce their actions given not only the immediate emotional pain they cause, but also for their part in the social mechanism at large.

A wrench in the gears.

I do this because I perceive myself as a potential cause that may be able to affect them. Sometimes do this by holding their feet to the fire. Other times I try to be a friend and gradually influence them. It depends an their apparent willingness to self-evaluate.

I don’t wholly demonize anyone, since it doesn’t make sense from my perspective. However, there are limits to the personal effort I’m willing to put into specific scenarios, or with specific individuals. My emotional resources are limited, as is my ability to carry out my own philosophy in this regard (though I continue to work at growing that capacity). I have very little patience when I perceive that someone is hurting someone else, either directly with words and actions, or with harmful ideologies that they are presenting as ideal or as normal (and therefore ideal: another is-ought). I am far from perfect (I hope that my ability to see this is not a surprise to anyone). More often than is likely obvious, my anger is motivated by empathy for others, though this doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for all of these actions. Let me not commit my own fallacy.

Hey, I’m a pass-a-fist!

As an aside, in a broader political sense I am also not necessarily advocating for pacifism since the collective mentality borne out of situation and experience (including systemic dogma) may be so fixed and on such a large scale as to be untouchable by any practical means of persuasion. Sometimes there are creative strategies that can be attempted beyond this point, but if the system becomes tyrannical enough, sometimes it is the only way. We who have comfortable lives can be easily prodded into gasps, jaw drops, and “oh dear”s when told about things like the Black Panthers or riots in the street and totally miss the oppression that instigated it. It wasn’t just buses and drinking fountains, nor was it MLK and his cheek-turning philosophy that did all the work (though he certainly had an impact). That’s another topic for another day.

The burden of love.

It seems to me that the most meaningful and practical understanding of reality sometimes takes a mental flexibility that stretches us beyond our original programming. I look at it as the joy of figuring things out. Actively seek out accurate observations. Be determined to build ideology that’s congruent with those observations regardless of personal cost and effort, up to your capacity. Be willing to un-learn your assumptions about your own motivations and those of the people around you. Strive to be aware of your own psychology: your automated emotional reaction to people and ideas. This can be simultaneously very difficult, but also very rewarding. Not only for you personally, but for the kind of world you will be fostering around you.

I leave you with this brilliant quip by Tim Widowfield over on Vrider:

Empathy is about seeing things from another person’s perspective, not imagining yourself in somebody else’s situation. The former is the first step to understanding others; the latter is a kind of naive narcissism that does more harm than good.

Cross-posted from Jack-in-the-Brain

Advertisements

Artificial Dissemination

At a social event with the Winnipeg Skeptics this week we ended up talking about religious people and the religious right among other things. We were marveling at how some of the Republicans in the U.S. can be so far off the deep-end with their beliefs. It reminded me of an article I’d read a couple months ago, for which the connection may not be immediately obvious. Hopefully I can explain.

In my personal obsession with psychology and sociology I’ve tried to understand how people think and why they do what they do. This article describes how we tend to operate by personality archetypes (specifically those relating to gender) and how they affect the way we think about ourselves; and by extension, how we think about others. The focus of this article is arguing against the idea of gender based essentialism, and that most of how we behave is according to how we think about ourselves and is passed on socially. I don’t at all want to undermine the profound revelations to be made on just this issue, but I think that these findings also have vast implications for every arena of our lives.

During that discussion with the Skeptics I was reminded a family member, which I related to the group. I explained how she identifies as a conservative and repeats many of the standard truisms that go with that, yet when I asked to explain her views she actually breaks to the left. How could this be? Most of the extended family is conservative, her local community is very conservative, and lives with a staunchly conservative partner. She even votes conservative! Why is there such a mismatch in her views versus her identity?

Like the subjects in the article above, I believe that most people adopt cookie-cutter identities in an attempt to fit in with their social circles. This is something we do in many aspects of our lives, and not just with gender or sexual identity. We do it with our politics, our jobs,  in our romantic relationships, with our families and friends, and with our children. In essence, we wear many different hats. It’s a basic mechanic of social grouping and we apply it to almost everything. With it we sometimes even adopt beliefs that are not our own, though we may wear them loosely.

Now, moving further towards the point embedded in the title: we don’t just do this to ourselves. We do it to others. Often, we do it oppressively. We repeat little truisms about other groups. We make presumptions about who other people are without actually knowing, based on nothing more than a projected and/or perceived group identity. We reinforce our position within some groups by advertising how we treat other groups. Other times it’s simply and subtly implied in our choice of words or the tone of our voice. In all these ways we project on others our subliminal (or overt) message about who they are (especially in comparison to us), and what we think their value and purpose are.

Side-note:
Whenever harsh words like oppression or privilege are used, I think there is something embedded in our neuro-linguistic vocabulary that implies ill-intent. Let me say it explicitly: bad intentions are not required to create oppression. For us it may just be learned patterns and we may not even know the message that we are conveying! As such, sometimes all that is required is ignorance (lack of specific knowledge, not to be confused with stupidity). Language is full of traps like this.

When we operate within the world-view and norms of our social group without bad intentions, and someone comes up to us and tells us that we’re oppressing them with our words and actions, it’s easy to think of them as being deluded. After all, what they’re saying is completely outside of what we know to be normal, natural and obviously true. We know our intentions are good (or at least not intentionally malicious), so obviously they are full of it, right? I mean, it’s not hard to believe. We have so many daily examples of people complaining about things that don’t make any sense to us and some who are indeed obviously deluded.

No political correctness
Image via Wikipedia

Here is the birthplace of the concept of “Political Correctness”, where the hidden motif of that other person is to stifle our very being, and sanitize all of existence into rainbows and kittens and everything nice. The belief that their group thinks that way in comparison to ours fits well with our understanding of how things are and they just confirmed it for us. More importantly, they’re in our face telling us we’re bad, and we feel threatened! We need to make it stop, and stop now! Our emotions appeal to our little problem solver upstairs, and it gives us an answer that makes the bad feeling go away.

But why?

Millions of years of evolution have given us this handy fight-or-flight mechanism to protect us from threats, both to our body and to our carefully nurtured, albeit tenuous sense of self. But as we ought to know, evolution is not perfect. Especially when in just a few short years (historically speaking) our world has gone from small communities and tribes with similar values and identities to a global society of remarkable complexity and conflicting values. It’s no surprise that our instincts could misfire. What’s really going on is usually more complex than whatever scenario our brain comes up with in half a second and with almost no meaningful information.

We feel more than we think.

The problem is that many of our socially absorbed views and behaviours are demonstrably false and counter-productive to our proclaimed goals. On the whole, we don’t think to find the truth. We rationalize to preserve our identity. Without deliberate investigation into ourselves and our world, and decoupling from these pre-canned identities (or at least being aware of and working around them), we will continue flying blindly on autopilot, and our greater issues will never be solved.

Won’t evolution fix everything eventually?

Evolution is just the explanation of how we got here. It doesn’t magically give us what we want. It doesn’t deal with our wishes for happiness or camaraderie. It doesn’t deal with things working optimally at all. It is merely “survival of the good enough.”

However, we have a brain that is capable not only of rational thought, but also of deep introspection. We have it because it was the advantage we needed to survive. We can leave our future to the magic of death and suffering to select some better genes, or we can use the tools we have proactively and figure out how to get what we want through greater awareness. Our evolution has not yet brought us to fully rational thinking or conscious social function and as the social world continues expanding through advances in social technology, the pressure to get there will also increase.

So I ask you now, who are you? And more importantly:

Who do you want to be?

Cross-posted from Jack-in-the-Brain

The Secret Lives of the Possibilians

Cross-posted from jackinthebrain.wordpress.com:

Yesterday, I saw the familiar face of one of my favorite atheist icons on Facebook and did what any bored atheist, I.T. guy at work would do. OK besides making him my avatar and flaming all the christians in my friend list with his blog articles and telling them they’re minds are warped by religion. That’s the stereotype isn’t it? Sometimes they fit, but sometimes stereotype do. But that doesn’t mean they’re all true, mostly true, or even true at all. Even if they are, it doesn’t mean they’re useful or appropriate. Really, I just clicked ‘like’…honest!

So the first feed to come from Mr. Harris was a link to a post on his blog. It features neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” sharing his thoughts on what I would have to call hard atheism versus devout religiosity. I happened to get busy again so instead of reading the actual post, I just fired up the video and listened to it in the background.

I found that what he was saying resonated with me, especially the following:

“…these are very smart people on both sides that are spending all of their energies polarizing each other, and arguing against each other’s details. I feel like there should be another voice in there somewhere…”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past year, and not heard many others in the skeptic community express this sentiment, and I feel it’s an important one. Without too much thought, I threw the link back onto my wall, recommending it to others.

Today I went back and read Sam’s thoughts which suggested to me that I should listen to it again. It would appear to me that despite making some really excellent points (and he does) he is also using a pretty broad brush in referring to all of neo-atheism as being strict atheism that claims certainty of no god existing. In my experience, most atheists are not in that category. More than that, I’ve always seen it as being like a kind of right-of-passage in a way to understand the fact that we can’t claim that as certain. To claim that is to fail at science after all, but have I missed something? I haven’t actually read the books of the “four horsemen” yet, but this just doesn’t seem very accurate to me.

Then he seems to kind of re-invent the wheel of soft atheism and claim it as his own idea:

“In every generation, scientist have always felt, that we sort of have all the pieces of the puzzle…we should be able to get it all from here. It has never ever been true in the history of human-kind, yet…that we have all the puzzle pieces.”

Aren’t most of us in this community already pretty comfortable with the idea of the vastness of things that we don’t know? Both the things that we know we’re ignorant of, and the probability of things we don’t even realize that we’re ignorant of and can’t even conceive of yet?

I think that most atheists, scientist and skeptics are not in that category. I seem to recall hearing funny stories of centuries past when “scientists” used to believe some pretty silly things. Our understanding of the subjects that science tackles, the advancement in our technologies, and our understanding of how to do science (tool-box as David puts it) have all improved, dare I say exponentially? Yet from every scientific talking head I’ve heard, I get the impression that they have only grown more humble in terms of understanding the minute scope of our collective knowledge of the universe.

I have to heartily agree that there is something being missed in the intense polarization of our atheism vs religion culture war. Yet in the way he chooses to call it out, he’s making it even more black and white than it really is. He seems to be pushing the neo-atheist straw-person to the left to make room for himself.

Where I think David is right is what is implied (by who his audience is) more than what’s stated. I think it is going to have to be the Atheists who eventually take the high road. Not because we’re the bad ones. Not because it’s our fault or definably our responsibility. And I don’t mean that we should stop fighting our legal and political battles to keep religion out of our schools or to be afraid to call out religious logical fallacies or social distortion for what they are.

Instead, like so many things in history that had to be done by someone… we’re the ones who are more capable. Or at any rate, we should be if we can just bring our rationality and humanity together. I think that beyond the rationality embedded in the subject matter of our arguments, we need to have openness to possibilities within our personal philosophy. How we think of and value each other, how we think of and value ourselves, the possibility of our own cognitive biases and emotional ego-blindness…these are some of the things where we need to remain open to other possibilities of understanding. Even beyond this, there are radical notions worth exploring. For example: Spiritual Atheism

Considering the assertions of religion in the name of keeping scientific possibilities open is a fine idea as a premise, but one that has failed over and over again to produce anything to justify itself. However, what’s important is the idea of affirming the value of the human beings who hold them and keeping it with us when we debate. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was something they touted a lot when I used to be church-goer. This is the principle that needs to be flipped over. Love the religious, hate the religion. Or at least, hate the harmful falsehoods and misguided ideas that they promote. I think that this is maybe what Mr. Eagleman really had in the back of his mind, but was probably just too busy “geeking out” 😉

It’s OK David, just be like science:

Get up and try again.