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Semiformalishmaybe

Reunion of all Split Infinitives

Every so often, I feel terribly disassociated from some part of nature — I think of people like I'm not one, food as a nutrient-process, etc. "Stepping back into my skin" can sometimes take a bit. When it snows like this, I often think of our atmosphere as a chemical soup; rain ceases to be rain, snow or clouds become elements in the same kind of gas-soup we know exists on some other planets. It seems amazing that we can breathe it, that we're denizens of that vat. Maybe this is the chauvenism of air-breathers; to us the sea is a constraint because it squeezes those within it more tightly. We can remember that despite that, swimming in water is much like flight (for dimensions of motion) and requires less effort.

Yesterday I had a bad experience with a random guy at a bus stop that led to my suffering a bit of physical violence and later my calling the police. I'm still a bit shaken by it, and feel oddly violated. It's more complicated than that, but I'm not prepared to talk about it with the general public. I probably should've tried harder to get company last night, but I don't know a lot of people in the area anymore, particularly those within a reasonable distance. Come this summer, I'll have the interesting task of reinventing myself somewhere new and making a mostly-new circle of friends. I'm almost looking forward to it, as tiring as that is.

Again on the topic of feminism, I missed the controversy over this Penny Arcade comic. Like many geeks, I read it, found it innocuous, didn't actually find it funny, and moved on. My attention was recently drawn to the controversy surrounding it. The basis of the controversy is that it trivialises or encourages people to laugh at rape.

Warning: This is not a topic where I reach a solid conclusion, more a public thinking-through of various points.

My initial reaction is "of course that's not offensive and doesn't trivialise rape". There is a kind of comedy that would; one that tries to be normative by inducing sympathy for those inclined towards rape, paints rape victims as somehow responsible for being assaulted, suggests people routinely distrust claims of rape, etc. That would be societally irresponsible, and this is not that.

But ... would this comic still feel like comedy were it done with real actors, with the rape victim showing their suffering? My answer is that that would be different and offensive. Does the medium of it being a webcomic excuse it somehow? Dehumanisation (through depiction) is a complex topic; many of us laughed at horribly violent comics in youth that we (hopefully) would've found disturbing done with lifelike animals. I don't know whether that lowered our inhibitions towards violence or not. Having had odd experiences of feeling hostility towards cops after having played Grand Theft Auto 3 (and subsequently selling my playstation because of how disturbed I was towards that), I'm not sure if I buy the "it's just depiction" argument anymore, although again, comics do seem to be a bit different.

I also wonder about porn. I have porn, literary (text stories), animated gifs (of real people and anime), and a few videos snagged from sites like TNAFlix or Youporn. Most of it is vanilla, some of it describes things I would not actually want to do but might enjoy as fantasy. Is it demeaning to women/men? Some percentage of it probably is, but I don't take it as normative and don't feel the desire to do with real people the things that I'd find morally questionable. I think porn is mostly different from public media; it's not normally a group activity to look at porn, and it's not likely to contribute to public norms. I am not certain about this; perhaps some people who see some of the morally questionable types of acts depicted porn do become more inclined to adopt values that make them possible (as I did for GTA).

Is fictional depiction of rape different than that of murder? It's probably more sensitive in that while it's an easy and entirely broad conclusion that murder will never be accepted in society, societal consensus on what constitutes rape/sexual assault moved in recent memory and is still the topic of cultural struggle. One of my sets of grandparents expressed an opinion that women have a duty to submit to sex when their husbands desired, some religions/cultures place similar obligations, and in many states a husband could not be charged with the rape of his wife because the marriage provided standing consent. I likewise had a long debate with some people online who believed that once penetration in sex begins, if the female says no and the male keeps going, that should not be considered rape. I was surprised that this is not an uncommon idea. Similarly, some cultures still blame victims for being raped (even to the point of punishing them while forgiving their attackers). In theory, were there already broad/stable consensus on what rape is and that blame lies with the assaulter, the argument that "we joke about murder and it's worse than rape!" might have some weight (perhaps — some people might prefer death to rape and I don't mean to demean that perspective).

Is it ok to joke about rape? I'm not sure. As above, I don't think any joking that clearly intends to blame the victim or contextualise rape as appropriate should ever be considered appropriate. Jokes that suggest to the sexually frustrated "the easy way out" of forcing oneself on another are not appropriate. As to the Penny Arcade comic, I don't think it crosses the line of being clearly inappropriate; I do understand why it might offend people, but I am unconvinced that it trivialises rape or moves culture in the wrong way. Still, I am not bothered at people speaking out about it.

One thing I do find highly offensive is people who refuse to consider the issue fully and lash out at those offended, especially if they're acting out of a libertine spirit that refuses to recognise pain. As the timeline I linked above shows, once the controversy unfurled, Penny Arcade had t-shirts made specifically to mock the offended, and were terribly dismissive of the concerns and emotions of those affected by rape. While I think the original comic was ok, their handling of the criticism, alongside the general "any tabboos in society must be broken down; feeling offended at anything is childish and we must desensitivise people about everything as a good deed" attitude some parts of geek/libertine culture has, that's nothing short of reprehensible (even if they back off to sounding reasonable later).

The libertine spirit is at times an ugly part of geek culture. I'm glad that the earlier phases of geek culture were not so anti-structure, and hope that future generations of geeks are getting/making something more accepting of traditions and constraints.

Completely unrelated:

Also, some thoughts on a recent PZ Myers post on types of atheism:The opening is not promising; again PZ shows his trollish love of offending people, emphasising his visceral reactions. Oh well.
  • On dictionary atheists, I think he raises an interesting issue and has some good arguments, but I don't think they're sufficient to make his point. I recognise that atheism may come to mean (to some people) more than the baseline definition of "does not believe in gods", but I would prefer people not use the term too generically; I recognise that there are groups under the atheist banner with which I would not like to be associated (like Objectivists). Just as theists might consider theism a broad and uncomfortable banner, I consider atheism a broad and uncomfortable banner.
    • Responsibility - I think it is a worthwhile thing for people to feel responsible in some way for the official acts of groups with which they choose to identify. This entails them either leaving the group if it does something bad enough, reforming a failed group while repudiating its failures, or ensuring that its acts remain good. This is only possible when the group is cohesive, and atheism is too broad a banner for that.
  • Back to that point, I disagree that being atheist necessarily means anything more than a disbelief in gods. The "thin" definition of atheism makes more sense as a specific part of a layered identity because it allows us to more precisely talk about what other parts of that layer are there. We don't want an atheist movement. We want more specific movements that happen to be atheistic as part of their ideas, and *then* we must perform the vital task of asking what else we stand for.
  • I disagree with him that babies are not atheist. I do think they're naturally atheist in that they lack belief, but they may not be part of any specific atheist culture. Distinguishing the two is helpful; a society of people that had not invented or heard of gods could rightly be called atheistic.
  • On the offensive phrase he mentioned, I agree with him (but note that he has not been consistent on the matter) - PZ has frequently badmouthed religious people in general in unfair and inaccurate ways. Still, he's being more reasonable here, and I am glad to see it.
  • His exploration of the "one less god" argument is fair.
  • I am not sure where I stand on atheist pride - to me it's a single judgement in a forest, and it's a complex one at that. Many great minds throughout history have come down on both sides of this matter, and while I think that atheism is the right answer, I can't claim it to be an easy position (either emotionally or by reason) to reach. If it were so simple, it would not be a matter for debate. I believe there to be no gods, but those who believe in them are not stupid, they're just wrong on a complex matter. Maybe I could convince some of them of this in a debate, but with many others it'd come to a standstill no matter how carefully I argued and how high quality the discussion were. That leaves little room for pride, and no room for treating them as if they're unintelligent.
I think what there is room for is being comfortable with the identities we wear and insisting on the same amount of recognition for them that people generally consider due them (this might feel weird when people can say "I believe this to be divine law, respect my beliefs" and I do the same with "This is a philosophical commitment I have, respect it" — for genuine commitments, I expect both to be treated the same way). I know who I am, I'm willing to talk about what I believe, what my ideas and commitments are, and there are things I consider unacceptable that others may not. My beliefs are not nihilism nor an "everything's cool" — I don't want a christian funeral, I don't want to be married in a church, and I do want my own rituals, my own culture, and my own mental space. Carving it out is my own responsibility.

Progressive doctrines that describe a potential path to communism (I don't commit to this as dogma):

Recently I've been facing a number of difficult issues from my past, especially as I've come to the realisation that a lot of the ways I have self-esteem problems, difficulty trusting people, and interaction oddities directly relate to abusive events in my past. I'm hoping reopening these things can be productive enough to be worth the pain of treading burnt soil.

Comments

Is it ok to joke about rape?

I can answer that question in two words. The Aristocrats!
As disgusting a joke as it tries to be, very few variations I've heard have included rape; the acts depicted are usually consensual (given the specifics, that might make it more disturbing rather than less).

Also, I don't think that joke can top the book form of "Naked Lunch".
I'm pretty sure the vast majority of versions of the joke involve Statuatory Rape. I know mine usually does.

I've never read "Naked Lunch"...that may be too much, even for me.
Oh, fair. I normally consider statutory rape to not exactly being rape; it's its own thing (and really should probably have its own name).
Having read PZ on atheism, I had a mixed reaction but I think I largely agree with him.

- I generally have zero respect for people who attempt to argue from dictionary definitions.
- In the specific case of people's identities, sentences of the form "I am a foo", I think arguing from the denotation of words is especially pernicious. In general I think people have a right to define themselves however they like, and if a sufficiently large group of people define themselves as X-ists, I think a reasonable person is ultimately bound to accept that X-ist, in addition to its dictionary or denotative definition, has come to refer in practice to that group and any associated baggage. (For an example of this process, see the distinction between "gay"/"bisexual" on one hand, and "men who have sex with men" on the other.)
- In light of that, I think a reasonable person is bound to accept that "atheist" refers to a particular culture of nonbelief in deities, and while it's a diverse and varied culture, it's not reasonable to argue that membership in the set "atheist" should be defined based on the original denotation of the word, or the dictionary definition, without regard for the group of people. (I get particularly annoyed at the people who split hairs about "atheist" versus "agnostic" versus "agnostic atheist", and try to tell people what they are required to call themselves in order to be correct.)
I think the problem I have with the "particular culture" is that it doesn't handle other atheists (or atheist cultures). Objectivist atheism is genuinely different and mostly disjoint from either the broad "sciency atheism" or the more specific "liberal atheism" (of which Secular Humanists and most socialist atheists are a subset) cultures. It seems much more useful to me to use these more specific terms than try to push a lot of meaning into the broad term in a way that ignores such groups.

There's utility to letting groups identify as they like, but I don't want to recognise their claim of a term if it marginalises others. It feels too similar to the often-intentional confusion of terms by which Judaists claim that "good Jews are of the Jewish faith". I'd prefer we live in a mental space where people generally feel free to choose what terms to use to describe themselves and others; it's less suceptible to such word games, it's easier to build a coherent philosophical world-model without feeling overly obliged to self-actualisation of others, and for thorny-named topics it gets one in the useful habit of talking about definitions first. (One often has to do this anyway for some topics, might as well be used to it)

OTOH, I agree entirely about the atheist versus agnostic divide; those terms are so ridiculously loose that a "what do you mean by that?" conversation is almost required.
Well, I think people should generally feel free to choose what terms to use to describe themselves, and I think it is polite but not obligatory to accept, where reasonable, the terms other people choose for themselves, rather than granting oneself the freedom to choose what terms to use to describe others (if they would disagree).

So in e.g. the atheist example, I think objectivist atheists and sciencey atheists and humanitarian atheists are liberal atheists are all perfectly okay calling themselves atheists, and I think the polite thing to do is to accept their self-identification as atheists, while at the same time not allowing any particular group to "claim" the word atheist for itself to the exclusion of the others.

And similarly in the judaism example, I think it if people of the Jewish faith, and people of Jewish heritage, want to both call themselves Jewish, it is reasonable for both groups to do that, and not reasonable for one to object.

Now, there is some trickiness here, obviously, since I can't reasonably entitle any arbitrary group to any arbitrary label; e.g. my scheme would be fatally flawed if it attempted to entitle the Scientologists to call themselves "Muslims" just to confuse the waters. Words do have meaning. My two rule-of-thumb criteria are, does the person/group reasonably and in good faith believe themselves to be described by the label; and do a nontrivial number of other people also think of them as being described by the label? Ethnic but nonreligious jews obviously make the cut here, and I don't think it's reasonable for anyone to try to claim the word "jewish" and tell them otherwise.

I do actually feel quite obliged to the self-actualization of others; even if I do not necessarily believe people's self-identifications are accurate, I think arguing with someone about their self-identification is such a sin against civility that any such conversation is usually simply not worth having. (And indeed, most such conversations degenerate rapidly into yelling and name-calling, and are indeed not worth having.)
I would not generally say they're wrong to call themselves something; I'd rather think of it like namespaces and say "you can call yourself that, and for the sake of discussion I might call you that if I make it clear I'm operating within your namespace, but that's not how I see you". Or maybe I'd just make it clear that this is how I lay out my language-meaning universe. Unless their terms are particularly pathological, I don't want to tell them how they should define words, but I would strongly object if they were to tell me how to define words even when those words are important to their identity. I think it's more important that as definers of meaning we have free reign within our own namespace than we have free reign on the "topic of us". ("For the sake of argument let's define $X as $specific_meaning" is a namespace specifier).

I don't think there's often a clean separation between claiming a term (with content added) and exclusively claiming a term. I've known large groups of jews (more than two) that disqualified others from being considered jewish (or "truly jewish"); conservatives disclaiming charedim, religious disclaiming seculars, "religious nation" versus "ethnic bloodlines", etc. The way I deal with it is to occasionally grumble a bit about terms and generally use my own terminology whenever these discussions come up; the term there is too fractured to use the terms people use to denote themselves (especially given how much importance people place on the in-group and out-group and the complicated mess of who recognises whom). (Debb, Jeff, Eric, on the off chance you're reading this, feel free to chime in)

In practice, if someone says "Atheists believe in $secular_humanism_principle", do you think that's a helpful/valid way to think about things, even if there are large/organised groups that are atheists (like marxists or objectivists) that definitely do not?
No, I don't. I think it's fine for someone to say "I am an atheist and I believe in $secular_humanism_principle", and it's fine for someone to get mad if you insist on calling them a foo-ist instead of an atheist, because you don't believe $secular_humanism_principle is legitimate for atheists to believe, but I don't think it's helpful/valid for them to say that "atheists [in general] believe in $secular_humanism_principle".
Effectively I think what I am preaching is inclusionism of identification -- I think the term $foo_ist for any $foo should be reasonably accepted as including any and all people who both have and choose to assert some reasonable (good-faith, and recognized by at least some people other than themselves) claim to being a $foo_ist.
I see your reasoning and it has appeal, but there are some thorny cases. If some people's notion of Christianity requires a commitment to the Nicene creed, they'd probably call various groups non-Christian that would prefer to identify as Christian. Do we want to rule that out?

I suspect a commitment to honor self-identification would mean rejecting commitments to attach specific meanings to terms.

When I don't have a strong commitment to any particular definition of a term, I just have prefices I attach to particular meanings, and I try to remember who has what meaning. I already have to do this in philosophy (Marxian Justice, Rawlsian Justice, Christian Justice, all different). When pressed to be specific, I can talk about various notions of what it means to be christian and refuse to recognise people outside of the context of a particular term. That feels flexible, non-confusing, and accurate to me.

I'm not sure if what you're suggesting would fit with this.

Maybe I should lay this out more directly in a blog post; I don't recall if I've talked about society and language before from this angle.
I pretty much agree straight-up with you on the PA kerfuffle (I didn't find the original joke offensive, but I did find the response terrible), and just wanted to point out: they only backed off to something reasonable on the blog itself; Mike's behavior on Twitter is still a bit offensive.
I hope you're feeling better about the violent incident. I was lightly assaulted by a road-raging driver around this time last year, which activated a strong flight reaction in me, and a little trauma that took me a while to shake off.
On the rape/comedy thing, thank you once again for doing some good thinking that I might have been too lazy to do, or might not have got around to.

On "atheist pride," it seems rather silly, given that, as you point out, babies are atheists. But to take it a bit further, to determinists, "pride" period is silly. Not that I have a problem with "Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud," in the time and context of that statement.