Saturday, January 31, 2015

power, power, power

Some terms:
POWER -- the strong side of an imbalanced power relation
power -- the weak side of an imbalanced power relation
power -- neutral sense

What's worse, a 100 kg man hitting a 60 kg woman or the same man hitting a 30 kg child? This has the structure of a lesser-evilist question, a form of apologetics serving to make one case of abusive behavior appear less bad by referencing another, which is how, to give an example, Dick Dawkins downplays the misogyny experienced by Western women. It's also a key tool in the apologist's toolbox that allows for the transformation of a civilian-bombing arms dealer like Obama into a humanist champion. (You think Romney would have been better?)

Lesser evilism aside, though, last year, two 100 kg-ish NFL players made headlines for hitting smaller people. Ray Rice hit a woman. Adrian Peterson hit a small child. Both cases involved violence of a sort that everyone, including the perpetrators, agreed was intentional (as opposed to accidental). Both fit the formula "big person intentionally harms little person."

Hitting children is undoubtedly less socially condemned, carries less of a stigma, than hitting women. Adrian Peterson went too far in using a switch but a little spanking would not have cost him his season. Ray Rice went too far in trying to physically harm Janay at all (though his punishment changed from a few games to a season for NFL PR reasons when the extent of the violence became public knowledge). On the other hand, Americans tell their friends, relatives, even acquaintances, that they hit their kids. They can make the case (in spite of all reliable evidence pointing the other way) that hitting kids is good for them and retain "respected member of society" status. If you make the case that hitting women is good for them, you'll take a much bigger social status hit.

Kids have less power to defend their own interests than women. Are kids likely to be more completely molded in the image of POWER, to conform to POWER's expectations? I think so, but the results wouldn't necessarily be better or worse for one or the other. Each will be pushed close to a limit at which further pushing would backfire for POWER. And being close to that limit is what accounts for the shittiness of living in POWER's expectational sphere.

There are likely several distinct heuristics POWER uses to solve power but all of them can be understood in terms of how power meets the expectations of POWER. A cute baby conforms to the narcissistic interests of its parents, a phenomenon easily understood in evolutionary terms. POWER protects power to protect itself (its DNA). Simply existing is the main way power, in this case, meets the expectations of POWER. A crying baby may cause dissonance where POWER expects a baby to be uniformly appreciative of POWER, where crying is interpreted as complaint. Crying may be a challenge to POWER's mainly nonconscious expectations regarding its own godliness, godliness being the default mode of human cognition. Or in other cases, perhaps POWER is so godly it can't be threatened by a baby's crying.

Cuteness is not a term restricted to human babies. For something to be cute, it needs to leverage baby love. It should be symmetrical and roundish, but most importantly, it needs to be non-threatening to POWER's expectations. Japanese kawaii culture is what happens when power exploits POWER's baby-love heuristic to survive, then gets caught in a superstimulus feedback loop for what seems like an eternity.

When an infant becomes mobile, it gains power. It gains a new ability to upset POWER's expectations. The baby's newfound mobility is a source of unpredictability and a destabilizing, disruptive force for POWER. The parent is reading an article about how to be a good parent but has to keep an eye out for the crawling baby hurting itself, fails to stay on constant alert, is annoyed by inevitable baby danger. When exactly the baby will put itself in danger, that is, run afoul of parental expectations, is unpredictable. ("Let me finish this goddamn article about how to be a good parent, you little fuck!") Until, for example, you buy a plastic cage with Winnie the Pooh all over it. Baby in a cage, problem solved. The parent gets back to that article. When finished, takes care of baby's needs. Fast forward a few years, you've got kids standing and sitting at the ring of a bell. A few more years and they're punching in at work, obeying traffic laws, etc.

The sun is powerful, but predictable. Its predictability makes it part of the frame, not the game, when it comes to ethical decision making. As daily ethical concerns go, it doesn't offer difference-making differences, in Scott Bakker's terms. Somewhat unpredictable, unaccounted-for iterations of inhuman POWER, such as natural disasters, are spared human moralizing thanks to the futility of directing moralistic anger their way. On the other hand, we get angry at humans who cause us harm (well, when that harm is accurately diagnosed) because anger has evolved for that. Anger can be effective when directed at humans, often enough for it to have offered survival benefits.


Humans aren't the only animals to use illusion to their advantage. Butterflies, bullfrogs, facebook users, and PR departments exploit the heuristic shortcomings of other cognizers as well. Consciousness came late to the game and added complexity. Scientific method and technology added some more, along with sheer volume. While illusion can involve conscious processing, it doesn't have to (chameleons). While it can involve awareness on the deceiver's part, it needn't involve awareness that it's an illusion (selfie-uploading teenagers), or anything else outside what's necessary to pull off the trick.

Friday, January 30, 2015

no comment

I'm reading a paper called "Rules: The Basis of Morality...?" by Paul M. Churchland, an academic at the University of California, a professional knower of things, including ethical things, and he's making some not-so-groundbreaking-but-solid points about how morality doesn't follow from discursive rules and then I get to this (last paragraph italics mine):
Another illustration of the superfluity of rules to moral character emerged, without warning and to much amusement, in an interview of a moderately charming Georgia Congressman on the TV comedy show The Colbert Report. The topic of their extended discussion was a recent higher-court ban on the public display of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments in the foyer of a Louisiana courthouse, and the justice/injustice of their subsequent court-ordered removal from that public venue. The congressman, a Mr. Lynn Westmoreland, was defending their public, cast-bronze-on-granite display on a variety of grounds, but most trenchantly on the grounds that, collectively, those ten rules constitute the very foundation of our morality, insofar as we have any morality. Their public display, therefore, could only serve to enhance the level of individual morality... 
[blah blah Westmoreland couldn't remember past the first three Commandments which supports the thesis]... 
The fact is, the congressman is probably as good an example of worthy moral character as one is likely to encounter at one’s local post office or grocery store. After all, he inspired sufficient public trust to get himself elected, and he thinks morality important enough to defend it, with some passion and resourcefulness, on television. He is a presumptive example of a conscientious man with a morally worthy character. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

true lines

Japan: We love you ISIS. You're a world leader in beheadings. Good job!

Japan's PR guy, whispering furiously: (Change it to "Saudi Arabia," and don't mention the beheadings!)

Japan: We love you Saudi Arabia! Good job with the oil!

Japan's PR guy: (Now condemn ISIS for beheading Japanese people.)

Japan: ISIS, you are a scourge upon humanity...

To the observation that Japanese officials eulogized a recently deceased Saudi Arabian beheader while condemning ISIS for beheading one of its own in the same week, a common inner circle American alliance spectator response might be to take a distance from Saudi Arabia, if only perhaps temporarily, and identify its problems as typical of the religious/racial outgroup (Muslims) without accounting for the fact that geopolitically, Saudi Arabia is a member of team USA -- official good guys. If Japan didn't send regards, it would be surprising. But when it comes to matters of life, death, and resource control, as a rule, geopolitical alignments trump traditional religious ones, which play little or no role in the political calculations of today's wealth and power accumulators, whichever gods they might pray to in their spare time. Just as Christian scientists need to put religious inclinations aside in order to be good at science, power players need to put aside theirs to be good at geopolitics, where being good, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with serving constituencies or spreading a more secular humanist way of life. Being good means, rather, doing whatever one does to keep the system going while maintaining or advancing one's position in it; or, maintaining power imbalances by exploiting power imbalances. In plainer English, surely you've seen some version of: "If I don't do the shitty thing, someone else will." Well if you're doing the shitty thing, you're providing the excuse for someone else to do the shitty thing (you're the someone else), and in the meantime, you're doing the shitty thing.

So simply noting that the Saudi Arabian and ISIS bosses are the same kind of monsters isn't enough. American cruelty often looks different, and makes for an easy point of comparison. After it's been polished for consumption, American cruelty can appear to be characterized by restraint. We use surgical strikes, enhanced interrogation, etc., methods calculated to produce maximum results with minimal pain. We care about civilians, they don't. They cause suffering because they're sadists, we do it as a last resort. Like Obama, we don't want to do the bad thing. This isn't the only interpretation broadcast by war propagandists, but it's in there for liberals who want to find it. Where the distinction between murder methods, theirs versus ours, is the distinction of interest, it serves a valuable function by hiding the geopolitical lines that would show western liberals covered in blood. The same distinction obscures the facts that Saudi Arabia is a member of team USA, that team USA is in large part responsible for both Saudi Arabian and ISIS cruelty, that team USA's violence empirically surpasses, by any reasonable measure, the violence of both, and even rivals both in terms of the cringe-worthiness of its cruelty (see torture report). And while we're speaking about the devil, Dick Cheney himself, in a moment of broken clock wisdom, once pointed out:
We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Overstated, sure, but the point stands that the U.S., by virtue of its tremendous (though diminishing) power, acts far more than it reacts. This is how power works generally, and again, the U.S. has a lot of it. The distinction between barbarous Muslims and the civilized west is not only inaccurate, it's a geopolitical tool used by the powerful institutions doing the shitty things. And nothing more. That's where the distinction came from. That's why it exists.

Friday, January 23, 2015

japanese government official flies to middle east to praise beheaders

Two Japanese taken hostage, at least one, journalist Kenji Goto, a classically worthy victim. Japanese spectators fear a beheading, feel anger, direct anger at the only villains on screen portrayed as such, all ties severed to longer causal chains.

Ex-Prime Minister Fukuda to be dispatched to pay respects to Saudi Arabia
Japan offered condolences to Saudi Arabia on Friday following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying, “Great sadness never ceases.” 
King Abdullah’s death is a “great loss also for our country,” Abe said in a statement...
America (and Friends) Made ISIS

The second and fourth are today's headlines.

3 common moves of apologist asshole dumbasses (all technical terms, seriously!) like bill maher

If you tell a bully he's being an asshole, he can shrug it off. He already knows he's an asshole, but has reconciled himself to it, even heroized his own asshole-hood. Think Chris Kyle. If you expose him as stupid, his face will turn red. There's nothing wrong with being stupid per se, but I can rationalize calling bullies stupid, as an insult, which is one reason I often focus on the incoherence of apologetics. As the rationalization of power-over, apologetics is always flawed from the perspective of human brains not conditioned to subservience.
I packed several apologist moves into two parallel dialogues below. At the system level, the following is system-perpetuating sleight-of-hand, rationalization, bullshit -- features, not bugs. At the normative level, assigning agency (which all humans do, however determined the world is), the apologist is an asshole who perpetuates the system knowingly or should-knowingly. Taken at face value, though, these are examples of stupidity. And Bill Maher is a fucking moron. 

First, where Bill Maher's accuser is the dummy:
A: What are we gonna do about the Bill Maher problem?
B: What Bill Maher problem?
A: He has purple hair, he's a rhino, and he communicates with aliens.
B: I'm skeptical. Show me that it's true and that it's a problem.
A: Why are you going easy on him? Why are you defending him?!
B: I'm not.
B: About THAT Bill Maher problem? Nothing.

Next, where Bill Maher is the accuser who is the dummy:
A: What are we gonna do about Islam?
B: What do you mean?
A: Muslims are dangerous. Jihad! Sharia for everyone! World domination!
B: Nominal Muslims, as a group, are more dangerous than nominal atheists, Christians, French people, etc.? All humans are dangerous. Are nominal Muslims RELATIVELY more dangerous? I'd like to see some proof.
Why are you going easy on them? Why are you defending them?!
B: I'm not.
B: About THAT Islam "problem"? Nothing.

There are at least three different things going on here (note: not directly related to three-way distinction above, just a coincidence): 
1. There's a buried presupposition. Often, as here, it's the point in contention, a point that's both weak and essential for the entire case, which is why it's buried. Some seldom specified form of "Islam is more dangerous than other religions" is the crux of the case against Islam (to the extent it can be called a case; is anti-Black racism a "case" against Black people? The case comes after, as rationalization). 
2. Inaccurate factual claims should not inform normative assessments. The best approach to understanding something is to accept accurate descriptions and reject inaccurate ones. "Avocados are made of glue" should not inform your decision of what to feed your kids. "Islam is uniquely dangerous" should not inform decisions about how to act toward Muslims generally.
3. Rejecting an inaccurate description of something, e.g., "Bill Maher is a dangerous rhino," does not amount to endorsing that something (Bill Maher). Or consider: "Spinach is awful because it grows on moons." You can reject that statement and still either like or dislike spinach. It's irrelevant, just an inaccurate description, best dismissed. You can reject the (inaccurate) idea that Islam correlates with violence (or that religion is even causal) without endorsing Islam. And because Bill Maher is an apologist for and perpetuator of systemic violence, you can accurately call him that, an asshole, and a moron all at the same time. The fact that he's a rhino has nothing to do with it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

where anecdotes rule

1. Let's not forget that universal statements can be refuted by a single anecdote.

A: "All apples are red"

B: "This apple is green."


2. Mythology works with universals. Perfection. Perfect heroism, pure villainy.

3. A single anecdote destroys, logically, any mythology.

But after the denial of anecdotal veracity comes the true scotsman to declare the bad appleness of the imperfection.

In any case, if you find yourself linking to anecdotal evidence disproving the existence of the mythologized cop, troop, etc., you're probably right.

brian dalton punching down

I love rants against institution heads, especially Popes. Like this one:
And I like Brian Dalton's Mr. Deity series, where he funnily picks apart religious (mainly Christian) dogma. But I don't like anti-Pope rants that are essentially anti-strawman rants, especially where the rant serves power by demonizing the enemy:

What Pope Frank said is here.

There's a subtle normative/descriptive distinction at work here. Frank was almost surely making a descriptive statement about punching someone, not a normative one. What he would (probably) do, not what he should do. He clearly wasn't saying the killers should have done what they did but he may or may not have been leveraging the ambiguity between normative and descriptive to suggest that the victims kinda deserved it. Your call. I don't happen to think so. But the gist of the statement is the descriptive "if X, then Y."

Just-world fallacy enthusiasts will say if Y, then whatever X was (the cause) was something you shouldn't have done (you deserved it). If he's implying the just-world fallacy, this is apologetics for the killers. I really doubt that he is.

Logically, though, "I would punch someone who..." (descriptive: it's just what would happen) is not necessarily an endorsement (normative: it's what should happen) of "punching someone who..." Assume so, and run into the tu quoque. Personally, there are plenty of things I do that I don't endorse. If a lung specialist smokes, it doesn't make smoking a healthy activity, etc.

As for the "don't be offensive" bit, it's nice for a rationalist to say "nothing offends me" (some do) but it's never quite true. It's a nice goal (normative), but not an accurate description of any real person. Self-censorship is an indispensable ingredient in social interactions. It's probably best to be as unoffendable as possible (and willing to give up beliefs shown to be crappy) but intentionally causing offense is a case by case matter. I generally wish more people would be less self-censoring, but I also try not to say racist and misogynist things. People with stupid ideas should stop having/saying/drawing them, and that includes racist French magazines. Doesn't mean it should be illegal, doesn't mean the bad idea people should die, but I would like harmful ideas to stop reproducing.

Criticizing the Pope for his supposed opposition to free expression misses the mark as well. Doubtful he's talking about free speech "rights" -- under what circumstances states lock people up for words/expressions/thought crimes. Seems to be saying don't be a dick, unnecessarily. If he's taking the side of self-censorship even when the other person has terrible ideas because sparing feelings trumps rationality, then that's a problem. I don't talk about your fleas, you don't talk about mine. A mutual truce would make sense given trinities and flying carpets. But my own thoughts aren't far off from his and I don't have any trinities to defend.

In the end, this is politics. Mockery of Islam serves power because it's the enemy du jour. If I were living in Nazi Germany, I'd be very careful even making accurate criticisms of Judaism, let alone caricatures aimed at a racialized underclass (Islam isn't a race, but Black isn't either -- there are no races, just outgroups categorized for ingroup convenience). Criticism of the enemy will get co-signed immediately, whereas criticisms of the ingroup will be condemned.

If you're talking face to face with a devout Muslim, telling them how absurd their version of monotheism is is fair game. Rationality over hurt feelings. But feeding hate of an already dehumanized group is a political issue. Mockery that punches down has real social-political consequences apart from hurt feelings. Drone bombings, social and economic opportunities...

There's the critique of bad traditional religious ideas (why is your god so genocidal?) and there's the critique of state power today. The one will use the other. The one that's important, today, will use criticisms of the one that's not, today, to its advantage, just as those did when they could, back when.

Friday, January 9, 2015

charlie dawkins tweets

Here's Dawkins, tweeting:
No, all religions are NOT equally violent. Some have never been violent, some gave it up centuries ago. One religion conspicuously didn’t. 
Religions do things, apparently. Religions believe things, act certain ways. Some act violently, some peacefully. Some religions love their kids, others wish they'd never had kids and shower them with abuse. Some religions kiss their partners...

Dawkins would likely say "oh, it's just a figure of speech, get over it," but nice religion/nasty religion,  where these are taken as agents, with the simple, perfectly efficient causal chain implied is exactly the model that Dawkins and his Islam-fearing allies use to make claims about religion. When he says these religions are not equally violent, he's supposedly taking on those who'd say "all religions are equally violent." It's assumed that his opponents claim that religious brands are causal factors that just happen to have (roughly?) equal causal implications. To be fair, alternatives to the incredibly simplistic model Dawkins implies -- where religious words cause beliefs which cause actions, like Reggie Jackson in Naked Gun walking in, zombie-like, from the outfield to kill the Queen because an alarm triggered his brain -- are perhaps a bit nuanced and varied. And maybe it's too much to expect a world-renowned scientist to follow such things. But one thing you, reader who is not Dawkins, might notice if you read prominent anti-Islamophobes is that they don't make the claim for strong but equal causality among religious brands. Rather, far and away the most common approach is to say that religious brand plays either no causal role or a possible role that's both minor and incredibly difficult to pin down. Prominent anti-Islamophobes tend to suggest that major religions are fungible, that you can make them say whatever you want. Again, Dawkins' "all religions are NOT equally violent" has religious brand causality as a built-in feature, where religions can be violent or not violent. And apparently it's the only variable that matters.

But there's no significant difference in the violence promoted by the texts of Christianity and Islam, so it's not a simple text to ideas to action chain. If Muslims are especially violent, but it's not the texts, then why? As a matter of methodology, would it be better to look at official religious doctrines, considering that they're closer to home than ancient texts? How about the explicitly espoused beliefs of individuals? OK, but then you'd have to deal with the fact that humans, let alone religions made out to be agents, don't follow a simple (words to) belief to action model. In fact, for the past few decades, neuroscientists have been exposing intentionality as something of a useful fiction. Even where there's reason to believe self-reported motivations are honestly reported, these should be treated as low resolution, biased, post hoc models. Models about cognition, about a series of neuronal processes that necessarily remain quite opaque to the modeller. But still. It might not be absurd on its face to take some combination of self-reported motives, official religious doctrines, and texts as sources in analyzing the etiology of violence as it pertains to religious brand. But who's doing that? And why would they? In the meantime, differences in access to technological and other resources, recent history of violence, wealth gap, infrastructure, and other measurables present themselves for much easier analysis. Differences that matter, that are already established as mattering.

Why are Muslims so violent, then, if we're looking at high resolution phenomena (as opposed to metacognition)? Being on the receiving end of imperialism? Democracies being replaced by dictatorships? Sanctions? Drone strikes? Interesting leads, sure, but the real answer is...the easy access Muslims have to high-tech weapons. No, not really.

Because it turns out that Christians have been behind considerably more violence than Muslims by any reasonable measure. So while imperialism no doubt plays a significant role in inspiring violence by self-identified Muslims (with relatively low-tech weapons), the claim (or more often, the assumption) that Islam causes exceptional levels of violence is wrong not only because religions don't cause violence (they don't, as far as anyone knows) but because Islam is not even correlated with higher rates of violence to begin with.

Given that Christianity correlates more strongly with violence than Islam does, maybe Dawkins would be interested in telling us why. While some theory of texts, doctrines, individual beliefs/psychology might appeal to someone trying to demonstrate the unique evils of Islam, does it sound as interesting when applied to "Christianity" or atheism? I suspect nominal religion would be about as useful in explaining the actions of Anders Breivik as his genetic whiteness would be. You can get the equivalent of phenotypic correlations (Muslims may be more likely to use machetes whereas Christians and Jews tend to use tanks and F-16s) but you're unlikely to find much that's useful outside direct lines of influence.

Anyway, instead of following what's measurable, and Occam's razor, Dawkins places the causal mechanism out of sight, hopelessly riddled by equivocity, in a murky intentionality called Islam. Did I just describe the way religion works? Yes, I did.

OK, just a little more Dawkins:
Of COURSE most Muslims are peaceful. But if someone's killed for what they drew or said or wrote, you KNOW the religion of the killers. (Dawkins)
Using the same formula while changing the names, we get:
OF COURSE most white guys are peaceful, but if a government building in the U.S. gets blown up, you KNOW the skin color of the killers.
OF COURSE most Americans are peaceful. But if a wedding gets blown up in the 'Stans, you KNOW the nationality of the killers. 
OF COURSE most Jews are peaceful, but if a whole neighborhood gets demolished by high-tech weapons in the Levant, you KNOW the religion of the killers. 
OF COURSE most right-wing European Christians are peaceful. But if a bunch of kids are massacred at a campground, you KNOW the political leanings of the killer.

Bury the causation lede, present a no-duh correlation. Like I've said, Dawkins isn't just an asshole. Also bad at logic, at least when it suits him.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

omg, we're surrounded by humans with nukes

Ahead of August’s 70th anniversaries of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some experts are calling on Japan to play a greater role in the effort toward global nuclear disarmament.
Did you just die laughing? Sorry, friend, I should have warned you. Did I mention the experts cited, all two of them, are American establishment members? OK, now you're really dead and I'm sorrier.
The Japanese government could be more supportive of reductions (of nuclear arms) than it is,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a U.S. group aiming to create a nuclear-free world.
Cirincione, also a member of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s International Security Advisory Board, said U.S. government officials often stress that President Barack Obama needs support from U.S. allies in pushing his agenda of nuclear disarmament.
Obama has an agenda of nuclear disarmament. But he needs help. He also has a drinking problem. And it's up to the family of Jesse, who he killed when driving drunk, to make sure he doesn't do it again.
Daryl Kimball, executive director at the Arms Control Association, a U.S. think tank, said that Japan and other U.S. allies “should be more vocal” about encouraging the U.S. and Russia to promote nuclear disarmament.
Let me amend what I said back there. Obama thinks there's a chance he might get in a drunk street race with a rival and he needs Jesse's family to keep it from happening.

Even acknowledging that Japanese politicians, acting of course on bullshit political motives, could, in a reasonable hypothetical, play some role in reducing the risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and whoever, that this is meant as a serious article is why the apes above are so OMG. Cirincione and Kimball are highly visible, serious, respected people who had all the time they needed to craft their statements. They didn't see the need to lead into it with "This is awkward and embarrassing, absurd really, and of course the fact that we pose an existential threat to humanity is actually our responsibility, 100%, but if you could just help a little we might have a better chance, and of course what happened in 1945 was criminal, we're in the process of changing the textbooks to reflect that..." No, they just said, if I might paraphrase: "Japan [the only country ever to be victimized by nuclear attack, a country that doesn't have a nuclear weapons program but which has in the past few years been in the process of beefing up its regular military capabilities while reinterpreting article 9 of it's Constitution (the peace article) to read 'no war except when desired' with significant U.S. (Obama!) encouragement] should be doing more to get [the most prolifically violent group of humans on the planet,] us [, the only country to have used nuclear weapons on humans (them, as it happens)] to give up our nuclear weapons."