Powerful speech

There is no free speech in the world. Instead, we have power speech. Powerful people can say what they like. The rest of us might not be arrested for our opinions, but anyone can be persecuted if the persecutor is sufficiently powerful or determined. People are persecuted for who we are.

Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian, challenged anyone to disagree with “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” one of the “anodyne statements” in this letter to Harper’s magazine. OK. These things often don’t work. Paul Krugman talks of arguing with zombies– because the zombie statements are in the interests of the powerful.

Here’s what would have been arguably an “anodyne statement” in 18th century London. It’s transphobic. On my blog I will white it out, that doesn’t work on the WordPress reader app unfortunately:

Edward Gibbon states that when Elagabalus proclaimed herself Empress and married a man, she “subverted every law of nature and decency”.

The social consequences of challenging this opinion would have been severe. “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is one of the ornaments of the Enlightenment in England, a feat of scholarship, well worth reading, and includes this brutal prejudice. No trans person could have silenced him then, or had that opinion excised. There were trans people, but they were quiet about it. They might have been mistaken for gay.

The bad opinion that harmless trans women should be expelled from women’s spaces is subject to endless reiteration by the powerful, particularly Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, and their minions or hangers-on. Sometimes it might persuade people, particularly when they are made to look away from the real issue. If you believe the myth of the predatory men just waiting for gender recognition reform so that they can pretend to be trans and attack women, you are a fool, but it is so loudly proclaimed that it feels like an anodyne statement. Jonathan Freedland, who is Jewish, should know the blood libel was anodyne, in some cultures and at some times. In the diaspora, there have been many Jewish commmunities, where the surrounding goyim could attack, encouraged by the authorities, at any time. The blood libel is false, but here’s a Saudi cleric repeating it, on television. He may even convince some people.

Possibly the blood libel, and the common transphobia of such as Rowling, is best defeated by looking to its consequences for its victims. Enough people see the harm and suffering such rubbish causes, and rise up against it. This is a response from the heart, not an Enlightened refutation. The answer to Mein Kampf is a roar of righteous anger, not wasting time reading the thing.

The letter says that the main threat to “the free exchange of information and ideas” comes from snowflakes like Mr Trump, but leftists should be better than that.

Several NYT columnists signed the letter, possibly objecting to the resignation of James Bennet. Then Jennifer Finney Boylan distanced herself from the letter because JK Rowling had signed. I don’t get that. If you think Tom Cotton’s article calling for the National Guard to be called on protesters should be met by reasoned refutation, surely Rowling’s should too? What if David Starkey had signed? His racist remark, which leaves me speechless, may be read here. I won’t quote it because of systemic white supremacy in the UK. He would only have been saying that bad ideas should be met with good ones, not that his own statements are always good. That remark could have been refuted by the definition of genocide: the term includes attempts. Completed genocide is rare.

Starkey has been a “controversialist”, making his money from saying offensive things, for a long time, clickbait both for his supporters and many who loathe him. He’s pushed it too far now, but previously he dismissed female historians as “historical Mills & Boon”. That is a nasty little insult. It’s trolling, not the “free exchange of information and ideas”. Anyone responding to it with a long, detailed account of how female historians make a worthwhile contribution would be feeding the trolls. No-one who disbelieves that may be convinced of it.

I am glad that Daniel Ratcliffe, Emma Watson, and the Leaky Cauldron condemn Rowling. There are any number of posts refuting Rowling, some line by line- may I recommend my own? As the Cauldron says, her remarks are “harmful and disproven”. That makes no difference at all. If “exposure, argument and persuasion” were enough to refute her rubbish, Rupert Murdoch would have made his money some other way than newspapers. The money of millions of Potter fans may have some effect on Rowling.

Margaret Atwood signed the letter, tweeted something mildly pro-trans, and was subjected to a hail of abuse, including calling her a “gender traitor”.

Physical spirituality

I sat in my back yard in the sunshine, in my t-shirt, unusual in England in December. As the cobweb shivered in a breath of wind, the long anchoring strand vibrated, and for a fraction of a second would reflect light then not. The light flickering along the strand was beautiful, and I paid it my attention. There is my body, warm, breathing, apparently still yet with so much going on, and a particular experience of a strand of spider-silk and of sunlight which I have spontaneously decided to give my attention, a physical process of sensory organs and brain processing.

Cartesian dualism, the idea of a soul, and the Enlightenment concept of the rational human mind for which the body is hardly more than a life-support system have split us in two, distorting and reducing our experience. I am not a spirit in a material world, a soul having a physical experience, but an animal, honed by half a billion years of evolution into more than is contained in the concept “mind”.

I am an animal, and part of my ongoing process of maturing is escaping the constraints of the mind I have been taught to value into the experience of my whole self and its whole capacity. Because of my particular experience, I call this learning “spiritual”, and yet so much of my “spirituality” relates to inhabiting my physical being, nerve cells, receptors, senses, processes. More broadly, I consider maturing is the process of learning what it means to be human, escaping constraints on ones humanness imposed by society or circumstance, and learning to use full human capacity- including “spiritual experiences” which do not make sense to the rational mind.

I could not see what I had not been taught to value. Then I saw it and because was terrified of it, I saw it distorted. Now I see it face to face. Finding it seems a spiritual experience and much of what I find is related to being an evolved animal in a physical space- of course, because that is what I am, rather than a soul or a mind. What I experience as mind is part of the animal.

It is good for us to spend time outside. It makes us feel better. This may be the skin using sunshine to create vitamin D, or being away from work for a moment (for those of us who work indoors) but for me it is the unpredictability of outside, the increased sensory stimulation, with more things moving and alive. We leave our most controlled environment and become animals in a habitat. If after at least eleven years of education, mostly sitting at desks listening speaking and writing “sensibly”, we have learned to value our minds this helps us value our bodies. Others may have had a more physical childhood than I, and still value their minds more. I walked over hills with my dog and with the Scouts, and leapt from a pile of bales of hay into a pile of sawdust at the nearby farm with the farm worker’s children, and am still doing this “spiritual” work.

I was thinking that my belief in God is different from my belief in Ediacarans, but it is not, not really. I believe in God, Father and Mother, Almighty Creator, in a way which cannot be expressed as a logical sequence of propositions, but is emotional, is a matter of trust. And I believe in pre-Cambrian fauna, but I could not evaluate the logical sequence of propositions used to say what they are: I could not date the rocks, or assess evidence whether they are multi-cellular eukaryotes or colonies of bacteria. Again it is finding trust, emotionally, in something greater than myself, in the truthfulness and co-operation of my culture.

Deferring gratification

Children who can defer gratification do better in later life. Children were offered one marshmallow immediately, or two if they could delay eating the first for an unspecified time. The ones who managed to delay for the longest, did best at college and in finding jobs later. The ones who delayed the shortest time were most likely to go to prison.

My friend said this was a matter of employing reason to overcome emotion. The rational mind thinks things through, the emotional mind follows impulses. But here the only motivation for wanting two marshmallows rather than two would be emotional, a desire to eat something sweet. If the children had been offered ice-cubes, unless it was hot and they were thirsty, they would not have bothered.

So it is a matter of having a particular skill- deferring gratification- rather than being “rational”. He found another false way of denigrating emotion: impulses are emotional, but so are long-term desires.

The way we think of these things affects how we can respond to them. Application is a skill to be developed, laziness is a vice to conquer, impulsiveness is a bad quality, these are things to be altered not personality traits. Brains are plastic. I feel seeing them in terms of developing and practising skills is useful, but also note that these things are difficult and take energy, and can be more difficult if you are tired. And motivation matters: if I have a clear understanding of how an act will benefit me, I am more likely to do it. Often, we do things because they are conventional, or because someone else wants us to.

Here I read a tactic to resist the temptation of a particular pleasure: think of a different pleasure. Children told to think of the marshmallows as fluffy clouds resisted temptation longer than those told to think of them as sweet and chewy, but those thinking of crunchy pretzels resisted longest. Thinking of the pleasure you could not have helped resist the temptation of the one within reach. Children who resisted the temptation also chose to distract themselves.

However that too might work for avoiding an immediate impulse, but not for doing something irksome. It would be better to find pleasure in the irksome task, or imagine what good it will accomplish. Think that you will have the pleasure in the future, rather than merely of having it.

Systematic thinking

Systems thinking is understanding how different parts of a system can influence one another within a whole.

Systemic thinking, unlike analytical thinking, requires multiple skill sets to establish a holistic view of a system and explain its behavior.  On the contrary, analytical thinking is used to break down a system in to simpler parts in order to identify the pieces and examine how they work together.  Unfortunately, humans most frequently analyze situations in a cause-and-effect relationship; we naturally handle these problems in isolation and solve them linearly. (Systems thinking works blog.)

At the highest level systemic thinking breaks down. There is no Theory of Everything: quantum mechanics explains subatomic particles and general relativity explains visible matter- but they are irreconcilable. Perhaps systems may be too complex for humans to understand.

Systems thinking is a management discipline that concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that comprise the entirety of that defined system. The whole system is a systems thinking view of the complete organisation in relation to its environment. It provides a means of understanding, analysing and talking about the design and construction of the organisation as an integrated, complex composition of many interconnected systems (human and non-human) that need to work together for the whole to function successfully…For every legitimate, official or consciously designed system (which is intended to be and is supposedly rational) there is a shadow system. The shadow system is where all the non-rational issues reside; e.g. politics, trust, hopes, ambitions, greed, favours, power struggles, etc. (Systemic Leadership Institute.)

Rationality is the quality or state of being reasonable, based on facts or reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action. (Wikipedia)

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. … It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought. (Ayn Rand, quoted by The Importance of Philosophy). No. Entirely and completely, No. Convictions of the nature of the World, possibly may come from reason and observation, but require knowledge of humanity- you need to know unconscious bias before you may eliminate it, or you become stuck in rationalisation, argument which only seems rational but which comes from the conclusion you desire. And we are social animals: we have unconscious instinctive understanding of each other, which we share with monkeys, and is therefore the product of thirty million years of evolution. Actions should be decided by an understanding of the world, but often come from unconscious processes rather than conscious thought. Goals and desires are non-rational: some people want children, some are appalled by the idea. Each is right for that person.

My values are chaos of thought and passion all confused– some seem to be aesthetic; the closest I can come to an axiom is, What contributes to human flourishing is good. Each of us must choose our own way to flourish.

The meaning of Life is human goodness. I heard that on the telly last night, in the context of a discussion of In Parenthesis by David Jones.

According to Aristotle, The human soul has an irrational element which is shared with the animals, and a rational element which is distinctly human. The most primitive irrational element is the vegetative faculty which is responsible for nutrition and growth. An organism which does this well may be said to have a nutritional virtue. The second tier of the soul is the appetitive faculty which is responsible for our emotions and desires (such as joy, grief, hope and fear). This faculty is both rational and irrational. It is irrational since even animals experience desires. However, it is also rational since humans have the distinct ability to control these desires with the help of reason. The human ability to properly control these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of morality. Aristotle notes that there is a purely rational part of the soul, the calculative, which is responsible for the human ability to contemplate, reason logically, and formulate scientific principles. The mastery of these abilities is called intellectual virtue. (Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.)

This is only a beginning.

Bruegel, the return of the herd

Reductionist thinking

I read a trans woman the other day saying we should not refer to “transition”, because it fuels the idea that we change from female to male, or vice versa. It prompted me to decide we transition from pretence to authenticity. There goes my rational mind, again, working out arguments why I was right to do what I did, by expressing them in words. Some call that “rationalisation”.

This is the human way. Transition was what I desired, more than anything else. It still makes no sense to me, is arguably harmful, yet I would do the same again- even though I desperately want to make sense of everything.

I am more myself than before.

People want ridiculous things. I am reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and a hundred pages in, finding it almost unreadable. Chip built a solid academic career, but then had sex with a student and wrote one of her essays for her, contrary to explicit college rules. He feels hard done by: she led him on! He writes a screen-play, but it is deeply flawed. He sees flaws, and fiddles with it without correcting it. He borrows $20,000 from his sister and fritters it. Maybe it was something in the air, around 2000: S is reading an English novel from about the same time, about a barrister’s life imploding.

His real problems are too great to tackle, so he footers about with irrelevancies. (“Footer” is Scots– surely it is linked to the French foutre.)

At the weekend, I was away with the Quakers, where Jan Arriens wrestled with our divided selves- head and heart, reason and intuition, and quoted Karen Armstrong on myth. When we act on myth, we test their value, and unlock our heroic potential. Jesus’ story is told that we might imitate him. We cannot know we are right through ratiocination, merely feel we are right- or deny our feeling that we are wrong. Chip is wholly concerned with appearances. He sells books which cost him $3000 for $65, to not look a fool on a date with his girlfriend. He wants things to be alright, for one more day.

Feeling, and feeling, and things go right, or not-

Jan Arriens values the feelings. Quakers do. We talk of the promptings of love and truth in our hearts as the leadings of God, and acting on right leadings is the heart of our faith. Others may test our leadings: it is always easier to see the insanity of another’s desire than ones own. We dismiss as “reductionist” the attempt to make sense of the world separate from feelings. The rational mind has value insofar as it helps the person put their desires into practice.

Jan links heart and head, respectively, with love and compassion, in which people give to each other who they really are, recognise their differences and share their vulnerabilities, and with ego, competing, manipulating, and seeking to control. Yet selfish and selfless in me are both emotional. I love being loving. I fear starving and freezing alone.

Monet, Cliffs near Dieppe

Welcome insanity

I need to tell you this. I don’t know how. I imagine uncomprehending laughter at the ridiculous trans.

There are things I could do, but there is nothing I have to do today. The forecast is heavy rain until late afternoon. I feel some lassitude and imagine I will spend a great deal of time watching TV.

By the way, I love Missy on Doctor Who. Not only has she changed sex, she dresses like a tranny. And she has that wonderful volcanic take no shit personality: “No, I have not turned guid“, she says, going Scottish and killing someone just to make her point.

It might be better to tidy my room, or sort my weekend- I can go dancing if X, so I would be well to check the possibility of X. It would be lovely to see B again. Instead, I want to dress up. I want to dress in a feminine fashion, though I will not be going out or seeing anyone. I want to manifest as utterly girly, simply for myself.

My enraged contempt at this desire stuns me. So it really is all about the clothes. It affirms the theory of autogynephilia: it is how the clothes make me feel, nothing more. It is not rational or sensible- though neither was transition, of course- to put on the heating rather than to put on a thicker sweater. Well, I don’t want to put on a sweater, I want to wear something pretty.

I overcome my enraged contempt, and do what I want. It makes no sense except that it is what I want.

I don’t rate my dress sense highly. That is why I said Missy dresses like a tranny- flamboyant but completely unfashionably, that cameo brooch at the neck was fashionable some time in the 90s. This long, soft skirt which I call “feminine”- well, Suzy passed the message on that I should show off my legs, and that is more fashionable, in leggings or short skirts. Well, this skirt is what I have. I don’t know what other clothes I would want.

It seems to me this is the only way I know how to pamper or affirm myself. All that resistance- it is stupid, pointless, ridiculous, imagining the raucous laughter of tout le monde- So now I am sitting, writing, and this is all I have done: I paced the floor, I made my decision, I showered and dressed, and it is lunch time. And I am exhausted by that work, such that this afternoon I will do little beyond watching telly or perhaps staring into space. Ruminating, thinking this over, noticing the truth of it.

(I’m NOT RUMINATING!!!! I thought this morning. I AM MAKING PROGRESS!! I DO THIS FOR ME!!!)

Hundreds of people come here from t-central, and some of them click several links in my menu, and none of them ever leaves a comment. Does this speak to you, at all? This is the only way I have to value myself, this is the only thing I know to do, purely for myself. I feel such delight and misery, pride and shame- that this is all I know, and that I am doing it.

Titian, Venus of Urbino

Of course I have been here before. I like to think I am making progress, but perhaps not. So I care for myself in some inchoate way, just in this moment, and delight in it, not doing anything which my inner rationalist would approve of. I sense the resistance. I am aware how much I fight myself. I seek to find patterns, it is the human thing to do, and perhaps there are none. And yet- right now I am doing what I want to do, rather than what makes sense, and I hope that is a good thing.

Ways of knowing

Poussin, Blind Orion searching for the rising sunTrying to provoke, I wrote, One advantage of believing obvious falsehoods is that one is not tempted to imagine one could know the Truth. Violet ran with it, making a whole post. Now, I suppose, I might try to say what I might have meant, or perhaps I should just stop digging.

I don’t think rationally, and I do some things designed to think otherwise. I sit in silence, seeking to still my thoughts. This is a religious practice. From this, I hope to understand better: I hope to know consciously what it might be that I know unconsciously. Things pop into my mind which are useful, often enough that I want to continue the practice, apart from the joy of doing it communally with chat and hugs before and after.

A friend gave me worry dolls, tiny wire figures in a two inch drawstring bag. Tell your worries to the dolls before going to bed, sleep with them under your pillow, and in the morning your worries will be gone. Lots of people sleep on problems, and the structure of benzene was found in a dream. Science works on rational thought, but that rationality has to include thinking creatively, imagining what is not seen.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, says the writer to the Hebrews, and goes on to list faithful acts where the actor did not receive the thing promised, yet contributed to its realisation for others.  And in Ecclesiastes we read all is useless, all is vanity, all is a chasing after wind. In much wisdom is much vexation. Different people at different times with different thoughts. Somewhere between the two, or perhaps veering madly from one extreme to the other, people find the strength to carry on despite the fears which might rationally provoke them to give up. Is it rational, ever, to get drunk?

Language develops by metaphor. No love was like a melody that’s sweetly played in tune, really, but there is beauty in that idea. The gods make people mad in love, and thereby we continue the race, which may be rational or it may not. I think of old rage and misery, and weep, and wonder why I am not over that yet, but perhaps it is newer upset coming into my mind with a picture I might consciously understand. This might not be rational, but still work somehow. Wit works by subverting rationality, humour works by irrationality for a deeper sense.

Look at me. How could I ever imagine that it was a good idea to try and change sex, gender role, presentation, whatever- yet in some sense it fits my character better. All I knew was that I wanted it more than anything else. So I did it.

God bless you and keep you
God make God’s face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you
God lift up God’s countenance upon you, and give you peace.

It might not make rational sense, but it is beautiful.

Poussin, Blind Orion searching for the rising sun

Emotional sceptics

File: - Google Art Project.jpgIf you are unaware that a man made a pass at Rebecca Wilson in a lift/ “elevator”, you take no interest in sceptic/ rationalist/ atheist fora.

She was a speaker at a conference in Dublin. In the lift, at 4am, a man she had not met said to her,

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”

This video is her original complaint about it. Later, she wrote this article about the backlash. Here is the New Statesman criticising Richard Dawkins’ comment on a blog post, and here is “Athefist”‘s blog post, two years later, which has got me writing this. Here is a woman who calls some of Watson’s later behaviour “bitchy”- I love the joke about the “vagina licence”, and that was where I found the video. Here is a blog which protests it is “not just about the lift thing”.

Watson objects to being “sexualised”. If he had just wanted a discussion, he could have had it in the bar. Proposing going to a bedroom, just the two of us, is merely sexual: not really interested in the conversation, or her as a person, just as an object for sex play. I think, Ew. Charm me first. Don’t just proposition me like that. Watson’s reaction, and mine, is emotional.

Athefist calls Watson’s arguments “dogma, irrationality, and faith”. Well, how should rationalist atheists talk about emotion?

Discussing it rationally is possible. In some cases, for example flashing, eliciting an emotional response without physical harm to another is sufficient to be a criminal offence. Where do we draw the line? Is it wrong to proposition someone except in a meat-market bar?

File:.JPGRational thinking can affect emotional responses. The man in the lift did not touch her, and there was no reason to suppose that he would. or would have refused to accept her “No”. These thoughts may reassure.

In the end, though, it is an issue of empathy. Do you feel as Watson does? Do you empathise more with the unnamed man? Should she be safe when alone in a foreign country at 4am from being propositioned for sex? Should he be able to ask her- after all, he did not argue with her refusal?

Watson herself in the video argues by mockery. “It was”- pause, open eyes wide- “a Joke“, she says, about some other matter- if you do not realise that you’re an idiot, obviously. She may be overreacting. “A man tweeted that he’d assault me”. Well, no. He tweeted, “If I run into Rebecca Watson at TAM9 next week I’m totally copping a feel”. That is a joke, not a serious statement of intent. Or so I think. Watson is distressed by the tweet, and here I do not share her distress, so I find reasons why her distress is excessive.

There is so much anger in Athefist’s response. Does he realise that? Dawkins, as well. He is right that she is less subjugated than a Muslim woman- even lots of Christian women– but that is an argument of derision, not a rational argument.

In that first video she was pleased to be on a platform with Prof Dawkins- now, she despises him.

Untestable hypothesis

Off round the blogs again, this time to Galileo Unchained, a Rationalist site. When I said I have certain experiences which might be explained supernaturally, a commenter replied,

 But they might ALSO be interpreted naturally, right? And is that what you prefer to do, or do you get kind of a thrill out of thinking you’ve somehow plugged into the great unknown spiritual realm? Or is it just possible that you’re willing to shrug and say “Who knows? Hard to tell.”

Another useful quote from the comments here is:

“Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

 —Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptic Society

A good variation on the Curse of Intelligence: clever people can make all sorts of screwed up ways of being in the world almost work, so that we do not improve on them.

At one point, I would have used Scott Peck’s four stage theory of personal growth to think, “I am more mature than they”- Rationalism is his third stage, explaining everything, and Mysticism is his fourth, involving inter alia living with things as they are without needing Classifications and Understanding. But then I found the wonderful Rationalist site Less Wrong, where much of the Maturity stuff I was taking in was espoused on a Rationalist basis. Oh well.

I could impute worse motives than thrill-seeking to myself, for imagining myself plugged into the Spiritual Realm. Hucksterism and charlatanry: I know, really, that there is no “spiritual” explanation for my Healing, and so I wilfully suppress that knowledge so that I can, in the long run, make money from it.

I know that God and Spirit is the Untestable hypothesis, which can be used to explain everything from the movement of the planets in the sky to the movement of the human heart, until a better explanation becomes available. And yet, I have my experiences, which are beautiful, and it feels to me possible that Spirit/ Lifeforce/ Whatever is involved. So I retain the possibility in my mind, along with the possibility that there is no God, and me waving my arms about in a particular way is something people might be willing to pay for.

And- I think that explaining things and distinguishing things and describing things and causal links with language is extremely important and can go a long way- and when I can go no further with that, I have to relate and perceive, and be open to possibility and different perception. And it is tempting to classify and describe when one does not have the knowledge to do so accurately, yet always necessary to push the boundaries of what is describable. Though I think many Rationalists realise this too.