At Least Blame the Right People

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As the Coronavirus Pandemic drags on and on, people, on all sides, are getting more and more frustrated. I know I am. When we get frustrated, it is only natural to look for people to blame. If we can just take care of the cause of the problem, things will finally start to get better, or so we think. That’s unrealistic, though. There are myriad causes for most problems, including the pandemic. There’s the virus itself, political failures, human nature, poor communication, misinformation, and many more. There’s no realistic way to “take care” of all of those things.

Blame is a funny thing. Assigning blame is one of the most common and natural things that we do, but blame won’t change anything. For change, we need pressure, censure, accountability, and things like that. Blame stirs up emotions in the one blaming without doing anything at all to the blamed. At best, it’s a starting point. It’s often a distraction. At worst, it creates hate and division.

In order to ensure the best case scenario, care and consideration must be taken before assigning blame. It’s a waste of energy to blame anything and everything that contributes to a problem. I can blame evolution for the virus mutations with some justification, but evolution has no power to do anything differently. We might as well blame clouds for rain. We can blame all of those who fail to do the things we think are important for stopping the pandemic, people who don’t wear masks and refuse vaccinations and spread misinformation. That’s not going to do anything but create division, though. There’s justification for the blame, of course. If everyone simply did what was best, many problems would go away. Blaming the anti-vaxxers for the pandemic is like blaming your neighbor’s SUV for global warming. Yes, it does contribute to the problem, but the difference your neighbor’s SUV makes is negligible, even if you got him to switch to an EV. Fellow citizens can act differently, but cannot enact widespread change. Blaming and starting fights with our neighbors is barking up the wrong tree.

I know this needs some unpacking. It makes some sense that if people can change, then convincing people to change will solve the issue. The problem is that we aren’t built that way, psychologically. It’s a widely known phenomenon that pointing out an error in someone’s reasoning is likely to get that person to double down on their incorrect assumption. People smoke, drink alcohol, consume all kinds of other drugs, ride motorcycles without helmets, have unprotected sex, skip dental appointments, eat fast food, etc. It’s almost never the case that they do these things because they don’t know the dangers or use faulty reasoning, though. It’s that other factors outweigh the dangers for them.

This might be a roundabout way of getting there, but the point is, only governments have the ability to make changes at the scale we need to end the pandemic. If you’re going to blame someone, blame the government. And I don’t want to hear anything about the last guy or the opposition party. The Democrats: Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer are in charge now. The current spike is their responsibility. They’re the ones who aren’t willing or able to do what it takes. If they would just mandate masks and vaccines, we’d be past this by now. You don’t need to be a genius to know that this cycle of relaxing and tightening the recommendations makes things worse or that asking nicely wouldn’t work. Even with seatbelt mandates, people drive without them. We are right to be angry. Let the right people hear about it.

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Learning How to Drive

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I’m going to take my first driving lesson with a friend today. I’ve made a lot of excuses about why I’m 35 years old and don’t have a driver’s license, but the truth is that I’m afraid of driving. I was in several car accidents when I was a kid, and my mother almost died in a car crash. I watch drivers in Hartford run red lights with impunity almost every time I’m in the city. But there’s one memory that stands out when I think about my fear of driving.

I was a kid, sitting in the passenger seat. We were in the left-hand lane at a red light. The driver behind us got impatient, and swerved into the right lane, presumably to get ahead of the rest of us. I heard his engine roar as he pulled off. Shortly after, I heard a thunderous crash. The driver had slammed almost full speed into another car in the right lane which was also stopped at the light. The crash was so violent that the back of the driver’s car lifted off the ground momentarily from the impact.

My mother jumped out the car to go check on the driver, and I followed after her. By the time we reached him, other drivers had pulled him out of the crumpled mess. They laid him on the ground and he started convulsing. It was like someone was jerking the strings on a marionette. My mother told me to get back in the car, but the damage was done. I couldn’t get the image of the man shaking out of my head. Honestly I still can’t.

It’s time to conquer that fear though. Don’t get me wrong- I very much enjoy walking and taking public transportation, and I plan to continue doing both once I have a car. But in the past few months, I’ve finally seen what having a car means to one’s ability to enjoy life. There’s a certain spontaneity that’s just not possible with the bus, not to mention the increase in access and reach. These things never meant anything to me before because I’ve always taken the bus. Even as a kid, we were riding the bus as much as we were driving. Now though, it’s hard to go back to being confined to bus routes, or hosed by Uber and Lyft fees.

I’d also avoided a car because I don’t like having bills hanging over my head. I’ve changed jobs alot in the last few years, and it’s been nice to only have my rent and my cell phone to worry about paying month to month. Maybe this is a step I need to take though, to tie myself down and be more thoughtful in my decision-making since there would actually be something to lose. I don’t relish the idea of a new bill, but like I said, Uber ain’t free either.

Finally though, I want to be able to provide for the people around me in a way that I can’t now. My son has never bugged me about getting a car, or all the places he wishes we could go. He’s very eager to drive though, because neither I nor his mother does. I can read between the lines on that one. But I’ve also been shown all the places I can take him with a car, places I simply didn’t know exist. I want to take him, my friends and loved ones to cool places to build memories together. To do that, I’ve got to get behind the wheel.

One of my favorite philosophers, Albert Camus, died in a car crash. For some reason, when I read that, the first thought I had was, “That’s probably how I’m going to die.” That thought didn’t make any sense, as I wasn’t driving at the time and had no real desire to then. A big part of this too truly is conquering that fear, and showing myself that I can do this. In a way, it’s coming to terms with Camus’ one liberty. In a much more grounded way, I’ll be able to do cool shit, so let’s do this.

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Cash or Credit

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For a long time, I’ve held two contradictory opinions simultaneously. One is that credit card companies are about the most evil things on the planet and everyone should stop using credit cards. The other is that no store should be cash only. They should all accept credit cards. My opinions are changing (at least one of them) and I want to explore that a bit.

The evil of credit card companies is beyond doubt. They are exploitive, usurious, and have financially crippled millions. They seek out and target the young and marginalized. Plus, they are a major component of the credit industry. I’ve written before that, “Credit is probably the biggest scam in human history.” I explain myself there, so I won’t repeat it. It boils down to most people would be better off without large debts, but credit cards try their hardest to sink everyone in ever deeper debt.

Given what I think of credit cards and credit in general, why did I ever think that all stores should accept them? There are a few parts to that. One is just being unreflective about it. I was suckered in by the convenience of having options. I didn’t like a store making me stop and get cash. And the ones that had an ATM on premises were worse with the ATM fees. Another is that I worked in anti-money laundering for many years. Cash only businesses are a huge red flag in the anti-money laundering world (not to mention tax evasion and other forms of fraud). My time in the business made me suspicious of any cash intensive enterprise. Third, I believed, perhaps naively, the safety arguments. It’s dangerous to carry cash. You can get robbed. Credit cards have theft protection. And there’s a record of credit card purchases if something goes wrong.

My thinking has changed along with circumstances. For starters, I seem to be less lazy as I get older. Convenience is not nearly as important to me as it once was. I actually think a bit of inconvenience is a good thing as it discourages irresponsible impulse buys. Cash intensive organizations are still a money laundering threat, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. Preloaded gift-cards, insurance policies, CDs, REITs, almost any financial instrument can be used to launder money. I don’t think boycotting cash only businesses will make any difference. The safety issue has flipped, too. I’m not recommending keeping thousands of dollars on your person all the time, but I’m much more afraid of identity theft than someone stealing my wallet now. I’ve lost track of how many businesses have been hacked and offered me “free” credit monitoring to make up for it.

Beyond these changes, there are more options now than there were before. It used to be (mainly) cash or credit or check. Now there are debit cards, direct transfers, crypto, and apps like Venmo, PayPal, and Cash App. So, a lot of the convenience and protection of credit cards can be gotten in other ways. There is good and bad with all of them. The apps like to charge a fee for immediate access to the funds, for example. But, at least so far, the new options seem to be less evil than credit cards.

Personally, I still like cash. It can’t be hacked or traced. It gives me an easy way to budget myself. And it cuts out a middle-man. I prefer to transact business directly with the seller. With a credit card, or Venmo, the seller and the buyer are both interacting with a third party. It’s one of many inefficiencies in the modern economy that raises prices and enriches the already rich at minimal benefit to us.

Of course, eliminating credit cards, or at least rebalancing towards a cash economy, is only a step in the right direction. Many of the issues that come with credit cards, and cash only places, will persist as long as money remains our primary economic tool. But, a step is a start. Let’s get moving.

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Taste and Colors

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I often say that there are only six colors: blue, green, red, yellow, orange, and purple. You wouldn’t think so, but this upsets a lot of people. On the low end, people will point to a box of 64 crayons. Others say there are infinite colors. If you count black, white, and gray (not really colors, but I don’t have time to explain that now), I can get up to nine, but I’m nowhere near everyone else.

Most people say that there are only five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. I can’t even wrap my head around that. I sense more than that in an off-brand granola bar. People insist, though. They claim that what I’m tasting is combinations of the five tastes, not many different tastes. I have questions.

For starters, why are they different? You could easily say that there are only three colors and everything we see is just combinations of those colors. People act like that’s absurd, but what we call green is just a combination of yellow and blue. If a chocolate covered pretzel isn’t a distinct taste, just a combination of sweet and salt with a hint of bitter, why is orange a distinct color?

I can see where naming all the gradients of color can be helpful for some people, artists and designers and such. It could get annoying talking to other artists, “I need reddish-blue. No, more red. More red. Ok, maybe it’s bluish-red. No, more blue.” But, wouldn’t the equivalent be useful for chefs and the like? “More salt. More. More. Too much.” That’s what we do now. Couldn’t we come up with names for the sweet/salty combination of bacon to separate it from salted caramel? I know I’m sensing something different even though we use the same words.

Ok, that didn’t take much time. For me, calling black, white, and gray colors is like calling crunchy, moist, or cold flavors. They certainly impact the experience in an important way, but it feels different to me. Oh, what about brown? That’s a combination of red, yellow, and blue.

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Let’s Talk About Sex

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I’m pretty sure the last time I was involved in an honest, public conversation about sex was when I was thirteen. I was raised attending a Unitarian Universalist Meeting House. For those not familiar with Unitarian Universalism, it’s not a typical religion, for lots of reasons. One of those reasons was that Sex Education was part of the Sunday School curriculum. And it wasn’t just, “Sex is bad!” It was a comprehensive Sex Ed course. It talked about why people have sex, the benefits, the risks, the biology, birth control, abortion, and social attitudes. It was as awkward as you can imagine a group of thirteen-year-olds talking about sex would be, but it was honest and public.

In the 30+ years since that Sunday School course, I have witnessed a lot of public conversations about sex. Unfortunately, none of those public conversations have been honest. When we, as a society, talk about sex, we are always posing. Those poses fall into two extremes: either sex is everything or sex is evil. If I believed the first side, I’m the biggest prude who ever lived. I mean, I don’t even have a sex dungeon in my basement. If I believe the other, I’m a hairy-palmed pervert ready to burn for eternity.

Public talk about sex can be separated into distinct categories. There’s pornography and erotica (I’ve never understood why erotica has it’s own word. It’s almost like people think written smut is classier than pictorial smut.) There’s nothing close to honest about porn. To be fair, that’s not the point. It’s supposed to be fantasy. I know the current trend in feminism is sex-positivity (The philosophy of porn – Prospect Magazine), but I don’t like porn. It makes me uncomfortable. I know I’m admitting something that people will judge me for, but I’m being honest. Porn is too fake. Most of the time the actors don’t even look like real people. The situations are crazy. And my fantasies don’t line up well with what the writers and producers seem to think people want. Put the misogyny, exploitation, and everything else on top, and it’s more than I can take.

Next is non-pornographic arts and media. That’s basically everything else that the arts and entertainment industries make for public consumption. There’s sex everywhere. I’ve read a lot, watched a lot of movies and TV, listened to a lot of music and I’ve “learned” a lot. Going more than a day or two without sex is an eternity. It’s amazing any loser who finds themselves sex-free for 48 hours survives. Virtually all men are bad at sex. At least, that’s the most likely reason why virtually all women are sexually frustrated. Men always want sex. Always. No matter what. Women are either nymphomaniacs or think sex is a chore. The human brain ceases to function when sex becomes a possibility. No one actually practices safe sex, ever, but the only people who ever face consequences for sex are the protagonists in stories about STIs or unwanted pregnancies. And more often than not, those are comedies. STIs and unwanted pregnancies are clearly nothing to worry about. So, I guess what I’m saying is there’s not much realism there.

Then we have the moralists. The focus here is that sex is sinful. Some go so far as to say that any sex that doesn’t result in a pregnancy is bad. Most will allow heteronormative sex in the context of a monogamous, traditional marriage as long as neither partner enjoys it too much. Any hint of a kink or fetish is a definite no-no. This is, of course, crazy, extreme fantasy. There’s not a hint of honesty anywhere. I find porn more wholesome.

Advertising is famous for being misleading about sex. There’s the classic trope that using the right product is the only way to access sex. And none of us could possibly be attractive without (store bought) help. Then, there’s the pharmaceutical ads. I’m sure I suffer from some sexual dysfunction, and I don’t even know which one. Lack of sex has been pathologized. Whatever you do, don’t assume that there’s other stuff going on in life. Take a pill and have more sex.

I could go on. There’s locker-room talk/gossip and no one wants to tell a boring story with regular old sex. There’s politicians and the rich and powerful finding ways to justify the unjustifiable. But, I think you get the idea. We talk about sex nearly constantly, but who could blame you for having no idea what to think of it all. Remember when President Clinton’s Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, was fired for suggesting that masturbation is normal and healthy? I’d say that sent some kind of message.

The reason I’m highlighting this problem is that it’s 2021, it’s about time we, as a society, try having a mature, informed, and healthy attitude about sex. The message out there now is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to have sex. But, no one ever actually says what the right way is. Don’t have too many partners or too few (and don’t ask what the right number is). Don’t go too quickly or take too long (should we set a timer?). It’s good to plan sex, but only if you’re spontaneous about it. We can do so much better. There’s a huge spectrum of what counts as good sex. That’s the message to get out there. Instead we’re making everyone insecure. Awkward Unitarian thirteen-year-olds are making us look bad.

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Should We Trust Science?

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I find myself frustrated lately. I am vaccinated and I continue to wear a mask when I go out in public. I do so for several reasons. One is that my daughter is one of many unvaccinated people (she’s too young), and I would hate to spread COVID to someone who could be seriously hurt by it. Second, it just makes me more comfortable. Third, I worry about variants. Often, I feel like I’m the only one still wearing a mask. I know that’s not the case, though. Spend any time online and you will see many fierce mask advocates. These are the people I’m writing to today. (Of course, everyone is welcome to read and comment. It’s just that I want my fellow vaccinated mask-wearers to consider what I have to say.)

I see it all the time, people proudly proclaiming, “I believe in science!” or demanding that other people, “trust the science.” Some like to say, “Thank you, science,” and implore others to, “Listen to the science!” I want to say I know what they mean, sort of, if I’m being extra charitable, but the reality is I don’t have a clue. All four of the statements listed, and all the others like them, are absurd. I’m not even trying to be Wittgensteinian (you can take that to mean snarky, nit-picky, or both) here. I’m a big fan of figurative language.

But, think about those statements. “I believe in science!” I mean, sure, I think science is something that exists. It’s like saying, “I believe in colors.” There’s no point to the assertion. Unless they mean “believe in” as in “support.” “I support science!” That’s still a pretty weird thing to say. Would you say, “I support red?” What about when the red is a result of a deep cut on your arm? Do you still support red? There’s good science. I believe that. But, there’s plenty of bad science, too. Science isn’t a monolith. Why support it all? (Never mind the irony of supporting science unquestioningly.)

The other three statements are all absurd in the same way. Science isn’t the kind of thing that can be thanked, trusted, or listened to. It doesn’t do anything or say anything. Science is a tool or a method. “Thank you, hammer.” “Trust the karate.” “Listen to the measuring tape.” No thanks. I’d rather thank the carpenter, trust the sensei, and listen to the person taking measurements. And even that’s only if I believe the carpenter, sensei, and measurer are competent, honest, mostly unbiased, and using their powers for good.

I know a lot of my intended audience is rolling their eyes at this point. What I’m saying is pretty obvious upon any reflection. They’ll tell me that they obviously support, thank, trust, and listen to scientists, not science. These are just figures of speech. But, here’s the thing, scientists are just people. There is nothing special about them whatsoever. Some of them are very good, intelligent, unbiased, and trustworthy. Others are bad, stupid, biased, and deceitful. Most fall somewhere in between.

And here’s the point, “anti-science” is completely understandable, rational even. It has very little to do with science at all. It comes down to whether we trust the people telling us about the science. This is pretty basic epistemology. Most of what we know, or think we know, is learned from others. I know nothing about cars, for example. If my mechanic tells me I need brakes, I believe him and get brakes. I don’t know for sure if I really need brakes. I don’t even know how to check for myself. If someone presents me with evidence that my mechanic is crooked and recommending unnecessary repairs just to line his pockets, it throws everything into doubt. It would make sense for me to not replace my brakes. Nothing about the physical facts has changed, I may still die in a car wreck because of bad brakes, but my reason for believing my mechanic is gone. The mechanics’ union and car enthusiasts may label me anti-maintenance, but I’m being rational and trying to protect myself.

The problem that we are facing is that scientists, policy makers, reporters, and lawyers have consistently shown themselves to be untrustworthy. And I don’t mean that they’ve been the victims of conservative smear campaigns (although that has happened, too). They have been untrustworthy all on their own. Look at the pandemic. For over a month after lockdown started, we were told repeatedly by scientists, reporters, politicians, and our well-meaning neighbors, “Don’t wear masks.” We were told that they are pointless, the virus is smaller than the gaps in the masks (there were even diagrams and charts). We were told that they make things worse because of the way they change the way breath is dispersed. We were told that coronavirus spreads on surfaces anyway. We were all washing our groceries when we got home from the store. A month later, there was a full reversal. Masks are everything. They are the only way we can protect ourselves.

I know the, “that’s how science works, we learned new information,” response. It’s bogus, though. If scientists, reporters, politicians, and well-meaning neighbors wanted to be trustworthy, they would not have told us masks were ineffective or harmful. They would have said things like, “We don’t know,” or, “We’re studying it, but the results aren’t in yet,” or even, “Masks would really be great, but there is a major supply shortage. We need to give the masks we have to medical professionals. Isolate until everyone can have a mask.” Instead, they lied to us. I’m guessing they felt that it was better to be reassuring than truthful, but it backfired, spectacularly.

It’s not just the pandemic, either. We’ve passed so many, “If we don’t do something by. . .” dates with global warming that I’ve lost count. They lied to us about AIDS and Autism. Turn on the TV or YouTube for any length of time and you’re going to see misleading claims made by drug manufacturers. The replication crisis is very, very real. In other words, it would be dumber to trust than be skeptical.

Now, as I said at the beginning, I am vaccinated. I wear a mask. I worry about global warming and all the rest. But, I don’t think people who don’t are necessarily stupid. The failure isn’t on our neighbors. It’s on the scientists, reporters, and politicians. The well-meaning neighbors should change their strategy accordingly. Hectoring never did anyone any good. Neither has condescension. Treating people like they’re stupid or unreasonable just makes them defensive. Listening sympathetically would go further.

Ultimately, it isn’t our responsibility to convince our neighbors. Forget the maskless anti-vaxxer down the street. It’s a free country. We have no more right to tell him what to do than he does us. We do have a right, even a duty, to take the scientists, policy-makers, and reporters to task, though. Demand they be trustworthy. Don’t make excuses for Fauci lying to us about masks. Make him do better (or get rid of him). Biden shouldn’t be able to get away with, “But I said ‘please.'” If the left continues it’s strategy of victim-blaming, nothing is ever going to get better.

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Our Niche

From the beginning of our blogging journey, one question that has plagued us is, “What’s your niche?” For those not terribly familiar with the world of blogging, it is divided up into niches. There’s tons of lifestyle blogs, dating blogs, sports blog, parenting blogs, and a shocking number of blogging blogs. It goes on and on. We’ve been resistant to adding a label to ours. Part of that is we both have diverse interests and don’t want to pick just one of them. Another part is that we agree that good writing is good writing, whatever topic it happens to be about. We try hard to produce good writing and hope people enjoy it.

The niche questions keeps coming up, though. It’s more persistent than SEO. We get it. People are more likely to visit if they have some idea what they’re going to find. Good writing is vague. As we’ve been talking about it, Gene noticed that there is a theme to our writing. We have a certain contrariness about us. The way he put it is, we frequently disagree with and point out issues with the people that we generally agree with. That’s a little confusing, but it means that we are liberals who find the political left maddening. We’re anti-racists who think that way too many fellow anti-racists are counterproductive. Jamil is a gamer who worries about the sexism and bullying in the gaming world. We’re both geeks who love Star Trek, but think they got Discovery and Picard wrong. The same patterns are there in all of our takes.

The thing is, we’re not contrary just to be contrary. We do it because we want to make the world better, but we’re pragmatic rather than idealists. Jamil realized that we’re Cynics in the classical sense. We push against conventional wisdom and social norms in the hopes of improving them. We’re not Socratic in many ways, but we want to be like his gadfly. So, that’s our niche, classical Cynicism. People should come to us when they want a different take. When they want to refine their ideas. When they want a sparring partner. We know many people are perfectly comfortable in their bubbles. We want to get to know all the rest. We don’t need to agree. Think of how much fun a community where we challenge each other could be.

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Metaphors

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This piece was in Aeon magazine a little while ago, The self is not singular but a fluid network of identities | Aeon Essays. It’s an interesting piece, well worth a read. It makes the case that the usual way regular people think of the self is mistaken. It is not simple, like a soul, nor is it a series of memories/experiences, nor the narrator of our story. Instead it is a network. Essentially the self is a web of relationships. I find this appealing for many reasons, but the big one is because I identify myself in terms of relationships. I’m a father and a brother and a son and a friend, among other things. This theory fits nicely with my natural disposition.

The essay is also an example of a common problem when people try to explain many phenomena. That problem is that we frequently use metaphors in our explanations and then pretend that the metaphors aren’t metaphors. Selves can’t literally be networks. If they were, it raises the question of what is being networked. (Maybe it’s a network of networks, but then it turns into turtles all the way down.) I also can’t help but wonder if there’s a potential uniqueness problem. If two individuals (identical twins, perhaps) have the same networks, are they the same self? Those questions are neither here nor there. I just want to point out that as a metaphor, the self as a network is enlightening. If it isn’t a metaphor, though, it’s closer to nonsense. So, why hide the fact that it’s a metaphor?

Like I said, it’s a very common problem. How many times have we heard that the brain is a computer? Or that the body is hardware and the mind is software? I remember reading once about how outfielders use algorithms to catch fly balls. Politics is a game. Religion is the opiate of the people. We are told that genes compete with each other, cancer is smart, and that the earth is suffering (technically these may be personification rather than metaphor, but, in my view, personification is just a specific type of metaphor). It shouldn’t take much reflection to realize that none of these things are literally true.

This matters for several reasons, although all the reasons are variations on a theme. All metaphors break down when pushed too far. When someone fails to acknowledge that they are talking metaphorically, they are misleading. And many people will take the metaphor literally. The first one is obvious. There are no two things with a completely identical set of properties. Everything that is, was, or will be is unique. Therefore, no comparison is perfect. Brains are brains and computers are computers. They have some similarities, but they are not the same thing.

Second, misleading people erodes trust. You don’t need to be an expert in the topic of the lie to know when you are being lied to. You don’t need to know much about brains or computers to know that brains are different than computers. When someone stands up and says, “The brain is just a computer,” and never admits the metaphor, many of the listeners will stop trusting the speaker no matter how valuable the insights.

Third, those who don’t feel like they are being lied to, are apt to miss the metaphor completely and take the statement as literal truth. Sometimes these misunderstandings are relatively harmless. Someone who believes that the brain is literally a computer might write some atrocious speculative fiction on the topic. But, there are real harms. That same person is much more likely to fall for quick-fix “psychology” and self-help scams. Reprogram your brain to lose weight, learn a language, or get dates.

Look at the discourse around genetics, evolution, and related subjects. By constantly talking about selfish genes, competition, success, suitability, etc. people are being mislead. As a result, we get science sceptics. It’s easy to arrive at “evolution is just a theory” when you suspect that the powers that be aren’t telling the truth. We also get weird teleologies. Almost all of the biology metaphors imply intention which isn’t really there. Intentions imply values and we wind up with bigotry. If women are supposed to have babies, if that’s their purpose, then women who have babies are good and successful while those who don’t are wicked or failures. Misunderstanding evolution may not cause sexism, but it is definitely used to support it.

The best way to fight back is through openness and honesty. When someone uses a metaphor, they need to make sure that it is clearly a metaphor (maybe using similes would be better). They need to acknowledge the limits of the metaphor and recognize the pitfalls of people misunderstanding. Most of the time, I believe the true experts know that they are talking metaphorically. But their knowledge doesn’t do much good if it isn’t communicated effectively. Metaphors are powerful, but risky. We need to take care when and how we use them.

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Automation and Utopia by John Danaher

A little while ago, I wrote this piece about work. I had just gotten a copy of John Danaher’s Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work. I was looking forward to it and wanted to record some of my pre-read views on the topic. I finished the book and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s very good, well worth the read. Now, I want to share some post-read thoughts.

The book is split into two sections, automation and utopia (shockingly, the title doesn’t lie). In the automation part, Danaher lays out the common argument that technological unemployment is likely and the less common argument that technological unemployment will be a good thing. We should embrace it and encourage it rather than fighting a losing battle against it. I’ll grant that my thoughts were leaning this way before reading the book, but the argument is solid and convincing. Current technologies are not like older technologies. Old technologies displaced workers. They simultaneously closed certain doors while opening others. Modern technologies actually replace workers without creating any new opportunities.

He goes on to explain why we shouldn’t be afraid of being replaced. The simple reason is that work is bad. He doesn’t just say that certain jobs are bad. All work is bad. Even if you like your job, work is still bad. I have a quibble here. Instead of having one category, work, I tend to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary work, with necessary work being worse. It takes work to be good at music, but working on music is not structurally bad in the same way as being a corporate drone is. Danaher tends to not consider what I call unnecessary work to be work. That’s ok. It’s really just an issue with terminology, and in the utopia section, he deals with this issue.

He explains five reasons why work is bad: “The Problem of Dominating Influence,” “The Problem of Fissuring and Precarity,” “The Problem of Distributive Injustice,” “The Problem of Temporal Colonization,” and “The Problem of Unhappiness and Dissatisfaction.” I’m not going to get into detail here, but I think most people can figure these out. We’ve personally experienced these problems. Basically, work is a direct threat to our autonomy, freedom, rights, family, and friendships. It makes living the good life extremely difficult. Danaher spends quite a bit of time dealing with counterarguments and objections. Like I said, he is convincing. He sticks to philosophical arguments, but I think he could have gone on with sociology, history, and psychology to make it even more robust.

The second half of the book addresses what we will do if we are no longer working. He explores several possibilities, but focuses mainly on what he calls the Cyborg Utopia, the Utopia of Games, and the Virtual Utopia. (He doesn’t talk about the Utopia of Games as separate from the Virtual Utopia, it’s more a type of virtual utopia, but I think he spends enough time there that it deserves its own breakout.) Danaher defines utopia as, “Any prospectively achievable scheme of radical social-political improvement which would, if installed, leave every affected party better off and none worse while respecting the rights of all.” This definition mostly works for me. I have trouble talking about rights outside of a specific political framework (In other words, I don’t believe in universal human rights), but it addresses the problems that come with utopian schemes. In fact, there is a good discussion of Popper’s anti-utopian views and how to get around those objections.

The Cyborg Utopia is what it sounds like, reaching utopia by technologically upgrading ourselves. This is interesting, but ultimately Danaher decides that it doesn’t quite work. There are lots of plusses, an ever expanding horizon for us to strive for, extension of life (possibly even a form of immortality), and more opportunities for everyone to contribute to the Good and the Beautiful. But, it could be a way of preserving work, it may not be rationally intelligible for us, and it may not be feasible. I would add two other, related, objections. First, is the desirability of becoming cyborgs. Danaher addresses luddites in his discussion of automation replacing workers, but I think it deserves it’s own section in the context of cyborgization. Most people are fine with medical interventions such as pacemakers, cochlear implants, insulin pumps, etc. I have a hunch people will be less willing to embrace technologies that more obviously change who we fundamentally are. There is no clear line for when that happens, but I think it will scare a lot of people. Second, can we reach a point where we are no longer human? If we do, there’s no telling if human virtues will still be virtuous for whatever comes next.

The Utopia of Games is, again, what it sounds like. It mostly addresses what we will do if we are not working. Games are a way of replacing the things that are actually good about work. They give us goals, a sense of identity, and ways to grow. This is also where my unnecessary work concern is addressed. Danaher uses a broad definition of games where basically everything that I consider unnecessary work would be considered a game. The Utopia of Games comes out looking good. It would be an adjustment, certainly, but it’s an adjustment we can see ourselves making.

The Virtual Utopia is a discussion of Nozick’s idea of utopia as meta-utopia. Danaher is right that the utopia section of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is the most interesting part. The idea is that utopia doesn’t have to be one thing for everyone. Instead, people should be able to choose the type of society they want to live in. Maybe there will be a libertarian utopia over here and a socialist utopia over there and a social-democratic utopia across the river and everyone can move freely to whichever they want. There are obvious, practical problems trying to implement this in the real world. If there were an imperial utopia, they would be a threat to the other utopias, for example. And how do we divide up the land so that certain groups don’t have natural benefits that others don’t? Danaher thinks that virtual worlds are a way we could overcome these problems. The imperial utopia can keep expanding in the virtual world without affecting anyone else. The virtual worlds could have whatever climate, etc. the participants want.

Personally, I don’t have much of a utopian mindset. It is interesting, but I preferred the first half of the book. Utopias are long-term things anyway. What I really want to see is some short and medium term ideas. How do we bring about the end of work? How will everyone get what they need? What will the next 10, 20, 30 years look like? I recommend Automation and Utopia. I hope it inspires thought and discussion. And if any of you read it, I’d love to talk about it with you.

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Privilege

Photo by Ava W. Burton on Unsplash

Ugh. Make it make sense!

Challenge accepted.

What are you talking about?

I’m going to make it make sense. Picture this:


They gathered in the conference room with the usual chit-chat. The project manager closed the door bringing everyone to attention. “Big news, everyone. Big news. We got a new job. The K Boys were so happy with the last one, they came back. If we knock this out of the park, I’ll bet we can get a long-term deal.”

Everyone looked eager. “What’s the job?” someone asked.

“We need to come up with a word.”

They started muttering nonsense syllables.

“No, not just something random. There’s a phenomenon in society where certain people are treated worse than others simply because they belong to a certain group and they frequently have no choice as to whether they belong to the group or not.”

“No!”

“That’s crazy!”

“Who ever heard of such a thing?”

“Now, now, I had the same reaction, but I did a little digging. It turns out that this really happens. For example, black people who are minding their own business and not doing anything wrong are frequently harassed by law enforcement. Just for being black. And women, you’re not going to believe this, usually get paid less than men for doing the same exact job. I found that similar things happen in this country for almost everyone who isn’t cis, straight, white, non-disabled, and male.”

There was shocked muttering all around the table.

“Now, the K Boys want a word for this.”

“Discrimination.”

“Oppression.”

“Subjugation.”

“Disparities.”

“No, no, no. Let me finish. Those all make it sound like an obviously bad thing. This has been happening for ages. The K Boys have realized that the word is going to get out soon. People, everyone, is going to be talking about it: the press, academics, activists, and eventually regular people. They want a word that can be introduced so that people can talk about the issue, but doesn’t let the talking lead to changes.”

The room was silent. Everyone looked uncomfortably at everyone else. The project manager asked, “What? You’re not having moral qualms, are you?”

Someone responded, “No, it’s not that. None of us are affected by this issue, if it’s even real. This is just a really hard assignment.”

Someone else spoke up, “What if we start talking about levels or hierarchies?”

“How will that help?”

“Well, we can give the impression that people get what they deserve, depending on what level they occupy. Almost like a class system.”

“Hmm. It’s the right idea, but too conceptual. That’s not a word, it’s a whole school of thought. We need something catchy and memorable. Something that fits in a soundbite.”

After another moment of silence, someone else said, “Demerit?”

There was some nodding and the project manager said, “Intriguing. Please explain.”

“I mean, people are treated differently because they’ve inherited demerits. Someone with no demerits can live life free of harassment or discrimination. Those with demerits have more hurdles to jump.”

“I like it. It keeps the idea that people deserve the treatment they get. And it plays on what the word already means. It’ll be easy to incorporate into everyday language. This is promising.”

The whole table began talking excitedly. Then, one voice rose above the others, “Excuse me. Umm. I don’t want to be a buzz kill, but how do we explain how people get the demerits?”

“Come on, why do you need to ruin everything?”

“I just don’t think demerit will work. If we try saying that being black or female gives you demerits, won’t that be too obviously racist and sexist?”

A few people nodded. “I hate that you’re right. How do we fix this?”

Everyone fell back into silence. Minutes passed before someone said, “Privilege.”

“Ha! Yeah, right. We’re going to convince people that demerits are a privilege?”

“No.”

“Are they going to think that being treated unfairly is a privilege?”

“Nope.”

“Then what does privilege have to do with what we’re talking about?”

“Nothing whatsoever. That’s the beauty of it.”

“I don’t follow.”

“We’re the ones that have privilege. Look at it this way: Instead of talking about the things that cause certain people to be treated badly, we get people to think that those who are not treated badly are privileged.”

“Okay.”

“So, when people try to talk about discrimination and other social ills, they wind up talking about the very people who are unaffected by such things. It’s hard to spin a security guard following an innocent person of color around a store or a business without access ramps as anything other than bad. We’ll change the conversation. I have privilege because the security guard doesn’t follow me and I can just walk up the stairs. We become the focus. We’ve always been the center of attention. This preserves that.”

“But that can’t work, can it?”

“Sure it can. The people who use the word will get to feel righteous. They’re pointing a finger and assigning blame. People love doing that. And the people who are called privileged will get resentful. Most likely they did nothing wrong. These are systemic issues way beyond them, but they’re being blamed for them. If anything, it will increase the divide between the “privileged” and everyone else.”

“That’s actually kinda brilliant. The K Boys will be thrilled. Our bonuses are going to be huge this year.”


Huh?

I made it make sense.

But that’s not what actually happened.

I have no idea what actually happened, but what’s more likely? That some well-meaning academic coined such an obviously counterproductive word that completely fails to highlight what it is supposed to be highlighting and all of the allies enthusiastically adopted it? It was planted. It’s counterintelligence. That’s the simplest explanation. It’s like big tobacco. What’s the goal of people who talk about privilege? They probably think it’s to get everyone to have privilege (which doesn’t make any sense), but people hear it as them wanting to take away our privilege.

That does make sense.

Just like you wanted.

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