Aftermath

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I want to talk about all of this.

I want to write and engage and inspire and console and encourage and help. I want to be sending positive ripples out into the world, however small, to be felt by everyone, by people I love and people I don’t love yet.

But one way or another nothing I can say is right.

I want to say: The world has not ended. It is still wide with variety and broad with potential. Americans, your country is young, and has already survived worse abominations and greater upheavals than this. There are many around you who share both your mourning and your values, and who will help make sure that this darkness is not all-encompassing.

…But it really is pretty dark right now. And it’s a rather meager reassurance to note that a major catastrophe is technically still sub-apocalyptic. A disaster doesn’t have to be the worst thing that could conceivably happen to anyone, to still be unbearably bad. The forthcoming negative effects on numerous individuals will be very real. *Some people are not going to be okay.*

I want to say: Among the many factors which congealed to somehow let President Trump happen, one of the more consistent and central is the alienation of the Other – and this is a thing we each have the power to personally resist. So much of modern life encourages us to divide into teams, and view anyone on the other side of an arbitrary line as the enemy. To define yourself in relation to an opposing tribe, and to hate and fear them for no more substantive reason than that they wear a different meaningless label, which identifies them as not One Of Us, is one of the most natural parts of being human. To *reject* that urge, then, and to remember in all things that the whole of humanity should be your tribe, is one of the most dramatic and revolutionary things you can do. Trump’s brand of politics wants us to be afraid of what They might do to Us; if we all recognise that They *are* Us, his divisive ideology will have nothing to grasp onto.

…But how constructive, let alone reasonable, is it to encourage people to reach out with compassion to the same braying hordes who’ve delighted in spitting on them with contempt and denying them the most basic human rights? Acknowledging that every adversary is a complex sentient being, whose humanity deserves to be recognised, isn’t much good if it stops us from condemning their vile actions and defending their victims. There are women, people of colour, Muslims, LGBT* folk, people dealing with poverty or disability, and many others much deeper in the shit than I am, who are rightfully furious at the way they’re being treated. Can I really lecture any of them about the importance of being kind? How much racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted abuse could I face in my actual real life, before I wanted anyone preaching humanism and universal compassion to shut the fuck up?

I want to say: If the election didn’t go how you wanted, you are not powerless for the next four years. You do not need to passively accept whatever malign bullshit the authoritarian machine wants to inflict upon you, until the next time you get to tick a box. There are numerous ways that people can organise collectively to achieve common goals; the way dictated by the electoral college and the US central government is a shitty one, but people are coming up with better small-scale examples all the time. We can demonstrate a social system founded on more positive values, more conducive to thriving and prosperity, than the greed and insularity that dominates at present.

…But, redundant and unconscionable social constructions though they may be, the power structures in place across every major democracy on the planet at the moment are a thing that’s actually *there*, even if only because enough people still believe in them. This is a horrifying way to run a landmass, but for millions of people it’s the only game in town, and it’s not crazy to grasp at one rare and very prominently offered opportunity to alleviate some of the pain. For all that I complain about democracy providing nothing better than the lesser of two evils, the chance to have a little less evil to deal with right now probably sounds pretty good to a lot of people.

I want to discuss my political ideas with people. I want to expound at length on the candidates’ policies and ideas and flaws, and their role in shaping the discourse, and how our interactions with them eventually led to this sorry state of affairs.

…But everything’s so raw for so many right now that I have no idea how to do that without blundering senselessly and callously over fresh wounds and coming across like an uncaring ass and causing more pain.

And so I mostly just get on with things, because I’m white and straight and male and middle-class and able-bodied and thousands of miles away so I get to do that.

And when I try to contribute, it’s either brief and pithy and utterly inadequate as a response to the whole situation because there’s just so much to respond to, or it’s so broad and generic that my observations essentially amount to, “Boy, the number and magnitude of good and/or bad things that are happening and/or could happen in the world is, like, wow, right?”

Which is a lot less profound than it feels like it ought to be before I try and express it in words.

I firmly encourage love and hope and solidarity and kindness and direct action and art and revolution, and I also empathise with anyone who doesn’t find some or any of these an appropriate or practical option in response to what they’re going through right now.

Good luck, everyone.

(Also yeah, clearly I’m not actually back to blogging again. Oh well.)

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Clinton/Trump Tumblr thoughts

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(Reposting this from Tumblr. The original context is someone declaring that they “do not and will never trust anyone who casts a vote for Hillary”.)

Hillary has done many abominable things and will no doubt continue to do so given half a chance. I wouldn’t vote for her, the entire system is deplorable.

But, supporting Clinton is not incompatible with perfectly reasonable levels of human decency. It takes some compartmentalisation, and some serious discounting of some major damage done, but that sort of thing’s surprisingly easy for basically decent people to do. I was actively supporting mainstream liberal candidates not that long ago and very little’s really changed in my ethics.

Obviously you get to avoid associating with anyone you like though. And anyone saying you’re morally obliged to vote for Clinton or you’re responsible for everything President Trump does can fuck off.

You can swap the two candidates’ names and this all remains true.

Ask A Frood #1

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One regular feature I’ve got planned for this place is Ask A Frood, where I offer general agony-aunt style life advice, on potentially any topic, in my capacity as someone with absolutely no relevant experience or qualifications in any field. Feel free to get in touch if you need some guidance yourself, but for now let’s dive right in and see what’s in the mailbag.

Hey frood,

I’m a high school student in Utah, and I was recently the subject of some heated debate online after a this news story appeared. I’d found myself having “impure thoughts” after seeing the school cheerleaders in their uniforms, and spoke to my counselor about it, but it turned into a whole thing and now people are talking about “feeding into rape culture” and a lot of people are upset. I’m sorry if I’m a bit vague and can’t provide any details beyond what’s in that online news article, but you’re actually just writing this message yourself as a rather clunky framing device, and the real person you’re imitating is in no way involved. Can you help?

Yours,

A Fictionalised Version of an Unnamed Teen

Hi Fictionalised,

Ugh, I’m sorry, none of this sounds like fun for you. High school is universally a challenging ordeal, and if you’re anything like I was at this stage in life, trying to avoid this level of attention took up a good 75% of my total mental effort. I hope this all hasn’t become too much of a media circus.

So, first of all, none of the controversy and argument over “body shaming” and so forth seems to be your fault. Talking privately to the school counselor is absolutely what you’re meant to do when you’re bothered by something like this, whether the problem is other people’s behaviour or what’s going on inside your own head. People like teachers and counselors are meant to be there to support and help you out at times like that, and it sounds like it only became such a big deal because the school staff didn’t handle it well. Don’t feel you need to take it all on your shoulders if other people have got upset.

I’m not sure whether you got much useful advice from the adults you’ve spoken to about this, but one thing I hope they made clear is this: involuntary thoughts, however “impure”, absolutely do not need to be a source of guilt. By their nature, they’re not something you have any direct control over, and it’d be unfair to blame you for them when you did nothing to make them happen. The human brain is incredibly complex and weird, and often doesn’t act like it’s on your side.

For instance, it’s quite a common phenomenon that, on seeing a big red button with a sign saying “DO NOT PUSH”, many people will experience a strong urge to push the button. Our brains are just perverse like that. Mostly we won’t actually push it, but the inappropriate thought arises unbidden, all the same.

If you were just experiencing the “I really want to push that big red button” type of intrusive thoughts, you probably wouldn’t have used a word like “impure”, with it’s implications of guilt and shame. I presume the thoughts you had were more of the type that society expects us to feel guilty and shameful about. And while it might sound vacuous or unconvincing, the best advice I can give is to urge you to believe that you have done nothing wrong or shameful simply by having these thoughts.

What goes on inside your head is entirely your business. It harms nobody else for you to think or imagine anything at all in the privacy of your own mind, and it only needs to be a problem in any way if these thoughts are distressing you, or you have concerns about them leading to inappropriate actions. What you do is what matters, and while that’s certainly informed by your thoughts, being able to recognise that these things would be inappropriate if you said or did them for real is a sign that you’re probably not doing too badly. While they’re staying in your head and not affecting the way you treat other people, there is no terrible sin or heinous crime you’re committing by having these thoughts.

Now an important corollary to all this is that, if your thoughts are prompted by somebody else, simply by the presence of their body or outfit, then they don’t need to feel any guilt or shame either. There’s not some measurable objective quality of “impurity” or “provocativeness” which they possess; you viewing them that way is a two-way street, and asking someone else to accommodate you by changing their behaviour may or may not be reasonable.

You’re probably in the middle of figuring out that sex is an important, difficult, very highly charged area of life for most people. The way people approach the various different topics of sex can be highly beneficial or profoundly harmful, and people often have very strong feelings around it, not least because of the harm that gets done. People who talk about “objectification” and “rape culture” and “body shaming” are all describing real things and raising real concerns – but it’s a complex discussion, and it’s okay not to be fully up to speed with all of it. You’ll be a bit less confused a bit less often as the decades go on, for whatever comfort that is. For now, one thing to remember is that if people are upset, they’re probably not really upset at you. The world’s been putting all kinds of unwanted sex-related stuff in their heads too – probably not exactly the same as you’re struggling with, but I guarantee you it’s there.

Also, you’ve probably heard enough variants on “You’ll understand when you’re older” by this point in your life to have gotten really tired of it – but this genuinely is something that starts to make more sense and feel less overwhelming and confusing when you get older. It’s not a matter of young people being dumb or incapable of learning, but there are some things that simply being older makes you more likely to know. The process of existing in the world throughout these awkward years, and the slightly-less-awkward-if-you’re-lucky years that come after, tends to give you an understanding of some things that it’s hard to put into words. It just sort of happens to you.

I realise I’m assuming a lot here. I know next to nothing about you from what I’ve read in the news, thus the need to highly fictionalise you and respond to a very particular set of concerns that I’ve imposed on you for the sake of my own narrative. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that you’re trying to figure out ways to handle this without hurting or judging anyone else. But I hope I’m right. That’s a good way to approach the world in general, if you can manage it. Keep doing your best.

Sign-off catchphrase,

Me

(h/t The Friendly Atheist)

oh wait hang on again

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Once again, I’m coming back to dash off a quick extra post right before going to bed, because I forgot to talk about Donald Trump. I fervently pray that this doesn’t become an oddly specific theme here. He’s a source of profane fascination, but I doubt I’ll find something to forget about him until the last minute every day.

Anyway, I wanted to mention that I caught up with most of the Presidential debate gossip over the course of the day, and it doesn’t seem like I missed a whole lot. My bubble seem generally impressed with Clinton’s performance, and about every third post in my Twitter and Facebook feeds is some sort of meme, or a chart, or an excitingly-fonted quote printed over a dynamic black-and-white photo, detailing one of the many facets of Trump’s despicability. (Not looking up whether that’s technically a word because I like it so I’m using it.)

And some of them are funny and well argued, and some of them really are striking in how detached from reality the Trump movement is, and many of them are no doubt an important part of a worthwhile discourse… but I’m less interested in all that than I was. I can’t bring myself to do much joining in, and loudly despair over how someone is repeatedly being wrong, not just on the internet, but in real life too. I’m glad someone‘s keeping an eye on it, but I honestly have nothing to add to that particular line of dialogue at this point. It feels like it’s all been said, and to little avail. Weary sighing and exasperated hand gestures of futility do not make for fruitful commentary.

The part that interests me, in line with the ethos I was talking about earlier, is trying to understand the phenomenon at the level of human drives and motivations. As has been the case with people who voted for Brexit, every journalistic interview piece or Radio 4 documentary or This American Life podcast that I’ve encountered that actually talks to some individual Trump supporters, and tries to dig down into how they think and feel and what the process was that led them to where they are, has been much more interesting and revealing than the constant incredulity and befuddlement generally heard from my corner of the political swimming pool.

It’s reassuring in a way, but also even more frustrating, because now they’re well rounded individuals, with a backstory and coherent narrative, rather than just an anonymous mass who can be dismissed as millions of identically unthinking racist idiots – but they’re still so unbelievably wrong.

You don’t need me reminding you of all the reasons why Donald Trump is a disaster of a person.

Whether or not you have any more need for whatever it is I’m proposing to do instead, remains to be seen.

Ethos

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There are essentially two things that interest and motivate me, as I stumble through this world trying to make life tolerable on the way toward my inevitable demise.

First, I want to believe things that are true, and stop believing things that are false. Being reality-based is important, but humans are really not designed for it. Trying to identify and correct the many, many ways we tend to be wrong about things takes very deliberate effort. There are hard limits to how good we can ever really get. But it’s possible to make progress, and it’s worth trying.

Second, all conscious beings are important and deserve compassion and empathy. Everyone capable of experiencing anything should experience “good” things as much as possible. Suffering is bad, and inflicting it on anyone as a goal in its own right is immoral.

Wait, and cheesecake. Three things. Three things interest and motivate me in life. I’ll mainly be keeping to the first two on this blog though. My relationship with delicious baked goods is more personal.

Also my transhumanist tendencies are grumbling at the phrase ‘inevitable demise’ but I’m sure I’ll get round to that later.

A place that informed my thoughts on rationality, and somewhere I recommend if you want to explore it in more depth, is the Less Wrong community, particularly the series of essays known as the Sequences.

There’s not really an equivalent hub for curated discussion of kindness and compassion, that I’m aware of (though I’m very open to recommendations), but my idol on this front is named Kelsey.

Also it’s only just occurred to me that I’ve written this whole thing so far without using the word “humanism“. If I’d remembered that sooner, this whole piece could probably have been a lot less wordy.

Tomorrow, the first instalment of a new feature, Ask A Frood. Feel free to submit requests for advice or characteristically piercing insight via whatever medium suits you best.

oh wait and before I go

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Okay, so this isn’t a proper post, I know I’ve just done the introduction and promised actual content of some sort tomorrow, but the first of the Clinton/Trump debates is tonight and I am weirdly stoked.

It doesn’t start until like 2am in my timezone and I’m not that dedicated as to actually stay up and watch any of it live. But by the time I wake up tomorrow there’ll be reams of gossip awaiting me from all my more dedicated American news sources. And for some reason it gives me a real night-before-Christmas-morning sense of excitement.

This whole election cycle has been so weird, and tonight could be such an amazing chance for Trump to explode spectacularly in any number of ways, most of which would probably give him another spike in popularity among people who are watching the same soap opera as me but from a very different angle.

I realised earlier that I kinda want it to be as batshit as it has the potential to be, that a big part of me hopes he really does go off the rails in some genuinely flabberghasting way, and would be disappointed if he ends up just reiterating the same old refrains, and only blusters and bullshits his way through it at a predictable, familiar intensity.

And then I realised, oh god… I’m the problem here, aren’t I? I’m buying into his narrative in a way that reinforces it as much as anyone. I’m why we can’t have nice things.

I’m going to go to bed, and try to persuade myself I don’t care how many public assassinations or international coups the Republican nominee for President manages to incite while I’m asleep. Night night.

Hello

So here’s my new blog.

I started my last WordPress blog at the start of 2008. I wrote intermittently about politics, religion, and other such light-hearted and uncontroversial trivia, for about eight years. I took most of 2016 off, and am now slowly easing myself back on the wagon.

A clean break from the old site felt right, largely because I’m not the same person who did most of that commentating on the world. I’m not in my mid-twenties any more. I haven’t even been in my late twenties for years at this point.

It’s not like being 30 magically imbues you with some kind of wisdom of the elders. Most of the people on Tumblr whose writing has made me want to jump back into the fray are startlingly young, and that doesn’t stop them being much better than me at having opinions. But I’ve grown and learned and changed and all that stuff Jerry Seinfeld never wanted his characters to do. Some things interest me which didn’t back then, and vice versa.

Being an atheist was new and exciting. It felt like the world needed me to compile a comprehensive list of all the things people are consistently wrong about. And I was quicker to write off the possibility of worthwhile engagement with some people were really beyond the pale, often getting quite impatient and unkind.

I mean, it never mattered – nobody was really reading the damn thing, and I was only ever flailing futilely against much bigger fish who’d never notice me – but there are definitely a number of posts back there which I’m not proud of and wouldn’t write now.

I expect I’ll pick out some of the old highlights, and share them again here from time to time. Either to look at how I’d address them differently now, or how my position might have shifted in the intervening time, or maybe just to repeat myself directly if it’s been a long day and my wife’s nagging me to binge-watch Bojack Horseman or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Green Wing or Orphan Black with her again. (Another pair of undeniable omens that I’m not in Kansas my mid-twenties any more: a wife, and Netflix. Twenty-something atheist blogger me didn’t have either of those.)

Anyway. Preamble over. Content tomorrow.