skepticism

Crack in the Womb

[Spoilers for the Season 1 finale of Steven Universe follow.]

The moment that sealed Steven Universe into richly-deserved fame and a place in future discussions of the evolution of pop culture was the 52nd episode, ”Jail Break.”  In addition to pointedly and thoroughly burnishing the show’s credentials as queer-inclusive and emotionally complex, it provided viewers with a beautifully-composed song-and-fight sequence, from the only one of the four main characters to have avoided a musical number until then:

The words of “Stronger Than You” are poetic and poignant, particularly these:

I am a conversation.

I am made

O-o-o-o-of

Lo-o-o-o-ove o-o-o-o-of

And it’s stronger than you.

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Unpacking the Red Pill

I’m actually sort of upset that internet hate groups have managed to co-opt the matrix red pill analogy. It is actually a really good metaphor for social justice and the way that becoming aware of privilege and systemic injustice works.

It really is like suddenly opening your eyes and realizing that everything you thought you were seeing you were actually seeing incorrectly your whole life. It’s incredible. Where the analogy fails is by painting it as a single pill.

The truth is that becoming aware of social justice issues is really like swallowing a whole bunch of different red pills, each one exposing you to yet another level of interconnected systems of oppression. This is why we get some atheist activists, and other social justice activists, falling into this same trap over and over again of thinking that they couldn’t possibly be sexist, racist, transphobic, classist, etc. because they “already swallowed the red pill” so now they could see the whole truth.

There is also this idea that swallowing one red pill makes every additional one easier to see, but that’s not true. Sometimes you can swallow multiple red pills at ones at once. But the truth is that each one is painful to take. Each one produces its own side-effects, its own difficulties. Swallowing the red pill is never easy.

It’s not just one easily exposed system that once you see a part of, you essentially get an idea of the whole. It is more like a self-replicating computer virus that infects different system files. You can cut one out, but unless you get them all, it will just rebuild again.To really solve the problem, you have to root out every single individual corrupted system file. Otherwise, the program rebuilds itself, just using a different pathway, but ultimately yielding the same result.

Take the evolution of feminism throughout the years. Each wave of feminism exposed layers of patriarchal oppression, however, by failing to consider the interconnections of various issues and the level to which the system was self-replicating, rather than fixing the problem is shifted the scope of it. Such as when the response of women trying to prove that they were every bit as capable in “masculine” fields and tasks ended up reinforcing the gender binary. The focus was on showing that women can also do “masculine things” rather than on showing that the division of actions into an either or option was not based on an accurate social model of gender. The resulting surge in femmephobia reinforced a lot of harmful patriarchal concepts that are now that much more difficult to dismantle. It’s not that second-wave feminists went too far, it is that they didn’t go far enough. It failed to take into account how the system is also supported by race, by cis-centrism, by ableism. It failed to look at the matrix as a whole.

Imagine if the matrix actually existed as a series of levels. With every successive pill you see a little more of the matrix. But if you don’t realize there are more pills to take, you might be tempted to think you see the whole matrix. Agent Smith is counting on that, because as long as you believe you are outside the matrix, they can use the parts of the matrix you are still connected to to shift your perception of the world around you.  As long as you are still within levels of the matrix however, you continue to power the system.

If we take the premise of the matrix movie that human beings are being turned into a potato battery, becoming aware of different spheres of oppression is like discovering that your potato battery is charging other batteries and working to shut off those batteries so that your battery doesn’t die. Those are the first red pills you usually take.

The hard pills to take are those that reveal that even while you are struggling to unplug the connections that are causing other batteries to drain your charge, you are recharging your own battery from other people as well. These are the pills that make us choke, that stick in our throats. These are the ones that make us want to fight and reject what we are seeing, because more than anything the matrix relies on our denial that we could be harming people even if we have no intention to.

You didn’t know. The plugs were in your back and you couldn’t see them because you were in the matrix level whatever. But intentionally or not, you have been draining other people’s batteries. Whether you knew or not, you may have been the connection that added just that extra little drain needed to completely empty someone’s battery.

So now you have to make a decision, which do you pull out first?  The ones draining others or the ones draining you? Or do you try to pull them out at the same time? Do you leave others to try and pull out the ones draining them out themselves? Do you go back to pretending you never saw the ones in your back or deny that they’re there? Do you address some but not others? What makes you decide?

The choice you make is ultimately yours, but the one you make says something about you as a person.

My choice is striking a balance between pulling out both sides. I need to pull out my own because I can’t take out the system if my battery is completely dead. But I also need to work on pulling the ones that are charging me. Sometimes, when my battery is draining too fast, I need to take a break. I might need to focus on pulling out my own for a few moments, though I never forget about the ones in my back. Sometimes, I am being drained slow enough that I can forget about pulling out my own for some time in order to focus more on pulling out the ones that I benefit from. In fact, often when I am puling out my own, it is so that I have the surplus energy to spend more time pulling out the ones that charge me.

Everyone is interconnected into the system, but not everyone carries the same number of output and input energy. Some people only have maybe one or two output cabled, while being charged by several sources. Even when this happens, you might not be retaining a high charge, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are still draining others. The opposite extreme also exists with some people being almost completely output cables and none or almost no input cables.

The system is like a web and everyone is plugged into it.

It is essential that we all disconnect and break the system. When you have any system that depends on batteries basically sharing charge in a single continuous system, that leads to combustion. Just ask anyone who has had keys and batteries in their pocket, and ended up with burning pants because the two connecting created a single circuit.

The system is a path to destruction as long as it exists because either your battery gets completely drained or you combust. That’s ultimately why systems of oppression like patriarchy end up hurting even those they privilege.

Anthropomorphic Terror

The human brain has a great deal of real estate devoted to the tasks of recognizing faces and recognizing emotions in those faces.  Neither of these tasks is foolproof: seeing faces where they are none is the most common form of pareidolia and has whole religions devoted to it, and prosopagnosia and difficulty reading emotions in faces are both common difficulties associated with autism.  One of the most common malfunctions of this facial recognition module is treating animals as though their facial expressions and other behavioral signifiers mean the same things as ours.  It’s from here that we eventually get snarling velociraptors in modern creature features.

A great deal of cruelty is had when people refuse to read animals for what they are saying, and instead read what they think ought to be there.

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Apocalypse of the Week 11: This Magic Skull Goes All the Way to…Zero

The giant earth crocodile with mouths at all of her joints.

Giant ape-men with backward feet and hanging intestines that waylay travelers.

The plumed serpent of the sun, wind, and mercy, who raped his human-shaped sister while divinely hammered and still got to keep the “mercy” portfolio, and is also the planet Venus for some reason.

Feeding the sun with the beating hearts of thousands of sacrifices.

And you thought Revelation was sick.

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Apocalypse of the Week 10: Unspecified Event at Unknown Time with Voluptuous Edith

Of all the figures to get famous making predictions about the future, none stands taller than Michel de Nostredame, better known as Nostradamus.  This French (no relationship to Claude “Raël” Vorilhon, probably) almanac writer, medical assistant, and amateur astronomer wrote 1,013 prophetic verses that have not ceased, in the 450+ years since his death, to inspire credulous grandfalloons to align events to them after they’ve happened.
One would expect prophecies to be useful before things happen, but whatever.  If one has read Nostradamus’s incoherent ramblings, one knows that getting useful information out of them is kind of like squeezing apple juice out of oranges.  It’s just not in there, and one is liable to burn out one’s eyes and start laughing at oneself if one tries.
Here’s one chosen at random, since the 1,013 verses are presented in no particular order and were meant to be 1200 before some publisher errors cut out most of the last two sets:

Amongst several transported to the isles, 
One to be born with two teeth in his mouth 
They will die of famine the trees stripped, 
For them a new King issues a new edict. 
(Century 2, Quatrain 7)

Which isles?  There are thousands.  Which king?  It’d have to be one who still has decree power, which does narrow it down.  Which edict?  This king will, presumably, make more than one.  More importantly, Nostradamus obeyed the One Rule of Pretending to Know the Future: don’t tell people when.

So maybe the next Sheikh of Bahrain, facing a famine in one of the world’s wealthiest archipelagos for some reason, will issue an edict that all non-synthetic pants are to be confiscated for food?  Perhaps the Sultan of Brunei will drive his also fabulously wealthy people to starvation by replacing his agriculture ministry with a new body devoted to pinning even more medals on his uniform?  Will the Tongans finally descend into theocracy and proceed to starve within a few years on their tropical, nigh-unfarmable paradise?  Which is it, Michel?  Which is it?

Except, of course, when he totally did put in a time reference:

The year 1999, seventh month,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror:
To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols,
Before and after Mars to reign by good luck.
(Century 10, Quatrain 72)

This verse is the standard one trotted out to “prove” that Nostradamus was able to predict the future, since John. F. Kennedy, Jr. was on a plane that crashed in July 1999.  Also, a space shuttle exploded in August 1999, which is close to September 1999, which might be what “seventh month” means if Nostradamus’s guiding stars are using the old Roman calendar.  Either way, Zombie Genghis Khan didn’t rise from his grave and lead a renewed Golden Horde to kneeling before the Red Planet, which is apparently also a king now, so I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.

But what does this have to do with the end of the world?

Well, after learning of the significance of 21 December 2012 to the Maya, some enterprising conspiracy loons decided to poke through the quatrains and found this:

Sun twentieth of Taurus the earth will tremble very mightily,
It will ruin the great theater filled:
To darken and trouble air, sky and land,
Then the infidel will call upon God and saints.
(Century 9, Quatrain 83)

Also this:
For the pleasure of the voluptuous edict,
One will mix poison in the faith:
Venus will be in a course so virtuous
As to becloud the whole quality of the Sun.
(Century 5, Quatrain 72)

Apparently keeping in mind that the quatrains are in no particular order, these hooligans turned that mess of random phrases into an apocalypse of earthquakes (“earth will tremble”) apparently slated for later in the same year that Venus transited (“as to becloud”) the sun, a rare and amazing astronomical event that took place earlier this year.  And then turned “later that same year” into 21 December 2012.  Even though nothing whatsoever links the two quatrains and they are based ultimately on the ramblings of a 16th-century amateur astrologer and an equally spurious eschaton from a culture that fell from its prime around that time.

I, for one, am more interested in this Voluptuous Edith…oh.  Edict.  Allow me to compose myself.  Apparently, in Nostradamus World, edicts can be voluptuous and are pleased by “mixing poison in the faith,” whatever the heck that means, and also a few cheap shots at non-Christians counts as predicting the future.  Maybe Michel got a little stoned on Revelation before he wrote those two.

Allow me to close with another random quatrain:

“Meysnier, Manthi” and the third one that will come, 
Plague and new affront, to tourble the enclosure: 
The fury will bite in Aix and the places thereabout, 
Then those of Marseilles will want to double their evil. 
(Century 11, Quatrain 91)

Remind me to be in Marseilles when the world ends.  A two-for-one special on extra-sinful Voluptuous Ediths is not something to be missed.  Especially when the tourbling starts.

RANT: A Defence of Divisiveness

 

As a movement, secularists and skeptics defend dissent. We don’t just support it; we encourage it in the name of truth. So what is the hypocrisy that suddenly when it comes to dissent in our own movement that we call it divisiveness?

Intersectionality Feminists are called divisive because speaking out about race issues, women’s issues, oppression, brings out the worst in some people. Those people then go out of their way to make people who dare to speak out feel unwelcome. They send threats, post cruel harassing comments, and in some cases release private information for the purpose of stalking and worsening the attacks.

When people defend themselves by calling out the abuse, the reaction is to accuse those self-same people of being divisive, of causing rifts within the movement.

I think we’ve too long let harassers frame the conversation by letting divisiveness be seen as a bad thing.

What is divisiveness but a move to extricate and separate oneself from those who would abuse, harm, or persecute? It is dissent and an unwillingness to accept the status quo. In other words, it is what we as secularists and skeptics do!

It ignores the fact that we as a movement are already divisive. When we identify as atheists we are being divisive. We are dividing ourselves from those who have faith with no evidence. When we identify as evidence-based skeptics we are being divisive. We are dividing ourselves and dissenting against those who would peddle woo and false miracles.  Divisiveness exists with every label. It is not something to be ashamed of and sometimes it is necessary.

Our movement is no longer so small that we have to tolerate abusive elements just to maintain some quota of membership. No longer to we have to grit our teeth to accept those whose morals and values we do not agree with in order to have the support of numbers on our side.

It is time for the atheist, skeptic, secularist movement to decide who we want representing us. What values and morals do we want to be our message to the world? Do we want to be represented by those who would be a force for equality, or do we want to be represented by people who see nothing wrong with threatening women with rape? Those who stand up for other’s whose voice might be silenced, or those who try to silence those self-same voices?

Boycotts are essentially voting with your money and your feet. Everyone has a right to do so, and if enough people do it encourages change.

The difference between someone saying they won’t go to x conference because someone like PZ or Watson are speaking and calling for boycott is honestly just branding. When known harassers raise money to go to conferences to continue their campaign of harassment, or when they are unable to go, call on people to avoid conferences with those self-same speakers, they are doing the same thing. We’ve allowed them to frame the debate however by making it seem as though they are standing up for free speech.