Joy in Odd Places

There’s something weird that’s been making me happy. I don’t know that I can explain it, or even that I ought to try, but that isn’t the sort of consideration that stops me.

This goes back a ways, about a year. I was walking through the skyway in downtown Minneapolis (habitrails for cold-weather city dwellers with a tradition of good infrastructure) when I saw it.


I blinked, a bit confused. I was in the middle of a high-end department store. I hadn’t had my coffee yet, but I knew the floor shouldn’t be winking at me.

Even as I got closer, I couldn’t tell what it was. All I really knew was that it didn’t belong there according to the normal rules of things. I was intrigued. No one else seemed to notice.

Finally, I was there, right on top of it, and I could see what it was–a massive rhinestone stuck in the crack between two tiles. I don’t know how it got there. All the stories I tried to tell myself got very silly very quickly, based on not much more than the fact that it was just off the corner of the men’s underwear display, which wasn’t and isn’t actually interesting enough to support said silly stories. Or at least, interesting only in the sense that the carefully studied and agreed upon degree of detail in simulation of men’s genitalia is interesting. Not much to do with rhinestones.

Having identified it and had my fun with it, I moved on. I don’t usually use the skyway much unless I’m getting coffee, so I only noted now and again that it was still there.

Then I had surgery. Then I had complications from my surgery. Then I had complications from my long recovery. Then, finally, I went back to work. I needed coffee.

It was still there. It winked at me for the first time in many long weeks. And despite the fatigue and the stress about what I’d find at work, it made me ridiculously happy. It was still there.

Maybe at that point I identified with it hopefully, this little useless thing that had found a place from which it refused to be dislodged. Maybe I just needed the wink. Or the pretty. I didn’t care. I winked back.

More than half a year later, it’s still there. How many people have seen it? How many times has that floor been cleaned (over a snowy, salty Minnesota winter)? No one has dislodged it or tidied it away, or even carted it off as a little, portable piece of shiny that “no one” will miss.

It endures, this improbable bit of ephemera, this thing that is so out of place, this emblem of disposable tackiness. It isn’t supposed to. It isn’t supposed to even be there. It isn’t supposed to appeal. It isn’t supposed to matter.

But it endures, and it fits, and it accretes meaning all out of proportion to what it would be as described by anyone else. And it brings me joy.

Joy in Odd Places

Pass It On

If you only have time to read one short thing today, follow this link. Right now.

If you have slightly more time, know that it’s an analysis of the fascist tendencies of the Tea Party movement by PalMD. No, not “I don’t like those people” fascists. Real fascists. He doesn’t write about politics a lot, but he’s been saving it up for this one, and he did it right. You can tell; he got a not-science-y-enough troll in the very second comment.

But that’s enough of me. Go read. Then pass it on.

Pass It On

Guests on Quiche Moraine

I haven’t posted at Quiche Moraine for the last couple of weeks, but we’ve got guest authors who are more than making up for it. If you haven’t clicked over from my blogroll, you’re missing out.

The first is Jim Emery, who worked for the Ashwin Madia campaign in Minnesota’s Third Congressional District in 2008. His recollections of the campaign, and the implications of the changing technological landscape for future campaigns, are posted in four parts: Introduction (background on the campaign), The Role of Communication, Framing the Debate, and Epilog (a look back at the difficulties of engaging the electorate). If you are short on time, skip to the second post. There are lots of fascinating observations that could only come from within the campaign from there on out.

The second…well, I’ll just say here what I said in the introduction there:

Sometimes being an editor is the best job in the world. In this case, DuWayne Brayton sent me something that just doesn’t fit on his blog, because it’s fiction. Only fiction isn’t quite the right way to describe this either. You’re just going to have to read it, and it’s my privilege to tell you to do so. I suppose I should also mention that there is a small amount of explicit content, but you won’t mind. Trust me.

Seriously, go read it.

Guests on Quiche Moraine

Dicks, Skeptics and the Problem of Eternal September

Phil Plait has finally posted the video of his speech from TAM (okay, it’s been just over a month, but I enjoy being spoiled by the speed of the internet), and some of the reactions prompt me to finally write about why I think his message is an important one. I’ve already written about why I think “dicks” are important in skeptical outreach. The tl;dr version is that communicating skepticism isn’t just communicating knowledge and techniques but also communicating values, which I’ve also written about here. Sometimes we can’t hold those values and not be incredibly angry, and sometimes that anger communicates those values in ways that nothing else can.

Note that there are a bunch of “sometimes” in that statement. As much as I tend to qualify my statements in the interest of accuracy, that’s not what’s going on here. Those are very specific “sometimes,” with implications for communication.

A couple of my friends commented in response to “On the Utility of Dicks” that they were simply dicks. As much as I love them, and I do, that’s not really helpful–or meant to be. Being a dick in general (which is overstating their behavior anyway) doesn’t communicate anything except that you’re a dick. It stops being a tool when you can’t put it down. At that point, it becomes just one more thing keeping your hands busy when you could be doing useful work.

If your dickishness is going to help you communicate the values of skepticism, it has to relate, directly and immediately, to the circumstances that warrant anger. If it isn’t suited to the context, or if others can’t see how it’s suited to the context, it communicates nothing.

But there’s another problem with wielding dickishness as a tool. This:

On the one hand, okay, but on the other hand, as a general rule, the other side is not arguing in good faith. They are having fun toying with the skeptics, making them work hard for no real gain. To them, misbehaving is fun. When their current scheme falls apart, they come back with another one. None of them actually believe what they have faith in.

I’d say very few if any holds need be barred when dealing with the “gotcha” questions true believers so often think they cleverly can get by with.

Life is too short to waste on the “gottcha” folks. Ridicule is all they deserve.

Now, before I talk about why that’s a problem, let me provisionally endorse this statement from PZ Myers.

Talk to us ‘dicks’ sometime, and you’ll discover that when we get in someone’s face and rip into them hard, we already know that we’re not trying to convert them to our way of thinking. We actually are smarter than that.

What we’re doing is having a gladiatorial match for the benefit of the spectators. Our goal is to show how bad the other guy’s argument is in a public demonstration. And that’s a good strategy, because no one wants to be that other guy.

That is exactly what we think we’re doing. It is even, for some variable but large percentage of the time, what some of us are actually doing. The problem is when we get it wrong. And we will inevitably get it wrong.

What’s the difference between a charlatan and an example of skepticism’s own Eternal September problem? That’s the critical question in deciding how willing you are to decide that someone “deserves” bad treatment.

What’s the difference between someone who engages in an argument in bad faith in an attempt to spread their views and someone who has internalized the views of such a person but is willing to find out what might be wrong with them? What’s the difference between the willfully ignorant and the miseducated? What’s the difference between someone who is out to demolish our credibility and someone who doesn’t know yet whether they can trust us? What’s the difference between someone who’s setting out to obfuscate and someone who hasn’t been trained to argue through a proposition to find the truth?

There are a few clear answers to that, but none of them are going to be clear to me in the course of an online discussion with someone I haven’t encountered before. They all involve motives and history that I’m not privy to. If I’m playing to an audience, that audience isn’t privy either. None of us can know without better evidence than that, and we should be suspicious if we think we do. We should be all the more suspicious as engaging in the kinds of battles we do as skeptics can and will change us.

I do disagree with Phil, by the way, that we’re not at war. I think we are, in some meaningful ways. However, I don’t think that’s any kind of excuse to mistake civilians for combatants. Or to blithely act the aggressor when we’re not sure. It’s the easy path, but it’s not hard to see why it’s the wrong one.

It’s also good to keep in mind that being constantly under siege, even by choice, can cause its own set of perceptual problems. I’ve written about them humorously, but the issue is real. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in arguing online is that the word “clearly” is a flag for a bunch of bundled assumptions I haven’t bothered to unpack. If I think someone is clearly being dishonest, and I stop with saying that instead of breaking my observations down to specifics, I’m cheating. I’m not doing the work. I am, in fact, being a very bad skeptic. And I see the shorthand of “clearly” used all too often in these sorts of discussions.

When I praised James Randi for being a dick with respect to the people he profiled in Flim Flam, I was praising someone who mixed extensive documentation of harmful behavior with his anger. He did the work. Anger was punctuation, not the message, and there was never any doubt that his anger and dickishness was in response to misbehavior with the potential to do even more harm than it had already done. That was effective.

I’m not Randi. The chances are almost exactly 100% that if you’re reading this, you’re not either. I am considered a pretty good writer, though, and I have a track record of changing minds that I’m pretty proud of, given how difficult that is to do. On top of that, I believe that being a dick can serve a useful purpose. I still don’t do it very often.

Why? It goes back to the idea of civilian casualties. You can’t convert a dead person into an ally. You can’t convert the dead person’s friends or relatives or neighbors or people who read a touching news report of the death. You can’t convert, in any real way, someone who is only agreeing with you in order to keep from being killed themselves. You can’t even convert someone who doesn’t understand what the fighting’s all about.

You can sometimes convert someone who watches you for a while and understands that you reserve your judgment and your anger for the people who will do your potential ally harm–if you can convince them you’re right. That looks strong instead of merely dangerous. People like to have strong allies.

Being a dick can work, but only if it doesn’t hurt us first–and if we can make sure it doesn’t hurt the innocent. Or, to bri
ng it back around and give Phil the last word, “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”

Dicks, Skeptics and the Problem of Eternal September

Promoting and Learning from Diversity

I’m a bit quiet, I know. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about a couple of big things that will probably never see text. If you’re having trouble keeping busy, and even if you’re not, I recommend the following couple of videos from this year’s Secular Student Alliance conference.

The first is Debbie Goddard, whom I mentioned I wanted to hear more from after Skepchickcon. Here I got to hear more. Debbie talks about diversity in the campus freethought movement: how much there is, when and why it’s important, and how (specifically) to increase it.

Promoting and Learning from Diversity

Minneapolis Primary Sample Ballot

Tomorrow is the day. Following my usual tradition, I’m posting my ballot and reasoning for anyone who trusts my judgment and hasn’t had the time to research all the races. eVoter Minnesota will tell you where to vote and who is in your races and let you print a sample ballot of your own. The Star Tribune has candidate profiles and links to candidate web sites (and will have returns).

Minneapolis Primary Sample Ballot

Embracing the Slut

Yay! Muse in Vivo is blogging again. She’s one of those people I don’t always agree with, but I stop and check my assumptions when we do disagree. And what does she do almost immediately upon restarting her blog? Point me to “My Sluthood, Myself.” at Feministe, which I might have missed otherwise. Don’t you make that mistake.

That’s the story we get sold, right? That women who sleep around are destroying their chances at True Love. Something to do with bonding hormones getting all used up? Or is it that we have so little self-esteem that no one could love us? Or maybe it’s that we’re all used candy wrappers or dirty masking tape. I can never remember.

Thing is: I’ve done it the other way. Until my mid-30s, I was largely a serial monogamist. Not for any grand ethical or philosophical reasons – it was just what felt comfortable to me. That’s not to say that I didn’t have some wild adventures in college, or never went to bed with someone on a first date – I did on occasion. It’s just that when I did, I’d often wake up the next day in a relationship. Let me tell you: not the best recipe for partnership bliss.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a better deconstruction of how romantic relationship/sexuality myths create doomed relationships, and that isn’t even the point of the piece, which is also well worth reading. Go. Shoo.

Then, when you’re done, read Muse’s take on the same topic.

Embracing the Slut