Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Just what in the hell is multiculturalism anyway?

Psst.. there is a TL;DR at the bottom, if you are that sort of person.

This blog documents one of those moments where something, some issue you have always considered right, suddenly flips around on you, and you cannot un-see what you have seen.

My view of multiculturalism, from a UK perspective, up until about 4pm Bangalore time last Sunday:

"Multiculturalism is a great thing. A diversity of culture is as close to an objective measure as I know to measuring the healthiness of a societal system, that is, the rate, breadth, and sustenance of cultural evolution. I mean, look at any point of History.. could you imagine a time when so many people, of so many races, could live side-by-side for generations without major trouble? This may be anecdotal, but I was 27 before I first heard a racial slur used in anger, and that was in Serbia. That just wouldn't have been conceivable before. Multiculturalism, as demonstrated in the UK, is a continuing force for good, for overcoming prejudices, and for enlivening traditional British culture with a whole fusion of influences."

OK, now I'm not saying I have thrown all of this out the window. It has been a positive force in reducing racism, it has led to a cultural renaissance in cooking, music, fashion, etc, and it has, for the most part, worked. But there's a hitch. I now feel I have to add punctuation. 'Multiculturalism' in the UK isn't quite what it says on the tin, as we can see by looking at what it means when people say that multiculturalism has been a success or failure. Additionally, it also highlights why I now view 'multiculturalism' as at best irrelevant, at worst a potentially dangerous turn of events.

N.b From now, I will use 'multiculturalism' to denote my prior understanding, at that of the majority of people in the UK, of the term. I will use 'multi-culturalism' to denote what I now regard as the correct definition, as I will explain below.

When people point to successful multiculturalism, inherent in the concept is that of successful integration. Sure, we benefit from the influences and fusions of other cultures, but it is presupposed that integration should be the aim. Conversely, multiculturalism is seen to have failed when integration does not occur, as when cultures congregate into what become segregated areas, targets of mistrust and suspicion because of their 'otherness'. We thus see that 'multiculturalism' is a misnomer, or at least a slightly Orwellian-sounding word by matter of circumstance. For it is the inputs of the system only that are actually multi-cultural; it is through the process of multiculuralism, aka integration, that the intended output is in fact cultural homogeneity. Synthesis of cultural influences does not create plurality in-and-of-itself, indeed it creates homogeneity when forced through power's cultural filter that is multiculturalism. Rather than a new paradigm of social living, what multiculturalism in fact represents is the successful effort of integration of races and ethnicities into a significantly enough sized culturally-homogenous mass to maintain passive control.

These is no mean feat in itself, and relative to what preceded capitalism (for this is the paradigm under which this process is made viable) it was, and still would be seen to be in some places, a force for moral good. But as with every social paradigm, there comes a time when it is no longer adequate, no longer legitimate to a civil sphere that by definition evolves quicker than institutionalised power. Now is that time. What started as a noble experiment, multiculturalism has become an all-too-successful strategy for GovCorp to mitigate counter-cultural threats through the dictation of a new cultural/social environment that is homogenised, atomised, and thus increasingly vulnerable to the use of fear and misrepresentations of genuine multi-culturalism; the 'other'. It is a pattern repeated throughout history: culture's homogenise, the mass shared identity is then abused by those wielding the monopoly on cultural production, and the populace is blindly steered into horrendous acts, all facilitated by the shared moral limits brought to them by their shared, morally-exclusive propaganda.

This is a dangerous path, regardless of any success that may have accrued regarding racism. We need to realise that the colour of your skin means sweet FA as an indicator of multi-culturalism, especially once you get beyond second-generation immigrants. Multi-culturalism is about what is inside your mind; your identity, your moral sphere, your subjective beliefs and values. It doesn't matter anymore whether you are white or black; if you all read the Sun everyday and nothing else, you are both equally likely to be fucking idiots in a distinctly British way. Awesome. Multiculturalism should not be considered as it is in terms of the variety of skin-colour visible in the same shops and bars and T-shirts; it should be measured by the presence of multiple cultures. The clue is in the name.

This realisation came so starkly when I noticed that, despite seeming to be the only white male within a two-mile radius of our neighbourhood here in Bangalore, and (perhaps slightly to my ignorant western eye) a highly homogenous ethinc mix, what I was seeing was nevertheless actual multi-culturalism. This contradiction with my previous notion of multicultural as meaning multi-ethnic hit me hard. Yet here, my day-to-day life consists of a myriad human interactions with informal workers in multiple sectors, a constant presence of a wide variety of architecture and trade (not the identikit houses and high streets we have in the UK), different songs, traditions, festivals, religions, and civic organisations, all highly visible and evident to everyone in a shared, multi-cultural environment.

You cannot segregate cultures here in India like you can in the UK. Would the rich have to view disfigured child beggars on Oxford street? Would cows be tolerated in choosing to to sleep on busy roads? Would the rights of the poorest include a policy environment recognising and facilitating the highly informal economic sector? While you may cry "What about convenience, safety, what about the children?!', at what cost have we sanitised and, to use a corporate word, rationalised, western society? It is now possible to do all of your shopping in one place, and not even talk to a cashier; hell, you can do it all from home and not give the delivery guy a second-look.  The west has regulated its way into mass social segregation and the loss of public-space grassroots expression, has allowed its populace to become products, and has allowed the social contract to be re-determined according to neoliberal macroeconomic mythological doctrine "our" representatives are now slaves to.

I once saw the UK as a beacon for multi-culturalism. Now I realise it is the exact opposite: a prime example of how culturally homogenous power can indoctrinate, sorry, integrate (and maintain, though for how long who can say) multiple cultures under one, overarching ideological doctrine that actually acts against their own interests, all within a generation.

This is the fundamental difference that makes India actually multi-cultural, and the UK merely multicultural. In India, (and I am not endorsing this, merely pointing out its relevance from a systems perspective) there is a caste system, a scale of inequality, and a variety of deep-rooted, mythological beliefs that keeps cultural identities numerous, distinct, and robust, yet all the while sharing the same physical space and thus making dissonance impossible to avoid. India has multiple loci of shared cultural identity: religion, state, civic, and commerce, that are all incredibly visible and that all have at least some influence on decision- and policy-making. It makes for a hodge-podge of cultural and community expression practised side-by-side, impossible to homogenise yet able to integrate up to a point.

This is key; this is multi-culturalism. No one has convincingly argued (and to my mind, could not..) that full cultural integration of outside cultures is a necessary or intrinsic good in a globalising world; in fact, attempts to do so have often coincided with mass genocide. There are people all over the world right now who share enough culture to create and maintain new communities, despite growing-up in radically different cultural climates. No one cultural identity can any longer morally claim authority to define the terms of what constitutes 'inclusion', or an 'official' national culture, or the 'other'. We learnt that already regarding religion in the West some time ago, with varying degrees of success, but the same holds true for political and economic ideologies also; all are trying to claim this authority by virtue of the impossible: the supposed ability to understand, predict, and control society, a complex adaptive system.

Incidentally, I do not use the reference to genocide glibly by the way. Cultural homogeneity is in my opinion the single worst target to aim for (unless you are on an isolated island). Particularly today, in this globalised, interconnected world, cultural homogeneity within the present paradigmatic confines of the nation state will only lead to fascism without a radical redefinition of the social contract, so as to remove its inherent nationalistic duty, and extend domestically held rights, our cultural production, and thus our moral sphere, to all humans and the environment.

This is particularly true of the West, where the sidelining or subversion of religion by the state and capitalism respectively, the vulnerable dependence on state spending of civic organisations (being cut as we speak), and the gradual and all-but-complete corporate subsuming of governmental and even fourth-sector stakeholders' individual and institutional frameworks, have all left the cultural landscape utterly monopolised by corporate culture. CEOs and politicians now speak the same, dress the same, go to the same places, swap jobs; the Venn-diagram of their cultural systems, and therefore their moral values and doctrinal priorities and sense of duty, are aligning, as competition between the two once opposing and balancing ideological identities declines. For all its benefits, for all the ska and the curries, multiculturalism has not been of any use in countering this homogenisation of culture, and the corporate power that lies behind it.

Herein lies the secret of the UK's multicultural 'success'. The monopolisation of cultural production (mass-media corporate conglomerates, regulatory frameworks creating market barriers, the fencing off of the internet into a few, widely-used, exploitative and closed applications) afforded by neoliberalism has created such a homogenised mass-culture that it doesn't matter what colour someones skin is, all consume a cultural diet utterly dominated by corporate propaganda that is increasingly being paid for via your attention, your data, and your time (that most valuable commodity). And by all, I mean all. Welfare systems and the exploitation of cheap labour and unethical mining operations abroad have made communication technologies ubiquitous even amongst the lowest levels of the socioeconomic ladder in the UK (as rich Tories keep reminding us, scornfully). The result is a homogeneous culture, a homogeneous populace, and the creation of enabling conditions for simple, easy mass manipulation.

For Christ's sake, we now live in a society where people are locked up for causing offense in a tweet, where our intelligence agencies are making the Stazi look antiquated, where our entire governance model is directed toward patently false macroeconomic ideals that benefit only a few, screws everyone else, and oh, by the way, might kill billions as it drives the complete transformation of our planets climate. So why, in such a 'multicultural' society of educated people, are we debating the apparent abject apathy of the entire fucking UK? Well, we aren't even doing that: not even when it briefly popped into the news cycle earlier this year thanks to Russell Brand, everyone was too busy applying simplistic, vacuous, un-insightful misrepresentations of a lone comedians passionate cry for change. But, why?

PR, spin, marketing... it all used to be called the same thing up until the early 20th Century: propaganda. The name was changed, because, well, they were marketers and they know that 'propaganda' sounded bad.. for some reason or other. 'Propaganda' was even the title of the first seminal text on the new art of marketing. One of the early drivers of marketing in the United States was efforts to find ways to claw back the money the rich now had to pay their slaves. And it is becoming a science, probing behavioural psychology and the cutting edge of social science research to find ever more subtle, effective ways to, let's call it what it is, undermine what free-will we may possess. Furthermore, the more homogeneous the culture, the identities of the populace, the more people there are to mass-target and successfully infect with mediocre, focus-group derived psycho-ops.

"You're fat. People are judging you. You need this to be a good parent. What would the neighbours think? This product will solve that problem we just made you realise you had. Climate change? Here, why don't you buy some tanning UVF50 spray, and we will kindly donate a penny to some scam of a carbon-reduction scheme some corporate lobby group conceived of...". Beautiful people, plastered 8ft high, stare down at you from either side as you enter the secular cathedral that is the corporate shopping mall, niggling at your insecurities, creating whole new ones, all just to get your money. No doubt all the adverts will feature the same mix of ethnicity, perhaps a disabled person, proudly displaying just how wonderfully inclusive and tolerant this corporate paradigm of mind-crushing mass wage-slavery really is.

Here's the rub: if there were something in our genes that made us inherently different when it comes to consuming, evaluating, and internalising culture, then 'multiculturalism' might be a) a useful indicator [of] b) something to strive for. But there isn't. The vast majority of us, regardless of skin colour, are still ideological victims, still subject to the same group-dynamics, pattern-recognition instincts, social-hierarchy insecurities, relative thinking, positive bias and the like that humans have contended with for millennia. Multiculturalism is a sham, a distraction, a mode of thinking stuck squarely in the 20th Century. Multi-culturalism on the other hand is a whole different kettle of fish; messier, more chaotic, a better enabling environment for cultural evolution, a system of checks-and-balances against the monopolisation of power by any one identity, and, on an anecdotal level at least for me, far more amenable to a healthy mind than the rigid, rule-laden, homogenous, boring, calcifying, increasingly immoral, cotton-wool wrapped worker battery farm that is the West.

All that is required is that people give up on this idea that someone over there, out of sight, perhaps even hundreds of miles away, should be forced to submit to the exact same kind of cultural prison they are. It really isn't hard. Just want for people to be free.

TL;DR Multiculturalism should not be about race or ethnicity. It is an Orwellian misnomer that actually means 'cultural homogenisation'. What was once a force for good has turned into a tool of power that is no longer moral (at least in the west). Contrast with India, where I'm the only white guy in my neighbourhood and yet I am experiencing real multi-culturalism to an insane degree - and loving it.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

First impressions of India.

I have been here in Bengaluru (though it took a few goes before I got out of the habit of saying Bangalore) for just over a week now. Obviously it's been a bit of a hectic time making the move from England, and now that I've got a moments peace as littlun sleeps I figured I'd write up my initial impressions. To begin with i'll include particulars for the benefit of friends and family, but after that I wanted to just put to words some of the more deeper impressions that have already laid themselves upon me.

The area in which we are to live is called Jayanagar, and it is about 8kms or so south from the centre of Bengaluru (not the 22km a certain tuc-tuc driver tried to convince me it was). It seems a really nice, pleasant neighbourhood to live, though like almost all of Bengaluru there is building going on. Lots of building going on. Everywhere you look, entire families are apparently living on site, building from dawn till dusk - kids and grandparents alike carrying breeze blocks or mixing cement (incidentally, building regulations have presented themselves as a surprising area for philosophical inquiry, but more on that in a later blog). Within walking distance, but around 25p for a tuc-tuc if it's hot, is a large shopping mall that sells about 10'000 kinds of jeans but no children's underwear, and opposite is a more budget version with a small supermarket. In between that and the area we are staying is a really large, well equipped kids park, complete with an old, tired looking security guard.

Noise is a major factor here. No more than two seconds go by without the honk of a vehicle's horn; the horn seems to be used for every reason (and none, for what I can ascertain) but primarily replaces the functions of whatever road laws are routinely ignored. It is in no useful way correlated with anger, which is only displayed in cases of extreme stupidity. Surprisingly, it works. It reminds me of a rolling game of Tetris where vehicles will simply slot into whatever available space presents itself. The most I have seen abreast each other so far is seven across a two lane road (at least I assume it was meant to be two lanes - actual lines are reserved for near the centre of Bengaluru, though they also may as well be absent). The freedom gifted by the lack of adherence to rules (I assume they do exist) actually means that traffic behaves as a complex system, each unit working to the simple rules of a) point in the direction you want to go, and b) keep at least 2cms from any other vehicle. It makes for an exhilarating ride, as well as a beautiful example of self-organisation, which nevertheless still seems relatively safe since you rarely go above 30mph. Before I wrote this, I did look up the figures and yes, India IS the vehicle accident capital of the world. But, as I suspected, the vast majority of serious consequences fall on pedestrians and so, given their open and comfortable (and plentiful) convenience, tuc-tucs are the way to go here. Besides, it's just too much fun watching the drivers face fall upon hearing that I live here, having offered me a vastly inflated price (happens at least 30% of the time, to me anyway). Besides the obvious noise like construction and traffic, the stand-out winner of surprise so far has been the squirrels. Yes, the squirrels, that manage to outmatch every other bird around with their incessant... well, it can only be called chirping. I refused to belief it at first, my mind preffering to think that that squirrel was simply miming. But no, they really are noisy buggers, the result I presume of an evolutionary effort to communicate above the human-induced cacophony.

The apartment we are due to move into in the coming week ticks every box we wanted - security, ceiling fans, balcony - and looked every bit the abandoned 1970's western apartment I'd seen on rental websites. Strip lighting can work well, stick scarves over them and you can effectively repaint your room in an instant, and after lengthy negotiation between me, Guru (the co-director of the NGO that Angela now works for), and the apartments' owner, we agreed to commit, upon the place being cleaned, new bathroom unit installed, a working window in the toilet, and one window of each room having mosquito mesh placed across. One of Angela's co-workers, and the parents of Guru, both live in the same block of apartments, which also includes some swings within its gated walls. Will need a fridge stat; we are currently buying a small bag of milk each morning and evening since we don't have one in this top-floor apartment above Guru and Anita's house (Anita also being a co-founder of the NGO). Where we are now opens out onto a huge top-floor covered terrace, from where I write this now (pictures soon family and friends, honest!)

Yet despite the noise, the midday heat (gonna get much worse come april), the constant attempts at conning me (actually, I quite like this game..), the dust, the sight of toddlers navigating building sites, the numerous, though very submissive, stray dogs... I bloody love this place. People smile at you. People talk to you. Yes, I know that I am experiencing something very different from the norm, especially when I have Sen-might-as-well-be-a-movie-star-Anna with me, but I also see it all around me. Community. Mutual-aid. People actually *talking* to one another, to strangers; it is an utterly necessary and indispensable function in an environment that is so heavily infused by the informal economy (the definition of which will also be subject to a future blog). The tuc-tuc drivers have been the most visible and accessible example of sub-community I've encountered, since they are simply indispensable for getting around. The drivers clearly do not have 'the knowledge' of London taxi-drivers; instead, the flow of traffic and the openness of the vehicle allows for them to share information and get directions - something I have yet to see another tuc-tuc driver deny. You also never see just one driver at the side of the road, trying to fix his (yes, all male) tuc-tuc, the average being I would guess 3-4.

But all of this observation and interaction pales into insignificance when compared to what India has taught me most about so far. England. I wouldn't deign to suggest I have deep insights about India; that would take years. But England, and by extension much of Western culture? Mind blown. Already. I knew, deep-down... actually, no. Scratch-that. It wasn't so much 'deep-down' as a very-much-conscious and rationally-derived conclusion of mine that my complexity-based beliefs would feel more at home here. I just hadn't conceived that it would feel so damned immediate and comprehensive. Having removed myself from the environment that has kept me in an ever-increasing state of dissonance, I suddenly see so clearly the absolute folly of the West, but from a deeply personal perspective. In attempting to regulate and control every facet of life on the precept of safety, the West is driving its citizens mad. We are complex beings. The societies we create are both emergent properties of that complexity, and complex systems in-and-of themselves. By creating and enforcing literally thousands of laws that constrain individual autonomy, *and populations conditioned to obey them*, the West is trying to create an ever-more homogenous society *and* self out of beings that cannot and should not function like that. Every man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains; this has never been so true (excepting valid feminist contentions at the wording) in such a subtle and all-consuming way as it is today in the West. Of course, I would not be so naive as to think India is 'more free' than the UK in the 'official' sense; governance here is no doubt worse than the West. But civil society *knows it*. Here, there is a clear cultural divide between the bottom and the top. The word corruption is everywhere. By comparison, the citizens of the West are submissive slaves to the influence of top-down cultural production, all-too-ready to advocate for or ignore the world-destroying externalities that come with the West's incessant (manufacturing of the) craving for cleanliness, convenience, and perfection.

Well, Sen's up now, so I'll wrap up. Bengaluru is awesome, we're gonna love it here, and the West is conducting a startling and unprecedented experiment in 'self'-organisation that to me resembles nothing more than a conceptual battery-farm demanding nothing less than the future of the world in order to keep collecting the eggs. Minds be damned.

More soon. Watch this space...


Thursday, 14 November 2013

Philippines response: We can do so much better than this.

So its been, what, a week now since the strongest storm ever recorded to hit land smashed into the Philippines? Yet the news is full of stories of communities and areas still utterly unreached by anyone. With so much devastation, a near complete lack of shelter and food has been joined in this time with infection of wounds, disease-ridden water, bloated, stinking bodies lining the streets. This is surely one of the closest approximations on the planet of hell on earth right now. It is also largely man-made.

I'm not talking about climate change, though the evidence is certainly there to at least forward the argument. No, I'm talking about the gap between what is theoretically possible to achieve regarding disaster relief, and what we are witnessing a repeat of now; the shambling, complicated, delayed mess of confused good intentions that traditionally follows such large-scale catastrophes.  That which is theoretically possible is a crucial and necessary component of judging actions. For example, if it were possible that someone could have saved a life, they would feel, and possibly be held, more responsible than if there were no chance to save it at all. Examining what is theoretically possible also helps to gauge to what extent a situation is entirely down to natures ferocity (with no realistic fault on us), and to what extent our own ineptitude is responsible.

In my considerable reading on the climate and development field, I have got a pretty good idea on where we are at regarding climate change adaptation. There are a lot of great ideas out there; the rate of innovation in the field is considerable, but constrained in realising anything like the kind of change required to help countries like the Philippines withstand the prospect of many more such storms to come.  The scale of the problem simply out-dwarfs the scale of the development and climate regimes within the wider system in which they operate. Whilst development continues to play second-fiddle, or even fiddley-fucking-dee, to the power and growth of the sectors actually in charge - oil, finance, banking, defense contractors - at both state and multi-national levels, we do not stand a chance in hell of making the necessary transition to avoid significant warming. Neither will we stand a chance in hell of getting anywhere near enough resources or political will to adequately adapt to that warming, raising the prospect of many more instance of watching a weeks worth of news stories covering a gradual descent into something that brings Dante to mind.

It does not have to be like this. Let me paint a picture of what could be theoretically possible right now, if states could act cooperatively in mutual, long-term governance for the good of their people. Since this is theoretical, I am going to assume that the worlds resources are my oyster, and that they could be used in such a way that takes into account only those limitations implied directly from the resource itself. I consider none of these outrageous. We put a fucking man on the moon for crying out loud.

Meteorology is sufficiently advanced to give a few days warning of such storms. This is a pretty decent window for preparation, so long as the preparation itself is sufficiently prepared for. It is possible to have climate-proof silos every ten miles of at-risk coastline and flood plain, that are stocked from permanent stockpiles of medicine, food, shelters, stoves etc upon notification of an incoming storm. The thing's storm-proof. Stick a team of engineers, medics, and police in there to ride it out. Have flares, a fog-horn, and a search-light ready to bring people in from miles around. Furthermore, storm-proof bunkers should house teams of engineers at at-risk airports, with runways and their obstructive paraphernalia cleared in advance.

Fleets of solar-powered unmanned drones, with a few bases positioned throughout at-risk regions, could have the entire affected area mapped, assessed, and prioritised within 24 hours, using a mix of visual-recognition algorithms and real-time human assessment over live-feeds. This data would then be made public, for all the aid agencies to work from. It would then make sense, since the data is the same for all, to use this as the basis for an open-source project that enables all aid agencies to coordinate on the same platform. Requirements for each area would already have been provisionally assessed, so it would be relatively simple to allocate larger areas to agencies with more capacity, or specific areas requiring the specific skills of other agencies.  All of this could be accomplished within a further 24 hours in my opinion. Meanwhile, with the airport hopefully secure, planes working on predetermined plans should already be en-route from neighbouring countries.

In terms of technology, I have already mentioned drones, but think what might have been available to us right now if governments and arms companies were funding and researching ways to help and save people, rather than kill them. What about a plane that lands on the sea by an affected coastline, gets onto the land at the nearest opportunity, and automatically reconfigures itself into a stocked health clinic? What about small automated drones that can locate trapped survivors and deliver water to them, sending their location to the nearest help and the central coordinating platform? What about fully automated pick-up and supply parachute drops using fleets of drones from a base at the airport where aid is flying into?

All of this is possible. Theoretically. What stands in its way is the combined effect of thousands of years of what we may now consider bullshit; separatism. I'm not talking about rebel groups. I'm talking about states, corporations, militaries, religions.. all the things that separate us as a species. The global outpouring of empathy and sadness after events such as this is testament to fact that there is far more that unites us than divides us, it's simply that we don't often get to see and realise that in the manufactured cultures in which we reside. Culture, resources, wealth, myths, identity; all are dominated by entities whose cultures prohibit the kind of cooperation, long-term thinking, and shift away from militarism that are necessary to make this vision a reality.

The factors that create this gap between what is theoretically possible and what is actually happening stem from much wider areas than simply within the development field. The fault lies in our entire political and economic system. It is ideological, yet it is the system in which the development and climate regimes find themselves. On the one hand, the largest ever peer-review process the world has ever seen has concluded that we are in trouble. On the other, politicians and CEOs continue to undermine what political will arises, extract ever-more quantities of fossil fuels, and cooperate in effectively bringing us to ruin. When it comes to the crunch, which way will the cookie crumble? Will the development regime have enough independence to effectively revolt? To be sure, the early adoption of complexity theory in the development field, particularly with regard to climate, throws something of a spanner in the works. Of all governing regimes, this area seems to be innovating and evolving quickest - certainly considerably faster than the cultures that grant their resources and further contribute to climate change. A choice may have to be made soon. The emotive speech by the head delegate from the Philippines recently at COP in support of direct action is only the start. Will the western development field stand with their southern counterparts in demanding the kind of wholescale reform that is really necessary, and stop with all the hot air?

Yet this need not be a conflict (though the possibility is certainly there, especially if cultures continues to separate through inequality). There is an urgent need for the kind of informatic, logistical, engineering, rapid response skills of the military and security services. There are, handily, already military bases all over the place that can the converted to development and disaster response use. There are also huge great fucking military budgets that could be put to far more constructive use. It would even be worth a shot in terms of satisfying current military and security objectives. You want to make people want to bomb you less? You don't wanna lose the feeling of being all manly and special? Try being more International Rescue than Team America. That said, the last thing I am suggesting is that we kit out a load of U.S. bases with solar-powered drones. I wouldn't give a handgun to a baby, and I wouldn't do that. All of this is predicated on an equitable, transparent, and inclusive international body headed by the development field, not generals. They are the ones innovating. They are the ones without a culture formed primarily around male violence. They have far more hope of coordinating, monitoring, and progressing such strategies, but only with the help of a political economic system that has corrected it's destructive short-termism and divisive dynamics. The private sector has to be onboard at some point - when may determine whether this thing goes to a fight.


Saturday, 2 February 2013

A question for Michael Shermer.

I have kept this short and simple so that the main argument doesn't get overlooked again. It is in response to Michael Shermer's piece in the Huffington Post and I couldn't resist posing him this question.

While I agree with much of what Michael says, there are still some glaring inconsistencies with regard to what is defined as a "value", and why. I do not understand it. Since many skeptics are self-described Libertarians, I'd like to put forward this argument as to why such a label is inconsistent with skepticism, even by scientific skepticism's own criteria...

Society is a complex system. Political ideology is an attempt at predicting said complex system. Science has repeatedly shown, through testing, that it is impossible to predict complex systems over enough time. Further, the amount of time is determined by the extent and accuracy of the data describing both the initial state of the system and the dynamics involved.

Using climate models as an example, I am sure Michael would agree that masses of research and refinements of algorithms have been necessary to get us to this point where models may starting to be considered potentially accurate. I'm not totally sure on that point, or to what extent. But that is irrelevant, because...

Established political ideologies, including Libertarianism, seek to predict a complex system using concepts that pre-date the very existence of the fields of study necessary to even create a model!

It is like claiming climate scientists can make climate predictions without reference to meteorology!

As Michael reminds us, extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence - a staple mantra ignored when skeptics openly identify with a political label. Sure, you may add disclaimers, claim that your belief is not dogmatic, but why then identify with an -ism at all? Why reinforce the legitimacy of ideology as an imposed construct? You might say that belief need not require positive proof, but when the probability of being right is so incredibly low how can a skeptic possibly hold enough ideological conviction that they would be willing to gamble with people's lives? You might say that ideology is all we have to work with politically, but isn't that partly down to ideology being anathema to constructive discourse? It's up to us to break that cycle.

It's not just that complex systems are impossible to predict with such basic tools, its that those almost certainly false predictions are then imposed on non-believers in a manner our ancestors fought so hard to rid with religion.

A skeptic should identify politically simply as 'skeptic', learn the words, "we can't know yet" and "we need more data" and "it is immoral to impose that policy on non-believers in that way with the data you have..." and start some serious, post-ideological political discourse as a community.

Crisis of skepticism? Conversation between Grimeandreason and Daniel Loxton

The following is a storified twitter conversation (or the beginnings off... ;)) between me and Daniel Loxton on the remit of skepticism and the skeptic community...

(Thanks to Kylie Sturgess for compiling the first half from a week ago..)

Round 1: http://storify.com/kyliesturgess/discussion-on-twitter

Round 2: http://storify.com/Grimeandreason/dan-loxton?utm_source=embed_header

Note: in round 2, I have taken the time to adjust the order of the tweets slightly to reflect their 'reply' positions, if you get me. If it wasn't clear, I went back into twitter to check. I've let Dan know so that he can double-check. At a glance, it seems round 1 might be a straight time-dependent order, so it might be a little trickier to follow. Daniel enters stage about a dozen tweets in...


I will add more as/if it arrives. I hope you find this useful - it's a much better format for debate than blogging in my opinion.

Friday, 25 January 2013

A call for skeptical consistency regarding political economy.


This blog has been a long time in the writing, partly because I have strived hard to appear as objective as I could, and partly because of the demands of life with an 18 month old. Now, with a pressing need to write an ebook, I have to let it go and get it out there, finished or not, for my own sanity! I hope I have achieved my aim and can illicit some ideology-free debate on the matter. Unfortunately, my experiences over the last year don't lend themselves to taking that for granted, and I'm sure you can understand why when I say that the purpose of this blog is to prove: that the skeptical community is hypocritical in the way that it deals with politics and economics; that these two fields as practised on a macro scale are inherently flawed and illegitimate; and that they should be treated by our community with the same level of respect and ridicule as we do religion. So, while your pre-formed judgements swirl into view, I'd like to provide a bit of context.

I came into the skeptical community around the same time as I begged my way onto a Philosophical Foundations of Cognitive Science course at university. Since I was studying Intellectual and Cultural History at the time it wasn't strictly speaking “allowed” - personally, with hind-sight, I would make it compulsory. Since that time, I have come to view skepticism as the most rational and objective way of evaluating information not only because it bases itself on facts and evidence, but because it takes that knowledge and constructs a framework that tries to account for all the foibles, errors of intuition and effects of group dynamics on individuals thinking. One thing I am absolutely adamant about is that I cannot abide submitting to ideology, and with that comes a genuine desire to practice what I preach – I welcome any and all attempts to expose my own hidden, unfounded values. I try to apply skeptical principles to all of my knowledge and beliefs, something that I always assumed the majority of skeptics (if not all) would agree with.

That assumption changed when the Occupy movement first began in 2011. From a systems perspective it was fascinating: the creation of a shared culture by people in almost 100 countries, forging links in identity beyond language and national borders. Yet as objectively as I try to explain the unprecedented significance of such an event, within two weeks I had lost count of the number of strawmen, ad-hom attacks, post-hoc justifications and outright, uninformed acts of hostility. When in debate face-to-face, I have convinced all that I have met on the merits of my arguments; it appears that the internet is another beast entirely. The realisation that, despite all the rhetoric, here was ideologically trollish behaviour fit for any of our traditional foes shook me deeply. I was left feeling as though my community had been swept from under my feet and all I could see were contradictions, illogical justifications and an illusory unity just waiting to explode...


Some working definitions

I have come to suspect that we are yet to invent or mature all of the necessary vocabulary (and certainly concepts) to talk about politics and economics in the way that I wish; that requires discourse first. Religious secularism gave rise to the realm of modern statehood, thereby creating space from which one could talk about religion, both in terms of its content and dynamics (or lack thereof). We talk freely of the faults of dogma, of organised religion, of religious fundamentalism; I have struggled in writing this blog (as have others providing feedback) to find words for these concepts outside of the religious context. If there has never been an 'unorganised politics', can 'organised politics' even make sense? In comparing politics and economics to religion, I am not inferring that there is anything inherently wrong with any of them. Rather, that when in positions of authority all three can be said to be top-down, ideological, unfounded systems of belief. Therefore, I've chosen to use the term 'political economy', as per this definition:

The study and use of how economic theory and methods influences political ideology. Political economy is the interplay between economics, law and politics, and how institutions develop in different social and economic systems, such as capitalism, socialism and communism. Political economy analyzes how public policy is created and implemented. “

Read more:
http://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/political-economy.asp#ixzz2DeHVbjoF
Ideally, I would like a phrase that encompasses the overall power dynamics involved in the interplay between religion, politics and economics over time, though for the purpose of this blog political economy fits my requirements. Since the skeptical community have already found a consensus regarding organised religions' legitimacy as a public authority, political economy is what remains as the target of my ire. Here are my three arguments, any of which should, in my opinion, logically lead to an objective rejection of political economy by our community comparable to our consensus on the legitimacy of rule by organised religion.


Argument 1: The moral case for secularism 
 
Why does the skeptical community think that secularism is an inherently justified and necessary concept? I do not think the answer can lie in the content of the dogma itself; however enlightened or repressive the dogma, content is subjective and so cannot be the source of objective proof in and of itself. I think it is pretty clear that the imposition of any religious dogma on entire populations is widely considered the immoral act that inherently justifies the concept of secularism.

This exact justification for secularism should just as easily apply to political economy. We separate Church and State to remove religion from public life; yet political economy is public life, and it has created a world that is as every bit governed by imposed ideology as ever before, including religious. I have previously blogged about the myriad of ways in which political economy is merely the same, unfounded power structure as religion was/is, simply sans the ridiculous (with hindsight) metaphysics of old. Just as religion was the source of our normative culture in the past, so too are our lives now measured, structured and judged by the normative values of political economy.

Argument 2: Reference to contemporary scientific consensus as a minimum requirement for legitimacy.

It is easy to make such a post-hoc moral argument for religious secularism from way away here in the 21st century. To skeptics, as well as to many non-skeptics, the idea of a universal imposition of strict religious ideologies is clearly immoral. Yet this has not always been the case. Once upon a time, the vast majority of people would have vehemently disagreed with such a proposition, going so far as to consider atheism or critical thinking as that which was inherently immoral. The reason why secularism emerged when it did in Europe was because the growing body of knowledge accrued by early science began to challenge and disprove Catholic dogma, thereby depriving the Church of its moral and political authority (which in turn led to the reformation and the enlightenment). One of the most bloody periods of European history ensued, cementing in many of the great minds of the Enlightenment the moral case for religious freedom and state secularism.

Once early science discovered the various ways of studying nature, they used those tools (physics, biology, chemistry etc) to great practical effect, a testament to scientific method. It became clear that theology, without so much as a mention of contemporary knowledge in its methodology or conclusions, had has much legitimacy as it had reference to reality. We are now at a similar crossroads. The body of knowledge has now progressed immeasurably since the time of the foundations of almost every theory of political economy currently established, creating the same conditions as those religion faced when it was confronted with demands for secularism. We have the tools to study social systems, yet established attempts to explain the system rely on dogma that pre-dates the existence of those tools. A political theory sans so much as a reference to system theory, cognitive science, complexity etc, should be viewed by the skeptical community the exact same way as a theory of biology that ignores evolution and genetics, or a theory of the universe minus any mention physics. It doesn't even matter if you believe these tools do not represent sufficient knowledge to reach objective conclusions; legitimacy rests on using the best contemporary knowledge we have – and it doesn't make political economy any more likely to be legitimate in this sense. Whether system theory, complexity et all are sufficient for the objectification of identity and morality remain to be seen - but we should all be able to agree on the basic, and crucial to this argument, point that established ideologies are now known not to be sufficient.

Argument 3: Predicting the unpredictable

Political economy, as with religion, seeks to explain and predict the emergent properties of complex systems, be it on the individual or societal level. Yet complex systems are inherently unpredictable over enough time; how accurately and distantly one can reliably predict depends on the depth and accuracy of our knowledge of the system in question and the dynamics at play. The scientific language for such knowledge has only been in development for a few decades; we should not expect long-established political economy to be any more accurate, or legitimate, than a climate model that pre-dates meteorology, or a theory of biology pre-Darwin. Therefore, any skeptic that openly identifies with a political or economic label is in effect endorsing the legitimacy of imposing a model that claims to predict the unpredictable. While we cannot objectively disprove any theory of political economy (special pleading makes it unfalsifiable), neither can we objectively disprove religious values and beliefs. In both instances, all that matters is that we can show the dogma to almost certainly be wrong, given that they both eschew the relevant scientific frameworks available today. This isn't to say we shouldn't try, just that we must acknowledge the fact that we are probably going to be shown to be objectively wrong in our predictions at some point and build evolution into the governing ideologies of the future, i.e. full monitoring of policy, a comprehensive and fluid method of communicating best practices and lessons learned, systematic processes to avoid negative group-dynamics etc.

In summary, religion and political economy are, or have been, ideological belief systems imposed upon society as a whole that have seen their conceptual underpinnings exposed as false by the advance of science and knowledge. As such, both are equally immoral in the objective sense of each being shown to false by virtue of probability. Both should have equal scientific and moral legitimacy within our community – none – owing to their respective disregard for relevant, contemporary scientific knowledge. If the skeptical community is to be consistent and objective on the issue of political economy, skeptics should simply identify politically as 'skeptic', advocate for more political and economic data, and (if we are to be really consistent) argue the case for a new form of secularism that seeks to transition away from this newly exposed form of imposed ideology.


The absurdity of the contradiction

Having outlined my arguments, I just want to further draw on this analogy between politics and religion and what that might suggest about the challenge facing the skeptical community. Be forewarned: I am now entering rhetoric mode befitting the passion for which I feel about it. I would really appreciate it if any counter arguments focus on the summary above, since that which I seek above anything else is a logical refutation to the charge that politics and religion should be considered by skeptics as equivalent, as per the arguments stated.

In my opinion, the skeptical community of today is analogous to the early, Christian, scientists who could not yet bring themselves, be it through fear of persecution or genuine belief/lack of questioning, to challenge the orthodoxy of the day – despite the immense suffering that was happening all around them. Many today express surprise that such great minds could have seemingly not questioned their own religious belief given the lack of evidence, but many would also know that surprise is merely a product of our own post-hoc rationalisations. Back then, God and religion was everywhere; culture was saturated with it and so, in turn, were the vast majority of individuals. One should not underestimate the power of cultural saturation of ideology to blind even the greatest of minds to its absurdity and illegitimacy. Today, it feels as though we are once again in the early enlightenment – the evidence is now there for people to see, but there are not yet enough eyes open to see it. Instead of ignoring the wanton abuse of power by the Church, ahem, I mean State, and instead of focusing all our efforts on pagan heathens, sorry, homeopaths, might I suggest we collectively look at the bigger picture? If we do not, I dread to think of what excuses historians of the future deploy to explain the deeply ironic case of the skeptical community largely unaware of its own political and economic ideology.

I'm sure that many might object to comparing religion with politics on the grounds of severity or scale of consequence (perhaps quoting Pinker), or on their differing capacity to adapt and change to shifting cultural values. However, these are quantitative arguments; they are not sufficient to falsify the arguments previously presented - incidentally, given the huge population growth post-secularism, and the incredibly large net cast by a small number of nations, I would argue that in terms of scale, the State could well rival Religions collective past (and we've seen all too clearly what the State can be capable of in terms of severity) Objectively, I believe that there is no inherent difference in the objective legitimacy of authority of religion or politics, since both ideological foundations have now been shown to be false by the progression of science and culture. I regard someone who declares themselves a Libertarian Skeptic to be as objectively wrong as someone who calls themselves a Christian skeptic (although, to be fair. it's more understandable outside of this framework, since it is, imo, ahead of its time rather than a centuries out of date.)

The challenge ahead

Unfortunately, the majority of high-profile skeptics in our community seem to promote scientific skepticism and so do not address political economy, citing a pre-requisite of hard data in forming skeptical conclusions: SGU doesn't do politics (and when it does, as with Rebecca Watson's work on feminist issues, you end up with petitions calling for their removal.); Brian Dunning, amongst others, blithely say that skepticism is not applicable to political “values”; and economic and political issues are barely represented at conferences, on podcasts, and in blogs, despite the disproportionate suffering it causes compared to staple feed such as homeopathy and psychics. In my opinion such views do not portray any sense of debate regarding the extent of scientific skepticism's remit. Instead, they present the impression of an established orthodoxy that definitively dismisses social sciences (and the social issues therein), since empirical data, a degree of scientific consensus, and, I suspect, an absence of established ideology within the community, appear pre-requisites for an issues smooth inclusion into mainstream skeptical discourse. It seems to me that the vast majority of skeptics I speak to are far more confident in the legitimacy of applying skepticism to political values than is suggested by the choice on offer within our shared, mainstream culture. Whether that is for business reasons, ideological reasons, group-think, I don't know; more than likely a combination of all that and more.

We must recognise and challenge these contradictions and hypocrisies inherent in us, of all people, absolving political economy of skeptical reasoning on the grounds of them being 'values' (oh, how the religious would love us to accept that argument from them!). Obviously there are values in politics (in the study of complex systems, there will likely remain considerable unknowns for some time to come) that should continue to be included for as long as they persist. I heard (and agreed with) Mark Henderson, author of The Geek Manifesto, elucidating the same point at Norwich SiTP recently – 'That is what democracy is' (incidentally, he apologised for being unable to answer my question regarding why the imposition of political and religious ideology aren't treated by skeptics as equivalent). As a matter of public policy, values must be allowed to proceed at their evolutionary pace – too quick, or as now too slow, and the immorality grows. Yet I do not see why we should entertain such nonsense within our community.

Do we expect History to look back on this time, this early growth of this special movement, and ignore the question as to why we all put so much efforts into fringe issues whilst allowing the present ruling conflation of woo to run amok? Or will Historians say that perhaps many turned a self-censored-eye to the drones, the wars, the inequality, the global suffering, the economic models and systems driving this race to an ever-warmer bottom, in favour of bravely battling Homoeopaths and people claiming to be psychics? To ignore the worlds most ironic case of group-think ever witnessed? I sincerely hope that they do get to say that, for it will mean we have managed to progress beyond it to look back.. This whole issue pains me greatly, for the world desperately needs people to encourage and nurture a transitional, controversial culture derived from contemporary concepts and data to help pull us away from this thus-far unbroken cycle of imposed ideology, before it either nukes or asphyxiates us. If it isn't going to be us, the self-proclaimed vanguard of independent thinkers everywhere, then who the hell is it going to be? 


UPDATES:

To read PZ Myers' polemic futherences of this blog, click here: HERE

To read Steven Novella's tactful response to PZ's response, in which it seems he agrees that ideology is inconsistent with skepticism but that it's fine if people don't see it that way, click there: THERE 

And for PZ's tour de force of a reply to that, click here again: HERE AGAIN

Here's an excerpt:

"As for that awful, dishonest, destructive claim that “Political, moral, and social ideology are ‘outside the scope’ of skepticism because they remove objectivity” — I ask, OK, so would you claim that there is no rational, evidence-based argument against, say, slavery? That it is impossible to make an objective argument in any domain against treating people as property? If that’s the case, well then, fuck skepticism. It isn’t relevant or useful anymore. It has abstracted itself into the realm of a private academic circle-jerk, and we can stop arguing, because just maybe atheists, who apparently have more rational minds, can just leave the party voluntarily."

Continuing, this is Steve's second reply, which I have only had time to skim read, in which he makes some very good points but again, imo, presumes too great a level of discipline and free inquiry in dealing with politics within the community. In my experience, people struggle with the very notion of post-ideological political discourse, skeptics included. Click away: AWAY

You guessed it - PZ replies to the reply of the reply to the reply....and this time he's clearly calmed down a bit (not that I allow his rhetoric to influence my thinking on his actual arguments - though it seems many skeptics make no such basic allowance). It is, in my opinion, right on the money, and exposes some pretty weak flaws in Novellas arguments.

Here's an excerpt:

"...then there’s this distinction between empirical claims and faith-based claims, which I simply don’t see. “Faith” is not a magic get-out-of-jail-free word; I don’t think Novella would be stopped cold in his tracks if a homeopath invoked faith and god as a mechanism behind succussed water. Faith-based claims are empirical claims! When someone claims a vast cosmic intelligence named Jesus created the universe, I’m going to ask for their evidence for that claim; it is an empirical claim not just about how the universe works, but about how they arrive at their conclusions and what the chain of evidence that led them to that assertion is. If they openly admit that their beliefs are not based on empirical knowledge, that does not mean we retreat; it means we present the evidence for how the universe actually works and was created. Faith does not insulate a claim from skepticism as Novella argues; there is still a body of evidence that may contradict their claims, and it does as no service to simply throw up our hands and declare their arguments out of bounds for skepticism".


Additionally, here's some commentary from Marc Barnhill

And here is some balanced commentary from Richard Reed 

 

Monday, 27 August 2012

Building a sustainable community that avoids group-think and embraces cultural evolution.


Having thought about the dynamics at play regarding Atheismplus over the weekend, I figured I would try and crystallise my ideas into a general guide for creating as inclusive a community* as possible, one that guards against group-think and facilitates both internal (community) and external (social) cultural evolution. It would be utterly contradictory and hypocritical for me to view this guide as anything other than one person's thoughts, an embryonic seed at best, but it does represent the kind of community I am waiting to emerge before I would consider committing myself again. I can only assume that I am not the only one.

Should those people leading the momentum behind Atheismplus wish to heed any of this advice I'd be more than happy for them to take it. If not, I care not. I do not expect this vision to materialise suddenly in its full form anyhow; I'm not naive enough to think there are not, in all likelihood, several evolutionary steps still to play through before that were to happen. If Atheismplus wants to go a different route, then that is entirely their choice to make. I only hope that emotions cool soon and we can actually get down to some serious inter-community discourse.

First of all I want to share a few structural and cultural components that I believe are necessary to create and maintain a sustainable community. Although I have written this with Atheismplus in mind, I think many, if not all, of the points are likely to be applicable to most communities that eek to be more than simply an interest group. As I've said previously, I hold no political allegiance one way or the other, so I wouldn't be surprised if those who identify as either left or right both find objections or concerns regarding these ideas. After that, I want to share a few ideas for some shared culture that embraces the principles I've laid out, shared culture that does not run the risk of centralising the community or facilitating group-think.

Structural components of a sustainable community:

  • The community structure should be as horizontal as possible. Either you could limit this community to being an autonomous part of a wider community, or else seek to found an affiliation, or federation, of groups, individuals and organisations that together strive to cross-promote each others work and collaborate as much as possible. Either way, such cross-promotion should be used to maintain a conscious balance in the diversity of discourse, both in terms of subject and of authorship.
  • The functions and duties of positions of authority should be as transparent and, where applicable, as crowd-sourced as possible, across all scales organisation.
  • Revolving positions of authority can promote greater diversity, both within the affiliated groups of the community and in any overarching administrative structures, of which their should be as few as possible (a media contact point, promotion and awareness, political lobbying, an open-source arbitration process etc).
  • An agreement should exist on the assumption that nobody speaks for anyone else but themselves, unless speaking as a representative with a consensual mandate, on whatever scale. So simple (yet so staggering common in this debate), but just because individual A said X, does not mean that all others who affiliate under the same moniker as A also believe X, nor that it is official policy of the group unless otherwise stated (and even then one should treat it with caution unless there is evidence of a consensus process having been implemented. Individual A could easily be speaking from an emotional state and proclaiming personal, assumed belief and not fact, thereby absolving affiliated others of assumed belief in X).
  • Whether crowd-sourced community guidelines are created for the community as a whole or by individual groups and organisations themselves, they are vital to possess along with mechanisms for grievances to be heard (prior to any incident that threatens to get out of hand). My personal preference is for a 90% or so approval benchmark for acceptance of a guideline or procedural process; this represents a strong mandate that even those who get ideas voted down should be able to accept, yet flexible enough to avoid bloc-voting tactics (it would be interesting to see if there were any studies on the levels of voluntary acquiescence to consensus at various levels). It is important to have a set of guidelines with a sufficient enough mandate to act as an objective framework that everyone can have confidence in appealing to. I've had experience in this regard (anecdotal, I admit) and the impression that it was an absolutely crucial component was apparent almost immediately.
  • With these guidelines, moderators should have an agreed mandate to use whatever powers they have been given, by consensus, to ensure that guidelines are followed. Some issues may be destined to end in flame war, at least at first; for these, all you need is somewhere to park it, away from the main message boards where with luck it will die a slow death. If not, people are free to ignore it. For persistent offenders you shouldn't be scared to suspend or revoke accounts. It's not a free-speech issue; nobody is stopping them spewing shit on Twitter or anywhere else, its just the consensus-derived authority of a group of people choosing to stop you metaphorically stalking them and screaming in their face 24/7.


Cultural components required for a sustainable community:

  • We must all completely flip the way we view critical critique, and those who would offer it, from the instinctively defensive and unconstructive assumption of conflict to an acknowledgement of what is in fact a compliment: someone has deemed your views worthy of time-spent constructing a rebuttal. Obviously this can and is achieved already everyday, though usually with issues that do not have unaddressed ideological belief, however small and subconscious, as their foundations. Those issues remain compartmentalised from our skeptical environment and, it seems to me, from our skeptical way of thinking (I speak here simply from my own experience, and not just about trolls). We need to collectively recognise these unspoken biases and apply the same level of critical thought (and respect) to all issues equally. A lot of lapses and biting of lips will be involved, I'm sure, but there is always “sorry”.
  • We need to create a culture that openly celebrates the best Devil's advocates out there. After all, to be a good Devil's advocate one needs to go all out in researching and trying to understand the rationales for what they may personally see as unsavory arguments and beliefs. We can't expect to have constructive debates (either for the inherent advance of knowledge or the for the perception of the audience) with sceptics or fundamentalists who do not share with us an objective framework for debate; a culture that promotes the playing of Devil's advocate in a constructive way is an alternative way to guard against the emergence of group-think.
  • The written word has its uses, obviously but it's shit for tackling social issues where advocates are often all to willing to insert whatever tone of voice or choice of interpretation is needed in order to validate pre-existing unexplored or unfounded beliefs. If we revive the Socratic tradition, actually utilise video technology to present crowd-sourced debates and arguments, we could take it to a whole new level. I'm sure that Socrates would be ribbing Plato hard now were they to know about Twitter, but there is no reason that we cannot harness the best bits of both direct debate and text.
  • There can be no taboos. I'm serious on this one, but it's gonna be tricky. It might be that some issues are so fresh or vulgar that time would be needed to develop the culture a bit first, get some training in as it were, before it starts to do more good than harm. But ultimately, everything that is out there in this sometimes beautiful, sometimes seemingly FUBAR world is best understood through critical, skeptical thought. It's just something we will need to deal with as it comes, and all try to (for want of a softer, less evocative word) self-police the community.
  • On 'self-policing', it would ideally be a natural consequence of the redefinition of how we see criticism, encouraging a culture of challenging each others views. It will mean learning to control instinctive, defensive tendencies at first, given the lack of critical discourse to date within our present communities on social issues. The best way to do this in my view is to have a code of conduct for debate (something we should already be using i.e. awareness of fallacies, respect etc), something we all subscribe, and hold each other, to. Furthermore, this will help us enter into debates and discussions in a constructive manner, under the assumption that everyone is coming from the same place, not in terms of views and issues, but in terms of method.
  • This is the central strand that runs through all of this advice: If you wish to have a sustainable community, it must be built through a shared culture of methodology, not a shared culture of content. This is the only way to avoid group-think, facilitate cultural evolution and be seen to be just the most damned reasonable and unobjectionable community the world has ever seen.


Here are some ideas that embody these principles, examples of shared culture that would both bind and challenge us as a community:

  1. A wiki for collating scientific evidence on social justice issues – It should be completely open to all, but moderated in the manner described above (very important), with room for debate on each entry. Entries could be tagged for filtering and debate purposes – tags should include, at a minimum, indicators of study quality (whether it is blinded, has a large sample group, area of funding etc), the appearance of objections with further room for debate, and the theme of the study. It wont matter how people approach adding entries, so long as it is sufficiently and effectively moderated by enough users. For the sake of being a user-friendly resource, as well as responsive to cultural evolution, the front page could consist of portals for the top ten or so issues voted up and down on a daily basis (obviously measures would need to be in place to ensure it doesn't become victim to foul play). I don't know if such a resource exists already (I have no time to research this blog as well as write it) but it would be a really useful resource to have to congregate around. It would also be a great media resource, should they find the inclination to actually start quoting evidence. If things get out of hand then folk could always turn to idea number three..
  1. Podcast, or preferably video-based production, for promoting diversity and quality debate – One or two regulars artful in the ways of the devils advocate play host to a different group or person each week, providing a constructive counter-balance to controversial and emotive issues. It would need to be meticulous in it's approach, crowd-sourcing opinion in advance of each episode. Evidence likely to be drawn upon for the debate would be compiled by each side in advance and available to the public. In order to act as an exemplar that the wider community would find constructive, it might be useful to mirror the structure of the debates on idea number three..
  1. Debate Arena – I've a feeling this sort of thing exists, but building one from scratch would give the element of community ownership and consensual design necessary to gain credibility. It could be cross-referenced with the wiki for contestants to draw upon evidence, with debates advertised in advance for research and audience awareness. Contestants could tag other people into the debate, either sourced in advance or drawn from the audience, should the debate require different expertise to advance. People could vote as the debate goes where they think points or arguments have been won, contribute to visualisations that show which way, and to what extent, a consensus is evolving and have the ability to award kudos points to people who uphold their debating standards under pressure. Participants would begin with their own interpretation of the context of the debate, before embarking on a series of 2 minute rounds (though this should be flexible on agreement, according to requirements). A maximum of one correction of a rebuttal, one rebuttal of your own and one argument to advance the debate allowed per round, to really allow for granular exploration of issues and avoid it simply becoming noise. Victory is declared if the crowd consensus reaches a certain level and remains there for two further rounds (a three strikes and you're out policy). Losers could of course seek a rematch, giving plenty of time to perfect your next material. With such a format, I would hope that over time there would emerge people who elevate this style of debate to an art form, applauded for their succinctness, speed of thought and clarity of communication. Debates would be transcribed using voice recognition, as well as being available for stream and download, with the transcript open to editing should errors be spotted. This would allow for easy citing in blogs and further debate. Personally, I would absolutely love to see any debate, interactive or otherwise, between DJ Grothe and Brian Dunning on whether skepticism is actually applicable to politics. I respect the work of both of them but I cannot ignore the possibility that two such prominent voices seem content, publicly at least, in knowing that they entirely disagree on an issue that should be regarded as a fundamental aspect of what skepticism actually is. That's just my opinion, but I'd be more than happy to debate it.

As I said, I'm not telling anyone to do anything, merely presenting my own ideal version of community in the hope that some people might see, understand and adopt some of my ideas. That's even the last I'm going to write on the matter. Between work and the baby, we've got too much on at the present for me to contribute further to the discussion on Atheismplus. Beyond replying to comments here and the odd tweet, I shall remove myself now and wish you all good luck.



* I have used 'community' as shorthand for what Benedict Anderson called the 'imagined community', different to a geographical community (of which I say nothing) in its scope and number.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

An attempt at being constructive regarding this whole #FTBullies thing


The purpose of this blog is to try and offer a hopefully new and constructive perspective to the increasingly bitter debate currently ongoing within the skeptical/atheist community. I am a relative newcomer to this issue having only caught up with it over the last few days; I'm hoping my relatively outside view might be of some value to someone. First though, a little context is needed to try and minimise the seemingly inevitable (potentially from both sides), knee-jerk, distinctly un-skeptical responses that may ensue.

I've considered myself a skeptic for many years. I hold to no pre-packaged political viewpoint. I like to think that I take each issue as it comes, listening to logical arguments on both sides and trying to form an opinion for myself based on the evidence available. Yet I know as well as any that not I nor anybody is infallible, and so if you find reason to disagree all that I ask is that you reply with evidence, logic and respect in a manner befitting the term skeptic. Straw is for horses.

This is my first blog for nearly a year. During that time I have been feeling somewhat adrift, for reasons that may colour my perception of what is going on (consider this a disclosure). Last year, in the wake of the rise of Occupy, I sought to debate politics with my fellow skeptics. In return, I got insults, strawmen, prevarications, and the kind of trollish behaviour we usually criticise our opponents of. On the one hand I had Brian Dunning claiming that politics couldn't be assessed skeptically because it was 'value-based', while on the other hand I had DJ Grothe proclaiming the exact opposite. It suddenly occurred to me that all one needed to do to break the skeptical consensus on organised religion was to ditch the metaphysical stuff and call it politics. The realisation that within our community, beyond religion, alternative medicine and claims of the supernatural lay ideologies as deeply entrenched as any that we seek to counter was a shockingly painful one.

Anyone who believes that the skeptical community possesses a rational quality that puts it above such things as ideology, ignorance and “pointless” schisms, as I once did, are simply being na├»ve. Don't get me wrong, we are in good company; the vast majority of intellectual thinkers since the enlightenment have made the same, relativistic mistake. But I'm not writing this to point fingers, cast blame and root for one team over another. It isn't constructive in an environment such as this. My area of interest lies in networks and power relations, and their relationship with culture and cultural evolution. So, in order to try and explain this in as objective a manner as possible, I shall try to stick to that framework to briefly explain why I think this situation is for the best.

The basis for any community is shared culture. How that culture is produced, disseminated and consumed determines the social power structures that emerge. At one end of the spectrum we have the cult, a strictly top-down model of cultural creation and dissemination, resulting in a group of individuals bound tightly together by virtue of having consumed an all-but-identical shared culture. At the other end we have something like the skeptical community; a far more networked collection of (often grass-roots) affiliated organisations and individuals. Furthermore, thanks to the internet we have developed this community largely through a democratised meritocracy of cultural production, something that has allowed people of independent minds to create bonds without the need for a centrally-derived shared culture.

However, there is another kind of power dynamic that hasn't been addressed by this unprecedented (in scale and rate of iteration anyhow) model of community. Within any growing community, there will always be a relative disparity of power between those that have risen to positions of authority and influence, often the 'veterans', and those that are either primarily consuming or else simply new to the scene. As the creators of the overwhelming majority of the communities universally shared culture, these influential people. to a large extent, determine the discourse and, as good skeptics should, they primarily discuss that which they know: alternative medicine, religion, pseudoscience etc. However, it is my opinion that as well as being a handy rule to keep in mind when embarking on a debate, limiting oneself in this way can also be used to justify ignoring issues that fall outside of those established within the shared culture, and/or conflict with one's concepts and beliefs derived from other spaces entirely, outside of the skeptical community (family, local 'real-life' community values etc). This creates a naturally emerging, unsystematic top-down element in the creation of our shared culture and, as a result, there is a group-think dynamic at play that is far more ingrained in some than others. This is where the split lies in my view. We have a group of people that can see the elephants in the room, people who's values from other communities cannot be so easily compartmentalised-away and who cannot, for whatever reason, maintain the self-censorship/denial necessary to maintain this veneer of complete unity. And, as with every community that has ever come before us, we also have a group that denigrates such up-starts as trouble-makers and upsetters of the natural order.

Oh the irony.

The important thing is the veneer has been stripped away. Now should be the time for all the major-players to face up to the fact that there are fundamental aspects of skepticism that have yet to be addressed. On this, you would all come to us as equals. It is simply ridiculous to say that politics and social issues are not the realm of skepticism; that may be the desire of those that wish to maintain the illusion, but discourse and method will emerge soon whether you like it or not. Social science may not be as empirical, but that doesn't mean the answer is to simply ignore social issues or, worse yet, to seemingly actively discourage its discussion to a sometimes obsessive degree. Only through the influential people openly discussing these issues sensibly, skeptically (no more ad-hominems, no more strawmen, no more disrespect), and with no taboos, can we hope to sustain this community in a way that can act as an effective force for good. Create and systematise tools to facilitate this communities evolution, or die (metaphorically speaking, of course). This is what must be done if you want to try and keep this movement together, though in my heart-of-hearts I doubt if it is either possible nor even desirable. If one thing has come out of this for me, it is a feeling of confirmation that this movement, like all before it, does not have what it takes to be truly unprecedented. While the wider societies in which we all live continue to propagate radically different, largely segregated cultural concepts, we cannot expect to maintain a community through simply ignoring it. If that's what you want, call it a club.

This has gone on long enough. In my own personal opinion, if you cannot resist partaking in this runaway tit-for-tat behaviour, launching strawmen and ad-hominem attacks, gleefully interpreting emotional and distressed individual statements as representative for an entire group (and this goes to both sides), then you do not deserve to call yourselves skeptics. As you might have guessed, and for the reasons I described in the beginning, I find my sympathies lying with those that want more from a community than possibly the most ironic case of group-think likely to have ever existed, those that cannot separate their skepticism and their social conscience Therefore I offer them some, in my opinion, much needed advice, should they desire it.

    • Do not simply make the same mistake again and think for one moment that this time the community is going to be perfect. We are all the product of a shit system, and we all bring issues because from it. Reinforcing an us-versus-them narrative merely takes you along a well-trodden path to a place you don't want to be.

    • If the energy and enthusiasm is genuinely there then you do have an opportunity to create something special. The world of politics in all its forms is crying out for skeptical discourse.

    • This should probably be titled rule number one, two and three: beware your own hidden ideologies and confirmation biases. Actually put in effort at self-reflection, mainstream and systematise it into forums and debates and discourse. Learn about facilitation and conflict-resolution. Skepticism and social issues has a bad track-record; don't be complacent and assume that it won't be you next. 

    • Also importantly, apologise for errors, things said in the heat of the moment, strawmen and the like. Try and develop a shared culture of meticulous debate etiquette: if the group-think and underlying ideologies of those shouting loudest are as deeply held as I suspect, then it isn't them that you are appealing to . It is that majority that primarily consume that are the most reachable. I genuinely think that on the larger issues you guys have the moral high ground. Make sure you act like it.

    • If you want to be truly unprecedented, there is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind (the simplest there is, in my view). Facilitate cultural evolution. This means creating discourse to find ways to systematise checks and balances against group-think and the development of dogma: always actively seek greater diversity; if in a position of high influence, accept the role with humility and act primarily as a facilitator, promoting as many voices as possible whilst ensuring one's own voice is not dominating multiple discourses; create an environment where people can be comfortable playing devils advocate (far more constructive for the neutral reader should the current level of debate out there remain so toxic); actively resist attempts to create an us-versus-them culture, a breeding ground for the development of group-think; and do not be afraid to remind and correct those who share your (at present) beliefs when you feel that they are out-of-line or in need of some self-reflection.

      UPDATE: There is a good critique by Massimo Pigliucci, with lively comments, to be found here:
      http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/on-with-comment-about-richard-carriers.html 
      Also,
      http://atheistethicist.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/atheism-plus-arguments-and-concerns.html
      ... is a reasoned blog by Alonzo Fyfe addressing some of the flawed responses to #atheismplus as well as a critique of the current circumstance.