Category Archives: Radicalism

The narrow nature of political words, and how that distorts discourse.

I know I’ve used this image before, but it’s perfect for this entry also.

I have to re-examine the way I, and all of us, use words like “freedom,” because it is becoming increasingly clear to me that these words are incomplete and inadequate compared to what they are supposed to mean. And this, I think, creates giant holes in political discourse and encourages atomistic thinking, evaluating actions in a vacuum, subjectivist morality (I know this is a huge one, and I will come back to it), and supports the status quo.

In order to get into this inadequacy, I must first review the three kinds of power, although my readers may already be aware of them. Expressed simply, power is the ability to make people do what you want. According to the classification by economist John Kenneth Galbraith, power can be usefully divided in three categories, which he calls condign power (force), compensatory power (money) and conditioned power (indoctrination). He furthermore ascertains that while condign power is still crucially important in some respects, it has lost a great deal of general importance in our modern democratic societies compared to compensatory and conditioned power.

The trouble is that we are still using words like “freedom” in their original meaning, as freedom from coercion. Living in a society without mass media and where most people farm for their living (entailing relatively limited compensation and conditioning), but where people with swords can carry you away for criticizing the King, such a notion of freedom would be very appealing indeed. Unfortunately, it no longer reflects reality. Our political language has become far too narrowed to express the three-dimensional use of power in our society and, by extension, the three-dimensional use of counter-power (so we often reduce activist issues to violence versus non-violence).

So we can identify three components of freedom:

1. Freedom- from condign power.
2. Freedom- from compensatory power.
3. Freedom- from conditioned power.

If we denote the presence of each of these components in superscript, the most common forms discussed are freedom1 and, very rarely, freedom1,2 (not sure what we should call the kind of “freedom” advocated by fascists and other authoritarians who believe in beating up and killing innocent people: freedom0, non-freedom, anti-freedom, or just plain slavery?). What I am saying is that we need to expand our concept of freedom to freedom1,2,3; and the same thing applies to choice, agency, human rights.

So when a liberal feminist says, for example, “prostitutes choose to sell their bodies,” this use of the word “choose” is really choose1. When I say that a majority of women do not choose to become prostitutes but rather engage in it because of economic pressure and psychological dysfunction brought about by sexual abuse, I am using choose1,2,3. The difference is that the former does not acknowledge compensatory or conditioned power, while the latter does.

A complete understanding of the concept of “freedom” must contain more than acting without having a gun put to your temple or being threatened with force if you disobey. It must also mean freedom1,2,3 from all other socially constructed necessities, such as the necessity of work, the necessity of conform to one’s social roles, or childhood abuse and the compulsions it generates. The freedom1 generously granted to us by the capitalist basically reduces itself to the freedom to starve.

Our conception of human rights logically follows from our notion of freedom, because a right cannot by definition interfere with the freedom of other people. A “right to property” is perfectly compatible with freedom1, but absolutely incompatible with freedom1,2. A “right to free speech” fits perfectly within the perspective of freedom1, but not within the perspective of freedom1,2,3. A right to health care or a right to potable water grossly contradicts freedom1 but is logically consistent with freedom1,2.

Political equality, being the flip side of freedom, can be qualified in the same way, equality1 being associated with freedom1, and so on.

Freedom1,2,3 can basically be defined as the absence of any external determinism on the human mind. This of course does not deny the presence of internal determinism on the human mind: I am not at all here talking about “free will” or any other such spook. The best way to express such a phenomenon, I think, would be in terms of possibilities offered to the individual. This definition provided by someone in the Occupy Wall Street group provides us, I think, with a good starting point:

Freedom is bound up with the idea of possibilities. The idea of limitless possibilities is the ideal of limitless freedom. The idea that anything is potentially possible, that’s what freedom means. And historically there have been very few people that have been allowed to have the kinds of possibilities that would allow them to be free. Society has progressed more and more people have been allowed to be free. But we still live in a state of unfreedom. Society does not live for its own sake, autonomously. It is still bound to something external to itself that structures it. The goal of history and transforming society must be to make these possibilities available to everyone.

Again there is a strong link posited between freedom1,2,3 and self-determinism: society, in the fullest sense of the word, must be autonomous if we are to be free1,2,3 at the individual level. But these possibilities must crucially be open to people who are different: people who already want to fulfill their social roles and not rock the boat don’t need freedom2,3, since they’d basically do what they’re doing anyway. It’s the freaks and the weirdoes, the geniuses and the subgeniuses, the visionaries and the innovators, who need to see their possibilities opened up. This is true of all rights and all choices as well: the State rarely mistreats those who are on its side.

I write a great deal of entries in opposition to voluntaryism or its corollaries. This is because I think voluntaryism is a major ethical error that people commit on a regular basis, that it leads to absolute hostility to radical principles, and that it needs to be opposed. But what causes voluntaryist-inspired thinking?

I think the fact that our political language is so narrow may be the root cause. Someone who only believes in freedom1 can then believe in equality1 (that as long as no one is being coerced, we are all on an equal footing), which leads to choice1 (that a choice is valid as long as we’re all equal1), which leads to voluntaryism (that coercion is bad but everything else is good as long as it’s chosen1). So by examining the narrowness of political language, we’re going to the root of the voluntaryist issue.

This leads me to subjectivist ethics, of which voluntaryism is only one variant. Subjectivism in ethics holds that saying an action is “good” means saying that some person or group holds a positive attitude towards it. “Abortion is bad” reduces itself to “I believe abortion is bad” or “I don’t approve of people having abortions” or “My culture does not support abortion” or “God forbids abortion” or some variant of such propositions.

One of the fatal problems with subjectivism is that, if whatever a person believes is automatically good, subjectivists are implicitly imputing infallibility to the human mind; otherwise there’d be nothing stopping a human mind from erring and stating that, for example, the Holocaust was good (I assume everyone reading this, subjectivist or not, believes the Holocaust was evil). But this can only make any sort of sense if you ignore all the social factors that mold the human mind. How can anything be infallible and at the same time be influenced by ever-changing external pressures?

So there is definitely a connection here, in that ethical subjectivism logically depends on supporting freedom1 against other kinds. Note that I am not saying that all subjectivists do support freedom1, but rather that subjectivism doesn’t make sense except if one also supports freedom1 (so don’t argue that subjectivism makes sense by telling me you don’t believe in infallibility). Anyone who understands that the human mind can also be attacked by non-coercive power cannot also believe logically that the human mind can be infallible.

Now let me go through each radical ideology in turn and look at how the narrowness of language changes how we look at them.

Starting with atheism, consider the term “freedom of religion.” What does it mean in practice? That children, who are most of the time indoctrinated (either by their parents, by a church, or some proxy) in a religion and are forced to identify with this religion from the time they can speak and think, who live in a society which puts pressure on them to adopt certain religions, can somehow make an informed decision about religion even though they are not even old enough to actually make an informed decision, even if they were actually given enough information, which we never are. So freedom of religion is definitely a sort of freedom1. It completely ignores the tremendous social pressures and conditioning applied to people’s religious beliefs.

But religion uses compensatory power as well. Just think of all the atheist priests we learn about in the Clergy Project who remain in their job simply because they can’t afford to lose that job and have no other skills to exploit. Think of all the teenagers everywhere who are deeply afraid of “coming out” and living as an atheist because they would lose financial support from the parents who supposedly love them. Think of people in highly religious countries who are harassed by religious people but don’t speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

I will not elaborate on the topic of Anarchism, but I think the relation here should be directly obvious. Anarchists recognize all forms of power as being inimical to social autonomy and individual freedom. Hierarchies and power go hand-in-hand, as the institutions in our societies which are most able to accumulate and use power are all hierarchical. Ultimately the Anarchist goal is to eliminate or neutralize all forms of power, not just coercion.

Antinatalism fights against procreation, which is pushed by massive indoctrination and financial incentives. We are all indoctrinated to believe that we must get married and have children, that being a parent is the best thing that can happen to you, that people who don’t have children are selfish. And marriage, which carries with it the expectation of children, is itself massively pushed, so much that now being able to get married is considered a basic human right. States give money through various programs to people who have children, and it is very much in the interest of States to maintain population growth (except in extreme exceptions like China), if only to maintain their tax base and the endless growth machine of capitalism.

Then there is radical feminism, which identifies the patriarchy as a system of hierarchical gender domination. The patriarchy is partially maintained by violence, but is also maintained by the inculcation and constant enforcement of gender roles, sexist institutions like capitalism, the military, religion and marriage (to only name those), the objectification of women, sexist pseudo-science and quasi-science, and so on. One cannot also forget the underpayment and non-payment of women’s work all over the world. I’ve also mentioned prostitution as another example earlier. Here is another example quoted by antiplodon at Anti-Porn Feminists:

Bart (1983; Bart and O’Brien 1985) has identified a heterosexual sex-rape continuum. At one end is consensual sex (both parties equally desire sex). At the other is rape. In between are altruistic sex (one party submits out of guilt, duty, or pity) and compliant sex (one party submits because the consequences of not submitting are worse than those of submitting). Using Bart’s conceptualization, Kelly found that most women “felt pressured to have sex in many, if not all, of their sexual relationships with men” (p.56). Yet she found that women perceived sex as coercive only when physical force or the threat of physical force was used.

This quote perfectly demonstrates the narrowness of the word “rape,” insofar as only violence or the threat of violence is perceived as coercive. Therefore most rapes are not even perceived as being rape, even by the victim.

I think the tripartite schema is clearly used here; the sex-rape continuum incorporates all three forms of power: condign (the violence of rape, the threat of violence in compliant sex), compensatory (fear of losing those resources which are controlled by the man, including shelter and money) and conditioned (the inculcation of guilt, duty or pity for not complying to a man’s sexual demands). Note that the gradient from sex to rape follows exactly the gradient from condign to conditioned power as well (rape/condign, compliant sex/condign and compensatory, altruistic sex/conditioned).

Uses of compensatory and conditioning power are generally organizational in nature. A corporation or a State pays your wages, not a person. And although specific people may indoctrinate you personally (parents, teachers, friends), indoctrination still relies on an entire society and its hierarchical institutions to back it up. Coercion, on the other hand, tends to be more individualistic in nature: ultimately, a person has to threaten, beat up or shoot another person. The organization of violence helps its effectiveness, but it is not necessary.

Now, radicalism as an approach to ethics puts the emphasis on systemic analysis, not on individual relations. What first concerns anti-theists is not whether this or that person was helped by religion, but the principles by which religion operates and their effects on society as a whole. What first concerns Anarchists is not whether some people had good or bad experiences with government bureaucracy, but rather the principles by which capital-democracies operate and how they affect people’s lives. I think you get the idea.

This means that radicals are naturally interested in freedom1,2,3, not in freedom1, because the latter view is unduly individualistic. Yes, obviously it is desirable for no one to be coerced, but to stop there is an oversimplistic analysis which assumes that actions and choices must be analyzed in a contextless vacuum. The correct perspective is to start from the premise that actions do not in fact take place in a contextless vacuum, but that they are inscribed within a social context which exerts compensatory and conditioned pressures on every individual, and therefore on all actions.

Those who actively affirm that freedom1 is the only valid use of the word “freedom” are quick in screaming censorship or fascism when radicals present a systemic analysis of an institution they favor. But this is a circular argument. If freedom1 was the only valid freedom, then fighting against compensatory and conditioned power could be censorship and fascism; but it isn’t.

I start from an egalitarian position, and from that position, I say that, to mangle a quote from Gary Lloyd, “[w]hen a boot (i.e. power) is on your throat, whether it is a coercive boot, a compensatory boot, or a conditioned boot is of no consequence.” All three “boots” lead to vast inequalities between human beings. All three “boots” flow from hierarchy and lead to internalized self-hatred, exploitation, suffering, death and genocide.

The major problem in separating these forms of power is that they are all necessary for each other. Genocide requires dehumanization of the enemy and massive resources to be perpetrated. “Property rights” require indoctrinated obedience and the force of the gun if they are to persist. Indoctrinating people to agree with a social goal, no matter what goal, requires some form of punishment for those who disagree and the means to produce and propagate an effective message.

I think it’s safe to say that at least most organizations, institutions and hierarchies, no matter what their goal is, rely to a certain extent on all three forms of power to accomplish their goals. Granted, there is an issue of degree, as most organizations, institutions and hierarchies also use cooperative methods to a certain extent. But outside of cooperative methods, they use a certain mix of the three forms of power to achieve any given goal.

I realize that a proponent of freedom1 would claim that, for example, using force to protect “property rights” is an entirely warranted and justified use of power, which therefore presents no problem at all. Of course they are wrong in that “property rights” are a legal fiction and are not actually valid. More importantly, to declare one use of force to be valid and another invalid means to have a conception of rights, and our conception of rights is derived from our conception of freedom, so the argument is actually circular.

I have also discussed the fact that many of our “non-coercive” institutions actually embody past violence. So even acts which are not in themselves violent were made possible by coercion. So there really isn’t any rational way of separating the two, and to claim otherwise is delusional at best. You’re either a radical or you’re wrong.

Six reasons why people do not use systemic analysis.

This is approximately how Pinks see radicals, except fatter.

You may have noticed lately that I’ve been writing a lot about a synthesis of all these positions I’m holding. What they all have in common, I’ve come to realize, is that they are based on systemic examinations of the issues. They all contrast themselves to the individualistic, voluntaryist approach. They look at the institutions in our society and evaluate them from an ethical standpoint (whatever that standpoint might be).

One good word for this is “radical.” “Radical” means going to the root of something. The root of the problems caused by religion, hierarchies, natalism or the Patriarchy is not the actions of the individuals living within that context, but religion, hierarchies, natalism and the Patriarchy themselves; not individual abuses but the rules and structures that abuse others by their very nature. To quote Octavio Paz:

The revolutionary is always a radical, that is, he is trying to correct the uses themselves rather than the mere abuses…

Or to quote Thoreau:

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau understood the dynamic of guilt cover-up that motivates much of charity in our society where people are not guaranteed their right to live. But most importantly, he understood that one has to examine the source of evil, not just try to mitigate it. Both activities are necessary in order to reduce suffering.

It is obvious to me now that systemic analysis is the best way to look at social issues. But why do people resist doing so? Why do people analyze actions as if they existed in a vacuum and completely ignore the context that molds our actions? There seems to be a few reasons for that.

1. Belief in a fixed idea, whether it be God, the State, the life-system, or the Patriarchy. Fixed ideas are totalizing and make it impossible for believers to grasp the existence of viable alternatives, let alone the fact that what they believe in is evil.

It may seem that these people make use of systemic analysis, but they are stuck in the reactionary stage, so their criticism of social issues is purely circular (X is good/bad because God/the Bible says it is, and God/the Bible is the standard of morality because I believe in God/the Bible).

Related to this is the weaker believer who believes that a systemic analysis neglects his position, e.g. a liberal Christian who rejects the anti-religious because they don’t criticize liberals like em. They don’t understand that a systemic feature is not necessarily reproduced by every subject of the system, but that by being part of the system, these subjects support the evils of the system. The liberal Christian is aiding and abetting the religion that makes fundamentalist evils possible.

2. Some people fear of discovering that they live in an evil society. Who wants to feel that their society is not only full of injustice, but that this injustice is part and parcel of the system and cannot be resolved by individualistic action? It’s much easier to keep believing in business as usual.

3. We’re all fed the mass media stereotype of radicals (no matter what the issue) as violent, strident, insane kooks. This discourages a lot of people from even examining radical ideology. Who wants to be a violent, strident, insane kook?

4. One may be committed to individualistic thinking or gradualism to the point that it becomes its own fixed idea. To such people, any individual instantiation of institutional evils can be explained away by the Bad Apple Syndrome, which means there can be no disproof. Even bad features of institutions themselves can be explained away by the actions of a few bad former leaders.

I don’t know if this is directly related, but it also seems that certain people can ignore the existence of any amount of injustice or error if it they do not perceive it as relevant to their own personal lives. It is not merely that they don’t care, but that they actively decide to ignore the very existence of the injustice. I have observed this bizarre phenomenon more than once.

5. The belief that radicalism is useless, and that radicals are not being reasonable. This is what Michael Albert (the parecon guy) calls “vision aversion.” Whether we like it or not, there are people who simply do not care about others and don’t care about any vision concerned with making a better society, or who don’t have the imagination necessary to be inspired by a vision of what could be, and those people are never going to be radicals no matter how much you argue.

6. It’s an uphill battle. It seems every other trend (in spirituality, literature, etc) or ideology (in philosophy, politics, ethics, economics, etc) serves a powerful role in getting people from not focusing on the big picture (many of which I have reviewed on this blog). The more a person is involved in the mass media or popular literature, the harder it is for such a person to understand radicalism. In the Western world, individualism and individualistic framing of issues is seen as modern and progressive, and anyone who’s a radical is intolerant, old-fashioned, culturally insensitive, and so on.

It’s also hard to connect the dots when confronted by institutional evils because we are blind to the institutions that surround us like a fish is blind to water. This is why philosophy leads itself naturally to radicalism, since, at its best, it’s supposed to help us expose our implicit premises and re-examine them. But philosophy also lends itself well to formalizing people’s prejudices and delusions.

Fearing the non-conventional.

Above: Matt Bors illustrates atheismophobia. Click to enlarge.

Fear seems to be wasted a great deal on things which are not at all powerful or horrible. People fear things as abstract as the redefinition of marriage or the disintegration of Western society. There is a lot of legitimate fear about losing one’s job or dying of a disease, obviously; I am more concerned with the illegitimate fears, because there seems to be a lot more of it going around. The personal fears are kept locked up in people’s brains, but the illegitimate fears are bandied about and spread like venereal disease.

A good example I’ve written about lately is the fear that determinism will be widely accepted. I think most people would agree with me that this is a pretty abstract fear, as are the claims that human life will be devalued or that Western society is under threat. What would be the concrete results of determinism being widely accepted? I don’t think those fundamentalists have even tried to imagine what a deterministic society might be like, or is likely to look like.

Another one is the fear of Hell. Many otherwise convinced atheists live with that fear for a long time. This is because Hell and its dramatic images live in their imaginary, not in their rational faculties.

Or take a more mundane example, like “Stranger Danger.” Now, we all know that’s a damn lie, and a dangerous lie. But it appeals to the widespread narrative of strangers lurking in the dark waiting to kidnap and rape children. Again, it appeals to the images that have been engraved in our imaginary, it is pre-rational, it is insidious and a form of indoctrination.

The main feeling that parents experience, I think, is not contentment or happiness, but fear. Everything they do to their children seems to have a component of fear to it, fear that the child will grow up “wrong.” What “wrong” actually means in this case is “maladapted to this society,” which in practice means that the child must be mentally broken in order to fit in our bizarro society.

In addition to a human being which is, in emself, complete, a child is also a potentiality. There is no obvious way to predict how a child will grow and mature. But a parent, through their ownership claim, seeks to control the child, so there is a fundamental tension there; they seek to control a child’s future but they really cannot. So there is a constant fear of a terrible hypothetical future for the child if ey “fails to adapt” to our dysfunctional society.

In all cases, we are talking about fear emerging from the imagination, the fear of a disastrous hypothetical futures, because we can always imagine greater threats in the future than the ones that actually exist in the present. A maxim is “better the devil you know.” Uncertainty triggers insecurity, insecurity triggers anxiety, and anxiety demands a remedy. This is true in all spheres.

Radicalism is a good way to stimulate people’s fear reflex, because it is innately counter-culture, and therefore summons up an uncertain future. Atheism triggers fears of the chaos of a world without the dogmatic, relativist morality of religion. Anarchism triggers fear of the chaos of an egalitarian world, devoid of obedience and submission. Antinatalism triggers fear of the chaos of a world without human life. Radical feminism triggers fear of the chaos of a society without gender roles. In all cases, fear is motivated not by arguments (although arguments may be used as rationalizations) but by the realization of radical difference.

But there is a deeper correlation between fear and chaos, between fear and counter-culture. We already know from observing society that fear makes people flock to hierarchies (“order”). The kind of hierarchy depends on the kind of fear: for instance, fear of death pushes people towards religion.

The explanation given is that people who feel threatened fall back on the culture and values of the groups towards which they feel allegiance. The contrast to the “chaos” of radicalism, obviously, is the “order” of hierarchies, where everyone knows their place and everyone has a role to play. Hierarchies represent a security blanket because they give you easy answers about how to organize society: there are inferiors and superiors, the superiors deserve their status (for whatever ridiculous reason), and the inferiors should obey the superiors in exchange for their lives or livelihood.

The fact that these answers fail time and time again, or the fact that hierarchies are not really a form of order and egalitarianism is not chaos, does not prevent the believer’s fear, because this emotion in based in the imaginary, not in rationality.

It is not, I think, a lack of imagination as much as a fertile imagination unbounded by rationality. The fact that people imagine all kinds of disaster scenarios in this fashion kinda proves that point. This indicates to me that the best way to combat it is by presenting an alternate and more credible narrative (such as my reframing of anarchism) and by presenting an alternate future.

Why skepticism isn’t so great…

I’ve never really bought into skepticism, and since most rationalists profess to be skeptics as well, I suppose I should provide a good explanation for my indifference. It will not exactly be a popular position, but I have to tell the truth about it.

The fact is that most of what skeptics oppose is fairly trivial. I do agree that it’s terrible that “psychic mediums” exploit tragedies for their own gain, and that quack medicine draws in billions of dollars in revenues around the world (but while skeptics rail against quack medicine, they do not rail against the medical establishment that, in the United States at least, prices medical treatment outside of many people’s ability to pay, and pushes them towards quack medicine). But arguing against things like belief in ghosts, angels, New Age pap, or secretive monsters, things that don’t really hurt anyone, only makes skeptics look like Grinches.

Skeptics are notoriously reluctant to address religious issues, even though they are most rich in nonsense. When they do, it’s mostly to address extremely peripheral issues such as Virgin Mary apparitions or the eucharist. Really, who cares?

The triviality is not my only problem with skepticism. My other problem is that they hold a pretense of rationality by debunking weak variants of things that actually have a great hold on our culture in stronger variants.

Nowadays skeptics laugh at the fetish religions of Western Africa. Of course we should be dubious of the claim that an inanimate object could command respect and maintain order in a marketplace or city. And yet we attribute similar powers to the US Constitution or bodies of laws. They are only pieces of paper, but we routinely hear claims that “the US Constitution guarantees human rights” and things of that nature. Of course they are entirely powerless without guns, but we revere the papers themselves as necessary for order.

Skeptics rightly see inter-subjective agreement on religious matters as irrelevant and silly, that claims must be evaluated on their own merits. But what is money? Money is just a piece of paper which we inter-subjectively agree represents value (not any fixed amount of value, just some random amount of value). On its face, money is worthless and any pretense of it being valuable is as ridiculous as the belief that a eucharist turns into Jesus’ epidermis. And yet we are not “skeptical” of this.

Skeptics are very critical when contra-causal claims are made, except when that contra-causal claim is free will.

Skeptics are also skeptical of magical words. And yet they hold to the taboo of profanity (I actually got banned from the James Randi Educational Foundation board for profanity), a belief which attributes magical power to words, that if people (especially children) read these taboo words, they will go apeshit and revel in criminal behavior. Skeptics may not believe in that, but they do believe in the existence of taboo words.

Skeptics do not believe that wearing anything (such as a special bracelet or a special shirt) can have any direct effect on the person (except if you do something stupid like wearing something you’re allergic to). And yet we also believe that a person shooting another is murder without a uniform, and that when this person wears a uniform, the shooting is not only not murder but relatively acceptable. This is a paranormal claim far more puzzling than any Q-Ray bracelet.

Skeptics are doubtful of religious claims made on the basis of myths, regardless of the religion to which those myths belong. And yet no skeptic I know of challenges modern myths. In the case of Americans, we’d be talking about myths regarding the foundation and history of the United States, of which there are legion. I have seen activists and historians challenge these myths, but not skeptics.

I once had a skeptic tell me straight-faced and point blank that the police exists to protect people. This delusional myth completely ruins the lives of millions of people. How many people’s lives have been completely ruined by believing in leprechauns or Bigfoot?

I expect that the reaction of skeptics to my points is that none of them are “paranormal.” Skeptics circumscribe the paranormal in terms of being an extraordinary claim or going against scientific understanding (or fundamental scientific understanding). Yet all the claims I have presented are extraordinary and either go against fundamental scientific understanding or are beyond the province of science. I don’t care what rationalizations skeptics use to limit their methods, because these claims are as testable as other claims they refute.

One may also argue that my claim relative to murder is untestable, since it concerns an ethical issue. But skeptics investigate claims that include murder as a concept and seem to have no problem using an operational or intuitive definition of murder (e.g. psychics who “divine” information about murders, or the belief that ghosts are the spirits of murder victims, or when they compare the Biblical rules against murder with actual incidences of murder in the Bible). They obviously think murder can be discerned through objective facts in some way.

Finally, one may reply that skepticism cannot criticize such things because it would mean taking a political position, and that this would be divisive (same as they argue against criticizing religious claims). But this is merely proof that skeptics are more concerned with being a movement than about the truth. So why should we trust such people?

This is not a facetious question, but a serious question. If the goal of skeptics is to maintain a coherent movement, to the point that they refute to address religious and political issues, then how can we trust that their skepticism is not motivated by these same motives? I won’t name any specific person or issue (*ahem* Climategate *ahem*), because skeptics can always then object that “this is not what all skeptics think,” which would be a fair point.

My main point, however, remains that skepticism draws an unnecessary and arbitrary distinction between two kinds of extraordinary claims, some that are very controversial and some that are less controversial, and only claims the latter as its domain. Skeptics then use this arbitrary distinction to defend the status quo and its extraordinary claims.

So they end up being just another group of status quo defenders, another bunch of mostly liberals and a few libertarians and conservatives who get uppity if you try to argue there’s anything fundamentally wrong about the societies we live in. In fact, skepticism is explicitly for the status quo:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence.

The trouble is that this only works if you look at the natural sciences, where every law and theory is painstakingly criticized before being eventually accepted. It does not apply to any other area of human knowledge. So being skeptical is an extremely incomplete epistemology.

On the inconvenient truths about human sacrifice.

From Matt Bors.

A lot of what I post about is on sensitive issues, so I have come to expect the usual denial and obfuscation from my opponents. I expect a lot of denial on this issue also. Human sacrifice? HAR HAR HAR! Surely that’s a relic of past, ignorant ages!

Not really. We still practice human sacrifice and praise it, but we just do it without the pomp and circumstance. Human sacrifice happens when you know someone will die but you justify it as being for some higher purpose (be it religious, social, economic, or other). Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember this example.

However, we need not restrict ourselves to this kind of example. The simple fact is that anyone who rejects the “do no harm” principle to the point that they find some number of deaths “justifiable” supports human sacrifice in some form. I am not saying that such a position is automatically invalid, but it does have the burden of proof, and “well, I think it’s justified” doesn’t cut it.

The problem is that people who support human sacrifice also refuse to admit that they support human sacrifice. This is understandable; anyone who would openly make such an admission would discredit emself as a normal human being. So they have to finagle, whine and bitch.

A good example of that is the commenting rules I applied for a while on the pro-abortion series. I asked people the following questions:

What maximum number of women dead from botched back alley abortions per year under an anti-abortion scheme do you consider a fair and just tradeoff to prevent all abortions that would happen under a pro-abortion scheme? (for anti-abortion people)

What maximum number of children afflicted with spina bifita/Tay-Sachs/leukemia/cancer/Downs Syndrome/etc a year born under a pro-choice scheme do you consider a fair and just tradeoff to prevent the distress of women who would not be allowed to have a child under a pro-abortion scheme? (for pro-choice people)

My reasoning behind these questions was two-fold:

1. To get my opponents to admit that they support the deliberate sacrifice of human beings for their goals.

2. To get them to quantify their support of human sacrifice, so we can advance the debate beyond rationalizations and get to the heart of the matter.

Of course my attempt failed. Some people claimed they were unable to answer because the question didn’t apply to them, and tried to finagle their position so it wouldn’t apply. Other people refused to consider the issue because it was too damageable for their position. Yet others simply didn’t answer. It’s the elephant in the room.

One person tried to return the question to me, asking me how many lives my beliefs are worth. But that’s a misfire, because I can always hit that one out of the park: the answer is, and always will be, zero. I don’t give a shit who you are or what you believe, no one’s beliefs are worth the lives of innocent human beings.

When I say, “do not impose harm,” I don’t mean “do not impose harm unless you’re not doing it to a specific person.” I also don’t mean “do not impose harm unless it’s on someone you don’t like or who you think deserves it.” I also don’t mean “do not impose harm unless it’s legal.” I mean “do not impose harm.”

One may reply, what answer do I expect? Do I expect an exact number? No, not really, but at least an order of magnitude. If it is justified to have people die for your beliefs, it would be nice to have an idea of how much death is warranted, and whether the current death rate is warranted.

And there are people who are able to be clear-headed about this and answer the question, such as Biting Beaver in this entry. We need more people with her high level of honesty. I still think her position is fucking disgusting and wrong, but at least it’s something we can debate. Without some kind of starting point, how can there even be a debate?

Let’s go back to the abortion question. If you are pro-choice, it is an incontrovertible fact (no matter how much you try to finagle out of it) that you support the birth of compromised children, some of which will die in horrible sufferings, and others who will experience lives of suffering. So how many child deaths are pro-choice policies worth? It’s a simple question that demands an answer.

Sure it’s uncomfortable to advocate the death of children, but if that’s the problem, then stop advocating positions that entail the death of children. And if you really believe that the pro-choice position is right beyond pragmatic considerations, then don’t be ashamed of its consequences and answer the question. It’s as simple as that.

Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me,please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh,Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived criesaloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for.

These questions apply to any issue where people’s beliefs entail suffering or death. Natalists blather on and on about how happy they are and how life is a gift, so we have to ask: how many horrible deaths is your happiness worth? It is a fact that perpetuating the life-system entails not only natural deaths but also horrible torture for billions.

Darwin’s Hamster talks about it on this video. His point is that for the debate on natalism to advance, natalists need to answer this question. Until they continue to refuse to answer, the debate will always remain stalled.

Darwin’s Hamster also points out that this question is no different from the atheist argument that religion harms people, and that therefore it is hypocrite for an atheist to agree with the atheist question but not the antinatalist question. You can’t point out the harms of religion and claim it’s a good argument while claiming that a look at the harms of natalism is a bad argument.

When faced with this question, natalists have to divert the issue and argue that death is just a fact of life and we should accept it, that we antinatalists are just whiners who want perfect lives. The trouble is that this is a straightforward lie: we humans are the ones producing this suffering, it is not a “fact of life,” it does not need to exist or have to exist.

But like pro-choice advocates, they must ignore the fact that we are the ones producing the suffering, that we are responsible for its existence and continuation. If they can silently reclassify suffering and death as an inevitability, they get themselves off the hook. It just happens, don’t you see? Babies just pop out of thin air, I’m tellin’ ya! They just appear and there’s nothing we can do about it! In the same way, capitalism is validated because human life just is a contest for survival and there’s nothing we can do about it (when in fact it is capitalism that creates most of these rigged “contests”).

Misogynists use the same “inevitability” gambit towards pornography and prostitution. So we have to ask, how many deaths of female prostitutes are justified in order to serve men’s supposed needs? Well, prostitutes are not really human, you see, so it’s better to just forget about it. So there is an inevitability argument, but also simple bigotry. Both will do equally well.

In a more abstract way, I also talked about a similar problem relative to God giving people free will. It seems to me to be a conclusive argument against Christianity that God giving us free will implies all the crimes people have committed in history, including all murders, wars, torture, rapes, and so on.

We can also ask, how many deaths of innocents are justified in order to maintain a State? Or how many deaths of workers are justified in order to maintain coal mines? People still die of coal mining accidents every week even in the most advanced countries. How many deaths at the hands of mafias and drug impurities are justified by the War on Drugs? And so on, and so forth.

The basic principle, I hope, is clear: if you are proposing a policy that entails innocent people’s deaths, you have the burden of proof to show that such a policy is worth it. For example, having hospitals entails many deaths due to lack of hygiene (hundreds of thousands of people die every year because of it), but it’s still better than not having health care. A decentralized system would probably be far healthier and less deadly, but if we simply compare hospitals to nothing at all, I think the choice is pretty clear. Sure it takes lives, but its primary purpose is to sustain life. The medical establishment, on the other hand… the less said about that the better.

So what’s the point of these questions? Am I just trying to shut people up and drive them away? No, the topic of my entries already does that for me, and besides that wouldn’t be very productive. This is not going to be a big surprise given the topic of this blog for these past months, but it obviously has to do with radicalism.

The prevalent utilitarian worldview tells us that human sacrifice is justified if the sacrifice is of some benefit to us, no matter how small (such as in our economist believing that horrible deaths are justified by relieving a headache). That is quite a trivialization of the right to life: your life may be worth as little as a headache, so it’s barely worth even considering. Like most economists’ constructs, the mockery of ethics used by economists serves ruling class interests and trivializes workers’ lives and values, and therefore is fundamentally anti-radical.

From the voluntaryist standpoint, I imagine all these questions are pointless, because a person who believes in any of these positions is not necessarily creating harm. A goose-stepping statist may not necessarily use violence against dissenters, or even support violence against dissenters (although eir statist belief still aids and abets the people who do the violence). So why should we attack the statist for eir belief? Ey’s “doing nothing wrong.”

Radical analysis tells us that it is possible for a person to voluntarily and harmlessly participate to a coercive and harmful system. One may work at some retailer or other and be completely ignorant that one’s work is subsidizing corporations that have financed or are still financing death squads (Chiquita, Dole, Chevron, General Motors, Ford, IBM… the list goes on and on). Admittedly this is unlikely to convince anyone to leave their job because, after all, we all need a job. But my point is that the actions of the worker are harmless, while serving a genocidal system.

So no, I am not saying that every single advocate of natalism, pro-choice, misogyny, statism or Christianity is committing harmful actions. Like all radical analysis, this is not about individual actions but about institutions and the harm they perpetuate on individuals. Because of their scope, institutions can magnify evil, bigotry or ignorance a million fold. One person cannot perform genocide, but an army can. Implicit in the concept of an army is not just a group of people but an ethic of obedience and violence, political aims, wages, buildings, weapons, provisions, an economy that can produce these things, and so on.

There can be no step taken towards making an equal and just society if one is unable to analyze existing institutions and their effects on society, as well as imagining institutions which are structured around egalitarian and just values. There can be no more fundamental principle for such a society than the principle that we should not impose harm. As Anarchism tells us, hierarchies are the root of the problem, and the goal of hierarchies is to exploit others for an elite’s benefit, no matter who the elite is.

As such, human sacrifice is only part of one extreme end of a spectrum that goes from genocide, to slavery, to exploitation, to alienation, to freedom. Our goal is to analyze institutions from the other end of the spectrum, that of individual freedom and social autonomy. The fact that some people openly support human sacrifice and its logic merely tells us that they are no friends of freedom.

In answer to the question “how many human lives can be justifiably sacrificed for your beliefs?”, most people will just hem and haw, argue that you don’t understand their position, that the question is not fair, that human sacrifice is worth it, and will basically do anything but answer the question. My answer is simple: zero.

To end on another quote from The Brothers Karamazov, which reiterates my challenge to my opponents:

“Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

Come on people, tell me the truth. Can you do that?

The problem of “good enough.”

UPDATE: Welcome to the readers from Clarissa’s Blog. I recommend you also read this entry.

The problem starts when parents want to just be “good enough” parents. When we let abuse happen because it’s “normal” and because “they’re doing what they can.”

The problem continues when we accept and try to perpetuate a “good enough” schooling system- that is just good enough to kill children’s minds.

The problem is compounded by a society that is “good enough” to give us the freedom to complain but not the freedom to change things, and an economic system that is “good enough” to inflict suffering and servitude on a worldwide scale, and keep society stratified to a point where the top 1% own 42% to 47% of the total wealth, and a third of the total net worth.

The problem is not idealism and “pie in the sky” philosophies. We need to demand the pie in the sky. We have let evil perpetuate itself for centuries because it’s “good enough” for us, because “it’s not as bad as it could be.” We in the Western world have stopped having ideals. We are wet noodles. There is no courage left because the carrots of capitalism and the sticks of the police state have turned us all into donkeys, the sophisticated indoctrination of schooling and the media have erased all alternatives from people’s minds, and everyone has something to lose.

The “good enough” is the bitter enemy of the “good.” Pragmatism is the enemy of ethics. Gradualism is the enemy of positive change. Job-ism is the enemy of personal responsibility. Dogma is the enemy of critical thinking. Tolerance of evil is the enemy of a healthy system or society.

Idealism is the only mindset which produces change. Without the determination to achieve a higher goal, and the courage to affirm that goal in the face of what exists, no one has ever achieved anything of value. The wet noodle mindset of “good enough” has never produced any value for anyone except exploiters and rulers. The willful acceptance and tolerance of evil generates more evil, and has never generated anything but more evil.

I don’t give a shit about people who push the envelope. I want people who bring a new way of thinking into being and think up new ways of being. I want people who burn the envelope, eat the ashes, and shit insights. The only useful people in this world are people who have hopes, people who have dreams, and people who have visions.

People who say this or that is “good enough” are implicitly perpetuating the evils within the systems they praise. We must demand perfection. We must demand utopia. By aiming high, we can hope to achieve some level of success. By aiming for “the next reform” or “the next law,” we can only hope to achieve more co-optation of our aims by those in power. And by refusing to aim, we can’t hope to achieve anything at all.

And this is only when “good enough” affects only ourselves. When it starts affecting other people, you have no right to make that determination for anyone else. When children are suffering because of abuse and neglect, you don’t get to determine what “good enough” is for those children. When people in the Second and Third World are suffering because of neo-liberalism or Western wars, you don’t get to determine what “good enough” is for those people. When we torture people by putting them in jail because we disapprove of the means they have used to try to escape their suffering or their hardships, you have lost the right to call “good enough.”

Enough is enough! When other people are harmed because of your “good enough,” you don’t get to say it any more, and we need to call you on it! No, it’s not good enough, not nearly good enough! It’s absolute shit!

Bring in the Fake Dissenters.

A photo op for a fake demonstration, as reported on American Everyman.

I already discussed gatekeepers and how they operate (see the second half of this entry). In an ideological movement, a gatekeeper is a person who is in charge of some organization or group, or perhaps some well-known figure, who can delimitate the acceptable margins of discourse within the movement. Usually this is a spokesperson or a public figure, someone who has a wide reach and who can mold public opinion within the movement in question.

The kind of person I want to talk about in this entry is also a role within a movement, but a different kind of role. On his epic blog Once Upon a Time, Arthur Silber calls it “the Obedient Dissenter,” and, using the example of such a dissenter (journalist Matt Taibbi, “dissenting” against the upcoming war in Iran) identifies two main traits of Obedient Dissent:

1. “[A]ccept[ing] all the assumptions and premises of those [they say they are] criticizing.”
2. “[L]ack[ing] even the faintest understanding of the false set of beliefs to which [they cling] so desperately.”

To which I would add:
3. Because they fail to criticize the premises of those they claim to criticize, their dissent is wholly superficial and contradictory.

I call them Fake Dissenters because they make the claim of being dissenters when in fact they are merely reinforcing the premises enforced by their supposed enemies. In the case of Matt Taibbi, he claims to be a dissenter towards the American government, but he reinforces the prejudices that the American government uses to demonize its chosen enemies and he reinforces the myths used to prop up American imperialism. While Taibbi may be against the upcoming war in Iran, he fails to question American terrorism, American prejudices against Iran, or claims of American exceptionalism. That’s not dissent, that’s just a normal disagreement that lies well within the margins of discourse set by the American government and American journalism (although when the war in Iran drumbeat gets going for real, it will become unacceptable).

You can observe this fake dissent in all areas.

* No one is for abortion, but we should allow women to choose whether they want an abortion or not.
I already discussed that one in the entry on gatekeepers.

* People who have children are doing a wonderful service to us all. But the Duggars are just ridiculous, am I right?
The Duggars, and the Quiverfull movement in general, are easy targets because they represent excess and the objectification of women. But if we start from the premise that having children is a wonderful service to society, it’s not clear how having nineteen is more or less excessive.

* Radical feminism is totally crackpot, but we should give women the same opportunities we give men.
I’ve already written about how equality of opportunity is an elitist conceit which seeks to amplify existing oppressive institutions. Radfem provides the systemic investigation which is lacking from “equality of opportunity” rhetoric, so radfem must be demonized.

* We must respect religious freedom, no matter the religion, but group X is corrupting the true religion.
I refer you to my entry on religious freedom as to why this is a terrible idea. Saying that a certain group X corrupts “true religion” assumes that “true religion” actually exists and that it’s somehow different from the religion people actually practice. Furthermore, there’s no reason to believe that this “fake religion” is any less valid as a form of “religious freedom” than the “true religion.”

* After every new example of police abuse is unveiled: the police is here to protect us, this is just the work of some bad apples.
It is not the job of cops to protect us (for more on this, see The Enterprise of Law, by Bruce Benson), and we know they lie to obtain convictions. The rhetoric of “bad apples” is used to perpetuate institutions which systemically, through noxious incentive systems, makes people act in an evil way, like the police.

* We respect the military and the sacrifices they make for us, we just think this war is unjust…
The job of soldiers is not to protect us but, like cops, to enforce the interests of the power elite. Also, the way in which people argue that a war is unjust is almost always by supporting some part of the apparatus that makes war possible (such as some part of the government which is supposed to provide checks and balances).

Fake dissenters are utterly unable to make the simplest observations about social institutions (e.g. the basic nature of the work of cops and soldiers, the basic nature of religion, the existence of the patriarchy, the lack of justification for breeding, the fact that some people are pro-abortion and that compromised children provide an obvious basis for such a position). This is because doing so would force them to question the core premises of their beliefs about those institutions. The principle at work for these people, whatever movement they are a part of, is: ignorance is bliss.

There are gatekeepers in all movements, and there are fake dissenters in all movements. So yes, there are gatekeeper atheists and fake dissenter atheists (although these have been rather less visible than the very real dissenters such as the Four Horsemen), there are gatekeeper Anarchists and fake dissenter Anarchists (like “anarcho-capitalists,” or pseudo-Anarchist State-supporters), and so on.

This fits within the mainstream media’s control of the margins of discourse, because any movement will inevitably vie for the attention of the mainstream media. Therefore gatekeepers will endeavor to cut dissent’s legs to fit in the Procrustean bed of the media’s margins of discourse, and fake dissenters will slavishly follow these operations. As long as it’s acceptable to criticize a war, they will criticize it; as soon as it becomes unacceptable, they will stop. As long as it’s acceptable to criticize a government program, they will criticize it; as soon as it’s under attack, they will start supporting it.

Fake dissenters often use tactics similar to those of gatekeepers. You will sometimes hear both use sentences like “can’t we all agree that X?” or “no one really believes X” as a way of narrowing discourse and keeping core premises out of the discussion, while blowing the existing debate out of proportion. The difference is that when a gatekeeper does it, ey is also sending a message to eir followers to limit discourse in this manner, and that’s where the fake dissenters get their marching orders.

I know this sounds conspiratorial, but there’s no conspiracy involved. It’s just part of what people naturally do when they’re in a movement.

I may be accused of not distinguishing between fake dissenters and moderates. The difference is that a moderate may take various positions which are not considered a completely coherent set, but that doesn’t mean they act as fake dissenters on any single issue. A moderate can be a fake dissenter on any issue, but ey doesn’t have to be. Unlike moderates, fake dissenters buy into the premises of their movement wholesale and want to be good followers to further the aims of the movement.

“But what about teh menz??”

From the MRA Marmoset.

The mechanisms of control I’ve described on this blog so far have been attempts to address dissent head-on (e.g. invalidation, blame) or by making dissent more difficult (e.g. thought-stopping, competition). I have not yet addressed misdirection. Magicians, and rogues in fantasy movies, know that the best way to keep someone from realizing something is by misdirecting their attention.

Mainstream media, serving the interests of the power elite in constantly setting the margins of discourse, diverting our attention, and omitting important facts, is the quintessential example of this. Noam Chomsky calls it the manufacture of consent; I would go further than that and call it the manufacture of entire worldviews. After all, television, movies, books and other narratives inform the vast majority of what we believe about other people and other times.

Misdirection also takes place at the personal level. The use of coded rhetoric, as politicians’ speeches are stereotyped, is one of them. Another is “what about teh menz??”. This is the name radfems have given to men who barge into feminist discussions demanding that men’s interests be made the center of discussion. This is especially egregious when men not only demand that they be made the center of discussion, but insist that they are the “real victims.”

As one person described it:

In any discussion focusing on women’s issues, the probability that someone will come around and say “men are [fill the blank], too!” approaches 1 the longer the discussion gets.

The “what about teh menz” argument does not only apply to radfem. One can easily observe it within pretty much any ideology. “What about the menz” complains run the gamut from the factually reasonable (“men get raped too”) to the extraordinarily bigoted (“but look at how many American soldiers have died from this war”) to the sublimely ridiculous (“Christians are the ones who are persecuted, because we’re not allowed to express our hatred of homosexuals”).

It’s obvious that part of this tactic is based on the “virtue of victimhood.” Based on the profound moral intuition, persecutors are always evil and victims are always good, members of a persecuting group will use any reasoning they can, no matter how absurd, to portray themselves as the “real victims.” The reason why this gets so absurd is because it implies that the victims are actually the persecutors. So neo-nazis fall back on Holocaust revisionism and anti-semitism, conservatives posit that “illegal immigrants” are ruining the economy, the police state portrays pot users and anarchists as dangerous criminals, and so on. This contributes to the marginalization of the real victims.

There is also a strong part of entitlement in this. The privileged feel that they are entitled to be seen as the “good guys” by virtue of being part of a privileged group. They also feel that they are entitled to the attention of the marginalized, that their issues are the only important issues. As Derailing for Dummies points out:

Privileged People® are accustomed, after all, to it being “all about them”. Not used to simply sitting back and listening to othered people‘s issues, Privileged People® like to be the centre of attention at all times. It reminds them that they are important. By doing this, you will feel good about yourself and send a crucial message to the Marginalised Person™ (yes you really can diminish their experience by making it all about you, all the time!).

Also related to trying to divert the topic is the attempt to have spaces reserved for the privileged. For instance, some men establish “men’s rights” groups, even though all rights are already men’s rights. Others want a White History Month, even though history is already about white people. This is merely a more elaborate and structured form of the same kind of misdirection. The ultimate result of such initiatives is to obscure the fact that the privileged are privileged.

They can also be based on voluntaryist analysis, which omits the context or history behind existing institutions and judges them purely on the basis of their present, isolated actions. This means that patterns of inequality are ignored. This can lead to a “you want to complain, then I get to complain too, so it’s fair” mindset. The problem is that this concept of fairness relies on a perspective completely divorced from reality. Fairness means to treat each other as equals, not to turn a blind eye to exploitation and deal with people as if every action exists independently of any other.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 159 other followers