Reading George Fox

Such Disrespect!

I wrote this mostly as a parody of certain men raging at women making minor geek culture mistakes. There is a slight bit of actual annoyance at Ebony attributing a cinematographer’s contribution to a director.1 More importantly the episode is an incisive discussion of Blindspotting.

Oh, oh, Ebony messed up big time today on Feminist Fequency Radio #37. She talks about film directors who know how to light brown skin. Talk about disrespecting cinematographers! Yes, some directors are involved with lighting, but even they collaborate with their cinematographers: the latter are the ones specifically trained in lighting and capturing light on film!

As a theatrical lighting designer, I’m sorta sensitive to this, as I’m the one doing the equivalent in live performance. And, as a aside, POC are such a pleasure to light as there’s so much more color to bring out than in pasty white people.

For those of you who haven’t seen it recently, check out Purple Rain again. The lighting throughout the film is so good. There’s one scene in the basement with acid yellow lighting making Prince’s father so much more threatening. And it would have turned a white person into a lemon.

  1. There is a possibility that this annoyance is gendered, but I’m pretty sure I’d be equally annoyed by this misattribition made by anyone, regardless of their position on the gender spectrum. 

Kevin Drum Bets Hard On Genetics

A few days back, Kevin Drum wrote a post about the future influence of genetic engineering on social policy. I’m going to leave aside the moral argument that everyone deserves a decent standard of living and focus on two of his assumptions.

  • How much does parental upbringing affect any of this? I’m going to put my money on “not much,” but it’s hardly worth making guesses anymore. In a decade or two we’ll know.
  • How much effect does the entire environment outside the womb have starting with the day a baby is delivered? I’m going to put my money on “some,” but that’s as far as I’ll go.

I strongly question his assertation that genetics and epigentics will be found to be overwhelming determinative of talent and skill.1 How will that square with studies that show children of wealthier and/or highly educated parents do better academically? Or that teachers grade girls’ math tests more harshly than boys’ when names are included, but the opposite when names are redacted?2 For a specific example3, Ta-Nehisi Coates attributes much of his success as a writer to his family having a ton of books around and his father’s philosophy that he should learn about Black and African history as a child. So it’s not simply wealth.

Also, while genes may somewhat affect effort and focus, there is truth to the saying “invention is 90% perspiration.” The Williams sisters were talented children, but their monomaniacal father’s emphasis on practice enhanced that talent. Bill Russell’s genes were probably not “worse” than LeBron James’s, but sports medicine, travel conditions, equipment4, quality of the competition, social mores, etc has vastly changed. Trying to project how Russell would perform today is really difficult, yet the genetic component is swapped by environmental factors.

Also, “talent” is most likely not measurable on a single axis. Many, if not all fields, depend on collaboration. Scientists work in large groups and it probably is hard to determine which skills are more important than others: the forward thinker may get first credit on the paper, but the quiet organizer may have been just as essential. And that doesn’t count paradigm shifts needing people who think outside the box while within paradigms/normal science, there must be people focused on advancing the current model. The performing arts is also utterly dependent on people bringing diverse crafts together: one can be the most brilliant film director in the world, but if one doesn’t have good designers, actors, etc, the films will suffer. And “good” means both talented and attracted to one’s style (a great blockbuster cinematographer would probably not mesh with Tarkovsky).

Human society is likely too complex for there to be a “best” genetic makeup. Will it even be possible to “max out” mental agility and organization and perseverance, etc at the same time? Even if it is possible, the influence of one’s family, peers, mentors will shape one’s own attitude towards one’s talents. Imagine if Donald Trump and Bill Gates both paid for “enhancing” their grandchildren. I have no doubt those children would develop differently even if they received the exact same “cocktail”. The incentives in a family without a moral compass, without curiosity, without emotional closeness are vastly different than a family who has donated a tremendous amount of money to diseases in the global south, who (I’m guessing) values the pursuit of knowledge, and who are surely more emotionally balanced than the Trump clan.5

Humans are tremendously social animals; it would be quite strange if the social environment did not continue to have similarly strong influence.

  1. Kevin himself is an advocate of the lead theory of crime. Given that lead is an environmental factor, it’s a bit confusing he downplays those here. 
  2. I really should find these studies and cite them. Sorry for being lazy; I’ll try to add some in a future update. 
  3. Yes, the plural of anecdote is not data. 
  4. The difference in something as simple seeming as shoes has had a massive effect. 
  5. No matter how callous Bill and Melinda may be, I have trouble imaging them being more instrumental about family relationships than Donald. In fact, in the Trump family, I might worry about having the next generation be too intelligent. They’d either react with horror and flee or be much better at backstabbing politics and displace the current members. Can you imagine the damage Donald Jr. could do to his father if he were smart? 

Dan Swings and Whiffs—Savage Lovecast #610

Dan may have not played the entire call and I’m personally biased, so it’s possible that I’m misinterpreting the details.

Dan has a truly terrible response to his final caller in episode 610. A woman asks about her boyfriend: he can fly off the handle at himself for days because of simple mistakes. While she describes him as genuinely kind to others, he also has significant self-hatred1: thinking that he is a worthless person and being uncomfortable when he is happy because he doesn’t believe he deserves it. Dan’s verdict is the boyfriend is a manipulative asshole who just needs to grow the fuck up.

It’s far more likely that this man suffers from severe mental illness and desperately needs treatment. For one, it sounds like the behavior precedes the relationship, that he’s tortured himself while single as well. The caller never mentions him getting angry at her or that his explosions have anything to do with her behavior (or reality in general). He doesn’t blow up when she goes out with friends, when she picks up the wrong food, when she’s not paying attention to him. Rather, he’s triggered by his own silly mistakes. While his behavior clearly affects her, it hardly seems like his motivation is to manipulate her. After all, what behavior is he trying to change?2

And I’ve been that guy. I can get extremely angry with myself for completely irrational reasons. When it gets really bad, I torment myself with the conviction that all I’ve ever done is hurt people, up to and including a friend that I helped avoid deportation. On some level, I even know the thoughts are disconnected from reality, but my mind only doubles down, insisting any evidence that I’ve helped people is a lie. These days, I mostly hide that behavior, going to my bedroom and convulsing until my body is exhausted, but in the past, I have sought comfort from partners.3 Not because I wanted to control their behavior, but because I was in psychological and physical pain.4 It certainly wasn’t fun for them and many eventually broke up with me, but that’s because I wasn’t in good working order, not because I was a total asshole.5

Even his kind behavior may be a sign that he is ill: if he’s such a terrible person, he must go above and beyond in helping others to make up for his sins. In past relationships, I even used my love of my partner as a distraction from my depressive thoughts. While this did have negative effects on the relationships6, it also meant my partner was always on my mind and I would pick up things they liked, plan activities, etc. Not because I wanted to gaslight them, but because I really did love them and wanted to do nice things for them.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, unlike Dan, I think the caller should definitely break up with her boyfriend. He needs serious treatment and needs to choose it for himself, not to save the relationship. At the moment, he is resistant to both therapy and medication. If anything, losing the relationship may be the motivation for him to start doing something.

If she does stay with him and he does go into treatment for himself, she will have to accept it will be a long process and that there will be times where she will have to take the role of caretaker.7 It could be something as simple as dealing with dinner because his self-torture has exhausted him or even just sitting with him. Which may sound easy, but watching someone you love experience pain and not being able to help really, really sucks. As with any serious illness, the symptoms persist even as the underlying disease is treated. In a sense, it is not very different than dating someone with a serious disability, perhaps someone who finds it physically difficult to feed themselves. They are not manipulating their partner into being a caretaker at times: they have a physical limitation.

That said, it would be a big commitment at six months and she has no responsibility to make it. Her life will be a lot easier if she doesn’t date him. Even in the best case scenario, it will take a while for him to get a handle on his illness and things begin to get easier. Most likely, it won’t be a straight line as well: he could get worse before he starts getting better8 and there will be relapses. Some relapses could be worse too; he may need inpatient treatment at some point. A person who is deeply convinced that they are worthless, has trouble being happy, can’t control self-anger, and might be expecting suicide9 has a lot of healing to do.

Describing the boyfriend as someone who just needs to grow up contributes to the stigma around mental illness. Dan might as well be saying that a person with asthma should just learn to run a marathon. In both cases there are real and serious health issues. I’d bet dollars to donuts that if it were “easy” for the boyfriend to stop hating and torturing himself he would have done it years ago.10 By downplaying the boyfriend’s symptoms to basic insecurity and low self-estimate, doubting that those emotions are real, and suggesting the boyfriend is just playing a game to get attention, Dan displays a profound lack of compassion and his bias that severe emotional outbursts are always a sign of control and abuse rather than a sign that the person is ill, hurting, and damaged.11

  1. She calls it low self-esteem, but, given his behavior, it is clearly a more serious emotional problem.↩
  2. While he’s certainly eliciting comfort and attention, anyone in genuine pain does that. A person with epilepsy isn’t manipulating their partner during an attack.↩
  3. Actually these days I’m a patient at a residential psychiatric hospital and am getting better at going to nursing for help heading off this pattern off as it starts. Hiding the emotional self-harm to avoid “manipulaton” was a sign that my health was getting worse, not that I was “growing up”.↩
  4. Depression and other mental illnesses can cause psychosomatic pain. While it may not have a “real” physical cause, it still hurts like hell.↩
  5. I’m basing this “not a total asshole” judgment on most of my partners and our mutual friends not hating me after the breakups.↩
  6. I had no space to hold their emotions.↩
  7. And she would probably need individual therapy herself to help manage her emotional burden from the relationship.↩
  8. During one long-term relationship, I finally started getting help—and the bottom completely fell out. One night I was stuck on the floor, bawling for reasons I couldn’t understand. My then-partner actually left for the evening. That was the right decision for her and I didn’t resent it at the time (or now). After all, all she really could have done was to just sit with me (I literally couldn’t stand up). And I use “literally” in the correct sense: if she had tried to help me up, she would have probably need to deadlift my body.↩
  9. While he does suggest he might hurt someone else if he snaps, I doubt it. Given that the caller doesn’t mention him directing his anger at others, he’d probably go after the person he hates most—himself.↩
  10. David Foster Wallace describes severe depression thus in Infinite Jest:

    It [Psychotic Depression] is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self ’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any / all of the alternatives we associate with human agency—sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying—are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

    So, yeah, not something one can simply grow out of.↩

  11. Though I don’t believe it’s the case here, the experience of the relationship and the prescription of getting the hell out may be the same in both cases. However, there is still an important difference between an abuser and a mentally ill person. In the first, the abuse is a way to control the partner; in the second, the lashing out is a very unhealthy coping mechanism. There’s more hope for change with someone who is ill because they aren’t enjoying the experience either.↩

Response to San Hughes on Kink—Savage Lovecast #608

This post is safe for all but the most conservative workplaces. The most explicit aspects are naming a certain fetish and a specific performance art piece.1 There are no visuals. The only link is to the podcast page.

I’m to lazy to search JSTOR for Sam’s research, but some of what he shares in the podcast doesn’t match up with my experience. Towards the beginning he suggests that people often eroticize the opposite of what causes them stress: the classic CEO goes to the dominatrix. One potential odditiy is that Hughes also talks about kink stages starting in childhood (well before anyone is a CEO). But on a personal level, his explanation doesn’t make much sense. One thing I love about being a dom is setting up scenes and telling degrading2 stories. Take the intercourse, degradation, and personal participation out and that basically describes my career as a lighting designer/theater-maker.3 Indeed going back to my childhood, a lot of my play with friends was running around outside, making up stories, and telling them their roles.

Another through line from the rest of my life is the nature of my sadism: I like creating predicaments where there is no “right” answer. If my partner messes up, they are punished (which, for the right person, is pleasurable); if they don’t, they get some form of reward or relief (time to enjoy the delicious endorphins from the punishment).4 When I told my oldest friend (we met at 4) that I enjoyed sadism, his response was along the lines of: “No duh.” I have been teasing those I care about for just about forever. One of my favorite activities with this friend is “ruining” movies by nitpicking them to death and twisting his responses: sheer torture. Again, when I realized I was kinky, I basically sexualized this behavior.

This is not to say no part of my sexuality is an escape from stress or a pleasurable/safe way to work through issues, but there is clearly much more going on. As Dan says, half the people who write in about spanking ascribe it to being spanked as a child and the other half, to not being spanked as a child.

Academic research into kinks is needed, but it doesn’t seem to ready to make any definitive statements. There may be no definitive statements to make: the complexity of genes, epigenetics, childhood environment, and our powerful sex drive5 may be irreducible on some level.6 There may be a multitude of paths to the same kinks.7

  1. Googling either is very NSFW though. 
  2. With my partners enjoying the thoughts of being degraded. 
  3. While not all shows are quite as explicit as a BDSM scene, I have worked on one show about Feederism and another with repetitions of wrestling/bear eating/having sex/amnesia. A third included a reenactment of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, 1975 (Note: Photos of this piece are definitely NSFW). So my work isn’t always vanilla either. 
  4. So, in reality, there are no wrong answers. 
  5. This is complete speculation, but I wonder if asexuality is also an expression of the human sex drive. That is not to say that asexual people aren’t real or do experience sexual attraction, but rather the same aspects of brain biology that manifests as sexual desire in sexual folk manifests as absence of sexual desire in asexual folk. Sorta like the role that the unconscious plays in inspiration plays for both the “softest” artists and the “hardest” scientists. “Epiphanies in the shower” are essential for both. On the other hand, I could be completely out of my gourd here. Love to hear thoughts from Aces. 
  6. Well, until we have a much better understanding of how the brain physically works. 
  7. Not that social science and psychology won’t have a lot to say, but that they will only be able to elucidate trends and tendencies, not complete explanations. 

Faith Not Reason

I left an extended version of this response as a comment on Keith Giles’s posted “Saved by Zero”.

In 1936 Alfred Tarski proved that no formal system can prove its own truth, which is a pretty big impediment to using mathematics to justify God’s existence.

Even if one could get around that, it’s probably impossible to prove the existence of God in any meaningful way. Trying to reason from fundamental physics (which we still don’t fully understand) or a logical system devised by humans isn’t going to get us there.

In an extreme case, how would one tell the difference between a materialistic, deterministic universe and a universe set in motion by an omnipotent and omniscient watchmaker God?

How can one be sure that a revelation is from God or from the natural workings of the human brain, which we still only rudimentarily understand? Or perhaps God determined that those workings would occur?

There’s no there there.

Belief in the divine/spiritual realm comes down to faith. As does disbelief in those things. And if understand correctly, Jesus said something along the lines of not relying on human reason but relying on him instead.

Personally, I’m an atheistic Quaker with a psychological understanding of the religious experience. But that’s my personal truth, I don’t think it’s possible to reason another into believing it, nor do I care to try. We’ll probably get closer to the big “T” Truth by sharing our personal glosses on the divine rather than by trying to decide which is best.1

Written in Friendship.

  1. Which, to a rough approximation, is the philosophy behind Quakerism. 

A Rigorous Response to A Sophomoric Argument

Berny Belvedere responds to Patrick S. Tomlinson’s Fertility Clinic Hypothetical:

(1) The standard liberal position crucially involves the view that every individual has equal value.

(2) In a scenario roughly comparable to Tomlinson’s, where a standard liberal had to choose between saving 100 random people, or their own spouse or child, someone who believed that every individual has equal value would easily and unproblematically choose to save the hundred random individuals.

(3) But if a standard liberal were actually put in such a scenario, he would choose to save the family member.

(4) Thus, standard liberals don’t really believe every individual has equal value.

(5) The liberal position is a sham.

This argument is unserious because Tomlinson is not arguing about what people would do, but what people believe they should do.

The “standard liberal” (or at least a rigorous utilitarian) would admit saving family over strangers was the morally wrong choice and, if they had the courage of their convictions, they’d save the 100 people.

We see this scenario played out in movies all the time. It happens three times in Infinity War: Quill and the Scarlet Witch make the choice to kill their romantic partner to stop Thanos. Both times it is portrayed as courageous.

Would the average “pro-life” person argue that saving the 1000 embryos over a 5 year-old is the morally correct action? Where is the art celebrating that choice?

The Trolley Problem

Many people who say they would pull the lever in the first scenario then say they would not push the fat man in the second scenario.

If one are certain that pushing the fat man will save the others, one should do it. However, this is much less likely to be the certain outcome than pulling the lever.1 The question of killing a person to potentially save the lives of others is a much more difficult.

The Starving Poor

Does this differentiated response—which is objectively imbalanced given that entire villages suffering hunger is uncontroversially worse than an individual suffering hunger—indicate that you think one life is worth more than thousands?

Peter Singer believes that a single animal’s welfare can outweigh a single human’s needs and plenty of people have accepted his argument. Certainly that is a more controversial moral calculus than presented here. Update: I came up with a better argument.

Unlike in the Trolley Problem, there’s no reason one couldn’t feed the starving child at the door and help the starving villages. Yes, there is some cost to the first that will affect the second, but once again, this is a more complicated utilitarian calculus than the stark choice of saving someone in a burning building.

What Berny Would Do

Let the thousand human lives haunt me afterwards; in this moment, they cannot haunt me more than seeing a helpless child be swept up in a fire.

Again Berny avoids the question. Ignoring what he would do, does he believe he should save the embryos?

If you don’t, you are anti-abortion, not pro-life. Tomlinson’s point is that he’s never met a person who was willing to make that argument.

  1. Even if the two options are presented as equally infallible, people will naturally doubt pushing a person is as reliable as operating a machine. 

A Response To Dave Winer’s Claim of Small Justification

Today Dave Winer linked to his earlier post claiming there was a small justification for the internment camps at the border. I’m going to leave aside the argument that there can be a moral justification for imprisoning these children. If a law is fundamentally unjust and immoral, the duty of the law-abiding is civil disobedience, not acquiescence.

So, for sake of argument, it is moral1 to imprison refugee children, either by separating them from their parents or with their parents for an indefinite length of time. To justify such a law, for legal asylum seekers who have committed a misdemeanor2, the policy would have to be both by far the most effective and least punitive.

Oddly enough, Winer himself has linked to the evidence that interning asylum seekers and their children does not meet these standards. ICE used to have two less punitive and restrictive methods: the Intensive Supervision Alternative Program (ISAP) and the Family Case Management Program (FCMP). In the former, electronic ankle bracelets were used to track asylum seekers and 99.6% showed up for their court dates.3 Regular phone check-ins and unannounced visits were also part of the program. This is hardly “catch-and-release”.

In the FCMP, social workers were assigned to monitor asylum seekers and their families and make sure they attended their hearings. The government provided lawyers, housing, and transportation.

The contractor that ran the program said that 99 percent of participants “successfully attended their court appearances and ICE check-ins.” That included the 15 families who were ultimately deported. -Vox

Now, even if one rejected the moral argument for these programs and claimed deterrence to a misdemeanor committed by asylum seekers exercising their legal rights under US and International law is the preeminent goal, the alternatives to detainer are also significantly most cost effective.

In its budget request for fiscal year 2018, DHS said that it cost about $133.99 per day to hold an adult immigrant in detention and $319.37 for an individual in family detention. Meanwhile, the agency said the average cost of placing someone in an alternative program is $4.50 per day.4 -Vox

Moreover, the deterrence against misdemeanors argument has a more serious defect. We are partly responsible for creating the crimes. We have made it nigh impossible to cross the at the official entrances, removing the legal option. If asylum seekers were allowed to cross the border legally, there would be no justification to indefinitely detain people who has committed no crime. The solution to ending the misdemeanors is for our government to obey the law and open the border crossings. Punishing people for crimes that we have illegally pushed them into is perverse.5

Another argument the government has offered is that these programs are not as effective at guaranteeing removals. However, this can hold no weight. If providing asylum seekers lawyers advocating for their legal rights convinces judges that more refugees have legal claims to stay in our country, the law requires us to let them stay. To argue for their deportation despite this is to reject the rule of law, which the law-abiding citizen should not stand for.

Weighing more cost effective, more humane, and effective programs against child and refugee imprisonment is not a hard moral or practical calculus. There is no justification, even a small one for our government’s policy.

  1. I am also going to ignore the atrocities that are happening to some of these children, including forcibly injecting them with potent antipsychotics. Basically, let’s give the government every benefit of the doubt and see if there’s any merit to their position. 
  2. We rarely throw people into jail upon their first misdemeanor. Otherwise most of our population would be interned for speeding. 
  3. Granted only 79% complied with removal orders, but I think there is a very strong argument for improving an effective but imperfect humane system than choosing the most punitive one. 
  4. I’ve also seen estimates of $24 and $36. Both still an order of magnitude cheaper. 
  5. If police officers blocked every crosswalk for no legal reason and then arrested and imprisoned jaywalkers, we’d think they went insane, not try to find a justification for that policy. 

Don’t Let Those Bastards Own the Flag

Calling the atrocities un-American is important. We have dismally fail to live up to our ideals again and again. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner and a rapist. But his words in the Declaration of Independence are America too.

We have done terrible things. We have made a mockery of our rhetoric again and again. We have killed and tortured and raped and slaughtered.

We must not let that happen again. We must rise to the challenge of our claim that all men are created equal. Those who are torturing children do not own the flag. The true patriots are those protesting at the gates.