Don’t Go In There!

Hmm… I still have access to the FtB server. Apparently the whole “plugging the security loopholes” lesson hasn’t quite been learned, given that you’re reading this post right now. Anyway, just thought I’d throw this out there, since it’s something that I did in January and is finally now seeing the light of day. This was originally posted earlier today at my personal blog (which, I’m sure it will disappoint you to learn, I am not posting at very much at all).

Horror films are a wonderful source of escapism, where we can feel the thrill of terror in the relative safety of our living rooms or a crowded movie theatre. One of the all-time classics within the horror genre is the zombie movie: hordes of shuffling, shambling atrocities hell-bent on devouring the flesh of the still-living. One of the iconic images of any good zombie movie is the panic-stricken victim of a zombie bite who is slowly turning from human into monster, as all morality and reason drains from their body while their comrades feverishly debate whether or not to put their erstwhile friend out of hir ‘misery’ courtesy of a well-timed shotgun blast to the face.


One of the things that has always struck me about the thrill and threat of the zombie subgenre is the idea that someone can walk around ‘infected’ without showing any outward signs of distress, but at that pivotal moment they ‘turn’ and lash out. Having watched enough zombie movies in my life, I know enough that I would be far more cautious about that ‘little scrape’ on my friend’s upper arm after a fight with a horde of the undead. I’ve seen enough movies to know that that ‘little scrape’ might mean the difference between life and un-death. I suspect that, if you’ve watched these movies too, you know as well as I do what the warning signs are – the eerie music, the mysterious noise, the unexplained ‘headache’.

Much like a zombie movie afficionado does, members of visible minority communities have spent years learning to read the warning signs of racial antipathy, even from those who don’t recognize that they’re ‘infected’ with the subtle biases that affect us all. They (we) have learned to spot the danger from a long way off, ensuring that we can take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves.

In the following presentation, given in January of 2013 in Kelowna, BC, I explore the parallels between zombie movies and anti-racism, with examples drawn from classic horror scenes. I discuss how we can learn to understand racism in a contemporary context, and understand the role our subconscious plays in our interactions, and how we can use this knowledge to avoid and combat racism in the same way we use it to avoid and combat zombies. I discuss how to have more productive conversations when you, as a member of the majority group, enter a minority space. Finally, I emphasize how anti-racism is a crucial and useful part of a skeptical toolchest, and how we can use this knowledge to grow the movement.

I hope you enjoy the talk, and please feel free to share it, as a whole or in part, wherever you like:

Part 1: Don’t Go In There!

Part 2: Fighting Racism, Zombie Style

Part 3: How Not to Get Your Head Blown Off

Part 4: Anti-Racism and the Skeptical Movement

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Clips from Dawn of the DeadZombielandShaun of the Dead, and Resident Evil claimed under Fair Use principles for educational purposes.

Pride goeth before…

It has become a sort of pop-psychology truism that people who engage in prejudicial behaviour are doing so from a place of insecurity. It makes intuitive sense that if you don’t feel good about yourself, you can bring yourself up by tearing others down. Indeed, there is some evidence that threats to self-concept are likely to result in a preference bias toward the majority group (even among minority group members).

In a study by Ashton-James and Tracy, the authors propose a new hypothesis. They refer to the psychological literature that suggests that pride has two basic forms: hubristic and authentic. Hubristic pride refers to the kind of pride that is directed at one’s innate self-worth and deservedness – a kind of self-congratulatory, self-centred pride that is associated with narcissism and defensive self-esteem. Authentic pride, on the other hand, refers to pride taken in one’s accomplishments based on hard work rather than, for lack of a better term, special snowflakeness – it is associated with secure self-esteem.

The authors posit that hubristic pride will lead to increased prejudicial attitudes and behaviours, whereas authentic pride will lead to more compassionate attitudes and behaviours. They arrive at this hypothesis based on literature that suggests a relationship between self-esteem insecurity and prejudice. They go on to suggest that empathic concern is the mechanism by which this relationship manifests itself, since people who are more secure in their self-esteem are more likely to be able to be outwardly focussed and respond to the needs of others.

In order to test this hypothesis, the authors conducted three experiments, as well as a pilot study. [Read more...]

Atheism is a social justice issue – a primer on intersection

One of the current fights happening within the atheism movement is a dispute (often heated, usually stupid) over whether or not the atheist community should concern itself with so-called “social justice” issues. I say this fight is “stupid” because the idea of someone insisting that people not talk about some topic in order to live up to some ridiculous and fictitious ‘purity’ standard is a level of dog-in-the-manger hubris that defies rational explanation. Atheist bloggers, like all bloggers, are going to discuss whatever they think is interesting; atheist communities, like all communities, are going to discuss those issues that are relevant to their needs and interests. Suggesting that because you are not interested in something necessarily means that nobody may be interested in it is both howlingly silly and self-unaware.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve become progressively more aware of another, more central flaw in the contention that discussions of atheism must be walled off from social justice issues. Previously, I was content to take the “let people discuss what they want to discuss” position – if you’re only interested in talking about religion, then go nuts. Nothing wrong with that, right? Religion is an interesting topic, but there’s nothing inherent to religion that requires you to care about LGBT issues, or race issues, or gender issues – you’re talking about belief in a supernatural being.

(Some of you are already screaming into your monitors about why this position is wrong, but let me walk all the way through this) [Read more...]

Special Feature: Real Men Don’t Talk About Misogyny

This past weekend I convened an all-star panel to discuss a topic whose time has definitely come: masculinity and misogyny. Our discourse within the atheist community has hit a sticking point (for many) in the form of the role that feminism plays in understanding not only our own internal community dynamics, but the world around us in general. This ‘internal’ debate is happening alongside a similar discussion happening in our society at large, where the role that women play in our democracy and our day-to-day lives is under particular scrutiny.

The issue before the panel was the statement “Real men don’t talk about misogyny” – not a direct quotation, but certainly a paraphrase of a general dismissive attitude of feminism as something that only women can and should talk about or participate in. The discussion centred around 5 general questions:

  • What is a “real man”?
  • How can we define “misogyny”? How does misogyny manifest itself in online discussion?
  • What role does religion play in gender roles?
  • Is misogyny similar to or different from other forms of bigotry (racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.)? How?
  • Do parents have a role to play in the discussion?
  • What do/can/should men contribute to discussions of misogyny?

The discussion (which clocks in at just under 90 minutes), a description of the panelists, and some of my own thoughts are after the fold.

[Read more...]

Philosophers: Please Take a Stand


This is an open letter to the Philosophers out there who consider themselves to be involved in Skepticism (even if only in a tertiary fashion). The ones that I specifically have in mind as I write this are Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, Dr. Daniel Fincke, and Dr. Daniel Dennett*.

Let’s begin with my credentials: I am nobody of import. I am just a guy, whose friend has invited him to occasionally contribute a blog post. I have a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, which means that I have little more than a cursory grasp of the issues within Philosophy. I am not attached or affiliated in any way with any organisation. I’m just a guy with an opinion, who does his best to flesh that opinion out.

[Read more...]

Bravo to Canadian skeptics: Jenny is Dropped

About a week ago, I read that Jenny McCarthy, the celebrity face of the anti-vaccine movement, was going to be headlining an event called “Bust a Move” at the Ottawa Cancer centre. I was horrified, and spelled out my objections in a letter to their CEO:

Hello Ms. Eagan,

I am writing this letter to you to express my shock, disappointment, and outrage at Ottawa Cancer’s decision to host noted anti-vaccination activist and celebrity provocateur Jenny McCarthy as the face of its “Bust a Move” campaign. Ms. McCarthy’s actions over the past decade have revealed her to be deeply antipathetic to the process and institution of science – a process and institution that cancer patients and practitioners rely on for their lives and livelihoods. By inviting Ms. McCarthy, Ottawa Cancer is signaling that it either does not care about Ms. McCarthy’s anti-scientific views, or that it shares them.

One of the largest barriers cancer researchers face is the unjustified suspicion of not only cancer survivors but the general public in accepting the scientific facts about the disease. I am overjoyed that people are not simply adopting the asserted axioms of the scientific establishment without doing some research, but what Ms. McCarthy has been doing is something else entirely. She has, using her pulpit as a celebrity, been deliberately spreading misinformation to people who are vulnerable to the predations of opportunistic hucksters. Is it Ottawa Cancer’s position that this kind of fraud-by-proxy is acceptable simply because she has name recognition?

I strongly suggest you do not allow the reputation of Ottawa Cancer suffer as the result of what I can only assume to be poor staff work. Beyond the simple fact of public perception, you have a duty to ensure that patients are receiving a message that is grounded in evidence and best practices, not the pseudoscientific hunch-based beliefs of a woman who has been actively campaigning for years to undermine children’s public health programs. You should immediately announce that you have personally looked into Ms. McCarthy’s background and have made the executive decision not to associate the good name of Ottawa Cancer with her anti-science advocacy.

Do the thing that is not only right for your organization, but for the cancer survivors and families who rely on Ottawa Cancer for sound information and advice.

Skeptics across the country, buoyed by editorial pieces in MacLean’s and the Ottawa Citizen, lobbied Ottawa Cancer to drop Ms. McCarthy from the event (coining the hashtag #dropjenny).

And it worked: [Read more...]

Another stake in the heart of colour blindness

I hate “colour blindness” as a racial philosophy. Well-intentioned though it may be, it’s a profoundly unhelpful and unworkable proposed solution to a very serious intercultural issue. Is there any other problem on the planet that we think is best addressed by simply pretending as though it isn’t there*? For every other social issue I can think of, failing to at least appreciate the existence of reality is seen as a vice, not a virtue. And yet, when it comes to race, we have somehow managed to convince ourselves that the ostrich has the right idea.

Liberals and conservatives alike have expressed serious resistance to the idea that ignoring race doesn’t solve race. As I’ve explained before on this blog, a couple of times actually, colour blindness not only doesn’t bring us any closer to solving racial issues, it actually makes us less able to describe and address those issues. Far from being a solution, it makes us silent on the problem, meaning that the unacceptable status quo of racial inequalities is allowed to run its course unopposed.

So once again, it’s skeptics to the rescue, this time with a study examining a novel downside of the “colour blind” approach. Researchers at Tufts and MIT examined the effect of “colour blind” approaches to problem-solving in an experimental setting. [Read more...]

…I took the road most comfortably travelled by…

The following post is a continuation of a discussion we began this morning, looking at a paper by Daniel Effron and colleagues. In it, the authors conduct a number of experiments to investigate a phenomenon in which white people demonstrate a tendency to use salient examples of being “not racist” (choosing not to accuse an innocent black people in favour of a more guilty-seeming white person of a crime) to license more racist behaviours in the future.

The fourth investigation the authors conducted invited people to try and remember the number of racist decisions they didn’t make, after presenting them with statements that were either clearly racist, ambiguously racist, or racially ambiguous (i.e., no racial content). The authors hypothesized that, given a clear-cut and obvious example of a time when they were “not racist”, the drive to appear “not racist” would be satisfied, thus obviating the need to introduce “not racist” narratives into their memory. In other words, if you have a ready memory of choosing not to be overtly racist, you will have less motivation to seem “not racist” in a subsequent decision. [Read more...]

Two roads diverged in a racist wood…

Those of you who remember our discussion of System Justification Theory will recall that it posits (and goes on to demonstrate) that there are three overriding domains by which we guard our self-worth: ego motivation (“I like me”), group motivation (“I like us”) and system justifying motivation (“I like the way things are”). The balancing of these three motivations explains a great deal of behaviours that seem counter-intuitive or self-defeating, particularly in circumstances where power imbalances between groups are concerned.

When we consider race as a power imbalance, we would expect to find that the majority group is strongly motivated to preserve its ego when the fairness of the system is at risk. In other words, when confronted with a world that is clearly racist, there is considerable psychological pressure for members of the majority group to salvage their ego – the stereotypical “I’m not a racist” response. With the threat to our egos thus avoided, members of majority groups are then free to continue participating in an unfair system, confident in the knowledge that the ‘real’ problem is those ‘other’ people.

A fascinating new study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sheds some light on the depths to which this behaviour can sink: [Read more...]

Race/Ethnicity Just Isn’t Simple

A post by Jamie

Race is a social construct. It sounds like a pretty easy idea to wrap your head around, once you understand the meaning of what you’re saying. It’s the idea that the very concept of race itself isn’t genetically determined and isn’t quite as linear a relationship as simply contingent upon the colour of one’s skin (although this no doubt plays a significant role in racism and related constructs). Race as a social construct is a sort of discourse we pick up on, both consciously and unconsciously, throughout the course of our lives. Sometimes it’s literally hurled at us, and sometimes it’s very quietly and gradually written into (or out of) our day-to-day experiences. Race isn’t a Thing you can point at, reach out and take a sample of, and examine under a stereoscope. In my life, currently nothing is making this more clear than the public sphere of cyber activism in the Idle No More movement. The battlefields here are social media services like Twitter and YouTube, the comments section on online news articles, and blog posts. The battles being waged include re-education, de-bunking myths and stereotypes (watch for the Twitter hashtag #Ottawapiskat for a brilliant demonstration of de-bunking by inversion), and working towards inspiring others to start the work of decolonization from within. It can be and often is equally as exhausting as standing in the rain for four hours in the flesh, and it is an equally important tool in the greater repertoire of established tactics to counter racism, colonialism, and white supremacy.

And that’s right about where any demarcations you may have previously believed exist very rapidly become ambiguous and murky. Race/ethnicity and (anti-)racism is complicated as all fuck.

[Read more...]