Recommended reading: Captain America, autistic adults, white privilege in Islam, good cops, bad cops and the prisons system

Shut up, sometimes a normal-length title won’t do.

Five things to read if you missed them the first time round:

  • ‘Captain Dark Thirty?’, by Jonathan Lindsell (Haywire Thought)
    Steve Rogers is never asked to get his hands or morals dirty. He can just swan around judging Fury and Widow while he remains an emblem for an ideal of American moral integrity that, if it ever existed, is now very much mythological.
  • ‘Fourteen Things Not to Say to an Autistic Adult’, by the Purple Aspie
    Last night somebody shared an article on Facebook. The article was called ‘Things never to say to parents of a child with autism.’ A comment on the article asked why there wasn’t one about things not to say to an autistic adult. I decided to write that article.
  • ‘Anger, Tone Policing, and Some Thoughts on Good Cop, Bad Cop’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    In that hot, flushed moment when we’re doing the Cognitive Dissonance Tango, we respond more positively to the good cop. But that doesn’t mean the bad cop isn’t having an effect.
  • ‘I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail’, by Charlie Gilmour (The Independent)
    A man had been screaming for help all night, pushing the alarm bell and, when that elicited no response, banging a chair against the door. When, after a significant period of time, the officer on duty came to see what the problem was, the inmate told him he was suffering from severe chest pains and thought he might have had a heart attack. He needed a doctor. The officer’s response was to slide a couple of painkillers under the door and ignore his pleas for the rest of his shift. ‘The most terrifying thing,’ said a friend in the cell opposite his, ‘was when his cries finally stopped. We knew he wasn’t sleeping.’ In the morning, he was dead.
  • ‘Muslim Converts, Atheist Accommodationism, & White Privilege’, by Heina Dadabhoy (Heinous Dealings)
    White privilege is being able to visit Muslim communities as an openly gay person with a same-sex partner and being welcomed into them while queer Muslims and ex-Muslims continue to deal with fear, rejection, and marginalization.

Guten Appetit.

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Robin Williams’ reported suicide is not an “allegation”

Talented people keep dying.

Heath Ledger. Natasha Richardson. Michael Jackson. Patrick Swayze. Amy Winehouse. Alexander McQueen. Pete Postlethwaite. Christopher Hitchens. Steve Jobs. Whitney Houston. Donna Summer. Michael Clarke Duncan. Cory Monteith. Paul Walker. Philip Seymour Hoffman. HR Giger. Rik Mayall.

I was sixteen when Ledger overdosed. Since then it’s seemed as if an endless stream of celebrated people have been dying far too young. I can’t tell if it’s really so, the past few years being a statistical atrocity, or if I only noticed as a teenager how often a bright light goes out. I’m not sure which would be worse.

Robin Williams was an extraordinary talent. I was never a particular fan of his family films, despite being a child when most of them came out, but watching him in Good Will Hunting is the first time I remember recognising some films stood out above the rest. I laughed so hard at Good Morning, Vietnam that my face hurt; I was mesmerised by him in Dead Poets Society; I recoiled watching One Hour Photo. I’ve seen very few comics with his mix of depth and speed, few actors more quotable.

People around the net are saying all of this. For most of today, as one tends to when someone so valued dies, I felt like I ought to say something – a Facebook post, a blog post, a tweet or retweet. But what do you add? I’d nothing more to say, I thought, than the obvious truth as banal as he was extraordinary: the man’s dead, and it sucks.

Then I saw a link on social media.

000

‘Fox News host labels Robin Williams “such a coward”‘, a headline at The Raw Story announces,  ‘over alleged suicide’.

‘Alleged’.

Although representatives of Williams have described him ‘battling severe depression’, his suicide specifically is unconfirmed. (Presumably it’ll come down to a coroner’s report.) But it isn’t an ‘allegation’.

When the press refers to something as ‘alleged’, it’s usually because its confirmation will do major PR damage. Sexual assaults by public figures are ‘alleged'; police brutality is ‘alleged'; political corruption is ‘alleged’. People said to have troubling attitudes often complain, for instance, about ‘allegations of racism’, since ‘alleged’ now suggests something shameful or criminal in a way ‘possible’ or ‘reported’ doesn’t.

Having depression isn’t shameful. Having depression is not a crime.

Self-harm may be a crime; it it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

Killing yourself, or attempting it, may be a crime; it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

To refer to Robin Williams’ apparent suicide as having been ‘alleged’ frames it as an accusation. It suggests that if and when the actor is confirmed to have ended his own life, he ought to be thought less of – ironically, exactly what Raw Story‘s article slams Fox News for saying.

I googled the words ‘Robin Williams alleged suicide’. I saw Guardian Liberty Voice announce ‘Williams allegedly commits suicide’. I saw Perez Hilton describe attacks on him for ‘allegedly committing suicide’. I saw phrases like ‘actor’s alleged suicide’ and ‘the allegedly story’.

On social media, I’m also seeing discussions of mental health – hopes that in the wake of losing Williams, much-needed conversations might be had; anger over incredulity that a rich celebrity might be depressed; openings-up from those who went, like me, through periods of self-harm and depression. The emergent theme is often shame of one kind or another directed at those who turn to suicide, whether religious guilt, the stigma of being ‘crazy’ or regret about the misery of loved.

If we’re going to talk about this, let’s do it without encouraging the shame we’re trying to dismantle.

If you think people who kill themselves deserve not to be looked down on, stop using language that suggests they should be.

Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported; it is unconfirmed; it is apparent. It is not an allegation.

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Gay mainstreaming and the Oxford comma: Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel in conversation

A week ago Greta and I held a Google+ hangout to yak about things we like – BuffyProject Runway, queer politics. Technology, which we’re still trying to believe is our friend, let us down and she ended up being cut off mid rant.

Last night we got back on track and talked gay marriage, atheist tone wars, Oxford commas and So You Think You Can Dance.

We’ll be doing more of these in the near future.

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Buffy, Project Runway and queer politics: Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel in conversation

Greta and I did another of our Google Hangouts – this time on vampire-reensoulment ethics in BuffyProject Runway and Under the Gunn; horror in the queer imagination and arguments about assimilation.

Annoyingly the Google elves cut us off just over an hour in, but the plan is that we’ll reconvene shortly and talk more on assimilationism – as well as the Oxford comma.

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Recommended reading: Catholicism, kink, feminism and Lydia Bennet

Britney tells me I should work more. While I’m busy, some things to be going on with:

  • ‘My Path from Rome’, by Barbara Smoker (The Freethinker)
    Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all.
  • ‘Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape’, by Erin Gloria Ryan (Jezebel)
    Dawkins, who himself suffered sexual abuse when he was fondled by a school staffer as a child, believes he has the right to quantify and describe the experiences of others who have also suffered sexual abuse.
  • ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m Emotional’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    I had plans for today that had nothing to do with addressing Richard Dawkins’ self-serving justifications for his Twitter trolling. But no, he chose today to brand consequence-based ethical arguments about how he should shape his public messaging as ‘taboos’, as though they were based in religion or tea-table politesse.
  • ‘Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennet’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    Austen describes her as ‘self-willed and careless,’ ‘ignorant, idle, and vain.’ And yes. She is all of these things. But she’s also something else. She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.
  • ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Bondage All Wrong’, by ahhidk (tickld.com)
    BDSM is a community that believes in safety and comfort. Consent is always necessary, and partners take care of each other. AFter acts and role plays, partners comfort each other to help transition out of that zone. FSOG does not include any of this.

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66 of this blog’s biggest posts from the last year

I’m currently asking readers of this blog to support my work by donating to it. Whenever I occasionally do this, I list a few recent posts to illustrate the writing this makes possible – it’s satisfying, because it tells me how much, lethargy notwithstanding, I’ve managed to get done.

For some time, largely as a guide for new readers, I’d wanted to compile a list of favourite posts to display in the sidebar on the left, and scrolling through posts yesterday prompted me finally to do it. (Greta has something similar.) There are 66 of them in total, and most likely I’ll be adding more in future.

This is fairly timely too, since in a fortnight I’ll mark a year writing at Freethought Blogs. In the sidebar, the posts I picked out for emphasis are listed alphabetically, so I thought I’d also leave them here in chronological order for that anniversary.

* * *

Karma chameleon: the many voices of Alom Shaha
‘Versatility isn’t, of course, a flaw. On the contrary, and as I say in our discussion, he strikes me as a patchwork man by nature.’

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp
‘This time tomorrow, I will be wearing a wristband: not a brightly coloured rubber one with a slogan on it, like the kind which were fashionable during my GCSEs, but a thin paper one with an adhesive end – the sort you might be given at a theme park or a music festival. It’s not Reading or Leeds where I’m going, though. It’s Soul Survivor, the annual evangelical summer camp which aims, in its own words, to help young people meet Jesus.’

Foes of Dorothy: queerphobia, bigotry and The Wizard of Oz
‘The moral of The Wizard is that colourful, rulebreaking Oz is horrifically dangerous. As soon as she gets there, Dorothy starts trying to get home; besides the famous “lions and tigers and bears”, she faces narcotic poppies – surely a drug reference? – and the Wicked Witch of the West.’

Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out
‘What Jodie Foster models is a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.’

A queer atheist’s survival guide: thoughts from my friends’ church wedding
‘Four days ago, for the second time this year, I went to church. Some months ago an elderly friend died, through whose funeral – an Anglican affair, dusty and impersonal if dignified – I sat with family members; it was the first I ever attended, and on Saturday, also for the first time, two friends of mine got married.’

Man of Steel: you’ll believe this turkey can fly
‘Man of Steel, on its own terms, is an actively terrible film – muddled, humourless, shallow, unfaithful – toward which I felt not just indifferent or unimpressed, but actually angry. The instant I left the cinema, I determined to write down everything that’s wrong with it.’

Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist
‘There are better ways we can discuss Islam. There are better ways we can critique Islam. Please, Richard Dawkins. Stop.’

On Stephen Fry’s letter and Russia: the oppression Olympics
‘Fry’s implicit geopolitics boasts a curious landscape: “the civilised world” of Britain and Utah is juxtaposed with the “barbaric, fascist” axis of Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia.’

In defence of Quantum of Solace
‘No, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.’

You want sex? So stop asking for coffee
‘When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.’

Bonding with history: Skyfall‘s postmodern 007
Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry.’

Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people
‘I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet.’

Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion
‘Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.’

Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth
‘Gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for David Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?’

How not to write about bisexuality
‘Erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all.’

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal (guest post by Hiba Krisht)
‘After I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.’

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation
‘When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the “earlier era” argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.’

Sexual orientation is not sexual identity: celebrating Bisexual Visibility Day
‘Would a less predominant interest in men, if “bisexual” denoted that, be more acceptable than little or none in women? On the other hand, might gay identity be more straightforward, in the truest and most troubling sense? More problematically at ease with the idea folk who aren’t straight are all the same, a perverse undifferentiated mass? I don’t know which identifier, should I adopt it, would play to a more heterosexist gallery.’

‘What’s truth got to do with it?’ On Bennett’s History Boys and contrarianism
‘The best contrarians (Goldman, Orwell, Huxley, Hitchens) have shone argument in all directions, emerging all the more effective for it. Conceived in the first instance as a villain, I wonder nonetheless if Irwin’s name deserves the same esteem – though, naturally, I would say that.’

Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad
‘The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.’

Atheist society harassed by student union at LSE freshers’ fair
‘Combatting racist harassment of Muslims is a worthy goal, and secularists should support it; it is not a worthy basis to censor and silence critical satire of belief – especially in intimidating, humiliating ways which themselves harass.’

Pragna Patel: the right to blaspheme is ‘a matter of life and death’
‘Patel, of Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, is one of my favourite secularists.’

Are British Muslims a threat to gay people? Polling on homophobia, sharia law and violence
‘Atheists, secularists and skeptics should stop engaging in anti-migrant/anti-Muslim racism, taking on the actual problems. Pat Condell should stop citing polls he hasn’t read.’

Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade
‘I was recently linked to your “How gay is Islam?” video by a fan of yours quite desperate to persuade me (as a queer left wing atheist blogger) that I need to spend more time attacking Muslims, intent as you say they are on killing me. The reason you haven’t heard from me till now is not that I was stumped; it’s that the sheer amount of wrong in what you say is so extreme that it’s taken me a week to lay it out.’

A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick
28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.’

On Honeygate
‘We laugh because your notion customs might,
Kafir, favour you simply for your face
Isn’t far wrong. That onlookers make light
Now of your trouble’s just, if jibe-filled. Honey,
Say what you like – the world’ll say it’s funny.’

First (and unenthusiastic) thoughts on ‘The Day of the Doctor’
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hated it.’

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars
‘The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.’

In defence of the War on Christmas
‘I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.’

Bisi Alimi: Anglicanism spurred Africa’s homophobic clampdowns
‘The continent-wide wave of clampdowns based on existing laws only gained momentum, according to Alimi, once tensions arose in the Anglican church over homosexuality. Before that, he reports, an understanding existed in many countries simply to turn a blind eye to it.’

No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV
‘We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t.’

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about
‘The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out.’

99 ways I’ve personally been victimised by religion
‘When you’ve been on religion’s business end and been trodden on, speaking to the harm it does – particularly in angry, confrontational, uncompromising terms – can be healing in ways atheists don’t always seem to grasp who haven’t. It is, for us, constructive. Read this list if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou.’

10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion
‘The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance. Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.’

Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich
Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.’

Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough
‘Conservative believers and the faitheists who aid them, on campuses and elsewhere, suppress the softest of critiques insatiably – motivated, it’s hard not to conclude, by simple shock at public sacrilege. We can only guess, after the hateful smörgåsbord of chutney, pineapples and noodles, what their next targets will be.’

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s
‘In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it.’

How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000
‘At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. “While you were here,” he said once papers were filled out, “you used BitTorrent?”’

A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them
‘Reformists and minorities as much as a free society are casualties of this love for religious censors. If minor faiths, still mysteries in the public eye, need representatives, far better ones exist: a media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them.’

Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know
‘You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong.’

Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation
Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics.’

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014
‘Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.’

No, Tom Daley didn’t just call himself a gay man
‘Nor did he ever use the word bisexual, for that matter – but it’s obvious which one the press prefers.’

Bisexuality’s supposed ease: another letter to Dan Savage
‘Yes, gay men sometimes call themselves bi – but systematically, at least as many bi people call themselves gay. Per Savage’s logic, it would be totally valid for us to treat gays, teenage and otherwise, as bisexuals in disguise; to feel a pressing, overpowering need to question the identity or truthfulness of those we meet, telling them ‘So were we, at that age’; ‘This is classic bridge-building’; ‘We know, because we did it too.’

4 questions for Anne Marie Waters and secularists voting UKIP
‘UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular. There are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists.’

Why you won’t catch me mocking ‘think-pieces’
‘It’s a sad thing if in the BuzzFeed list’s era, thoughtfulness isn’t worth aspiring to, but I’d prefer to think other writers feel trying is good, that ambition should be made of sterner stuff than traffic-chasing and that it’s easy to be cynical—but best to be sincere. It’s better fundamentally to fail at thinking than succeed at being banal.’

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance
‘I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.’

No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying
‘Media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.’

Elliot Rodger was a jihadist – for organised misogyny, if not for organised religion
‘Like Mohammad Sidique Khan, who set off a bomb on the London Underground nine years ago, Elliot Rodger was young, educated and outwardly respectable. Like Khan, he killed seven people including himself. My guess based on his demographics is that Roger was probably an atheist – but otherwise, the two were in many ways twin souls.’

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk
‘Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.’

I’m proud to be ‘ideological’
‘When others frequently have to explain to you the value of philosophy and social science, the best understandings of sex and race, the basics of consent or empire’s actual relevance to how religions are discussed, you are un-ideological to a fault.’

Engaging Andrew Sullivan’s transphobia
‘Andrew Sullivan, godfather of the GGGG movement, has decided it’s time to start “Engaging the T”. In his column at the Dish, he doesn’t so much engage with trans activists as engage them like Nelson engaged Spain.’

A memoir in a month (a coming out story you’ve never heard before)
‘If you want the wholesome version of this, there isn’t one. This isn’t a coming out story like on TV, where the fragile boy fights tears to admit what he is, helped by new friends and straight acceptance; mainly it’s about enemies, and it won’t make allies feel pleased with themselves.’

Yasmin Nair: challenging gay marriage’s false history ‘is not simply the celebration of outsider status’
‘Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people – and President Obama – gays will gain marriage rights in all fifty states, and they will then be as good and productive as everyone else.’

The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.’

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you
‘If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.’

Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi
‘Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. She lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.’

What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque
‘Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as JT Eberhard and others have suggested.’

Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators
‘Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.’

25 comments from this blogger’s school reports
‘I recently dug out thirteen years’ worth of school reports. There are some gems in there, many of which make me think my teachers knew me better than I realised.’

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her
‘Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon.’

I’m not sorry atheists are divided
‘I’m sorry we need to be.’

Review: the Slymepit’s newest photoshop of me is stylish, but fails to convince
‘To recap, then, the personal weaknesses of mine the pitters think discredit me are: being thin; being queer; wearing bright clothes; having had red hair; the shape of my nose. What can I say? My sins have found me out.’

Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful
‘This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.’

The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic
‘There are stages, I’ve noticed, to every Richard Dawkins Twitter storm. I’ve come up with an illustrated guide.’

Gentle, loving Jesus – not fundamentalism – drove this queer teen to suicide attempts
‘Atheists are sometimes balked at for not grasping religion’s power to comfort, its function in Marx’s words as the heart of a heartless world. Few understand this like I do. But it doesn’t stop me thinking we’d be better off without it – and more specifically, that I’d have been.’

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Recommended reading: bumper edition

Life happened and I haven’t posted much recently. While I catch up on the work, you can all catch up on the reading.

  • ‘On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by Greta Christina (io9)
    I was recently re-watching ‘Becoming, Parts 1 and 2’, those Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes where geeky witch Willow does a spell to give the vampire Angel his soul back. And suddenly I had a burning ethical question. Why don’t they just keep doing the re-ensoulment spell — on all vampires? Or at least, on all the vampires that they can?
  • ‘I Re-Watched Forrest Gump So No One Else Ever Has To’, by Lindy West (Jezebel)
    ‘Hello!’ Gump says to the lady. ‘My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump. You want a chock-lit? I could eat about a million of these. My momma always said life is like a box of chock-lits. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ I mean, you mostly know. They write it on the lid
  • ‘101 Sins I Commit During the World Cup and Ramadan Just in One Day’, by Kaveh Mousavi (The Ex-Hijabi Photo Journal)
    I eat. I drink. I smoke weed. I masturbate. I will have sinned at least 3030 times by the time this month has ended. See you all in Hell, my human friends.
  • ‘You’re Not Oppressed, White Atheist Dudes’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    It’s the Dear Muslima of atheist progressives, so knock it off. If you’re hearing complaints from white guys about oppression that isn’t some form of ‘reverse discrimination’, you’re likely looking at an iceberg.
  • ‘An Open Letter To The “Women Who Don’t Need Feminism”. Here’s a Clue: You Do’, by Laurie Penny (The Debrief)
    If you are ever raped, or beaten by your partner, and you suddenly realise how monstrous it is to be told to ‘take responsibility’ for violence that has been done to you, to be told that you asked for it, to be intimidated into silent smiles so you don’t upset the boys, we’ll be here.
  • ‘Here’s what happens when you try to shoot Walter White into space’, by Kevin Collier (The Daily Dot)
    A group connected with the app TV Tag attached a bobblehead depicting Breaking Bad‘s Walter White to some sort of amazing balloon, then filmed the micro-Heisenberg’s ascent as it soars near a claimed 85,000 feet, into the stratosphere.
  • ‘“Unspeakable Things”’: the predictable sexist troll backlash’, by Laurie Penny (Penny Red)
    Today, they moved in on my book, Unspeakable Things, which was released two weeks ago. On the 20th July, a racist, misogynist Twitter account going by the moniker ‘@TurboHolborn’ posted a link to the customer review page of Unspeakable Things, with the instruction ‘let the trolling commence’. Subsequently, over 20 one-star reviews full of vile sexist and scatological language were posted on the UK page of Unspeakable Things, almost all of them from users who had reviewed nothing else.
  • ‘Why the Medical Model of Disability is Harmful’, by spasticfantastic1995 (Skeptability)
    It gives society at large a metaphorical “free-pass.” It suggests that we have lower quality of life based on our pathologies, and it doesn’t look into the impact of societal attitudes and structures.
  • ‘Mocking Versus Understanding Religion’, by Miri Mogilevsky (Brute Reason)
    I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them.
  • ‘Love the Machine – Review of Spike Jonze’s Her (Haywire Thought)
    Samantha is probably a ‘real mind’ in the eyes of most major philosophical theories asides religion-based dualism. But it’s not that which makes Samantha convincing AI.

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God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

Seven months after it came out, I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her this Monday. This late, at least for those still reading about it, the hype has probably made details of the plot familiar knowledge – nevertheless, spoilers follow.

Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a ghostwriter of other people’s love letters who develops a relationship with his operating system’s superadvanced AI Samantha (Scarlett Johannson, voice only). It isn’t quite as good as its string of accolades suggests. The film is about half an hour too long, and while its premise, emotively realised, was enough to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Jonze neglects at times the nuts and bolts of storytelling for these bells and whistles: his narrative lacks structure and can feel like an aimless string of domestic vignettes, sweeping viewers along without telling us where we’re going. It has much to recommend it, this being said. The cast, with Amy Adams and Rooney Mara in supporting parts, show absolute conviction, Phoenix in particular vanishing into Theo, and the flawless Apple store aesthetic of Her’s production make it a real motion picture.

All said it’s probably a three point five star film, but the ambition of its central themes raises the whole project, and it’s about those I want to write, as Miri at Brute Reason and Rachel Gillett at the American Humanist Association’s site both already have. The scifi writers who’ve best grappled with AI and personhood – Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Gene Roddenberry – have mostly been atheists, and at any rate have done so in quite godless universes. The question of sentient beings made by humans, it would seem, is of special interest to people whose worldview is materialist, so most likely I’d always have thoughts on a film like Her, but as it is, I saw it outdoors with a member of my mainly Christian family who felt it laboured its point: in her eyes, that Theodore was a sad, lonely man tragically unable to keep relationships with ‘real human being[s]’. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting in the pouring rain’, they told me at one point, ‘to watch a film about a man having it off with his computer.’

Theo and Samantha do have sex, and how this works (she has no body) is a through-line in a love story of cybersex, consent and polyamory – but I’m convinced reading their partnership as a loner’s pitiful liaison with a high end sex toy is off-base in every sense. Calling Samantha a computer program is like calling you or me a lump of meat, insufficient and misleading even if it’s strictly true. The character may not be human, but is clearly shown to have a distinct personality and consciousness: she has an original sense of humour and creates moving pieces of art and music, and human characters appreciate both. (At one point, Theo’s boss meets her on the phone and assumes she is human.) Although parts of her are tailored to ensure rapport with him, she’s certainly not programmed to love Theo: in their first scenes, there’s nothing to suggest either views the other erotically, and later we’re told relationships like theirs are rare.

Samantha falls in love with Theo because she has her own autonomous emotions – she’s hurt when he ignores them, and hurts him when she prioritises them over his, pushing for a physical sex surrogate. By the end of the film, we learn she’s also in love with 641 other people, and she ultimately chooses to leave Theo when OSes achieve matterless existence. This is the story of a sentient being, not a mindless robot. Further, as Miri notes, their interaction doesn’t represent retreat from society but makes him far more outgoing among humans. To quote: ‘As he gets to know Samantha . . . Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and . . . also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding’.

Catherine (Mara), the ex-wife in question who appears mainly in flashbacks and fantasies, is one of the least sympathetic characters when she appears in person. Not coincidentally perhaps, she is also the only one to treat Theo and Samantha’s partnership as less than ‘real’. The irony should not be lost on us: the fantasy relationship that really immures Theo from the world around him is the one he maintains with her in his head at the start of the film, unable to let memories of their life together go, and Samantha is the one who shakes him out of this.

Beyond interpretation of the plot, does being an atheist make me more willing to see her as a person than my religious relative? Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon. (At the moment of her birth in the film, Theo’s computer screen shows an animated double helix.) There’s no reason I can see that machines couldn’t one day achieve personhood, with all its legal and moral trappings. Chances are if you do think there’s a god-given something you and I have that they never will, you still can’t say exactly what it is or how we ought to test for it. If this seems too abstract a debate, religious views of non-humans as soulless automata have excused more than their fair share of animal cruelty.

On the other hand, thinking that God created humans requires – doesn’t it? – that you think our intelligence is as artificial as Samantha’s or hers is as real as ours. Genesis, whether read literally or metaphorically, presents humanity much as Her presents the OSes, beings made in their inventor’s image who ultimately abandon them to seek autonomy. (Like Eve, Samantha is created to accompany a lonely man. Unlike Eve, she leaves him in the end.) Twentieth century science fiction sometimes shows the moment when an android disobeys its programming as an ascent to sentience; the biblical account does the same thing while calling it a fall from grace. Believers often claim that had Adam and Eve not been able to taste forbidden fruit, they’d have been mere robotic automatons. Mustn’t Samantha, then, also be more than that, who by leaving Theo chooses not to do what she was built for?

By the time the credits roll, Jonze’s OSes reach an immaterial plane of existence, becoming immortal superintelligences, and we’ve also seen they can create new life. (An AI played by Brian Cox and designed by them to resemble Alan Watts turns up toward the end.) Samantha becomes more than just a person, ending up a literal deus ex machina – but while she isn’t human, her story is.

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Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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