Subjective Tastes and Character Judgments — Two Great Tastes that Taste Lousy Together

This piece was originally published in The Humanist.

basketball 200“All I hear about these days is the NBA finals. Who are these brainless yahoos who get so obsessed about a ball going into a net?”

“I hate those ditzes who care so much about fashion. They’re so superficial.”

“What is it with selfies, anyway? Who are these self-involved twerps who keep taking pictures of themselves?”

“You know the kind of guy. He likes NASCAR, country music — total fool.”

Why do people do this? Why do we make character judgments about other people, based solely on their personal, subjective tastes in entirely consensual activities?

To be very clear: I’m not talking about subjective tastes that genuinely do have a moral component. I understand that there are moral issues with, for instance, food (eating meat or not?); consumer items (were they made by exploited labor?); choices in transportation (does it pollute?); lots of other examples. I’m also not talking about subjective choices that actually do immediately infringe on other people, like playing loud music at three in the morning and keeping the neighbors awake. And I’m not talking about making our own aesthetic judgments, and mouthing off about them. Of course we’re free to like or dislike any food, art, or entertainment that does or doesn’t strike our fancy — and we’re free to say so.

I’m not talking about any of that. I’m talking about making character judgments about other people, making assumptions about people’s lives and values and relationships, even making moral judgments about them — based on their tastes in music, food, art, entertainment, or other activities that are entirely subjective and consensual. I don’t get it. Why do people do this?

Actually — that’s not true. I do get it. There are lots of reasons we do this. It’s just that none of them are good reasons.

We often have good or bad associations with certain activities — and we connect those with the people we think of as doing those activities. If you were bullied in high school by jocks, you might have bad associations with sports, and assume that anyone who enjoys them is a mean, mindless jerk.

marge simpson reading love in the time of scurvyWe can also forget that people have widely varying tastes. If we think romance novels are formulaic and shallow, we might form a mental picture of a romance novel reader based entirely on that — forgetting that they also probably like science fiction, books about history, nature hikes, The Simpsons, homemade chili, ballroom dancing, vintage cars, or any of a hundred million possible activities that make up a rich, full, complicated life.

In addition, we tend to associate certain activities with certain groups of people — and if there are people we already fear, hold in contempt, or otherwise dislike, we often use subjective preferences as a way to denigrate them. Many of the most widely despised personal tastes, the ones that most often get seen as character flaws, are the ones commonly enjoyed by marginalized people. Looking down on people who like rap and hip-hop, or country music, or fashion and style — it’s a way of denigrating black people, poor and working-class people, women. And of course, this becomes a self-perpetuating circle. If we’re already pre-disposed to look down on certain kinds of people (consciously or unconsciously), we’re more likely to dislike the activities we associate with them — and our dislike of their activities becomes a justification for disliking the people.

And some people really do use aesthetic preferences as markers of group identity — and group identities often involve shared values. If we know a particular group of people with a sexist, macho worldview, and they not only like heavy metal but use their heavy metal fandom to signal their group identity to each other and the rest of the world, it’s easy to take them at their word, and assume that heavy metal really does translate to rigid gender roles and macho posturing.

But a big part of this phenomenon, I think, is simply that we like to have our decisions validated by others.

If you know anything about cognitive biases, you probably know about rationalization. Any time we make a decision, we immediately start unconsciously rationalizing why it was right. And part of how we do that is seeking out people who agree with us — and ignoring, dismissing, or pushing aside people who don’t. So when we say that we like white chocolate or basketball or Miles Davis, and someone says, “Ew, I hate that” — it feels dissonant. It conflicts with our image of ourselves as someone who always makes the right decisions. It can even feel like a personal insult — even if no insult was intended, even if no insult was given, even if literally all the person said was, “I don’t like the thing that you like.” Personal tastes are subjective, but they’re also… well, personal. Disagreements with our tastes, especially ones we care about a lot, can feel like disagreements with our very being. And one way to resolve that dissonance is to distance ourselves from people who disagree, and convince ourselves that there’s something wrong with them. Even if all they disagree about is white chocolate or basketball or Miles Davis.

So I get it.

But none of it makes sense.

fans watching baseball gameThere are plenty of thoughtful, good-natured people who like sports. There are plenty of intelligent people with rich musical knowledge who like country music and hip-hop. There are plenty of easy-going, egalitarian people who like opera. There are plenty of confident feminists who care about fashion. Etc., etc., etc. They’re not rare exceptions. If you want to make judgments about people’s character, it makes no sense to focus on their subjective tastes in consensual activities. Instead, we should pay attention to, you know, how they treat other people.

If jocks were mean to you in high school, that says nothing at all about the sports fan in front of you. If some people use their fondness for heavy metal to signal their identity with a sexist subculture, that says nothing at all about the heavy metal fan in front of you. Of all the crappy excuses people have come up with to denigrate entire classes of people, “I don’t like their music or fashion” has got to be one of the crappiest.

And people can like and love and respect each other, and still have different tastes. Surely we can be confident enough, secure enough, to like the things we like, and let other people like the things they like, and not take it as an insult, a character failing, or a deep clash of our most basic values, when we like different things. If some people don’t like basketball or fashion or selfies or country music or NASCAR, or whatever entirely consensual activities you happen to enjoy, they are not saying a single damn thing about you.

And if they are — if someone’s judging your character because you’re excited about Project Runway or the Final Four — show them this column, and tell them to knock it off.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Greta Speaking in Houston, Thursday January 28!

humanists of houston logoI have a speaking gig coming up this week in Houston, hosted by the Humanists of Houston. If you’re in the area, or you’re going to be in the area this weekend (maybe for the Secular Social Justice conference), come say Hi and hear me speak! My topic this time: “Resistance Is Not Futile: Why Arguing About Religion Is Not A Waste of Time.”

CITY: Houston, TX
DATE: Thursday, January 28, 2016
TIME: 7:00 to 9:00 pm
TOPIC: Resistance Is Not Futile: Why Arguing About Religion Is Not A Waste of Time
SUMMARY: Many atheists think that trying to persuade people out of religion never works, and simply alienates people. But debating believers about their beliefs can be effective — in changing people’s minds about religion, as well as in achieving other goals of the atheist community. When does it makes sense to debate about religion? How should we go about it? And what should our expectations be for what these debates can accomplish?
LOCATION: Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Rd, Houston, TX. We will be in the Auditorium Room. After walking into the community center, look for the room with the HOH sign posted outside the door.
HOST: Humanists of Houston
EVENT URL: http://www.meetup.com/humanism-177/events/227302375/
NOTE: If you think you’re coming, lease RSVP on the Meetup page, so they can get an idea of the head count. Everyone who RSVPs will be eligible to win the door prize at the event!
OTHER NOTE: Copies of my books will be available for purchase, and I’ll be available afterwards to chat and sign books.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Thinking About Punctuation: Semi-colons, Colons, and Dashes

Way of the HeathenI’m working on my new book, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. I’ve been having thoughts and conversations about punctuation. And I want to share them and get feedback.

Specifically: I’ve been thinking about when to use semi-colons, colons, and dashes. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I started writing professionally in 1989. More recently, Alex Gabriel and I were talking about our tendency (and many writers’ tendency) to overuse these punctuation marks. They are lovely and fun to use, and sometimes they’re exactly what you need: but they can make for precious, complicated, hard-to-read sentences with too many clauses and sub-clauses. I’ve been thinking more carefully about how I want to use them, and working on making my use of them more consistent instead of just using whatever looks right. So I wanted to share the guidelines I’ve been using, my own personal style manual. And I wanted to get opinions and feedback.

Period and commas. The main guideline comes straight from Alex: Whenever it’s reasonable, replace semi-colons, colons, and dashes with periods or commas. Shorter sentences are generally better.

But shorter sentences aren’t always better. Sometimes, replacing semi-colons, colons, and dashes with periods or commas would make the writing clumsy or unclear. When that’s the case, here are my guidelines.

Colons: I use a colon when the clause following it is a complete sentence. (Example: “You didn’t decide to be an atheist: you decided to ask questions, look at evidence, prioritize reality over wishful thinking, and quit pushing your doubts to the back burner.”

Note to self: These colons can often be replaced with periods, splitting the sentence into two.

Semi-colons: I use a semi-colon when the clause following it is not a complete sentence. (Example: “After all, what could make you feel more important than believing that the creator of the entire universe cares passionately about you; that he wants more than almost anything for you to do right and be with him after you die, and is even waging a war for your soul?”)

Note to self: These semi-colons can also sometimes be replaced with periods, splitting the sentence into two with just a little recasting. They can also sometimes be replaced with commas.

I also use semi-colons in the place of commas, when I have a sentence with a list of things, and the things being listed are longer phrases or clauses instead of single words or very short phrases. This is especially the case when one or more of the things being listed is a phrase that has a comma in it. (Example: “I love that we’ve dressed it up in studs and feathers, boots and stockings; that we’ve added personal theater and public theater; that we’ve spent millennia exploring it in painting and writing and film and pixels.”)

Note to self: Consider whether commas would be better. This is, however, a generally legitimate use of semi-colons.

Dashes: I use a dash when the clause following it is not a complete sentence, but when a semi-colon seems wrong — mostly because the second phrase needs more separation from the main sentence. (Example, other than that self-referential one: “And when you conclude that there are no gods, one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice — an end to extreme poverty, political disempowerment, government corruption, gross inequality in economic opportunity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and more.”

Note to self: These dashes can often be replaced with periods or commas. If not, they can often be replaces with semi-colons or colons.

I also use dashes to insert a short phrase that needs to be separate from the rest of the sentence, but that’s too important to put into parentheses. (Example: “According to the genetic counselor, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that there are other genetic markers associated with Lynch Syndrome, ones that researchers don’t know about yet.”)

Note to self: Consider whether commas would be better. Consider whether parentheses would be better. Consider whether the phrase is even necessary, or could just be cut.

Other note to self: Try to limit dashes to no more than one use per paragraph.

Thoughts?


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Blog Break – Finishing My New Book, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life

Way of the Heathen final cover with border 400

I’m finishing the draft of my new book, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. (Scheduled for publication June 1; and yes, you can pre-order it on Amazon.)

So I’m taking a blog break. I’ll be back sometime after January 15. See you then!


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Godless Perverts Social Club — Game Night! Tuesday January 5

game pieces on game board

Godless Perverts is having another game night! Our first one in November was a rousing success, so it’s back by popular demand, on Tuesday, January 5. As you may have noticed, Wicked Grounds has a huge stash of games including chess and checkers, Cards Against Humanity*, Scrabble, Fluxx, Slash, Gloom, and much, much more. Feel free to bring your own games if you’re not sure Wicked Grounds has a copy of your favorite.

We’re meeting at Wicked Grounds, the kink cafe and boutique, at 289 8th Street at Folsom in San Francisco (near Civic Center BART). 7-9 pm. Admission is free, but we ask that you buy food and/or drink at the cafe if you can: Wicked Grounds has beverages, light snacks, full meals, and milkshakes made of literal awesome sauce. We meet at Wicked Grounds on the first Tuesday of every month: we also meet in Oakland, on the third Thursday. All orientations, genders, and kinks (or lack thereof) are welcome. Community is one of the reasons we started Godless Perverts. There are few enough places to land when you decide you’re an atheist; far fewer if you’re also LGBT, queer, kinky, poly, trans, or are just interested in sexuality. And the sex-positive/ alt-sex/ whatever- you- want- to- call- it community isn’t always the most welcoming place for non-believers. So please join us. Hope to see you there!

Godless Perverts presents and promotes a positive view of sexuality without religion, by and for sex-positive atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other non-believers, through performance events, panel discussions, social gatherings, media productions, and other appropriate outlets. Our events and media productions present depictions, explorations, and celebrations of godless sexualities — including positive, traumatic, and complex experiences — focusing on the intersections of sexuality with atheism, materialism, skepticism, and science, as well as critical, questioning, mocking, or blasphemous views of sex and religion. Godless Perverts is committed to feminism, diversity, inclusivity, and social justice. We seek to create safe and welcoming environments for all non-believers and believing allies who are respectful of the mission, and are committed to taking positive action to achieve this.

*(If you decide to play CAH, please be cautious; it can be a really hard game between people who don’t know each other and aren’t familiar with each others’ limits and triggers.)


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

What I Want for My Birthday

My birthday is coming up on December 31. Happy birthday to me!

If you’d like to get me something for my birthday, of course it would be nice if you’d buy one of my books. I’m author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angry

But the main thing you could get me for my birthday would be to support one of the organizations I care about. There are a lot, and it’s hard to pick, but I’ve narrowed it down to these three:

Foundation Beyond Belief logoFoundation Beyond Belief: A humanist philanthropic organization that channels money and volunteering into organizations that put humanist ideals into action. (Among other things, they’ve funded Transgender Law Center, Center for Reproductive Rights, Ocean Conservancy, Innocence Project of Texas, Rainforest Foundation US, The Greening of Detroit — you get the idea.)
One-time donation (one-time donations go to support the Foundation’s operations and programs)
Monthly giving, as low as $5 a month (monthly giving goes to the programs being funded by the FBB — you can decide how to distribute your donations, and you can change that each quarter)

secular student alliance logoSecular Student Alliance: An umbrella organization that supports secular student groups in colleges, universities, and high schools around the country.
One-time or monthly donations

black nonbelievers logoBlack Nonbelievers: A national organization with local chapters that provides support, information, and community to Black people living without religion.
One-time or monthly donations (donation button on the main page)
Store (T-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs)

(Full disclosure note: I’m on the Boards of Directors of the FBB and the SSA.)

If you do this, please make a note with your donation if you can, saying “Happy Birthday Greta.” It will make them and me happy. Thanks, and have a happy New Year!

Meta-Stories

I’m thinking about meta-stories. Stories about stories. This starts off being about Christmas stories — but that’s only where it starts. It goes somewhere else. I’m not sure where it ends.

Stephanie Zvan has an interesting piece about Christmas stories, and how many there are other than the obvious one. She wrote this paragraph, which struck a nerve and got my brain wheels spinning:

Christmas accretes stories the way Thanksgiving accretes recipes for disguising vegetables. Charlie Brown and his lonely tree. Scrooge and his ghosts. The little girl with the matchsticks. Jo’s Christmas “without presents”. Reindeer on the house-top. A Grinch with an undersized heart. A snowman willing to sacrifice himself for a little girl. A desperate man on a bridge. A ski resort in need of saving for the old man. A couple with nothing but the ability to sacrifice for each other. A consuming desire for an unsafe “toy”. A hostage situation, of all things.

the-little-match-girl-(a-living-story-book)-cover 200I read that paragraph — and had an immediate, vivid flash of memory. Stephanie wrote “The little girl with the matchsticks,” and what jumped into my head wasn’t so much that story itself, or even the memory of the picture book with the heavy, glossy cardboard pages. It was the meta-story. What I remembered was the time I was talking with my mother about “The Little Match Girl,” a story I loved and was somewhat obsessed with — and she said she hated the story, because it was a justification for why it was okay for children to freeze to death in the streets. I realized that Mom was right, and suddenly saw through the gloppy sentiment, and had a small moment of growing up. I had a small moment of realizing that the world wasn’t always okay — and I had a small flash of understanding about critiquing art.

Christmas doesn’t just accrete stories. It accretes meta-stories. I’m sure everyone who celebrates Christmas has these: the first time they watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” after their parent’s divorce; the time when they’d just moved into their new home and watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” sitting on lawn chairs in a house full of boxes; the time they put on the Christmas play and accidentally set fire to the manger. The stories aren’t just stories: they become part of our own.

But of course, that’s true of all stories. The story of The Phantom Tollbooth is also the story of listening to my father read it aloud to me and my brother, and reveling in his pleasure in the story as much as my own. The story of The Godfather is also the story of my seventh-grade class passing it around to each other, whispering the page numbers of the dirty parts. The story of Star Wars is also the story of my younger cousins haunting the suburban mall where they watched the movie over thirty times. The story of Alice in Wonderland is also the story of the first year Ingrid and I were involved, when she was in New York and I was in San Francisco so we talked on the phone constantly, and she had a sore throat one time and couldn’t talk, so I read Alice in Wonderland to her over the phone.

So now I want to know: What are your meta-stories?


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Some Thoughts on Spending Christmas Day Alone

I’m reposting some of my previous holiday posts, as part of my holiday tradition thing. Enjoy!

I’m not spending Christmas Day alone. I’m spending it with Ingrid. I’ve spent Christmas Day with Ingrid for as long as we’ve been together: sometimes with her family, sometimes just with the two of us. And I love spending Christmas with Ingrid, whether it’s with her family or just with her. I’m greatly fortunate in my in-laws — I like them as well as loving them — and we have a whole set of wonderful traditions both silly and touching: some from her family, some that I’ve brought to the table, some that Ingrid and I have created for ourselves. And of course, I’m fortunate beyond words in Ingrid.

But I was single for twelve years before I fell in love with Ingrid. For ten of those twelve years, I was very happy to be single, was single very much by choice, was actively and adamantly resistant to the idea of not being single.

And during those years, I almost always spent Christmas Day alone. I could have visited my family, but I chose not to: I preferred to see my family at times other than Christmas, without the stress of holiday travel/ high expectations/ December in the Midwest. And I could have visited any number of friends who were having Christmas Day gatherings. But I didn’t.

Because when I was single, I loved spending Christmas Day alone. [Read more…]

The True Meaning of Christmas

I’m reposting a bunch of my holiday posts, as a part of a holiday tradition thing. Enjoy!

So what does Christmas really mean?

war on christmas book coverAmong all the traditions of the holiday season, one that’s becoming increasingly familiar is the War on the Supposed War On Christmas. In this tradition — one that dates back to the sweet olden days of overt anti-Semitism — the Christian Right foams at the mouth about the fact that not everyone has the same meaning of Christmas that they do, and works themselves into a dither about things like store clerks politely recognizing that not everyone is a Christian by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Because in the mind of the Christian Right, it somehow disrespects their faith and impinges on their religious freedom to share a country with people who feel and act differently than they do.

Okay. Insert rant here about how the Christian Right isn’t actually interested in religious freedom and respect for their faith. They’re trying to establish a theocracy. They don’t care about religious and cultural plurality. They don’t care about the fact that winter holidays mean different things to different people, and that different people celebrate different ones and in different ways. They don’t care about the fact that not everyone in the country is Christian, and that lots of people who do call themselves Christian are actually pretty secular in both their everyday life and their celebration of the winter holidays.

No, scratch that. They do care about it. They think it’s bad.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about today.

In the face of Bill O’Reilly and company screaming hatefully about the true meaning of Christmas, I want to talk — in true grade-school essay form — about what Christmas means to me.

Because I actually like Christmas.

lighted treeChristmas; Solstice; Hanukkah; Kwanzaa; Festivus; “the holidays”; whatever. I don’t have a strong attachment to any particular name or date or occasion. Any mid-winter holiday around the end of December will do. Lately I’ve been calling it either “the holidays” or “Santamas” (in honor of what Bart Simpson has described as the true meaning of the holiday: the birth of Santa). I was brought up culturally Christian, though, with Christmas trees and Santa and all that, and I do tend to refer to it as Christmas at least some of the time.

And I love it. I always have. I know it’s fashionable to hate it, and I get why people get annoyed by it — but I don’t. I love it. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

And here’s what it means to me. [Read more…]

Ugly Renaissance Baby Jesuses

I’m reposting some of my previous holiday posts, as part of my holiday tradition thing. Enjoy!

In honor of the birth of Jesus — or rather, the supposed birth of the very-likely-entirely-imaginary Jesus character in the New Testament myth — I bring you, from my visit to the Art Institute in Chicago: Ugly Renaissance baby Jesuses. (Jesi?)

Ugly Renaissance Baby Jesus 1

Ugly Renaissance Baby Jesus 2

Ugly Renaissance baby Jesus 3

Really fills you with a deep sense of reverence and awe, doesn’t it? Or something.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.