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.

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!


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…]

The Santa Delusion

father-christmas-santa-claus-200If you ever believed in Santa — how did you find out that he wasn’t real? And how did you feel about it?

I vividly remember the Christmas I figured it out. There were three main clues:

1) The writing on the tags on the Santa presents was the same as my dad’s.

2) The wrapping paper on the Santa presents was the same as the presents from my parents.

3) On Christmas morning, our stockings (mine and my brothers) each had a tangerine. Later that day, I noticed that there were only two tangerines in the fruit drawer, where the night before there had been four. (I was kind of obsessed with tangerines. Still am.) This, for some reason, was the final “A ha!” moment.

Okay, so obviously my parents weren’t trying very hard.

I wasn’t at all traumatized. I was actually really proud of myself for having figured it out. I was proud of myself for having outsmarted the adults, and having seen through their ruse. I wasn’t mad at them, though: generally I wanted them to be honest with me, but I think I saw Santa as kind of a game. You hide things and keep secrets and deceive people in games — you don’t start a game of Go Fish by showing everyone your hand — and while I didn’t think of it this way consciously at the time, I think that’s more or less how I saw it.

I don’t remember telling my parents that I’d figured it out, but I didn’t do that thing of pretending I still believed so I could keep getting presents. It seriously never occurred to me — but not because I wasn’t a materialistic little shit, I totally was. It’s just that the presents were obviously coming from my parents, and I figured they were going to keep on coming from my parents. It didn’t occur to me that they’d stop. (Which they didn’t: my folks kept giving about the same amount of stuff after the Santa game was up.)

So if you ever believed in Santa — how did you find out that he wasn’t real? Did you figure it out on your own? Were you told by siblings, parents, schoolmates, someone else? And how did you react? How did you feel about it — and who, if anyone, did you tell?

And if you didn’t ever believe in Santa, but you knew about it — how did you deal with it? Did you keep the secret? Did you tell? How did you feel about it?

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.

On Not Taking “No” For an Answer, and Why It Isn’t Jolly Good Fun

(Content note: I’m mostly not talking about sexual consent and the violation of it — but I do mention it. I also talk at greater length about alcohol abuse, food issues, social anxiety, and refusal of non-sexual consent.)

wine pour 200“Oh, come on. Have another drink. It’s a party!”

“Have another brownie. Life is short!”

“The game really isn’t that hard. I’m sure you’ll love it! I’ll pull you up a chair. Here’s how you play…”

“Come on — dance with us! Everyone’s dancing! No, really — you’ll have fun!”

There’s an idea that’s very prevalent in our culture. (Well, my culture, anyway.) It’s the idea that not taking “No” for an answer, that pressing people to do things they’ve said “No” to, is jolly good fun.

I’m not talking here about sexual consent, and pressing people to do sexual things they’ve said “No” to. I do think that can be part of this pattern: there’s a very similar idea when it comes to sex, that pressing people sexually is part of a fun cat-and-mouse game of coyness and seduction. (It can be in consensual, negotiated situations — but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) And I think that the general, non-sexual trope of pressuring people in the name of jolly fun does affect our shitty culture of sexual consent. But it isn’t what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about general, non-sexual or not-particularly-sexual social situations. I’m talking about the idea that the key to a lively event is pressing people into having fun. I’m talking about the idea that when you invite someone to do something you think they’d enjoy, and they say “No,” the cheerful, jovial, sociable response is to brush off their objections, and persuade them to do it anyway.

And it’s an idea that needs to die in a fire.

We need to understand five things here. [Read more…]

Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

I first published this on Thanksgiving 2011, and have decided to make it a Thanksgiving tradition.

thank youIf you don’t believe in God, what does gratitude mean?

I don’t mean specific gratitude towards specific people for specific benevolent acts. I mean that more broad, general, sweeping sense of gratitude: gratitude for things like good health, having food to eat, having friends and family, the mere fact of being alive at all.

I started thinking about this when I was watching the “Thanks for Skepticon” video that the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas put together, where they asked participants at Skepticon 4 to say what they were thankful for. Most of the folks in the video — myself included — took the question at face value, and spoke of our intense gratitude: for science and medicine, for friends and family, for jobs in an unstable economy, for trees, for the very fact that we exist at all.

But some participants — specifically PZ Myers and American Atheists president David Silverman — questioned the entire assumption behind the project. Silverman simply reframed the question: instead of saying what he was thankful for, he spoke about who he was thankful to. And Myers took on the entire enterprise directly. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

Hm. Interesting point.

So this video — and the subsequent discussion of it on my blog — got me thinking: If you don’t believe in God, does it even make sense to say that you’re grateful for stuff? Not to specific people who did specific nice things — that kind of gratitude makes sense, obviously — but just general gratitude for the good things in our lives? Does the emotion of gratitude have to have a specific object, a conscious actor who made choices that affected our lives in positive ways? Or can we feel grateful without an object?

Is there such a thing as intransitive gratitude? [Read more…]

The Looming Unfinished Task

(Content note: some discussion of depression, although it’s very much not the main focus. Also overdue library books.)

So for the most part, I’m a pretty responsible person. I take promises and commitments seriously, and I mostly keep up with them. But there’s this thing I sometimes do that throws a giant monkey wrench into my ability to do the things that I’ve promised to do, even things I actually want to do. I’m wondering if other people do this thing, too. (Actually — no, I’m not wondering, I am 98% positive that this is a common human phenomenon, but I’ll feel better when I see other people say, “Great Caesar’s Ghost, I do that too!”) And I want to hear from other people about your strategies for dealing with it.

It’s the Looming Unfinished Task.

check-list 200With some things on my To Do list, if I put them off, they start accumulating this load of guilt. The fact that it’s late and I’ve put it off makes me feel bad about it. Then the fact that I feel guilty and bad about it makes the task seem both more unpleasant and more daunting. And because it’s now seeming more unpleasant and more daunting, I put it off for longer… and the longer I put it off, the more guilty I feel about it… and the more guilty I feel about it, the more unpleasant and daunting it feels… so I put it off for longer… until eventually, the unanswered email is looming in my consciousness as both The Most Unpleasant And Upsetting Thing Anyone Could Ever Do, and a prime example of Why I Am An Irresponsible And Generally Terrible Person Who Lets Everyone Down.

I don’t just do this with work, by the way. I do it in personal relationships, with unanswered letters or emails from family or friends. I have actually let relationships drift away because of this: I’ve felt so guilty about the unanswered email from three weeks or six months or two years ago, I not only couldn’t bear to reply to the damn email — I couldn’t bear to contact the person about anything else. I was convinced that if I dropped them a note saying, “Hey, we haven’t been in touch for a while, how are you doing?”, they would reply with, “HOW HAVE I BEEN DOING?!?!? I’ve been stewing about that unanswered email, that’s how I’ve been doing! Every time I think about you, I think of what a terrible person you are!” It’s absurd and irrational. After all, I don’t react that way when people don’t reply to me: I assume they’re busy and overwhelmed, and I just write them again. But somehow I’m convinced, not that my colleagues and friends and family are WAY more harshly judgmental than I am, but that my own misdeeds are somehow much worse than theirs. The terrible judgment I’m imagining from them seems entirely proportionate.

The thing is, though — there have actually been a handful of people in my life who did judge me this way. [Read more…]

It Isn’t Like That/Happy Tenth Anniversary, Ingrid

walking down the aisleIngrid and I were married ten years ago today, on November 12, 2005. Of course, we were also married in February of 2004, and in June of 2008… It’s one of the things about being a same-sex married couple in the early 21st century: because of the changing laws about same-sex marriage, a lot of us had a lot of weddings. But the one on November 12, 2005 is the one we tend to think of as our “real” wedding. It didn’t have any legal standing whatsoever — it was technically a “commitment ceremony,” our friend Rebecca officiated, and at the end, she said, “By the power vested in me by Ingrid and Greta…” But it was the one where we wrote our own vows; the one with the big party with our families and friends; the one with the dresses and the flowers and the dancing and the cake; the one with the invitations and programs and bouquets designed by our friends; the one with the music played by our friends; the one with the parents making toasts, the siblings and best friends making speeches and singing songs. It’s the one that wasn’t snatched in haste at City Hall, wondering if and when it was going to be taken away from us, squeezing ourselves into a window that we knew could be closing again any day. November 12, 2005 is the wedding we made for ourselves.

I still do, sweetie. Happy anniversary.

I wrote this piece before the wedding, and we put it into our wedding program. I’m reprinting it here today.

It Isn’t Like That
by Greta Christina

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130

She is not the sun and the moon and the stars, and she is definitely not my sole reason for living. I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night for many reasons, of which her existence is only one. She is not all I can think about; I spend time thinking about work, and friends, and what to have for dinner, without too terribly much trouble. I don’t feel the earth move or the sky fall, although I do feel a bit like I’ve been conked on the head by a giant vaudeville rubber mallet. I can talk to other people when she’s around, and I can keep my hands off her if I have to. I don’t feel that every minute spent without her is wasted, and there is at least some sunshine when she’s gone. I do not believe we were destined to meet, or that my life would be empty, or hollow, or even incomplete, without her. And her eyes, while large and lovely and the color of the ocean on a dark day, are, in fact, nothing like the sun, except in that they are big and round and bright. It isn’t like that.

It’s just that I grin and giggle and blush when I think of her, and sulk when she’s far away. It’s just that I feel a cold terrified rage at the thought that anyone, myself included, might hurt her. It’s just that I feel brave when I’m with her; not brave enough to slay dragons, but brave enough to feel what I feel and say what’s on my mind, which for me is plenty brave. It’s just that she knows what I mean, and I know what she means; not always, not as if we were soul-sisters or psychically linked, but enough, and much more than enough. It’s just that so many of the things that are good about her are things that are good about myself, things I would be happy to have grow stronger from being in her presence. It’s just that there isn’t anyone else, not even gorgeous movie stars, that I’d rather have in my bed. It’s just that a part of me that is hard and cool and distant, a part I rely on but don’t much care for, turns into oatmeal when I think about her. It’s just that I feel that my life is not entirely in my own hands, and, rather uncharacteristically, am not feeling that this is a problem. It’s just that she’s smart and funny and thoughtful and cheerful and playful and good and sexy and beautiful, and it feels like a miracle — not a huge miracle, just a small one — that she seems to see me the same way.

I like it this way better. Much.