What is an apology?

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.

There are countless cases in the news where a public figure does something wrong, and we all collectively ask, “Why don’t they just apologize?” or “Why don’t they apologize the right way?”  In the mean time I’ve often thought, “Why does anyone apologize ever?  What is an apology aside from a collection of emotions with no rational analogue?”

An apology is a sort of script.  Alice wrongs Bob.  Bob demands an apology from Alice.  Alice apologizes.  Bob forgives Alice.

OR

Alice refuses to apologize.  Bob is angered and seeks other means to punish Alice.  He could deny her trust, deny her social status, or even punish through legal means.

But what’s in it for Alice?  What’s in it for Bob?  As far as Alice is concerned, the outcome of apologizing is clearly better than that of refusing to apologize.  As far as Bob is concerned, punishment may provide either a psychological or game-theoretic value–why should any of that change just because Alice arranges some words in a particular way?

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The Second Law and its misuses

An OrbitCon session brought to my attention to the fact that Steven Pinker spouts a lot of bullshit about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (The Second Law is, “entropy cannot decrease over time in a closed system.”) In Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, he begins by refuting the creationist argument that the Second Law contradicts the theory of evolution. This is easy to do, you just say that the earth isn’t a closed system, and dramatically point at the sun. But Pinker then proceeds to forget about the sun, and argues that the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains poverty. I don’t have the book available, but Pinker has written an essay along similar lines:

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth.

Here’s the thing: creationists are really really wrong about the Second Law. There’s plenty of room to be less wrong than creationists, but still really really wrong. For those of us who have taken an interest in fighting creationism, we know we can just point at the sun and be done with it. But just because you’re familiar with this argument, please don’t mistake that for an understanding of the Second Law. Don’t be like Steven Pinker.

Here I will state and explain a few basic principles about entropy, with the goal of going beyond a mere refutation of creationist arguments.

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Colonialism in Eurogames

There’s a board game slash art piece called Train, where players shuffle meeples around in a train, until they come to the realization that the game is about shipping Jews to concentration camps. At this point, the players stop, usually shocked and disgusted with their own complicity.

But Train is a very unusual board game. Suppose we were playing another board game that involved putting brown disks, called “colonists”, onto plantations. Eventually, you put two and two together and realize that the “colonists” actually represent slaves, and you’ve been participating in trans-atlantic slave trade. Would you stop playing, feeling disgusted with your own complicity? Would you never play again? No, because you’re not playing an art piece, you’re playing Puerto Rico, one of the great classics of the Eurogame genre. So you just accept it as problematic, and play on.

It isn’t just Puerto Rico. Many Eurogames feature themes of colonialism, erasing or sanitizing its most evil aspects, like slavery, subjugation, or genocide. Instead, these games focus exclusively on the interests and perspectives of competing colonizing powers.

So, why do you think that is? Here I offer a bit of speculation.

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OrbitCon schedule

The OrbitCon schedule is now online.  You might say, “Yeah yeah, another conference I can’t attend.”  But you can attend this one!  It’s held online!  This weekend!

I’ll be in a panel called “Ace/Aro Atheists“, held at 2:30 CDT Saturday, with Sennkestra and Emily Karp.  Come join us!

“Aro” is short for aromantic, and “ace” is short for asexual (usually denoting the asexual spectrum).  Yeah, last time I did one of these panels, somehow all the panelists were in romantic relationships.  But this time all the panelists are aromantic-spectrum.  That includes me–I’m both aro-spec and also in a relationship, funny that.

Link Roundup: April 2018

I have a lot of links this month, so I tried to organized them into themes.

Sexual violence & #MeToo

#MeToo is not all there is, and here’s why I’m not sharing my story – When activists like me criticize #MeToo, we’re not just hipsters trying to say, “we were fighting sexual violence before it was cool”.  We’re trying to say that #MeToo was a step forward in terms of reaching a greater number of people, but in some ways a step back in the level of discourse.  This is absolutely to be expected; whenever an important message reaches a new audience, it takes a step back to help people to catch up.  In the public conversation, people keep on asking if #MeToo has gone too far, and my answer is that it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.  This article talks about some things that #MeToo is missing.

Keep Your Acephobia Out of #MeToo, Jaclyn Friedman – Jaclyn Friedman, coauthor of Yes Means Yes, wrote an article about something she felt has been missing from #MeToo: a discussion of survivor’s sex lives, and how sex can be used to heal trauma.  It’s true, this has been missing from the #MeToo conversation, but that doesn’t mean it’s missing everywhere.  For some survivors, the narrative about sexual healing is so dominant as to be oppressive, especially for survivors who are ace.  The sexual healing narrative must be paired with alternative narratives, where survivors do not have sex, and are not dehumanized for it.

When Boys Are Victims of Sexual Assault – This article has several first-person accounts of sexual assault from boys and young men.  It seems that the experience interacts with masculinity in strange ways for many of them.

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Atheist celebrity culture: you’re swimming in it

There have always been several gaps between new atheists’ self-image and reality. One gap that I have often expressed frustration with, is atheists denying that any atheist movement exists. You could argue the details about what it means to have a “movement”, but I heard such comments coming from people participating in atheist student groups in the heyday of new atheism.  It’s a stubborn refusal to engage in self-understanding, a denial that there is any self to understand.

But today I want to talk about another gap. Atheists see themselves as having no heroes or leaders, and yet atheist celebrities are everywhere you look. This is a point that often comes up whenever an atheist celebrity falls from grace:

“Skeptics and atheists like to think they are above human foibles like celebrity worship,” Rebecca Watson, a prominent feminist skeptic, told BuzzFeed News. “In a way, that makes them particularly susceptible to being abused by their heroes. I think we see that over and over again.”

This is a problem composed of two opposites: (a) atheists see celebrity worship as a human foible that they have escaped, and (b) atheists are more susceptible to celebrity worship. And there are two opposite responses to the problem: (a) the tendency towards celebrities should be acknowledged, or (b) we must strengthen our resistance to celebrities.

The danger is that in focusing on just one response, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the other half of the problem. For FTB in particular, the danger is that we look at the downfall of our heroes and say to ourselves, “we’re moving beyond heroes”–without actually moving beyond heroes. By placing ourselves above celebrity worship, we may be replicating the original problem.

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