A look back at the Brights

The Brights was a movement in the 00s to rebrand atheists as “brights”. It immediately fizzled, as everyone laughed it out of the room. Can you imagine calling yourself a bright?

I first heard about brights in 2007, but apparently it was coined some years earlier, by Paul Geisert in 2003. He and his wife Mynga Futrell founded The Brights organization, whose website still stands today. The word was initially supported by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but was immediately mocked by both conservative columnists and skeptical authors (not all articles are publicly available). Nowadays, nobody ever bothers to remember it except as a hilarious object lesson in how constructed labels can go wrong.

“Bright” is a funny word, but I will discuss it earnestly. I will deconstruct its motivations, analyze the arguments for and against it, and investigate where it ended up.

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The contentiousness of womxn

cn: It’s about language, so don’t complain to me about wasting time with pointless semantics, it was your choice to read onward!

“Womxn” is a term that was intended to be more inclusive of trans women, nonbinary people, and women of color. It recently entered the news when Twitch used “womxn” in a tweet. This resulted in backlash, with people accusing the term of being transphobic. It is a term that inspires, shall we say, conflicting viewpoints.

I first heard about “womxn” in the context of TERFs complaining about it. I don’t exactly watch TERFs, but my husband, you see, likes to argue with TERFs on Twitter. Yes, yes, there’s no accounting for taste. In any case, TERFs would complain endlessly about “womxn”, seemingly in disproportion to its actual use. This is common practice in TERF communities, to highlight something said somewhere by some trans person, and amplify everywhere as an example of why the TRAs (their term for trans activists, intended to parallel MRAs) are bad.

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Black, POC, BIPOC

The Black Lives Matter protests are about systematic police brutality and racism. In the face of such weighty issues, it seems petty to talk about mere language, potentially even a drain on activist energy. Nonetheless, I personally find language to be a stimulating topic rather than a draining one, and it can be used as a lens to engage with larger issues.

The larger issue here, is the relationship between anti-racism, and Asian Americans. Anti-racism in the US has largely focused on anti-Black racism, and to a lesser extent anti-Latinx and anti-Indigenous racism. Asian Americans–as well as people of other ethnicities/races/nationalities–tend to throw in some nasty complications, mucking up the clean generalizations people would often like to make. For example, asking people to recognize their White privilege just falls flat when the audience is simply not White.

And you should know, I’m not deliberately trying to trip up anti-racist activists. It’s not a gotcha. It’s just a fact about me, that I’m mixed race Asian American, and my list of privileges is somewhat different. The differences are sometimes important, sometimes not.

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Emotions on the internet

Cultural differences

Recently, I’ve talked about the book How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and I explained the basics of the theory of constructed emotion. I would like to go a step further, and discuss some of the implications.

If emotional categories are socially constructed, I’d expect different cultures to have different categories. Perhaps we have a lot of categories in common, since our cultures are all in contact with one another, and different cultures might be fulfilling similar needs. But the construction of emotions predicts that there must be some exceptions–emotional categories that only exist in some cultures and not others.

Dr. Barrett gave many examples of emotions that exist in other cultures, but not in US culture. For example, in Czech culture, “litost” is described as “torment over one’s own misery combined with the desire for revenge”. In the Ilongot tribe in the Philippines, “liget” is described as a feeling of exuberant aggression, usually felt by a group of people competing against another group. While these concepts are intelligible to us, we rarely think or talk about having exactly those combinations of feelings, and we have few expectations for how we would respond to those feelings.

I found these examples to be quite compelling, and not just because of the sheer number of examples that Dr. Barret described. Once I understood what a new emotional concept looks like, I realized that we’re creating new emotional concepts all the time! Even without looking outside the US, you can find plenty of relatively recent emotional concepts created right here on the internet.

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A guide to sexual violence terminology

[cn: sexual violence, including explicit references]

When I started out writing about sexual violence, I was confused about many of the terms surrounding it. I didn’t even know, until someone told me, that “sexual violence” was an all-encompassing term. So I’m writing a guide to terminology, of the kind I wish I had years ago. My aim is to go beyond a glossary, not just providing definitions but also commenting on connotations and practical usage.

Categories of sexual violence

Sexual violence – Sexual violence is a super-category that includes any sexual (or sexually charged) act that violates someone’s consent. That includes sexual assault, sexual coercion, sexual harassment, and child sexual abuse (all of which are to be defined later). Note that sexual violence is a term used by public health advocates and activists, not by the legal system; not all sexual violence is illegal.

In my experience, definitions of sexual violence can be confusing. For example, the NSVRC says sexual violence is when “someone forces or manipulates someone else into unwanted sexual activity without their consent,” and then proceeds to list examples which do not obviously fall under its own definition, such as spying on sexual acts. If you’re not sure whether to go with the explicit definition, or the list of examples, always go with the list, which has more consensus than the literal definition.

Sexual assault – Sexual assault is non-consensual sexual touching. Common examples include unwanted kissing, groping certain body parts, and rape. Sexual assault is also a legal term, although at least in the US, there is a distinction between assault (the threat of violence) and battery (the violence itself). Outside of legal contexts, “sexual assault” usually refers to what is legally called “sexual battery”.

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Being vs Identifying as

This article is being cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

In modern philosophy, there is a thing called a performative speech act. That’s when you do things by saying things. For example if I say, “I apologize,” it is not merely a statement of fact, but is itself an act of apology. Likewise, if I say “I identify as queer,” it is not merely a statement of fact, but is itself an act of identification. It makes no difference whether I say “I identify as queer” or “I am queer” because both of them are acts of identification.

Nonetheless, if we put on our descriptivist hats, it sure seems like people are making a distinction between identifying as a thing, and being the thing. Instead of dismissing the distinction out of hand, we should try to understand it. I will propose two basic interpretations.

In the first interpretation, “I am” is an act of identification, right now in the present moment. “I identify as” is a statement about how you identify in a more general set of contexts, not necessarily limited to the present moment. For example, the following is a true statement that I could make:

Sometimes I identify as asexual, but I’m not asexual.

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What is identity politics? An empirical investigation

Every time I see people making disparaging remarks about “identity politics”, I wonder what that means. It sounds like a meaningless buzzterm, like “political correctness”. It sounds like an attack on any minority groups that dare to politically advocate for themselves.

But where did the term originate? How did it become popular? Which minority groups is it directed at? Has its use changed over time? Here I perform an empirical investigation using Google.

A line plot of the popularity of search terms over time.

Source: Google trends. This tracks the popularity of search terms over time.

As can be seen from above, the term “identity politics” has been around for a long time. I looked as far back as Google trends allows (back to 2004), and it’s still there. However, there was a big spike in popularity in November 2016–the month that Trump was elected. There’s also a broad hump around January-February 2017, and a more recent spike in August 2017. I will investigate each of these time periods by sampling from time-constrained google searches.

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