The “tone” thread

I used the word ‘idiots’ once in my previous post, and now I am being upbraided for defending bigoted language used to assault gay activists. This morning’s post was not in any way about the use of nasty language, but in the interest of giving tone trolls a place to vent, I am creating this thread.

I am not an advocate of using language to belittle or demean an opponent instead of expressing a legitimate position. I think I increase my credibility as a rhetorician when I represent the opposing side fairly and accurately, and then tear hir a new asshole. That said, I am also of the mind that “if the shoe fits”, then it’s fair game. If the opposing side can be demonstrated to believe in things that have no rational justification, I do not shy away from the word ‘deluded’. If the opposing side wishes to restrict the rights of other people based on an attitude borne of privilege, I will let fly with the word ‘bigot’. If someone’s argument is founded in poor logic, shopworn memes, and invalid evidence, I am not going to feel bad about calling it (and occasionally them, but not usually) ‘stupid’.

There are those who refuse (I can only assume) to distinguish between content and style. They believe that what you say and how you say it are equally important. I think someone needs to find the zombie of Marshall McLuhan and double-tap it in the head. I am from the school of George Orwell, where words are a mechanism by which we exchange ideas, and that futzing over style can be an impediment to comprehension. I do not accept the oft-asserted notion that one must be ‘civil’ in order to be an effective communicator. I have delved into this idea at some length.

This should not be (although it undoubtedly will be) read as a statement that everyone should feel free to use whatever language they like at all times. Words have meanings, and they have consequences. When conversation devolves into an exercise in slinging barbs without making points, then discussion has ceased. However, a judiciously-placed insult can act as the sprinkles on top of a well-built ice cream sundae of an argument. When I show you the multitude of ways in which you are incorrect, and cap it off with “you boob”, that is a justified flourish. It is not me ‘losing the argument’ because I ‘stooped’ to using ‘ad hominem’. It is you failing to address the <i>content</i> of my argument and instead tap-dancing on the pinhead of tone as an attempt to deflect how thoroughly you’ve been eviscerated.

There are many who are aching to have this conversation, and although I find it the height of tedium, I’d rather it happened here rather than on a post that has nothing to do with name-calling at all. Have at it.

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The (un)Friendly Atheist

I like Hemant Mehta. I really do. He’s a passionate advocate and organizer who regularly makes significant and positive contributions to the secular/atheist community (far more than, say, someone like me does). His blog is a regular read for me, which is saying a lot because these days I barely have time to read this one. He’s actually been gracious enough to offer me a guest post in response to what I thought was a particularly terrible contribution by an ISSA member. Gallingly, however, Hemant posted something today that was so uncharacteristically incurious as to drive me to take out my ass-kickin’ boots again. I don’t like ragging on people who I (otherwise) respect and like, but this piece was beyond the pale:

If you read the blog posts and Twitter comments about Chris [Stedman], though, you’d think he was a religious man in atheist clothing. Or that he’s delegitimizing our work. Or that he’s undermining our goals. He’s not. He’s as much of an atheist activist as the rest of us. He just practices it by focusing on cooperation and conversation with people of faith instead of beating his chest with both fists and proclaiming his superiority.

Some day, and I hope it’s soon, we will finally be able to take this straw atheist who beats its chest and bellows defiance (instead of providing reasoned argument in opposition to a thoroughly-debunked meme) out behind the woodshed and put it out of its misery. Then maybe, just maybe, folks like Hemant will be able to muster up the restraint to stop attacking it.

I don’t know Chris Stedman, I’ve never had any interactions with him, and I don’t really care if I ever do. The same goes for Alain de Botton. I say this to forestall any accusations that I am getting personal – this argument could be about anybody. The problem with the approach that guys like Stedman and de Botton take has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they want to co-operate with believers. This has been pointed out so many times it’s hard to pick just one example to link to, so I will let you pick your favourite. Sure, were I in a particularly uncharitable mood I’d suggest that collaboration with an oppressive force like religion is a good way of preserving privilege in exchange for token concessions, but I recognize the willingness of many believers to counteract bigotry even when it comes from within their own ‘camp’. [Read more…]

Oh God, Oh GOD, OH YES! Oh no!

There was some very interesting discussion that cropped up in the comment thread of last week’s Movie Friday where I asked you to discuss what the lyrics to Regina Spektor’s “Laughing With” actually mean. Many of you thought that she was articulating a kind of “faitheist” position, or one of arch-deism, where those who disbelieve are hypocritical fools, yet those who profess strong belief are simpletons. My own interpretation was a bit more generous, thinking that perhaps she was talking about God as a concept rather than as an actual entity (either theistic or otherwise). A bunch of others helpfully suggested a bunch of other female artists that I could check out since my iTunes is lacking (for which I thank you).

I am still struck by that line “God can be funny”. For all the misery and general awfulness that religion causes in everyday life (to say nothing of its capacity for breeding hair-ripping frustration), there are a lot of reasons to laugh. Sometimes you laugh because it’s either that or cry, sometimes you laugh because it’s genuinely hilarious, and sometimes you laugh because there’s no other reaction to something so bizarre. Religious people don’t particularly like having their beliefs and behaviour ridiculed, and often claim that anti-theists like myself are waging a campaign intended to discredit and undermine the very foundation of our society. I obviously disagree – I am not putting in nearly so much effort as they claim. One does not have to hold up religion for ridicule, one merely has to hold it up: [Read more…]

So high, so low

So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: mandatory minimums are racist. When we finally strip away the facile understanding of ‘racism’ as an intentional discriminatory act by a bad person against someone else, we are able to recognize that people, institutions, and traditions can be racist. The lack of intentionality is immaterial with respect to whether or not an action is racist – a better yardstick to use is whether or not it has the same effect that an intentionally racist (or “really” racist) action would. Put another way – I can be racist without even trying, and so can a non-conscious entity such as an institution (or even a non-entity like a policy).

Judged by this metric (which is arguably far more useful and accurate than the one used to detect ‘classic racism’), mandatory minimums serve to exacerbate existing racial disparities by removing the capacity of the system to take societal factors into account. In other words, they’re racist:

The legislation, a medley of 10 bills on the Harper government’s tough-on-crime agenda, includes mandatory-minimum-sentencing rules that will curtail judges’ abilities to deal out alternative sentences. That could undo a decade-long effort to find culturally specific ways of diverting inmates such as Mr. Findlay away from serial engagements with the justice system. Native Canadians make up less than 4 per cent of the general population, but they account for 22 per cent of prison inmates. Many of those are young men who have grown up in poverty and high unemployment, and who have lower-than-average education levels.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said recently that aboriginal children are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school. More will go to jail after C-10, and many will end up in the gangs that flourish in western and northern jails, where more than 70 per cent of inmates are aboriginal. “What we’re doing with C-10,” says Jonathan Rudin, program director of the ALST, “is to increase our reliance on things that don’t work.” [Read more…]

Courting disaster

I don’t do a lot of computer coding at work, but I do occasionally find myself forced to make a computer do something that exists only in my head and on paper. I don’t really have much of a background in computer science, aside from a couple of courses in statistical analysis methods in undergrad. The problem is, there’s certainly no shortage of project in which at least some coding is required, forcing me to have to learn as I go. Luckily, I am surrounded by competent professionals who can give me examples of their own work that I can copy. Of course, the problem with this approach is that I do occasionally have to do some original work and solve new problems.

My incompetence (in this matter – I am well competent in most things, just not computer programming so much) forces me to try and tackle the problem with the little experience and few tools that I have at my disposal. This involves using the few tools I have at my disposal in a series of “work-arounds”. What inevitably emerges is a program that functions, but is really clumsy and unwieldy. If I have to go back and change something, it takes a lot of unraveling, which is a time-consuming process. When I show it to colleagues, they always say “oh, well why didn’t you just do this?” and then they show me some nifty trick or macro or something that I hadn’t even considered, and it cleans up my analysis really quickly and elegantly.

Now, if I were less aware of my relatively junior standing in my field, or if I were just a whiny and petulant dick, I would view the contributions of my colleagues as attacks on my intelligence. I’d refuse to show them the flaws in my work, in an attempt to cultivate an illusion of infallibility – an illusion that would quickly crumble under the intense scrutiny of peer review. That’s how science works – it’s actually to my benefit to show my work to my colleagues, even if it means exposing my own ignorance. I will learn something, and my results will be much stronger when it comes time to have them reviewed by others who may not be as friendly. It turns out that there may be an element to this in politics as well: [Read more…]

Black History Month: looking back, looking forward

This is the fourth year in which I have formally marked black history month. Even though I went to a high school with a large black population, we were taught almost nothing about black history in school. The great shame of the whole exercise is that, unless there is someone who actually cares, the existence of a month ostensibly devoted to black history becomes little more than an excuse to gloss over the details:

Black people were slaves in Africa, but then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. sat in the back of the Underground Railroad until Abraham Lincoln emancipated them and now we have a black president so yay racism is over!

I am unsure which is actually worse: being denied any mention of black history at all, or having the rich, convoluted, deep, and fiercely interesting treasure trove that is real black history “Disney-fied” in this way. Luckily for me, I do not have to choose between these two awful alternatives. Because I have the time, motivation, and education to do so, I can do my part to scratch beyond the lacquered surface of black history and expose some of the rich truth underneath.

Black history is our history

As I tried to set out at the outset of this series, the compartmentalization of ‘black history’ is an unfortunately necessary illusion. Black history, when understood properly, is not the history of black people as an isolated alien race. Black history is and must be part of the narrative of the overall history of Canada (and, obviously, the United States). Black people have made numerous contributions to the founding and building of this nation from its very conception. Black Canadians should not be thought of as an ‘also ran’ group – people who also existed and were around while the important stuff in Canadian history was going on – they (we) were part of that history and should be recognized as such. [Read more…]

Black Canadians: outcomes, attitudes, and evidence

This morning I walked you through a crude statistical analysis of labour participation in black Canadians, showing that while the experiences of black Canadians runs parallel to that of African-Americans, it is not directly comparable. However, a more detailed look at the evidence suggests a slightly different picture – black men face a 22% wage gap for identical work when compared to their non-black counterparts, even when controlling for age, education, experience, and other potential explanatory factors.

There is an old truism within the black community (and a similar one among women) that one is expected to work twice as hard as whites to achieve identical success. While 22% is not 50%, it is still a fact that black men do not see the same results for their (our) hard work. Mensah spends a few pages going through two alternate explanations that are offered for this and other kinds of race-based disparities: the class argument and the culture argument, before arriving at his (and my) explanatory model: the race argument.

The class argument – “race is just a function of class”

Some theorists argue that when we measure race-based differences between groups, what we are actually measuring is a function of socioeconomic class. The solutions to these discrepancies, therefore, must be through programs targeted at class mobility rather than anti-racism.  This argument is unsurprisingly popular, as it allows us to maintain our illusion of a ‘post-racial’ society in which racism is the domain of a handful of bad people. However, the evidence (the above statistic included) does not support class as the primary explanatory factor driving inequalities between blacks and whites. [Read more…]

The Watchmaker Analogy: not an argument

The ‘watchmaker analogy‘ has been around for quite some time (about 209ish years by my count), and it was refuted shortly after it’s explication (in fact, Paley was refuted by Hume before Paley was born). Several folk have gone after it, in a variety of ways but the damned thing just keeps showing up. To be fair, it’s not that the argument won’t die, it’s that people ignorant of it’s failure simply won’t stop trotting it out, as if restating it over and over again somehow means that the previous refutations didn’t happen.

Quite recently, Fazale Rana (a member of Reasons to Believe) directed me to his claim that “Kai ABC Proteins Re-invigorate the Watchmaker Argument for God’s Existence” with the invitation to ‘explain how is reasoning is faulty’.

Ask and thou shalt receive.

[Read more…]

Black Canadians: Making it work

This is the fourth and final instalment in a series of posts I am writing in my annual commemoration of Black History Month. My inspiration, and source of historical material, is a book by Joseph Mensah called Black Canadians: history, experiences, social conditions. As I work my way through the book, I will be blogging my reactions and things that stand out. You can read the first post here, and its follow-up here. The second post is here. The third post is here, and its follow-up is here.

Last week I made reference to the problems inherent in understanding Canadian black culture.The cultural juggernaut that is the United States dominates media expressions of ‘the black experience’, and because of porous cultural borders (and the comparatively small number of black Canadians)  much of black Canadian culture is defined in similar terms as those of African Americans. The problem with this approach, obviously, is that black Canadians and African Americans have very different histories (as I hope the past few weeks worth of posts have demonstrated).

Similarly, much of the racial scholarship around the realities of being black are, in fact, the realities of being African-American. The kinds of systemic racism that we see all to often in the United States may not, in fact, be reflected in the Canadian experience. After all, Canada and the United States have vastly different approaches to immigration, citizenship, and multiculturalism (encapsulated in Canada’s ‘mosaic’ model, vs. America’s ‘melting pot’ model). We know from the vast available stores of data and analysis that anti-black racism is a real economic problem in the United States. The obvious question we must ask is do the experiences of black Canadians reflect those of African Americans?

The answer seems to be “no and yes” [Read more…]

Movie Friday: Fuck Shit Stack

Don’t ask why, but the FTB backchannel was briefly full of My Little Pony conversation. I don’t understand the craze, but that’s okay because it seems like everyone else does.

If the show were more like this, maybe I’d watch:

WARNING: TOTALLY NSFW LANGUAGE! Also, you will laugh really loud, so make sure you’re in a place where you can explain yourself if need be.

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