Not a racist bone in my body

There is a groove worn in the palm of my right hand. No, it’s not from that. It is there as a result of consistently smacking my face into my palm every time someone uses the phrase “I’m not racist…” or “I am the least racist person in the world” or “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” A couple Fridays back I pointed out a pair of stories in which people who had done unequivocally racist things immediately retreated to this excuse. It’s like catching a kid in the kitchen, cookie jar broken on the floor, chocolate smeared all over her face, and hearing her say “it was the dog.” It’s a stupid attempt to deflect an accusation that is entirely true, but distasteful.

Part of the reason for this cognitively dissonant response to racism is because there is a fundamental fallacy – a false dichotomy – that is drawn around racism. This false dichotomy is drawn between two extremes: racist and not racist. Those are the options, according to this fallacy. Our social construct of ‘racist’ brings in the whole fire-hoses and dogs idea of mid 20th-century racism (of course I favour a much more accurate definition). Few people, least of all those in public life, wish to be seen as being that kind of racist. In fact, most of them probably don’t have particularly negative ideas about people in a different racial group, or they imagine that the negative attitudes they do have are justified by some cognitive trick (I don’t hate Mexicans, just illegals; I don’t hate Arabs, just terrorists; I don’t hate black people, just thugs). However they arrive at their answer, most people will not self-identify as racist.

And so, because the other option is “not racist”, when confronted on their racist actions, the majority of people will insist that they are in fact “not racist”. Within their specific framework, based upon two fallacies – the false dichotomy and a failure to understand racism – their denial is true. However, in an objective sense it is simply the product of a series of cognitive constructs designed to shield the self-esteem. They are racist, by any objective external measure. The denial only serves to ensure that more racist actions will occur, and each time be repeatedly explained away as being something else. It is this kind of attitude that props up the current racial dynamics – a refusal to accept one’s own racist motivations.

What we have to recognize is the fact that “not racist” is not an option. Unless you are born in and live your life in a place where all people are so similar that lines are drawn around some construct other than race (perhaps religion, or politics, income, geography), and never come into contact with any other cultures, you will inherit the racism that exists worldwide. I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it – we are all racist. I’m racist. You’re racist. Your parents are, your teachers were, your politicians are, the guy who runs the pulled pork sandwich cart at Broadway and Granville is (but his sandwiches are still delicious). There’s no escaping it.

Our dichotomy needs to be redrawn between racist and anti-racist. Anti-racism is a methodological approach, much like scientific skepticism, in which actions (our own, and those of others) are constantly scrutinized in a racial context. Rather than merely reassuring one’s self that they are not a racist person, the anti-racist approach invites us to look for possible racial overtones, to examine how attitudes and behaviours might have differential consequences for those of different racial groups, and to try and understand what motivates those attitudes/behaviours at the conscious and subconscious level.

Of course intrinsically wedded to the idea of anti-racism is being non-judgmental when it comes to race. Spotting racism doesn’t win you points as an anti-racist – identifying the faults of others doesn’t somehow exonerate your own flaws. Instead, it invites you to appraise how your own attitudes and behaviours might be subconsciously influenced in a similar way. Most people, as I’ve said, are not overtly racist, or if they are they certainly don’t mean it in a hurtful way. However, there are still consequences to racism, most of which are unintended. Representative Weaver certainly didn’t intend for anyone to be upset by her Hallowe’en stunt, but it definitely conjures ghosts for me, and has certainly tarnished the sterling (heh) reputation of the great state of Tennessee. I don’t doubt that she doesn’t think that she’s a racist person – it is entirely immaterial in this case.

It’s important to state that being an anti-racist doesn’t make you the opposite of racist. Anti-racism is a tool. Much like skeptics can compartmentalize and believe in things that are not supported by science, anti-racists can have very racist beliefs that they either don’t know about or don’t wish to confront. I, for example, have a real issue with Chinese immigrants, an issue which began with my time at the University of Waterloo. As an anti-racist, it’s difficult for me to reconcile these feelings that I have about Chinese people to my stance as a crusader against racism. However, what I do have at my disposal is a mindset that allows me to examine and confront my own actions when dealing with my Chinese colleagues and friends – a mindset that I have to take particular care not to let my feelings affect my decision-making.

It’s funny – even writing that I felt a deep sense of foreboding. Admitting racial biases is incredibly difficult, for a couple of reasons. First, you don’t want to cause offense in others. Second, it has deep personal implications about how you see yourself in the world. I consider myself a good person – having a character trait that is so unequivocally negative casts doubt on my own self-concept. However, being aware of it makes me less susceptible to succumbing to it subconsciously. I will always be checking and re-checking my statements and interactions to make sure I’m not discriminating against the people around me.

This is the advantage to the anti-racist approach – it gives you a cognitive framework in which to work, whereby you can mitigate some racial biases, both conscious and unconscious. Dropping “non racist” from our mental lexicon and adopting “anti-racist” instead gives us a powerful tool for identifying and ameliorating the racism we see around us.

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Is this “The African Way”?

The cliché goes “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

I went on at great length this morning about why we must intervene when we see superstition hurting people – that our fear of appearing paternalistic has overpowered our reason and paralyzed us into inactivity. Maybe this will illustrate what I mean:

The dismembered body of a young albino boy has been found in a river on the Burundi-Tanzania border, reports say. The boy, aged nine, was taken from Makamba province in Burundi by a gang that crossed the border, the head of Burundi’s albino association said. Albino body parts are prized in parts of Africa, with witch-doctors claiming they have special powers. In Tanzania, the body parts of people living with albinism are used by witch-doctors for potions which they tell clients will help make them rich or healthy. Dozens of albinos have been killed, and the killings have spread to neighbouring Burundi.

Albinism, as anyone who has taken a high school science course knows, is the result of a single-gene mutation. When two recessive alleles are expressed in one individual, the skin does not produce melanin – the substance that gives skin its colour. Albinism among Europeans is rare enough, but not so dramatic when it happens. Among the dark-skinned population of southern Africa, an albino person is a stark contrast.

There is nothing at all in the recessive allele that grants any particular properties to the body parts of albino people. It regulates the expression of a particular protein sequence, that’s it. The same kind of properties that make my hair curly and black, whereas my neighbour’s is wavy and blonde, are the kinds of differences we are talking about. There’s no magic in it at all – certainly not anything that will affect your wealth or physical function.

The only real tangible side-effect of albinism that goes beyond simple difference in colour is that albinos are a target for kidnappers and murderers. This isn’t as a product of their skin, but as a product of a specific set of beliefs about their skin. Here’s a challenge for you readers: read a simple article on Mendelian genetic theory (like this one from the University of Arizona) until you feel like you have a general grasp of the idea. Now talk to a friend or family member who is not particularly “sciency”, and teach them the theory. I’d be surprised if it takes longer than 15 minutes for them to grasp the basics. Then, ask them if albinos are magic.

My point is that it is superficially easy to arm someone with enough basic scientific knowledge to know about single-gene mutations, and that they don’t grant magic powers. Trivially easy. Why are we not doing this in Africa, where what they don’t know is literally killing people?

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Superstition is not culture

I’m not sure where this blog is going. To be honest this started as a way to organize some of my thoughts on some issues that I think are important, and a way to comment on some of the stuff I saw going on around me. It always blows me away whenever a friend or acquaintance says to me “I read your blog” – I never really imagined that anyone would bother to read the random cognitive ejaculations that I put up on the internet on a regular basis, at least not beyond my Facebook friends who creep my profile in the morning. However, a handful of people who are complete strangers to me read this stuff, which is a head trip for me.

Another way you know that you’re making it as a blogger is when people start sending you links to blog about. So I must give a hat tip to Fred Bremmer (who is certainly not a stranger to me) for bringing this article to my attention:

There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.

What follows is a dissection and examination of a serious problem in any culture, but one that is particularly pronounced in the continent of Africa – the role that belief in spirits plays in the quality of life of the people there. Those of us who are aware of European and Western bias and colonial arrogance are often loath to criticize the practices in other countries. After all, who is to say our ways are better than theirs? Isn’t it sheer paternalism on our part to presume to criticize another culture’s practices? Maybe we have something to learn from other ways of doing things!

Unfortunately, this line of thinking has paralyzed into a kind of arch-liberal refusal to even appear to criticize dangerous practices:

Soothsayers demand money for their “powers,” like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he’ll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions. During the war in Congo, a soothsayer announced that you could be cured of HIV if you ate a pygmy. I visited a pygmy village where several men had “disappeared” as a result.

If your neighbour is about to feed his kids cyanide to “cleanse” them of “toxins”, is there really a virtue in standing aside and allowing him to do so out of some kind of misguided respect for his beliefs and his right to decide what is best for his kids? Should our oh-so-tolerant sensibilities extend to idly abetting murder? Of course not, and I can’t imagine any rational person suggesting otherwise. The debate is not, or at least should not be, about whether to intervene; it should be about how to intervene. Again from the article, contrast this approach:

Juliana Bernard is an ordinary young African woman who knew, from childhood, that claims of black magic and witchcraft were false and could be debunked. She told me: “If I can understand [germ theory], so can everybody else in this country. They are no different to me.” So she set up a group who traveled from village to village, offering the people a deal: For just one month, take these medicines and these vaccinations, and leave the “witches” alone to do whatever they want without persecution. See what happens. If people stop getting sick, you’ll know my theories about germs are right, and you can forget about the evil spirits.

Just this small dose of rationality—offered by one African to another—had revolutionary effects. Of course the superstitions didn’t vanish, but now they were contested, and the rationalist alternative had acquired passionate defenders in every community. I watched as village after village had vigorous debates, with the soothsayers suddenly having to justify themselves for the first time and facing accusations of being frauds and liars.

And this one:

On a trip to Tanzania, I saw one governmental campaign to stamp out the old beliefs in action when I went to visit a soothsayer deep in the forest. Eager to steer people toward real doctors for proper treatment—a good idea, but there are almost none in the area—the army had turned up that morning and smashed up her temple until it was rubble. She was sobbing and wailing in the wreckage. “My ancestors lived here, but now their spirits have been released into the air! They are homeless! They are lost!” she cried.

Once again, there is a clear right and wrong here – one of these approaches works and the other does not. If we, with the best of intentions, rush in to places and smash superstition to bits, we remove the symptom without addressing the cause. However, when rational discussion is allowed to take place, the dialogue and cultural understanding of these superstitions can change. This is not to say that we shouldn’t vigorously oppose superstition in its various guises or speak out against it whenever possible, but that mandating disbelief is just as dangerous as mandating belief.

This article is about Africa, but of course my response to it is not really. While I am concerned for my African brothers and sisters, I am not from Africa. I am from Canada, where our own particular brand of superstition rages apace. We can look to the African struggle against superstition as a model for our own (albeit down-scaled) problems here. Destroying the religious infrastructure is not only unethical, it is unproductive. What has to happen is that people are encouraged to think critically about all topics, and that the privilege that religion currently enjoys be removed.

Returning to Africa for a moment, I’m sure there are some bleeding hearts among my readers who are happy to decry my paternalism – who am I to pass judgment on another culture? I encourage you to read the following:

The final time I saw Juliana, she told me, “When I go to a village where an old woman has been hacked to pieces, should I say, ‘This is the African way, forget about it?’ I am an African. The murdered woman was an African. It is not our way. If you ignore this fact, you ignore us, and you ignore our struggle.”

It is equally paternalistic to say “well rationality and science are all well and good for us, but Africans should have to deal with superstition.” We have a moral duty to promote the truth as best we know it, and to instruct others in the use of tools that have been observed to work.

TL/DR: Those who fear being overly paternalistic when it comes to the superstitions present in other individuals and cultures risk being equally paternalistic on the other side when they ignore the consequences of doing nothing.

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Movie Friday: Race, The Power of an Illusion

Is race biological? Well… kind of. The external physical traits that we call race are biological, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that.

This is a really cool PBS series that someone on reddit brought to my attention. It’s Friday, so it’s a movie, but you can still learn something. I learned a bunch of stuff watching this.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

This is one of the reasons I like science. It has the power to allow people (in this case, high-school kids) to work through, challenge, and debunk “traditional” ideas that have no merit. It’s also why I think skeptics are so well-suited to this kind of discussion – we’re happy to follow an idea only so far as there is evidence for it. When it comes to race, there just isn’t sufficient evidence to support the stark differences we see in the population; we have to look at alternative explanations.

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Movie Friday: Spooooooky ghoooooosts!

Because it’s almost Hallowe’en, I thought I’d take a bit of a side-trip from my usual topics and talk about some good old-fashioned non-religious superstitious nonsense.

Yep, I’m talking about ghosts:

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Part 4/6
Part 5/6
Part 6/6

Many of you probably don’t know Derren Brown. I say this because up until a couple months ago I’d never heard of him either. Maybe you’ve all heard of him and I’m just a nincompoop. Whatever the story, Derren is a British skeptic who has taken up the mantle of James Randi and who shows how so-called “supernatural” phenomena are actually (and without exception) easily explained as either cons, tricks, or other misinterpretation of natural phenomena. In this particular episode, he’s following around self-proclaimed “ghost busters” who claim to be able to detect and communicate with dead people.

Of course, the idea of ghosts presupposes that there is a soul that is distinct from the body, that this soul can take on semi-corporeal form after the body dies, and that this semi-corporeal form sticks around to move around pots and pans and fuck with recording devices. Throw some religious mumbo-jumbo into the mix and you’ve got a party. The “exorcist” priest in part 3 spells it right out:

“Sometimes he has people who can really do with a good psychiatrist; and then he’s got the people who have got the explainable happening inside their homes, and that’s when he calls me.”

Yep, when something happens that you can’t explain, don’t bother looking for evidence. Call a priest! He’ll give you all the “explanations” you could ever want. Pretty weird how Christian people are always possessed by Christian demons. Just once I want to see a Muslim demon, or a voodoo demon, or even a deist secular humanist demon. Oddly though, they all seem to be susceptible to prayers from the belief system of the “possessed” person. Also kind of weird that God just sits on his ass and doesn’t do anything to help the “possessed” until some chubby guy with a dubious relic and a bunch of rituals comes into the picture, then all of a sudden he’s your best pal, driving out all the demons.

The larger point to be drawn here is the same one I brought up yesterday, which is that when we let our imaginations run wild, and use arguments from ignorance to explain real-life phenomena we don’t fully understand, we end up believing absolutely absurd shit, like ghosts. Of course when we throw religion into the mix, we get people believing in ghosts and demons and evil spirits. It’s really not that challenging to explain, as long as we’re willing to set aside kid’s stories and look for evidence.

None of the people in these videos are particularly stupid, I’m sure, at least not relatively to the general population. However, when we adopt an attitude of “well maybe it’s true” rather than “well maybe it’s false”, we end up giving license to the most ridiculous ideas our brains can come up with. It is for this reason that it’s a good idea to be skeptical.

Then again, if we’re too skeptical, we might miss out on meeting Gozer:

Happy Hallowe’en!

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Special Feature: I speak at New Bright Lights

Welcome Pharyngulites and redditors! Please make sure to check out the preamble to this post before watching the videos.

Many of you are probably aware that I was invited to speak about race, racism and its relevance to the skeptical movement at the beginning of the month. The event was part of a lecture series under the name New Bright Lights (I’d provide a link, but there’s no homepage), in which speakers on a variety of topics are invited to discuss their subject of expertise.

I was a bit nervous to participate in this event, for a few reasons. I am not now, nor have I ever been, afraid to speak in public. However, I am not an expert with a strong academic background in issues of race. I am a relative newcomer, despite the fact that the issues have been of particular relevance to me my whole life. In addition, there is a lot of information that an audience needs to be equipped with before most of this content can be understood. Part of my reason for starting this blog was in response to repeated requests from friends for more clarification on issues they hadn’t discussed before for fear of being labeled as bigots.

I am glad that I decided to participate, however. It forced me to re-tool my blog content for a different method of delivery, and helped me clarify a few issues in my own mind about how my life as a skeptic is not divorced from my life as an anti-racist. Jason Harmer at New Bright Lights was gracious enough to fast-track the video production for me so that I could put it up for you. A few caevats before you watch though:

  1. I am reading from a script in order to avoid the usual “um” and “err” problem, and to keep the presentation timely, so that’s why I spend so much time looking down.
  2. I do have Powerpoint slides, which I am making available here. It’s probably easier to play the video in the background and watch the slide show, since I don’t do anything particularly entertaining besides stand there and talk. The audio should suffice.
  3. You’ll notice that the audio cuts out at various places during parts 1 and 2. This is not an issue of video quality – I have removed the names of people whose stories I told. None of the stories are offensive or make people look bad, but they are my friends and I respect their right to privacy – especially since I didn’t ask permission first.
  4. As I said in my post a couple weeks ago, I think I concentrated too much on issues of black and white people, largely missing the rich context of non-black/white conflict. Please do not interpret this as a trivialization of these issues, merely the fact that I am not nearly as familiar with them.

So without any further delay, here are the videos:

Feedback is, as always, appreciated.

Movie Friday: 8 out of 10 Cats

Sometimes I wish we had more access to British guiz/game shows. It seems like they have way more fun on theirs than we do on ours.

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Part 3/3

Yes, that really is Uri Geller, amazing spoon-bender who has been debunked publicly several times, not the least of which was on the Johnny Carson show. And yet, people are willing to believe he can do crazy shit like make spoons jump across the room.

The host and guests get in some amazing zingers at Uri’s expense:

  • “If you believe in ghosts, go ‘oooooooh'”
  • “This is one of the biggest benders in the world here”
  • Pretty much the entire first half of the 3rd clip

Uri does a pretty decent job of mocking himself though:

  • Host: What do you think people find scary? Uri: Waking up in the morning and seeing your spouse
  • “It’s awful to be attacked by spoons”
  • “Did you know that the first spoon ever found was in the pyramids?

I also still love Tim Minchin. Also, the line “the worst part about being bitten by a poisonous spider is that you’re probably Australian.” Burn.

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Movie Friday: Neil DeGrasse Tyson on UFOs

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is probably my favourite public figure in the sciences. No disrespect to Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Bill Nye, Lawrence Krauss, or any of the other multitude of famous scientists out there fighting the good fight for public education in science and skepticism, but I will always carry a torch for Neil. He’s a charismatic, animated, and engaging speaker who is happy to be in the limelight, without being so academic as to turn non-scientists away from the information.

Since I talked about the argument from ignorance earlier this week, I thought I’d share with you Dr. Tyson’s thoughts:

Whoops, wrong video… here it is:

This guy should be teaching science in every classroom in the world. He tears down the mystique about the scientific method and why it works better than the other ways we try to discern truth (divine revelation, hunches, common sense…).

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Update: Harper government actually stands up for science… wha?

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of our current Federal government. They are decidedly opposed to any use of science in decision-making, preferring instead to appeal to ideologies rather than reality. The study of science and logical positivism make you, on average, more liberal than conservative – preferring to side with what works rather than stapling yourself to what you agree with. As Stephen Colbert so succinctly put it, “Reality, as you know, has a strong liberal bias.”

That’s why I was shocked to read this news story:

The Canadian government will not fund a clinical trial of the so-called liberation therapy for multiple sclerosis at this time, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says. Aglukkaq spoke to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, a day after a panel of North American experts announced they unanimously recommended against supporting a clinical trial of the treatment in Canada as yet. Aglukkaq commissioned the expert panel’s report from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which funds medical research, and the MS Society of Canada. “I feel the most prudent course of action at this time is to accept the recommendation of the country’s leading researchers,” Aglukkaq told a news conference (emphasis mine).

Did I say shocked? I should have said ‘floored and rended into a state of utter disbelief’. The Harper government (so called because he calls the shots, and everyone else runs his plays) actually relying on the expertise of people who know what they’re talking about? Surely I must be hallucinating. Particularly from a party that talks a big game about letting people make their own decisions, regardless of how unwise those decisions may be (a view apparently shared by my “nemesis”).

I’ve been skeptical of this ‘liberation therapy’ since it was first announced. My skepticism isn’t merely because it’s a stark departure from accepted practice, but because as a person who works in and is trained in health research, I recognize that many times these ‘radical’ approaches fail to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. A panel of experts recommended against CIHR fast-tracking large-scale clinical trials until smaller, well-controlled trials showed a benefit to the treatment. This is simple pragmatism to anyone in the health research community – it’s not a good idea to experiment on a large group of people unless you are reasonably sure they will actually benefit from it. Ethics boards actually demand this exact type of rigour before allowing research to go through. I am hopeful and optimistic that this treatment could potentially make a positive impact in the lives of people suffering from a horrible disease, but I temper my optimism with skepticism to say that I won’t advocate its use until we know for sure if it works or not.

So the Harper government thinks we should listen to the experts, and make our decisions based on that. Could this be a sign that they’re not as anti-science and ideological as I thought?

No, it’s not:

An RCMP report that evaluates the long-gun registry as cost-effective, efficient and an important tool for public safety hasn’t changed the mind of the Conservative MP behind a bill to scrap the registry. In an interview Tuesday on CBC TV’s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon, Candice Hoeppner says the report told her nothing new. “My position remains steadfast as does our party’s position,” she said. “We believe the long-gun registry needs to end. As legislators, that’s our job, to look at policy, to decide what’s in the best interests of Canadians and make those decisions. So, nothing has changed.”

So instead of experts using their training and experience to help decide what’s the best use of public funds to protect the lives and property of Canadians, Ms. Hoeppner thinks that political appointees are better suited to do it. Political appointees, I’ll add, that have no experience or training in anything other than politics. Even conservatives will have to agree that if someone’s going to be making our decisions for us, it would be better if they actually knew what they were talking about.

Then again, maybe they don’t have to agree at all:

An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal slams the federal government for its efforts to shut down Insite in downtown Vancouver, Canada’s only safe injection site for drug addicts… The paper points out that soon after it was elected, the Conservative government removed harm reduction as one of the four pillars of its National Anti-Drug Strategy. The four-pillar strategy, endorsed by the World Health Organization also includes treatment, enforcement and prevention.

I mean, just because a bunch of eggheads who have spent years of their lives studying the problem and potential solutions doesn’t mean that they know what they’re talking about, or that you should listen to them. It definitely doesn’t mean you should accept the evidence that’s right in front of your face.

No wait, that’s exactly what it means.

Movie Friday: James Randi at TED

There’s maybe 5 of you who read this blog who don’t know who James Randi is. This explanation is for those of you who think he’s just a guy with really high pants (really high pants… WTF James?) James “The Amazing” Randi is a former magician who has devoted his life to promoting rationality and exposing claims of supernatural ability. He has an educational foundation that, among many other things, offers a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate their supernatural abilities under controlled conditions. So far, no takers.

But since I talked about what we did with John Edward, pseudo-psychic vampire ghoul fraud, when he visited Vancouver last week, I thought I’d show you some of James:

For fun, he also takes on homeopathy. CFI Vancouver is starting to talk about how we can address the issue of homeopathy being sold as real medicine in the coming weeks.

So there you go, you 5 people. The Amazing Randi.

Okay, okay, okay, let’s see Randi bust some asshole in front of a live studio audience: