Election 2016: Where to begin?

Like many of you, I spent the days after the election in a sort of shocked silence.  Wasn’t this the year the US should have elected its first female president?  Weren’t we supposed to keep progressing?

But no.  Instead of celebrating, I keep wondering what sort of legacy the 45th president of the US will leave: some horrific combination of Andrew Johnson’s racism with Herbert Hoover’s disastrous economic policies, perhaps?

Of course, I’m angry.  I’m angry at the outcome of the vote.  I’m angry at those who keep chanting the “it’s okay, we’ll all be fine, let’s all just get along” line.  I’m angry at those who call out people protesting the election of someone who represents a worldview that fundamentally devalues their humanity.  We need to be angry.  And we need to voice our anger.

We need more voices speaking out about the effects of this travesty of an election.  More voices like Caine’s over at Affinity, covering the aftermath.

More voices calling out the implications of what a vote for a bigot is: an act of bigotry.  As John Scalzi wrote the day after the election, ” If you vote for a bigot who has bigoted plans, you need to be aware of what that says about you, and your complicity in those plans.”

More warning voices.  Jean Kazez noted some of her fears the day before the election in a post in which she asks “what are the worst things about a Trump future?”  Alas, we may know first-hand.

More voices keeping us focused on what is at stake, such as Clinton’s: “And to all the little girls watching right now, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.”

I’ll close with a link to a post by Alix Jules, “10 Ways My White Friends Can Help Fight Racism.”  Though I’ve seen many white friends and acquaintances on social media sites unfriend and block those who voted for Trump, I think they’d do well to follow Jules’ advice not to do so: “But how are you going to change their minds, even if just a little, if you’ve cut ties.”

So I won’t cut ties.  Instead, I’ll question.  I’ll amplify others’ questions.

It’s time to become a gadfly.

From the Archive: A Disclaimer about Disclaimers

I’m reposting some of the content from my site, Freethinking Ahead, as part of the transition to this blog.  Here’s a post from May 2015 about the purposes of disclaimers before talks.

A recent local secular humanist group function featured a talk on a subject contentious in both religious and secular circles. Before this talk, the group leader who introduced the speaker gave the standard “speakers views do not reflect the organization’s views” disclaimer. The speaker, who often gives presentations at churches about this and similar subjects, followed by expanding on the sorts of disclaimers these talks have been subject to: disclaimers sometimes accompanied by church leaders standing near the speaker for emphasis.

There is something that “goes without saying” in situations such as churches bringing in speakers that so obviously differ with religious doctrine. The audience, we’d assume, would know already that a secular humanist’s views necessarily conflict with those of Christians. Likewise, in freethought organizations, we’d also assume that given the premise of freethought—that we should weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves—we shouldn’t need a preamble to talks stating that the views don’t represent those of the group.

All this raises a question: if it’s clear to us that a speaker doesn’t represent the organization’s views, why do we need disclaimers? What work are they doing?

We typically view disclaimers as applicable to tendentious topics, often ones that can be cast in a negative light by one party or another. Disclaimers appear on television and radio stations before infomercials and programs that air unpopular opinions. For the most part, we don’t want or need whatever the infomercials try to sell us. We don’t agree with the conspiracy theories that may be promulgated by certain radio shows. Disclaimers warn us: this probably isn’t worth your time.

Except that the very fact that the media are presenting these programs means that they find something useful—positive, even—in what they’re warning us against. Granted, in the negative examples I’ve given, the rewards for the media are monetary, either directly as in the case of infomercials or through ad revenue generated by popular contentious radio programs. But this sense of something to be gained holds true for the speakers who challenge or even threaten the tenets of the organizations that allow them to speak.

By allowing the speaker an audience, the organization implies that the topic at hand is one worthy of discussion. In the case of arguments against doctrine, bringing in a speaker may be done with the intention of learning more about the other side in order to better argue against it. And yet, the idea that the argument is one worth having in the first place gives at least a little credence to the other side. In this way, the disclaimer may be an attempt to soften this credit, but it can’t negate it outright.

So should we continue using disclaimers? I think so: they’re a handy shortcut for letting us know what to expect in certain situations. Television station management, for instance, doesn’t necessarily think we should all rush out and buy whatever is flogged in the infomercials—they should provide the disclaimer in cases where not doing so would indicate outright endorsement. A disclaimer is absolutely warranted in this case. That said, we shouldn’t hide behind them. Disclaimers are useful as informative tools, but they can’t absolve us from allowing messages to go out from sources we disagree with on our platforms, even if we do repudiate them.

Which leads me to ask, is this what was happening at the secular humanist gathering? We value exposure to evidence, even if that evidence later proves to be less useful than the one who exposes us to it would like to lead us to believe. In this case, I think two things prompted with the disclaimer: one, that anyone unfamiliar with the functions would be assured that we’re not a homogenous group that holds to all the opinions presented at our functions and, more importantly, two, that we’re up for the challenge of difficult subjects. We’re a pluralistic group. As much as we’re happy to agree on a lot of topics—the need for community, the importance of service, and so on—we’re not going to agree on everything. The talk was not, as is the case with religious groups, followed by a “why this is wrong” talk outlining some sort of doctrine. The disclaimer in this case serves to remind us: the leadership trusts us to make up our own minds on this. We wouldn’t belong to the group, I’m certain, if that weren’t the case.

Reading Group: Upcoming Selections

For November, I’d like to start with Binti, Nnedi Okorafor’s Nebula Award winning novella.

And here are selections for upcoming months:

  • December: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
  • January: Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist, by Lola Robles and translated by Lawrence Schimel.  I haven’t read this one yet, though I’ve enjoyed the other titles I’ve read from the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces series.

Thanks to everyone who made a recommendation.  I’m looking at other titles for February and beyond, and I hope to have the other recommendations slated soon.  Please feel free to post other recommendations here.

I’ll have the discussion post up toward the end of the month.

Free Climate Change Fiction Anthology from Arizona State University

Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, published by Arizona State University’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative, is available here to download for free.

From the ASU ICFI website: “Everything Change features twelve stories from our 2016 Climate Fiction Short Story Contest along with along with a foreword by science fiction legend and contest judge Kim Stanley Robinson and an interview with renowned climate fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi.”

Cookies, College, and Conservatism?

As a native Texan, I’m both hopeful for the future of my currently thoroughly red state and, alas, consistently reminded of its deep, ornery redness.  Hopeful that, as NPR reports, if Texas isn’t on the path toward blue statehood, then a bit of purpling could, possibly, happen here.  And then, some folks hold a bake sale to try to make a point.  From the Texas Tribune:

The campus branch of the Young Conservatives of Texas hosted the bake sale — in which prices varied depending on the buyer’s race and gender — to draw attention to affirmative action, which the event’s organizers said “demeans minorities on our campus by placing labels of race and gender on their accomplishments.”

The group’s actions were called out by both protests by their fellow students and a statement from UT Austin administration.

What’s particularly troubling to me is the equivalency the YCT (perhaps inadvertently) makes by comparing college admission to buying a cookie.   And the comparison between them fails, regardless.  The application for UT Austin involves considerable effort on top of years of academic and extra-curricular preparation in high school.  And then, there are no guarantees for admission.  Want to buy a cookie instead?  Walk right up, no preparation needed.

That said, if you can draw a parallel, in the scope of your own life, between the potentially far-reaching effects of attending a flagship state university with a one-off decision between chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin, the you’ve probably got a lot more privilege going for you than you realize….

One can hope that spending time in the blue enclave that is Austin will give these students some perspective.

Are We Living in a Simulated Universe or Are We Reaching for a Simulated Religion?

A recent article in The Guardian reported some scientists’ beliefs that we may, like the folks in The Matrix, be living in a simulated universe. A couple ideas put forth by one of those scientists as reported in the article were, for me as a freethinker, particularly troubling.

One idea tendered in the article appears to support a sort of creationism: “That we might be in a simulation is, [NASA JPL scientist Rich] Terrile argues, a simpler explanation for our existence than the idea that we are the first generation to rise up from primordial ooze and evolve into molecules, biology and eventually intelligence and self-awareness.” While I won’t assume that Terrile himself subscribes to creationism per se (and a previous quote of his in the article refutes the need for supernatural involvement for this simulation to be possible) , I do think that the lay reader could easily walk away from the article with the idea that creationism can be easily supported by current science.

Further, the possibility that we’re living in a simulation “provides a scientific basis for some kind of afterlife or larger domain of reality above our world. ‘You don’t need a miracle, faith or anything special to believe it. It comes naturally out of the laws of physics,’ [Terrile] said.” Again, the same problem as before: the lay reader may presume that “heaven” as conceived by various religions is an idea supported by mainstream science.

To its credit, the article does provide quotes from other scientists refuting these claims. But will the reader seeking justification for believing in an afterlife and a creator take these as seriously as the quotes above? And if we do accept that we may be living in a simulation, should we view the “advanced humans” who may have created it any differently from gods? Human-generated technology will, one hopes, continue to move forward. If we (even inadvertently) deify those who create and have access to it, don’t we strip away some of the humanity that we have in common with those who live in that future?

Reading Group: November Selection

As I mentioned in my intro post, I’d like to get a monthly reading group started at Freethinking Ahead.  Please post your recommendations in the comments below.

A few things to note:

  1. Given the focus of this blog, we’ll stick primarily to science fiction, though I’m open to works of non-fiction as well as poetry collections.
  2. I’d like to balance contemporary and classic works.
  3.  Anything that is blatantly grounded in negative -isms (sexism, racism, etc.) is out.
  4. If you’d like to recommend something that is out of print, go ahead.  Just post something to let us know that’s the case.
  5.  Recommendations for novella and novelette length works are welcome.  If you’d like to recommend something longer, I may run with it for a few months out.

I’ll have November’s selection posted by the first of the month.

Freethinking Ahead: A Quick Intro

Greetings, y’all. I’m T.D. Walker, and I’m delighted to be a part of the Freethought Blogs network. I’ve been blogging at my website, Freethinking Ahead, for a few years now, and my intention as I transition the blog is to implement and continue some of the projects I planned for that site here.

About Freethinking Ahead

My primary aim for this blog is summarized in its tagline: science fiction, feminism, and freethought. Many of us freethinkers are science fiction (hereafter SF) fans, and many of us have been influenced by SF. But I also think there’s much to be explored in the way our secularism influences our reading of the genre in turn. Such explorations should also examine the way we view issues of gender, class, race, and so on as well.

To that end, I’m planning on a few projects for Freethinking Ahead:

  • Q&As with Secular SF Authors, Editors, and Fans: How has reading and watching SF been influential to atheists? And how does their atheism affect their consumption (and creation as the case may be) of SF?
  • Reflections on SF: Reading SF can act as a sort of thought experiment, giving us ground as readers to explore social issues. What can we, as secular readers (or viewers, depending on the media), get out of classic and contemporary SF, aside from appreciating the story as a story?
  • Recommended Readings: Essays, articles, and SF from around the web.
  • Reading Group: Good blogs should foster dialog on their subjects. I’d like to start a monthly “reading group” series to discuss some of the above questions with regard to SF novels, non-fiction books, and if folks are interested short story and poetry collections. I’m happy to take recommendations for books, and I’ll create another post for that.

I’ll post more about each in the coming days.

About Me

And a few words about myself. I’ve been an atheist for over two decades now, and more recently, I’ve become more concerned about how I can be a better secular humanist and freethinker. For the past few years, I’ve been active in local and national secular groups as an organizer, writer, and volunteer.

Reading science fiction played an integral part in shaping my worldview–I credit SF classics such as Childhood’s End, Clarke’s novel featuring peaceful aliens with a demonic appearance, for helping me work through the questions I’d had about religion as a young teenager. And I find that coming back to SF is useful in exploring questions I have about society as it has been, as it is, and as it could be.

After finishing a PhD in English several years ago, I worked as a software developer (as one does), which has given me both a good grounding in the humanities and technology.

A few years ago, I began writing SF as well, and I have poems, stories, and essays published in various venues. And I’m delighted to be able to continue the sort of writing I’ve done elsewhere that has focused on SF here in the Freethought Blogs network.