My favourite definition of liberalism

Joel Feinberg, in his stunning Harm to Others (Volume 1 of his four volume The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law), provides a definition of liberalism I can strongly identify with.

We can define liberalism in respect to the subject matter of this work as the view that the harm and offense principles, duly clarified and qualified, between them exhaust the class of morally relevant reasons for criminal prohibitions. Paternalistic and moralistic considerations, when introduced as support for penal legislation, have no weight at all. (p. 14)

Feinberg then spends the next few thousand pages, over the course of four books, defending this view, with his usual collection of nuance, topical examples and thoughtfulness.

I don’t often associate with labels or principles – but, if forced to, I’d called myself a liberal in this, specific sense; it would only be of the Feinberg variety (which is a kind of modern, refined Millian take).

Feingberg doesn’t think criminal law is or should be entirely premised on “harm” as Mill and most others understand it; but he doesn’t think it should be based on other things either that are common, such as offence, immorality (loosely defined), and so on. He wants substanial proof that an act is actually harmful and in a significant way, before asking for criminal prosecution; indeed, even then, Feinberg says we should look for alternatives to prosecution and incarceration, if such alternatives exist and are demonstrably more effective.

We shouldn’t be defaulting to criminal responses and punishment, since we do that too often and can do too much and hurt too many. Indeed, as Feinberg highlights, this could itself be immoral: a good example is criminalising marijuana (and indeed most drugs) possession, which creates more harm as a response than the initial crime.

Žižek on that fake interpreter

No doubt you’ve read all about the fake interpreter at Mandela’s memorial service: standing only metres away from some of the world’s leaders, people soon realised the man was signing nonsense, not language. The story then got stranger, as it was discovered that the interpreter suffers from mental illness and has a history of alleged violence.

I’m not sure what to make of it, or the weirdness of official responses and disappearances of the organisation that hired him. However, in seeking to make sense of things, I know not to rely on Slavoj Žižek. The Slovenian philosopher has used this case as a way to pen an article on… something.

In case you’re unaware of him, I recommend reading a 2007 article by Johann Hari on a titular film of the man. As Hari says in the New Statesman:

[Žižek] seemed to emerge fully formed from the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia with an eclectic magpie-philosophy, rapidly spewing out books and essays on everything from opera to the use of torture in the TV series 24. Zizek [sic] is the biggest box-office draw postmodernists have ever had, their best punch at the bestseller lists. The press fawns upon him; he has been called an “intellectual rock star”; and, according to a recent profile in the New Yorker, Slovenia has a “reputation disproportionately large for its size due to the work of Slavoj Zizek [sic]”.

However, all this stardom and fawning seems undeserved, assuming engagement with reality as a prerequisite for a public intellectual. Hari continues:

What does Slavoj Zizek believe? What does he argue for? Such obvious questions are considered vulgar among postmodernists. When you first look through the more than 50 books he has written, it is almost impossible to find an answer. It seems he seeks to splice Karl Marx with the notoriously incomprehensible French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, slathering on top an infinite number of pop-cultural references.

His defenders claim he is trying to stretch the scope of philosophy to cover the everyday flotsam that philosophers have hitherto ignored. But gradually, as you pore through Zizek’s words or watch his audiences, whose bemusement is caught on film, you discover that the complex manner in which he expresses himself does not imply that his thought is itself subtle or complex. In fact, he seeks to revive a murderous and discredited ideology [Leninism/Bolshevism].”

Even in a strangely favourable review of the film in (the otherwise excellent) Philosophy Now, Grant Bartley writes: [Žižek’s] writing suffers from the common philosopher’s disease of confusing simplicity of expression with stupidity of thought.”

Not mincing words, Noam Chomsky recently said:

Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it.

Back to Žižek’s piece on the interpreter: I can’t make sense of it.

It begins in a clear way that outlines the situation of Thamsanqa Jantjie, the interpreter. But then Žižek goes on to indicate something about how Jantjie’s incomprehensible gestures were – or were not? – meaningful because everything being said was – or wasn’t? – meaningful. Here, have a look at what Žižek says:

Jantjie’s performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning.

Later he says, without justification or evidence that:

Jantjie’s gesticulations generated such an uncanny effect once it became clear that they were meaningless: what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

Why? Because we are displaying or performing… I think? I don’t really know. I think he’s trying to say that most of the memorial was a performance – from leaders paying respects, celebrities showing their human faces, etc. – but only Jantjie’s was the one that struck us, even though it was as meaningless as the rest of it.

OK. But, that’s barely even worthy of a Tweet, presuming that it is indeed Žižek’s point.

If we’re using Jantjie as a measure of comparison, then Žižek’s output is itself the embodiment of a meaningless performance people are tricked into believing is conveying significance. I say this as having tried numerous times to read his books, his articles and watch his lectures. He himself admits in the film Žižek! that it’s all a performance, one that he needs to keep up lest someone see the emperor’s nakedness.

I dislike comments asking “Why was this written?” but I hope I’ve shown that I’m asking this from a position where I’ve genuinely attempted to understand Žižek’s point. And, if what I think is his point is the one I highlighted above, I don’t see why it matters that much, could not have been said in a simpler way, or why it required an entire article do so – let alone that it’s buried amid assertions dressed to look like argument. All the veils of words he waves around his empty ideas make it difficult to realise that there is little substance beneath them; he is a self-admitted performer after all.

The fake interpeter, Mr Jantie, however, doesn’t have a fawning audience who are quick to assert that his meaningless gestures actually have substance: apparently you need a PhD to do that.

Try that next time, Mr Jantjie. It appears to work for Žižek.

UPDATED: To add Jantjie’s suffering from mental illness (it’s in the linked article but better put it here for clarity’s sake). HT to reader John Morales.

Attention whores deserve internet abuse… because reasons

Ophelia points out this excellent coverage of a horrible story. Ophelia summarises:

Lena Chen, as a freshman at Harvard, started a blog called Sex and the Ivy, where she wrote about her hookups, self-medication with alcohol, recovery from an eating disorder and crushing desire to be liked. All standard stuff for a college student. But then an ex-boyfriend posted naked pictures of her on the Internet.

Writes Claire Gordon in Al Jazeera:

“For some, this was righteous comeuppance for the campus harlot. For others it was just great gossip. Classmates and other titillated parties reposted the images around the Web, and comment threads exploded with colorful debate.”

Ophelia comments: “You know the kind of thing. Ugly, whore, disgusting, blah.”

Read the rest at Ophelia’s blog.

What struck me while reading the story on Al-Jazeera’s site was this delightful comment, which appears conjured from the streams of idiocy the article highlights and proves Lewis’ Law.

ughIt says:

“So let me get this straight… some chick posts about her intimate affairs online for everyone to see, takes nude pics of herself, and is then surprised when all of that blows up in her face? Cry more, over privileged dimwit. There is a word for people who behave this way, “attention whore”. Grow up and take responsibility for your own careless actions. If people who read your revealing blog, and view pictures that you took of yourself naked have the opinion that you are a “skank”, or anything else you find offensive, that is their opinion, and you put yourself out there to be judged. Deal with it.”

Victim-blame much?

So women, listen up: According to Lord Davidson, Minister of Internet Manners and Behaviour, you may not post anything about your intimate affairs, take nude pics and expect decent treatment as an adult. Surprisingly, Mr Davidson might discover that plenty of adults do this everyday and are responded to without horrific treatment as if they’re pariahs on society half-a-beat away from eating children. Instead, they’re ignored, respected, or treated in any number of ways that does not undermine their capacity to be part of human society.

What I “expect” is for adults to treat other adults in ways that align to decency and respect, unless they’ve done something worthy of no respect – such as murder or rape. No case is made or has been made to show that naked people, proudly sexual people and so forth deserve such horrific treatment.

As always I don’t understand what’s wrong with “whore” or “slut”: I’m not asking people to adopt these terms, only asking those who use them negatively to explain what’s wrong with behaviour that makes you namecall such people using these terms.

Oh no: A woman really likes having sex consensually with lots of people? Hellfire, brimstone, lakes of blood, dogs marrying cats! A person consensually exchanges money for sexual favours? Bring forth the torches and oil!

The victim-blaming is terrible, as always. No focus is given to the fact that she doesn’t deserve such comments. But what’s always “intrigued” me about such comments is how the victim-blamer expects the victim to control responses: what powers do they think women have to control the entire Internet in its treatment of women? Women have to just exist and make their presence known to be treated this way: adding the sexual element only gives them an added element.

My friend Caroline Criado-Perez fought to create more sex diversity on British bank-notes – and for that, she was treated in the most horrific ways: rape and death threats.

Would Mr Victim Blamer say: “Oh well what did she expect, campaigning for equal treatment and representation?” If he would not, what makes sex get a free moral pass to turn adults into lecherous monsters?

Either women have no power and so must be controlled or they appear to have infinite power in managing the responses of all the world, since they “bring it on themselves”.

I hate knowing that it appears to be mostly men saying and doing these things. It makes me ashamed to have any even vaguely similar characteristic to such people. But, disgustingly, it also makes me glad I’m not a woman on the Internet. I don’t think I’m strong enough to withstand such treatment.

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On leaving the “online atheism” community

My friend from “down under”, Martin Pribble, wrote a short post – that has been reworked for Slate – on why he’s “quitting the online atheism community”. Quoting from the Slate piece:

For the last five years I have considered myself an “activist atheist.” I trolled Facebook and Twitter for theists and told them why they are wrong. I made fun of them for their unreasonable beliefs. I would analyze and nitpick their statements, show examples of just where they went wrong and why, and even at times ridicule them when there seemed to be no option left, all in the vain hope that I might be able to sway them to a more rational way of viewing the world and the universe. This could be extremely satisfying, and sometimes I found I could even come to a level of agreement with a believer about the realities of life. I even have friends among my Twitter following who are priests and strong Christians.

But I’m through with it, and I no longer want to be part of the online atheist “community.” What I was once a proud member of, a group who fought against the evils of deliberate misinformation coming from religious groups and people, has become, at least on the surface, a parade of contradiction and caterwauling against theists who have no clue that there could be an alternate viewpoint or understanding of the universe than their own. The times of satisfaction are outweighed by feelings of frustration and hopelessness.

Through the piece, Martin details his frustrations with “debates with theists who make a ludicrous claim, then base their evidence on the very book from which their ludicrous claim originates.” This is because, says Martin, “Faith overrides knowledge and truth in any situation, so arguing with a theist is akin to banging your head against a brick wall: You will injure yourself and achieve little.”

I don’t dispute that and it’s one reason I stopped doing “it” some time ago, at least on this level. I don’t consider what I do entirely comprised of “atheist activism” or “online atheism” – I am part of a blog network comprised of nonbelievers but almost no one here is devoted solely to Bible criticism or undermining religious claims wherever they may sprout. Indeed, for my part, most of what I write on isn’t premised on whether it’s religious madness but just general immoral actions or thoughts.

Martin seems to take this course, too:

“This will not change an awful lot in what I do online. But I think I’ve come to a point where I am only injuring myself if I were to continue engaging in theistic debating about things like the efficacy of the Noah’s Ark story. If someone is espousing beliefs that are actively harmful—i.e., promoting intolerance based on belief systems—expect me to be the first to stand up and say something. I can’t allow this kind of thinking, and if I can help it, I will move to sway the believer into rethinking their position. But this will be done with reason and rational discourse, not with contradicting the finer points of the religious texts.”

However, I’m struggling to understand Martin’s point: Who says online atheism is about debating or “contradicting finer points of religious texts”? Who says it has to be about knowing religious doctrine and theology and focusing on inconsistencies that even most believers wouldn’t know or care about? As I say, I don’t consider what I do atheist activism, but it makes no sense to say that the whole enterprise is not worth engaging because of what appears to be a small – and frustrating – part of it.

Martin also equates atheist activism with online atheism, which is probably unhelpful, since activism exists in multiple formats including online blogging and “real life” protests. Indeed, speaking only of “online atheism”, it can be comprised of engaging in science, morality, politics, history; about argument and evidence. To shrink it down to the worst elements and claim you’re abandoning the whole project is not only fallacious but untrue: Martin himself is not giving up writing about harmful beliefs and articulating bad ideas. He’s just reasonably giving up the part that appears most pointless. And who would disagree?

Martin is an excellent writer and a generally thoughtful blogger. However, I don’t quite understand the point of this piece, who it is aimed at, or what he was trying to achieve by writing it. No one would dispute the frustrations he’s experienced and that his continued efforts are more important in those areas actually harmful (not boring Bible studies and theology); his declaration itself highlights even the importance of the parts he finds frustrating, despite himself giving them up; and it seems unnecessary and fallacious to dismiss the entire enterprise, when online atheism or atheist activism is compromised of a variety of enterprises and disciplines – each of different levels of interest, successes, frustration, etc.


Reader challenge: Make an argument for banning topless women in public

Can someone offer a good, justified argument for why men can be topless in more public places than women?

For example, all can be topless at home, on nude beaches; women may be “topless” in public when breast-feeding (kind of), and so on. But I’m looking to see if there’s not a double-standard that allows men to be topless but not women in more places. If so, what are good reasons for creating laws around women being topless but not men.

I’ll offer some thoughts after, but I’d really like either links or original arguments. I can’t find any that are satisfactory (or perhaps my Googling abilities are not as high as yours).

Remember: I’m not looking for descriptive reasons (it exists because people will be offended). I’m looking for justified arguments that will make me and anyone else agree (it exists because topless women give people heart attacks).

Misconceptions about gaming by non-gaming people

IGN Africa recently launched and I contributed a thinkery piece about misconceptions about games.

I examine common claims like it’s only for kids, it’s not art, etc. The claims are, of course, largely – if not totally – wrong.

It annoys me to no end that because a work is a video game it’s assumed to be unable to, for example, tell an incredible story, have amazing performances, or allow for moments of the numinous that are essential to all forms of creativity.

Mandela and atheist deathbed conversions

I’m still recovering from (minor) surgery, but I saw some mention of Mandela and atheism being floated around (my limited access to Internet is an additional hindrance to accessing information, along with my limited consciousness). However, thankfully, Jacques Rousseau has done a great job in tackling this subject.

In asserting that Mr Mandela’s “atheism” is another reason to celebrate his life, The Freethinker magazine (and, presumably, those who, like Richard Dawkins, retweeted the story in question) seem to be exploiting… “borrowed interest”, but which you might know better as simple opportunistic exploitation of largely irrelevant details about someone’s life.

I say largely irrelevant, because Mandela’s role involved highlighting what we have in common, rather than our differences and antagonisms. If any of the labels we use to describe religion and related issues could fit, the one that would have the best chance would be humanism, because his relationship to the citizens of the world seemed to transcend the quite limited boundaries offered by religion and its explicit opponent, atheism. The focus in religion vs. atheism is on difference, rather than commonality, and hardly seems either a good fit or a fitting thing to bring up while people are still mourning Mandela’s death. It’s crass, and opportunistic.

Furthermore, it also seems largely a fabrication, or at least a fantasy, that he was an atheist at all. The “evidence” offered in The Freethinker consists solely of a birthday wish to Mandela from a South African atheist, urging Mandela to “come out” as an atheist. In another piece, it’s asserted that “the other [after Andrei Sakharov] great moral atheist leader of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela”, but we’re given no reason to believe this assertion to be true.

Jacques’ final paragraph in the post is also important, concerning double-standards when it comes to nonbelievers claiming great people as “their own”.

Guys in dark alleys shouldn’t get upset if women fear them

I wouldn’t blame a strange woman if she was unnerved by me, a lone guy, if she and I were the only ones walking in a dark alley. I call this the Creepy Default.

This has happened twice, but I was the one unnerved due to doing everything I could not to be creepy (my cane doesn’t help, I suppose). Neither time did the woman walk faster or even appear to notice, but I was flustered.

When I told my friend this, she got upset. She said I wouldn’t hurt anyone and that women have no reason to fear me, alone in an alley.

However, the problem is twofold. [Read more…]

On that fake Paris Hilton Tweet

I scold Twitter. Again. Because apparently me and social media are like mortal enemies – or rather online conduct is.

Over at Big Think, I convey why it’s troublesome – both in terms of our conduct online and another area that is related: how we treat celebrities. I dislike the victim-blaming language of “they asked for it” by virtue of being celebrities, in terms of receiving flak and animosity and stalking and whatnot.

I really, really dislike being nasty to innocent, harmless people – even if they are famous.