NOW You Can Celebrate

I’ve seen a lot of people jumping for joy about Ireland’s referendum, such as PZ Myers and Marcus Ranum. Problem is, the initial results were based on exit polling data, and they’re not always reliable. The people most likely to respond are the people most passionate about a subject, for instance. They also miss out on early voters, who don’t necessarily visit the polling booth, and voters that show up late. Nate Silver cribbed some excellent discussion of exit polls from Mark Bluemthnal, and while that info dates from 2008 and 2004, respectively, exit polls are routinely argued over well after the election itself. Hence why I sat on my hands.

The Eighth Amendment, which grants an equal right to life to the mother and unborn, will be replaced. The declaration was made at at Dublin Castle at 18:13 local time. The only constituency to vote against repealing the Eight amendment was Donegal, with 51.9% voting against the change. […]

Reacting to the result, the taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar, who campaigned in favour of liberalisation, said it was “a historic day for Ireland,” and that a “quiet revolution” had taken place. Mr Varadkar told crowds at Dublin Castle the result showed the Irish public “trust and respect women to make their own decision and choices.” He added: “It’s also a day when we say no more. No more to doctors telling their patients there’s nothing can be done for them in their own country, no more lonely journeys across the Irish Sea, no more stigma as the veil of secrecy is lifted and no more isolation as the burden of shame is gone.” […]

Mr Varadkar said he understood that those who had voted against repeal would be unhappy. He said he had a message for them: “I know today is not welcome and you may feel this country has taken the wrong turn, that this country is not one you no longer recognise. “I want to reassure you that Ireland today is the same as it was last week, but more tolerant, open and respectful.”

OK, NOW it’s time to raise my hands. I’m a bit puzzled why declaring mothers and fetuses to have equal rights was considered an argument against abortion, given that we live in a universe where the Violinist argument exists, but no matter: this is a solid victory for human health, and a boon for the impoverished and/or unlucky.

Another One

One downside to floating around atheist/skeptic communities so long is that I’ve seen a lot of people leave. The most painful departures are the ones where people get frustrated with their peers over their inaction or inability to comprehend, or burn out from having to explain concepts that shouldn’t need explaining. These cases always leave me self-conscious of my own silence and inaction, wondering if I’d help stem the tide if I became more active.

For four years I have written and given talks about the same core message: Movement atheism must expand its ambitions to include the interests and needs of communities systematically disenfranchised in ways far more harrowing than merely existing as an atheist (within the US context).

Little changed in the five years that I was a part of organized secular communities. To what degree things have changed is debatable. For me, the point is that these spaces haven’t evolved to the point that they are welcoming or even ideal for certain groups of people.

Over time, I was able to better understand how this resistance to change that infests these spaces has a lot to do with select donors sustaining these spaces as well as those occupying executive and board leadership positions.

The thing is, the writing was always on the wall. It just took a considerable amount of time for me to admit it to myself.

Ouch. Sincere Kirabo has come a long way since 2015, when he earned a scholarship from American Atheists. He’s also been a writer for The Establishment, Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, and Everyday Feminism. He was the Social Justice Coordinator for the American Humanist Association until a week ago. He remains frustrated with the inaction of leaders within the atheist/skeptic movement. How could you not, when you’re dealing with shit like this:

Sexism continues to be a huge problem with this movement. And by “problem” I mean that it exists and most men choose to either deny it, minimize it, or blame victims.

I’m directly and indirectly connected to countless women who were once a part of this movement and have since left. It’s sad and disgusting and infuriating that there are whisper networks within secular circles so that women can warn each other about certain men rumored to be sexual harassers or abusers.

And yes, several women have reported instances of sexual misconduct and even rape to me. I’m not at liberty to discuss these incidents in any detail, but I will say that all three cases involve men who were at one point connected to organized humanism or atheism.

A lot of people have dropped out of the movement for a lot less.

My bandwidth has been depleted and there’s no way that I can fully recover and advance the causes that mean the most to me until I remove myself from spaces that preserve/propagate elitist rationalism, complacency, and general white nonsense.

I know some are interested in knowing what’s next for me. At this time, all I will say is that I and several others are in the process of building a platform dedicated to cultivating Black humanist culture with a focus on creating a world that honors the “radical” idea of free Black people. Details will follow in the near future.

… so it’s to Kirabo’s credit that he’s not dropping out of the movement. He’s switched from working for change within existing orgs, to creating his own organisations that are less problematic. I heartily approve, though had Kirabo dropped out instead I’d also approve. Even if the change in tactics doesn’t work, it’ll at least create a safe space for people to promote secularism without having to hold their nose over casual bigotry.

The Return of COINTEL-PRO

You remember them, right? A secretive group within the FBI who targeted “domestic subversives” like Martin Luther King Jr. and Roberta Salper, with tactics that ranged from surveillance to blackmail to false flag ops and entrapment. Even the modern FBI agrees it was both unethical and unlawful.

Rakem Balogun thought he was dreaming when armed agents in tactical gear stormed his apartment. Startled awake by a large crash and officers screaming commands, he soon realized his nightmare was real, and he and his 15-year-old son were forced outside of their Dallas home, wearing only underwear.

Handcuffed and shaking in the cold wind, Balogun thought a misunderstanding must have led the FBI to his door on 12 December 2017. The father of three said he was shocked to later learn that agents investigating “domestic terrorism” had been monitoring him for years and were arresting him that day in part because of his Facebook posts criticizing police.

This isn’t on the same level, but it’s close. FBI officials monitored, arrested, and prosecuted Rakem Balogun for the high crime of being angry enough at how black people are treated in the USA to organize and agitate.

Authorities have not publicly labeled Balogun a BIE [Black Identity Extremist], but their language in court resembled the warnings in the FBI’s file. German said the case also appeared to utilize a “disruption strategy” in which the FBI targets lower-level arrests and charges to interfere with suspects’ lives as the agency struggles to build terrorism cases.

“Sometimes when you couldn’t prove somebody was a terrorist, it’s because they weren’t a terrorist,” he said, adding that prosecutors’ argument that Balogun was too dangerous to be released on bail was “astonishing”. “It seems this effort was designed to punish him for his political activity rather than actually solve any sort of security issue.”

The official one-count indictment against Balogun was illegal firearm possession, with prosecutors alleging he was prohibited from owning a gun due to a 2007 misdemeanor domestic assault case in Tennessee. But this month, a judge rejected the charge, saying the firearms law did not apply.

Ruined his life for it, too; he lost his job, house, and car because of overzealous FBI agents. Amazingly, their crusade lacks the weight of evidence.

The government’s own crime data has largely undermined the notion of a growing threat from a “black identity extremist” [BIE] movement, a term invented by law enforcement. In addition to an overall decline in police deaths, most individuals who shoot and kill officers are white men, and white supremacists have been responsible for nearly 75% of deadly extremist attacks since 2001.

The BIE surveillance and failed prosecution of Balogun, first reported by Foreign Policy, have drawn comparisons to the government’s discredited efforts to monitor and disrupt activists during the civil rights movement, particularly the FBI counterintelligence program called Cointelpro, which targeted Martin Luther King Jr, the NAACP and the Black Panther party.

OK, if I keep talking about this I’ll just wind up quoting the entire article. Go read it and witness the injustice yourself.

Checking in on Local Politics

I’m ridiculously bad at following local politics, the American Implosion is far too addicting. Still, it does allow me to cross-reference between our two countries, and watch Southern trends migrate up North. For instance:

In a speech about women in politics at the United Conservative Party founding annual general meeting in Red Deer Saturday, [Heather] Forsyth expressed disbelief that women face structural barriers and are marginalized. “How the heck do you expect to get women involved in politics and get them excited when you have to read that socialist crap,” she said as a number of UCP members hooted and clapped. “When I ran in the nomination, which was one of the most hotly-contested nominations in the province, I didn’t play the ‘oh, poor me’ card. Nor did I play the ‘I’m a woman and they should provide me with a hand-up.’ ”

Forsyth … also criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley for having gender-balanced cabinets. “I honestly would be in trouble if someone asked me to name all the women in their cabinet and I would have trouble even trying to remember five,” she said. “I quite frankly find it humiliating and I find it patronizing that we as women can’t do it. And we can do it on our own and by ourselves.”

Self-hating conservative women? Yep, we’ve got that. We’ve also imported blatant hypocrisy; I can just imagine the reporter smiling as they tacked this bit on:

Forsyth’s message was in stark contrast to interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, who used her speech to announce a new initiative to overcome the barriers Forsyth dismissed. The non-profit, which also involves Laureen Harper, will encourage and mentor women who want to run for the UCP in next year’s election. …

Ambrose said UCP Leader Jason Kenney has made it a priority to attract women and LGBTQ candidates to the party and meets constantly with future prospects. “I’m here to push that message forward,” Ambrose said.

She acknowledged that harassment on social media is one barrier women face. She said female politicians should have staff monitor feeds on Facebook and Twitter to create a buffer.  Ambrose said Twitter, in particular, is “a sewer for women.” “They need to make a lot of changes before it is a safe place for women,” she said.

What’s depressing is that Alberta has a liberal-ish government, with the notable exception of oil pipelines. The NDP have done a great job since coming to power, but their election was due to a divided and squabbling opposition. Now that conservatives in the province have united under the United Conservative Party, however, they’re likely to regain control. This is terrifying, because they “united” by essentially rolling over and handing the keys to the social conservatives. Abortion services are back to being controversial, their leader is fine with harming LGBTQ youth and exploiting them to whip up the base. He’s also opposed to environmental regulations. A party member who fired a woman for filing a sexual harassment complaint is still in charge of Democracy and Accountability. Hell, their shadiness even extends to their own voting procedures.

Maybe it’s time I paid more attention. I bet the NDP could use some volunteers next year

Speaking of the devil, and Twitter shall appear:

Kathleen Smith: UCP just passed a resolution to out teens who join a GSA. And they wonder why won’t let them march under their party banner in the parade.

Marni Panas: Every progressive who is still part of this party should be ashamed of themselves. Any member of the LGBTQ community who is part of this party should take a long look in the mirror. Disgusting resolution.

Marni Panas: The and pay more attention to anti-lgbtq activist John Carpay than the actual kids who will be harmed by being outed in GSA. I’m sick.

: Holy crap. This is what’s happening now at the . If you’ve lost track, they’ve gone from attack teens to attack & teachers to attack First Nation’s persons in a matter of minutes.

Marni Panas: This is what happens when racists and homophobes are emboldened by leaders like Trump and Kenney. I no longer want to hear “this would never happen in Canada. We’re better than that.” It’s happening right now in a hotel in Red Deer, Alberta.

This is all happening as the UCP is explicitly doing outreach to the LGBT community. They’re a bunch of two-faced bigots.

Something for the Reading List

For nearly a decade, I have been researching and writing about women who dressed and lived as men and men who lived and dressed as women in the nineteenth-century American West. During that time, when people asked me about my work, my response was invariably met with a quizzical expression and then the inevitable question: “Were there really such people?” Newspapers document hundreds, in fact, and it is likely there were many more. Historians have been writing about cross-dressers for some time, and we know that such people have existed in all parts of the world and for about as long as we have recorded and remembered history.

Boag, Peter. “The Trouble with Cross-Dressers: Researching and Writing the History of Sexual and Gender Transgressiveness in the Nineteenth-Century American West.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 112, no. 3 (2011): 322–39.

Human beings have a really distorted view of history; we tend to project our experiences backward in time. Just recently introduced to the term “transgender?” Then transgender people must have only recently been invented, in the same way that bromances never existed before the term was added to the dictionary. Everyone is prone to this error, however, not just the bigots.

A central argument of my book is that many nineteenth-century western Americans who cross-dressed did so to express their transgender identity. Transgender is a term coined only during the last quarter of the twentieth century. It refers to people who identify with the gender (female or male) “opposite” of what society would typically assign to their bodies. I place “opposite” in quotation marks because the notion that female and male are somehow diametric to each other is a historical creation; scholars have shown, for example, that in the not-too-distant past, people in western civilization understood that there was only one sex and that male and female simply occupied different gradations on a single scale. That at one time the western world held to a one-sex or one-gender model, but later developed a two-sex or two-gender model, clearly shows that social conceptualization of gender, sex, and even sexuality changes over time. This reveals a problem that confronts historians: it is anachronistic to impose our present-day terms and concepts for and about gender and sexuality — such as transgender — onto the past.

In Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, I therefore strove to avoid the term transgender as much as possible. It is central to my study, however, to show that people in the nineteenth century had their own concepts and expressions for gender fluidity. By the end of the nineteenth century, for example, sexologists (medical doctors and scientists who study sex) had created the terms “sex invert” and “sexual inversion” to refer to people whose sexual desires and gender presentations (that is, the way they walked and talked, the clothing they wanted to wear, and so forth) did not, according to social views, conform to what their physiological sex should “naturally” dictate.

I wish I’d known about this book earlier, it would have made a cool citation. Oh well, either way it’s long since hit the shelves and been patiently waiting for a spot on your wishlist.

How to Become a Radical

If I had a word of the week, it would be “radicalization.” Some of why the term is hot in my circles is due to offline conversations, some of it stems from yet another aggrieved white male engaging in terrorism, and some from yet another study confirms Trump voters were driven by bigotry (via fearing the loss of privilege that comes from giving up your superiority to promote equality).

Some just came in via Rebecca Watson, though, who pointed me to a fascinating study.

For example, a shift from ‘I’ to ‘We’ was found to reflect a change from an individual to a collective identity (…). Social status is also related to the extent to which first person pronouns are used in communication. Low-status individuals use ‘I’ more than high-status individuals (…), while high-status individuals use ‘we’ more often (…). This pattern is observed both in real life and on Internet forums (…). Hence, a shift from “I” to “we” may signal an individual’s identification with the group and a rise in status when becoming an accepted member of the group.

… I think you can guess what Step Two is. Walk away from the screen, find a pen and paper, write down your guess, then read the next paragraph.

The forum investigated here is one of the largest Internet forums in Sweden, called Flashback (…). The forum claims to work for freedom of speech. It has over one million users who, in total, write 15 000 to 20 000 posts every day. It is often criticized for being extreme, for example in being too lenient regarding drug related posts but also for being hostile in allowing denigrating posts toward groups such as immigrants, Jews, Romas, and feminists. The forum has many sub-forums and we investigate one of these, which focuses on immigration issues.

The total text data from the sub-forum consists of 964 Megabytes. The total amount of data includes 700,000 posts from 11th of July, 2004 until 25th of April, 2015.

How did you do? I don’t think you’ll need pen or paper to guess what these scientists saw in Step Three.

We expected and found changes in cues related to group identity formation and intergroup differentiation. Specifically, there was a significant decrease in the use of ‘I’ and a simultaneous increase in the use of ‘we’ and ‘they’. This has previously been related to group identity formation and differentiation to one or more outgroups (…). Increased usage of plural, and decreased frequency of singular, nouns have also been found in both normal, and extremist, group formations (…). There was a decrease in singular pronouns and a relative increase in collective pronouns. The increase in collective pronouns referred both to the ingroup (we) and to one or more outgroups (they). These results suggest a shift toward a collective identity among participants, and a stronger differentiation between the own group and the outgroup(s).

Brilliant! We’ve confirmed one way people become radicalized: by hanging around in forums devoted to “free speech,” the hate dumped on certain groups gradually creates an in-group/out-group dichotomy, bringing out the worst in us.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the staircase.

Categories Dictionaries Example words Mean r
Group differentiation First person singular I, my, me -.0103 ***
First person plural We, our, us .0115 ***
Third person plural They, them, their .0081 ***
Certainty Absolutely, sure .0016 NS

***p < .001. NS = not significant. n=11,751.

Table 2 tripped me up, hard. I dropped by the ever-awesome R<-Psychologist and cooked up two versions of the same dataset. One has no correlation, while the other has a correlation coefficient of 0.01. Can you tell me which is which, without resorting to a straight-edge or photo editor?

Comparing two datasets, one with r=0, the other with r=0.01.

I can’t either, because the effect size is waaaaaay too small to be perceptible. That’s a problem, because it can be trivially easy to manufacture a bias at least that large. If we were talking about a system with very tight constraints on its behaviour, like the Higgs Boson, then uncovering 500 bits of evidence over 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 trials could be too much for any bias to manufacture. But this study involves linguistics, which is far less precise than the Standard Model, so I need a solid demonstration of why this study is immune to biases on the scale of r = 0.01.

The authors do try to correct for how p-values exaggerate the evidence in large samples, but they do it by plucking p < 0.001 out of a hat. Not good enough; how does that p-value relate to studies of similar subject matter and methodology? Also, p-values stink. Also also, I notice there’s no control sample here. Do pro-social justice groups exhibit the same trend over time? What about the comment section of sports articles? It’s great that their hypotheses were supported by the data, don’t get me wrong, but it would be better if they’d tried harder to swat down their own hypothesis. I’d also like to point out that none of my complaints falsify their hypotheses, they merely demonstrate that the study falls well short of confirmed or significant, contrary to what I typed earlier.

Alas, I’ve discovered another path towards radicalization: perform honest research about the epistemology behind science. It’ll ruin your ability to read scientific papers, and leave you in despair about the current state of science.

Bayes Bunny iz trying to cool off after reading too many scientific papers.

To A Burnt-Out Activist

The scandal brewing at the end of my post has come to pass. This one hurt a little bit; publicly  at least, Silverman seemed to be in favor of policies that would reduce sexual assault, and spoke out against the bigots in our movement. In reality, given the evidence, he was talking the talk but not walking the walk.

That comes on top of my growing unease over that last blog post. There’s nothing in there worth changing, that I’m aware of; the problem is more with what it doesn’t say, and who it mentions in passing but otherwise leaves at the margin.

See, there’s a pervasive belief that minorities are responsible for bringing about social justice, either by claiming they created the problem or demanding they educate everyone. That falls apart if you spend a half-second dwelling on it. The majority, by definition, hold most of the power in society. If they accepted the injustice done to the minority, they’d use that power to help resolve it. In reality, they tend to bury their heads in the sand, ignoring the evidence of injustice or finding ways to excuse it, so their power is often wielded against the minority. The result is that the minority has to spend an enormous amount of time and energy educating and agitating the majority.

So you can see why calling for people to fight harder for the change they’d like to see, as I did last blog post, can seem clueless and even heartless. Yes, I placed a few lines in there to hint that I was talking to the majority, but those have to be weighed against the context I outlined above. This time around, I’d rather focus on the burnt-out activist than the clueless white guy.

Put bluntly, life is short. You should spend your time doing things you find rewarding; endlessly quoting painful testimony of sexual assault, or the science and statistics of how tragically common it is, or giving an embarrassingly basic lecture on consent, doesn’t stay in that category for long. The resulting feelings of burnout or frustration are entirely valid, and worthy of taking seriously.

Human beings are also complex, we exist in many cultures and movements. I sometimes advocate for secularism, but I’ve also written about science, statistics, and even dabbled in art from time to time. If one aspect of my life becomes frustrating, I can easily switch to another, and there’s nothing wrong with that switch. This may seem like a betrayal; how can you leave your sisters behind as they carry on fighting the good fight?

But it’s extremely rare for a single person to change a culture; in practice, change comes via a sustained, coordinated effort from multiple people. At worst, the loss of one person may slow things down, and even that is debatable: there’s an unstated premise here that once you’ve dropped out of culture, you can’t come back. That should be obviously false (and if it isn’t, run). If you can return, though, then why not use the time away to recharge? You’ll get a helluva lot more done ducking out from time to time to fight burn-out, than you would if you stuck around when you don’t care to.

I have tremendous sympathy for the people who are sick of arguing against all the sexism, racism, ableism, and so on within the atheist and skeptic movements. Take as long a break as you need to, come back if or when you feel it’s time. There should be an empty seat waiting for you, and if there isn’t you’ll be in a better place to flip everyone the bird and create a new culture that gets this shit right.

(As a side-note, I found it amusing when I began working through the OrbitCon talks and heard Greta Christina laying out similar points. She has been a big influence on my views on activism for several years, so the overlap is less surprising in hindsight.)