Tyranny of the Majority

Let’s talk about majority/minority dynamics.

There are only two political parties in the United States.

Well, that’s not exactly true; there are a multitude of political parties in the US, but really, there are only two you vote for. The stereotypical response to alternative parties amounts to “yes, that smaller party better represents my views than the big two, but only the big two can win.” Because of this, national elections in the US can be boiled down to “which mainstream candidate is the least bad?” This means that someone who votes for a party does not necessarily agree with every aspect of that party’s official platform. Take the Republicans, for example; there is a significant Libertarian presence in the Republican party. Since the Republicans are seen as the “small government” people (when compared to the Democrats), Libertarians will often cast their votes for the Republican candidate. (This is somewhat odd, given that the facts reveal that the Republicans’ policies do not match up with their alleged support for “small government” principles. Better PR, I guess.) The end result of this is that there isn’t a single national office held by a member of the Libertarian party. Why? Because voting for a third-party candidate in a national election is throwing your vote away. (It doesn’t have to be, but in today’s electoral climate, it is.)

These third parties persist because they’re staffed by dedicated people who truly believe in their causes, but they don’t actually ever win major races. In the face of this daunting reality, what happens the voters who passionately support these third parties? There are three possibilities:

1) They vote for the third-party candidate, who loses.
2) They vote for whichever of the two primary parties more closely reflect their values.
3) They don’t vote.

In none of these three scenarios will our third-party supporter end up truly satisfied. This is essentially a no-win situation; our hypothetical voter can attempt some form of disappointment mitigation in the case of option two, but even if the Democrat/Republican they vote for wins, the candidate they wanted to win has still lost. This voter is essentially disenfranchised by virtue of belonging to a minority party. The United States is laden with these sorts of disillusioned voters, many of whom elect to take the third option and abstain from voting.

What can be done about the political landscape in the US to change this problem? I don’t have a definitive answer, but the first step is to unite. The political environment is in a rut, and there is no way to substantially alter the course of that environment without gathering together with like-minded individuals.

Now, a hypothetical: Imagine that you live in a democratic society where 80% of the population reliably votes for a single political party in every election, but you oppose the policies advocated by the majority. Knowing that casting your vote for a minority party would be ultimately fruitless (because the majority party is guaranteed to get its way with or without your input), would you even register to vote?

No?

Even if you did, how could you hope to effect any change on the political process? Your only legitimate option would be to appeal to the majority party to change its platform, and the majority is under no obligation to comply with your requests. See injustice in the world? You have to ask (beg?) the dominant party to listen to you if you want any official intervention, and you’d better be able to couch your request in terms of the party’s moral sensibilities. Doesn’t sound terribly inviting, does it?

Does this idea frustrate you? Congratulations, you have some faint idea of what it’s like to be a minority.

In order to appear exclusionary toward a minority group, the majority does not need to have a desire to marginalize or exclude minority members; it does not take an act of explicit policy to create an unwelcoming atmosphere—mere inaction alone will accomplish this. Thus is the power of the status quo. To overcome this hurdle, it is not sufficient to tolerate members of that minority. Including these people takes active effort on the part of the majority. If a majority group wants minority participation in their group, they are going to have to work to get it. One cannot simply declare by fiat that their group is welcoming to minority members and make it so. This does not work. If the Republicans suddenly decided that they wanted the votes of the Green party supporters, it would take more than a few platitudes to get them. Furthermore, merely having minority members present does not constitute including minority members—this does not demonstrate that your party is welcoming to minority voices.

(Edit: There is also a clear difference between “we want to include you so that we look diverse” and “we want to include you because we actually care about what you have to say. This difference is not lost on minority members, who will rightly perceive the former as insulting.)

I’ve seen the term “echo chamber” pop up repeatedly in the last few days, but I have great difficulty accepting it being used in reference to minority groups. In a laissez-faire social space, only the majority opinions will be heard because they will be the loudest. In this way, a “level playing field,” wherein no speech is given preference, is perhaps the furthest thing one can find from encouraging an inclusive environment for minority voices. Any pursuit of equality in this fashion is ultimately self-defeating. When the majority does not take pains to welcome of minority opinions, those opinions are lost in the din of apparent consensus. (This leads to groupthink.)

Faced with such a situation, what choice does the minority have to be heard but to establish a mechanism to increase the impact of their voice?

Naive supporters of equality have offered a proposed solution to this in the form of maintaining open forums in accordance with a fetishistic adherence to “free speech,” but this advice is deeply misguided; rather than ameliorating the problem, this can only serve to exacerbate it. To do this would be to introduce majority voices into the minority group when the exact opposite is necessary! To insure accurate representation of all interests, minority voices must be amplified to be heard by the crowd.

If you are in the 20% minority political party, the politicians of the majority party are free to brush off your every word unless your voice is given extra weight. The majority party does not need your vote, and a majority politician who devotes time to your causes may very well find themselves faced with a primary challenger in the form of someone who will simply toe the party line. If you are the minority voice, you cannot rely on the goodwill of the majority to be heard—you need a platform. If the majority wants to include minority voices, it bears an obligation to give the minority that platform. If it will not provide that platform, the minority is left with no choice but to build it themselves.

I’d really like to get that platform going now.

Perspective as a Bad Habit and the Sock Story

I am beginning to realize that the world I inhabit is very different from the world as others experience it. At this juncture, it seems as though I will always be beginning to realize this, for every day seems to present a new opportunity to realize how my perspective differs from a large portion of humanity’s. While reading through the various Atheism+ discussions that have taken place throughout the last week, I have been gaining a deeper appreciation for how very different people’s lives can be. On a purely intellectual level, I already knew all of this, but knowing something is one thing—grokking it is entirely another.

I have to take a step back before proceeding, however. Let’s not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that “perspective” is a monolith—it is impossible for a person to have a single perspective. When we use language such as “my perspective differs,” we have to recognize that this is nothing more than cognitive shorthand—a linguistic trick. The idea represented by this expression is merely a summary of the intersections of a multitude of interrelated thoughts, each stemming from a multitude of disparate experiences.

This verbal shortcut comes complete with an insidious pitfall—one whose very serious potential repercussions we may walk right into if we, forgetting it for but a moment, do not watch where we plant our mental feet. Specifically, we are prone to forgetting that others do not share our perspective—our thoughts and experiences. How could they? At the time of this writing, there are approximately 7,067,065,000 people in the world. Through running a detailed statistical analysis of the world’s population, I can scientifically conclude that of that number, my perspective on any given matter will be held by, give or take the margin of error, exactly one single person. You and I may share an opinion about something, but we do not share the same mental associations about that thing.

It is vital to recognize that our process of perspective-taking tends to be mostly subliminal—we do not consciously apportion our responses to each object and situation we encounter in every moment of every day. We do not—can not—engage in an inner monologue on the relative merits of a thing until that thing has been brought to the forefront of our conscious experience. As an example of this:

You are now breathing manually.

On a slightly more serious note, let’s look at a different example.

Choosing one’s socks is hardly a meaningful decision on the grand scale of things, but we are socialized to be fashion conscious to varying degrees, and so it may well be that you are required to put some trivial amount of effort into that process. For example, suppose that you own precisely as many socks as you need, so you have no particular desire for new ones. However, now let’s suppose that you’ve just finished shopping for a new shirt when you happen to notice a matching pair of socks on sale. Your eye is drawn to them in a way that would not have happened at any moment prior. Until this moment, every dimension of your life’s sockishness was being satisfied, but now you realize that no other socks would match this shirt nearly as well as these new ones. Do you buy them?

Ultimately, your answer to that question is irrelevant. For our purposes, the point of the question is merely the journey. The thought process is illustrative of the number of things that pass unnoticed. How much thought does the average person ordinarily put into socks? Certainly less than someone with diabetes, for whom sock choice can be a matter of some importance. So too with all things—no one shares identical perspectives because not everything is equally relevant to every person’s life. From here, we can extrapolate to see how something that does not even register on our personal scale of ab/normality might be a major cause of concern for someone with a different perspective.

So yes, not everyone views everything as having the same importance. It’s not this trivial observation, true though it is, that I find so compelling but rather the deeply profound repercussions of this kind of “small” difference. In the world of psychology, small things can have big effects. When I stumbled upon the wide world of microaggressions, my perspective on social interactions changed radically. Where before I suffered from Social Analysis Myopia (that’s a bit corny, I know—sorry), that discovery gave me a lens through which a wide array of otherwise hidden passive aggressive marginalizing behavior could be seen. It’s a microscope that I’m still learning to use, but I see that it is a necessary key to unlocking the mystery of the status quo.

Different groups are affected by different combinations of social pressures. The feminist model of the patriarchy can be expanded beyond gender relations into a kyriarchy model to describe how all manner of dominant groups marginalize minority groups. Under this model, privileged classes belong to the kyriarchy, and non-members of the privileged class experience a wide range of repercussions for their non-membership. (If you only click one link in this post, make it that one.)

Yet for some, pointing out how these microaggressions compound each other is seen as “Oppression Olympics.” To respond to a recounting of the micro- and macro- aggressions disproportionately (sometimes solely) inflicted upon members of a minority class with this charge is to discount those experiences as some twisted competition to see who can accrue the most Misery Points—as if being marginalized were some game to be won by losing!—as if people enjoyed being marginalized! This perspective is entirely alien to me; it tacitly defends the status quo by signifying that anyone who speaks out against the kyriarchy should be sanctioned. It would be akin to calling Martin Luther King Jr. a crybaby for whining about the injustices of racial inequality even though segregation had already “been abolished” in his day. This language is fundamentally invalidating; disregarding the experiences and emotions of the marginalized person as “Oppression Olympics” is implicitly stating that to acknowledge systemic problems facing a group (or groups) of people is too high a price to pay for improving society. It is nothing short of the defense of one’s privilege.

If the “Oppression Olympics” are a thing at all, the winner is not the person who complains loudest about oppression—the winner is the one who perpetuates the most oppression. Let’s return to the examination of socks. Your prototypical sock is a hammock of cotton and/or polyester covering the bulk of your foot and typically the ankle, but this has not always been the case. In the “Sock Oppression Olympics,” I get to wear cotton socks, and you’re only allowed to wear those flimsy disposable nylon socks that come in a tissue box and are found in shoe stores. In the Sock Oppression Olympics, when you comment on how comfortable my socks look, I respond by telling you that your socks are just fine—even though I’ve never tried to live my life wearing only your disposable socks. “But I understand your situation,” I’ll tell you, “because I’ve tried your socks on, and they’re not too bad.” (Nevermind that I haven’t ever worn them for an entire day.) In order to compete in—and win—these games, I don’t even have to know that your socks are different from mine; my purported ability to empathize is just icing on the oppression cake. To score points, it’s sufficient merely to refuse to talk about socks. I don’t need to have even the slightest inkling that refusing to talk about socks has the unintended consequence of reinforcing the sockus quo.

I have always been “a minority,” but so what? For what I hope are incredibly obvious reasons, not every minority status is equally concealable. With my minority status, I have had the exquisite privilege of being fully capable of what sociologists refer to as passing—I wear cotton socks against orders, but I still wear the disposable ones on top, so to any cursory examination, it looks like I’m obeying the expectations placed upon me, and I get away with it until someone performs a close inspection. For a Sock Oppressee to be wearing cotton socks is something of a scandal—it gets people talking, you see. Even if wearing cotton socks is not a violation of a society’s laws, it can still cause quite a stir to be found doing so, and that social pressure is a very real thing that discourages people from breaking the taboo (in the same way that you’re not allowed to wear socks with sandals). What’s more, there can a tangible benefit to being a minority member in vocal support of the status quo. The negative effects of doing so are often harder to identify but still significant. (In short, it’s complicated. If you want to have a cerebral moment, use this as a lens to consider this example of the intersection of sexual harassment, gender stereotypes, and system justification.) Conversely, those negative consequences are largely absent for members of the majority class who endorse the status quo. Indeed, as a Sock Oppressor, I may be judged positively by my fellows for putting myself through the experience of (perhaps even making a show of) wearing disposable socks.

To summarize in the parable of the Sock Oppression Olympics, it is commonly known that there are a number of reasons that you would want to wear only disposable socks. It’s more hygienic, for example, because there is no risk of forgetting to wash a sock before donning it. It’s also more convenient because it takes considerably less effort to put on a smaller, thinner sock. There are many who say that it’s more natural because your feet remain closer to the ground. Furthermore, the decreased padding allows for an increased sensory experience, permitting you a more robust ambulatory experience. For these reasons and many others, I think everyone can agree that the blisters you get from giving up the increased protections offered by the cotton sock are but a small price to pay for these life-affirming benefits. Anyone who supports overturning the system is simultaneously rejecting these positive factors while also denying the existence of the extensive drawbacks (which are too numerous to list here) that go hand-in-hand with assembling, purchasing, utilizing, and maintaining the cotton sock. There really is no need to discuss the matter of socks any further, and those who would seek to unnecessarily prolong this conversation must certainly have questionable motives. We should end this debate once and for all, before those lederhosen advocates see this as an invitation to add their misguided opinions to the mix.

Ultimately, the question is this: what aspects of your life are cotton socks, and what nylon socks are you overlooking? I suppose the answer to that question will depend on the ratio of cotton socks to nylon socks in your sock drawer.

Scientific Literacy

Greetings, internet denizens! Today, I’d like to speak with you about science. Yes, science! Now, everyone who has even the slightest clue about what science is knows that it is totally awesome. You can look stuff up in books all day long, but there is no cooler way to understand the universe than through using science.

Naturally, since science is so freaking amazing, the best way to be seen as a smart person is to be scientifically literate. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s find out if you are! Take the test, find out, and come back.

CLICK THE BUTTON.

~

musical interlude

~

So. How’d you doooo~♫? Did you score 50 out of 50? Because apparently that’s the only way to be scientifically literate.

If you’re anything like me, you wanted to smack the e-ink out of that “science literacy test.” What the hell does it have to do with science literacy? It’s a damn vocabulary test. Yes, you might need to know some of the stuff that’s in there to engage in high-level conversations about specific hypotheses, formulas, models, and so on, but is that the same thing as being scientifically literate? Absolutely not. I’ll say it again for emphasis—absolutely not.

Science literacy, if it has any meaning at all, means the ability to understand the scientific method. It does not have to do with your ability to pedantically churn out game-show knowledge about the periodic table of the elements. What does any of this have to do with being able to figure out whether today’s purported miracle cancer cure is complete bunk or not? Science is the study of the cosmos; specific branches of science study the cosmos at different scales.

Another feature of science that the creator of that test seems to have overlooked? Science is not just physics, chemistry, and biology. Science is not just “hard” science. “Soft” sciences are “real” sciences, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either 1) joking, 2) an asshole, or 3) ignorant of what “science” means. So what does science mean?

Science means you look at data. Empirical facts. Observable things.

Science means you try to explain those observations in ways that fit all the relevant data.

Science means you don’t make assumptions.

Science means you use Occam’s razor to excise unnecessary steps from your explanations.

Science means you don’t try to prove a point—you try to disprove your idea until it outsmarts you and you can’t anymore.

Science means hypotheses that can’t be disproven are useless. (And that includes god claims—buh-bye!)

Science means your explanations must also make reliable future predictions.

Science means you repeat your experiments because sometimes random chance bites you in the ass.

Science means other people do the same thing, just in case you messed up.

Because of these things, science is self-correcting—the more you do it, the better it gets. People who criticize science for “having been wrong” about things in the past fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of science. Our goal as knowledge-seekers is not to be right—it’s to become right. Science is cumulative; we rely on the work of the people who came before us. We use their knowledge to enhance our own. We identify and correct their mistakes, and over time, these mistakes become progressively smaller. Through science, we err toward greatness.

What on earth does any of this have to do with memorizing the atomic weight of Einsteinium?* Absolutely nothing. Knowing a fact makes you no better than a line in a book. Knowing how to use that fact? That’s science.

Scientific literacy is knowing how to avoid being fooled by snake-oil peddlers. Scientific literacy is knowing why homeopathy is bunk and why “ancient Chinese medicine” isn’t medicine. Scientific literacy is knowing why Power Balance bands are a scam. Scientific literacy is understanding why “heritage” bananas are GMOs. Scientific literacy is understanding why the notion of “a” cure for cancer is fundamentally incoherent. Scientific literacy is being able to explain why “non-overlapping magisteria” is impossible—why “magic” and “energy” and “miracles” would be scientifically observable phenomena if they actually existed.

Scientific literacy is knowing how to find real answers to questions. Scientific literacy is not your score on that ridiculous test I made you take. (Sorry about that.)

What I find even more aggravating about this whole misconception of “science literacy” is that it is almost certainly this exact same flawed model that gets presented in our schools—this was certainly my impression from high school, at least, and international test scores don’t seem to suggest a different conclusion. We are deceiving our children into thinking that science is about forcing yourself to memorize ever-expanding lists of monotonous data. This is a problem. We need a different approach. We need to be passionate about science—science is our key to understanding the entire universe; it’s not this dusty relic of decontextualized facts. Science is cool.

* It’s 252, by the way. I know that because people who know more stuff than I do found out and made the information available to anyone with an internet collection. Isn’t that awesome? Yep. So stop sitting around and go thank a scientist.

Another “Guys, Don’t Do That.”

I’ve been meaning to write more, but other things (community things) have been receiving a good deal of my time. One of said things is an issue I care deeply about: not being an asshole. The following article is not only a comprehensive analysis of “why we can’t have nice things,” but it also contains a comprehensive list of further readings. Highly recommended reading for anyone you know who’s trying to understand (or just needs to understand!) a bit more about gender relations.

Dissent of a Woman

A Guide for Men with Good Intentions

As the title indicates, this is not a post for men who don’t care whether their sexual advances frighten women. This is not a post for men who think that a woman can ever do anything to deserve being raped. This is not a post for men who just have a serious problem with women in general because their big sister never shared the Nintendo controller or whatever. This is a post for the men who really do respect women and either are being confused with the assholes or are simply afraid they might be.

This is for men with good intentions. I am creating this in the hopes that it will be linkable to men in multiple situations whose good intentions may not always be coming across. Given that, if you have been linked this, it is not necessarily because someone thought…

View original post 4,481 more words

Public Education

I don’t think I have ever seen a better argument for public education packed into three minutes of video.

Okay, so it’s allegedly marketed at kids who are going back to school as an attempt to get them excited, but this should excite everyone! Look at the progress we’ve made since the advent of mass education. We have the Internet—the goddamn Internet! If you tried to show George Washington the Internet, he would’ve crapped his pantaloons and called you a demon. Maybe. The point is that society is pretty damn sweet, and it’s not the product of people trying to kill each other. Rather, collectivism (albeit with a profit motive) is what got us into this … what’s the opposite of “mess?” Whatever! The reason we have all this sweet stuff is because we’ve used the tool of science to understand the world, and then we gave people the right to a free education. Everyone benefits from science. That’s pretty cool.

I can’t wait for my jetpack. Just saying.

Confrontationalism and Bridge Burning? (More on Atheism+)

Addendum: This is the second post I’ve made on this subject. The first can be found here. If you don’t care about atheist community stuff, feel free to skip both.

~

It must be obvious to anyone who’s read anything I’ve written that I have a bit of a confrontationalist streak. When someone says or does something glaringly stupid but fails to realize the stupidity of that thing, I find it difficult to be diplomatic. “Perhaps you’d like to reconsider that point because of X, Y, and Z?” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as “Are you fucking shitting me right now?” I even have a “that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” face that I reflexively make when I hear something from way out in left field. Sadly (okay, let’s be honest here—thankfully), that face does not translate well into text; one might even say that it is lost entirely.

Smart people who say dumb things need to be called out on those dumb things. This is the only way to avoid forming a cult of personality. No person is without error, but we all want to be, in spite of the impossibility of this goal. In the (ultimately futile) attempt to become paragons of rightness, we engage in a cumulative process of becoming less wrong.  The sad paradox is that the further along this path we’ve come, the harder it is to see where we’re still wrong; it’s not easy to accept criticism from someone so far behind you on the path to perfection, you see. Naturally, this approach is fallacious, but the flawed nature of the thought doesn’t stop it from being our natural reflex—we instinctively doubt things said by people we view asHow can I put this diplomatically?—misguided. In a contest between your Average Joe and yourself, most people will default their support to themselves.* It is far to easy to take offense at the little people when they (mistakenly, of course!) believe that something we’ve said is a dumb thing. To someone who is interested in continuing the process of becoming less wrong, it is necessary to consider the merits of their arguments, which may necessitate an attempt to understand their perspective. (Trying to refute something you don’t understand, after all, is often an exercise in hay-punting.) I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask someone to listen to your point of view instead of dismissing it outright.

Continue reading