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.

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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.

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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.

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What’s in a Name? (a.k.a. on Atheism+)

Christian? Muslim? Pastafarian? Agnostic? Humanist? What does it mean to be one of these things? Most simply, to call yourself any of this indicates that you wish to be associated with those groups. It means you want to identify yourself with the beliefs associated with those groups. Perhaps just as importantly, it means you wish not to be associated with opposing groups.

What, for example, is a “Christian?” Is a Mormon a Christian? There are indeed some who say that Mormons are not Christians (I have addressed this fallacy previously)—this is, of course, absurd; Mormons affirm the divinity of Jesus, and this alone qualifies them to be considered “Christians.” They further believe the Bible is the word of Yahweh, even if they do add a third chapter to that book. How is it that some Christians feel justified in excluding Mormons from the circle of Christianity? To such a person, that distinction is, for whatever reason, important to their self-image. Regardless of whether the supposed difference is true, that person sees value in asserting “I am X, and they are not.” In the case of Mormonism, this separation is entirely without merit,* but there are certainly cases where such divisions are not only beneficial but necessary. Being a Christian means that a person cannot be a Muslim or a Buddhist, for these are contradictory belief systems.

What does it mean to be an atheist, though? Atheism is rife with ambiguity, so additional differentiation is necessary. The “dictionary definition” of an atheist is someone who does not hold a belief in god(s). As such, this leaves an almost infinite list of other things that atheism does not address. Atheism alone says nothing about a person’s morality, political affiliation, height, preference for chocolate, gardening ability, or almost anything else. Is a person, by nature of being an atheist, guaranteed to be more or less moral than anyone else? Not according to the dictionary. So if atheism does not contribute to the strength of a person’s moral character, can an atheist be a good person? Obviously, yes. The only problem is that one cannot say “atheists are predominantly good people as a consequence of their atheism.” How can this puzzle be solved?

The traditional  answer to this would likely have been humanism—a person who adheres to humanist principles would almost certainly qualify as a good person. At its core, Secular Humanism is about being good without reference to any sort of supernatural mumbo-jumbo as a motivating factor, and that’s great. Wearing this label has never been the only way to be both an atheist and a decent human being, of course, but donning the badge of humanism has been a convenient way of advertising one’s status as a non-douchebag. It’s not the only label that one can identify with if one wants to advertise one’s decent-human-being-ness, and it’s certainly not a requirement, but it has been one of the most convenient ways of doing so for some time.

One of the problems I’ve had with calling myself a humanist, however, is the non-confrontational nature of it. Religion is an actively harmful entity in the world at large. Christopher Hitchens got it right when he said it poisons everything. When we nonbelievers hide from the atheist label, it becomes easier for religious people to pretend we don’t exist; it also becomes harder for us to identify and support each other. (Incidentally, this is the same criticism I have of nonbelievers who insist on self-identifying with only the agnostic label.) That** is why I am excited about the idea of this new Atheism+ thing. It’s about a week old now, but it’s hitting the scene pretty hard, and I have it seen best summarized as “New Atheism plus Humanism,” two things I endorse separately, each made better through combination with the other.

A lot of really smart people have written some really insightful things about Atheism+. This is a sentiment that’s been boiling beneath the surface for at least a year, and it’s hard to imagine that I could express it any better than people like Jen McCreightAshley Miller, Greta ChristinaRichard CarrierRussell Glasser, and so many others.*** (Not to mention Jason Thibeault‘s helpful graphics!) Like everything on the internet, there’s even a reddit page for it now.

Given that this is a blog thus far dedicated largely to issues of morality (specifically, advocating secular morality), I couldn’t be happier to come back from vacation with a post wholeheartedly supporting the Atheism+ movement. I agree that discrimination has no place in a movement that advertises itself as primarily rational. Prejudices based on race, sex, sexuality, and other such states that have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s moral character (yes, even religion) simply have no room in a movement aiming for social justice. The only reasonable approach is to judge people based on their behavior, and those who refuse to accept others as equals based on these otherwise irrelevant factors should not be welcomed or accepted in this kind of movement. A group cannot be inclusive if that group welcomes bigots, and anyone who advocates discriminating against someone over these states is practicing bigotry. Thus, this new anti-douchebag atheist movement is just what we need to combat the rising tide of increasingly vocal irrationality that has infiltrated what should, by all rights, be the one of the most inclusive movements in recent history. As a badge, “atheism” is not a shield against unjustifiable aggression, but Atheism+ can be. Atheism+ can include positive goals that dictionary atheism cannot. Atheism+ can be the inclusive movement atheism cannot be. This is a step in the right direction.

Even if you don’t feel called to identify with the Atheism+ label yourself, the movement’s goals thus far are unquestionably good, and it deserves recognition for that. Not being part of this movement doesn’t make someone a bad person—this has not been suggested by any right-minded individual. Rather, the label serves as a helpful tool for illustrating an atheist’s preference for equality and social justice. In the same way that “vegetarian” is helpful shorthand for “doesn’t eat meat” without also necessarily communicating “people who eat meat are evil,” Atheism+ communicates “how we treat people matters.” And it does matter.

In sum, I support Atheism+, and unless you’re an ignorant asshole, you should too. Asshattery shall not be tolerated.

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Addendum:  My thoughts on the subject of Atheism+ continue here.

*Christianity is not “a” religion but rather an umbrella term for a number of differing religions sharing belief in Jesus as a core tenet. Thus, Mormons surely aren’t Southern Baptists, but both groups are clearly Christian.
**… in addition to the “deep rifts” caused by misogynists, racists, and the like …
***Daniel Fincke prefers a diplomatic approach, expressing similar thoughts quite eloquently. I had originally included this link alongside the others, but it doesn’t really fit there because he doesn’t speak directly about Atheism+. I should probably avoid clicking “publish” late at night.

The Slippery Slope to Polygamy?

(It seems a bit meta to be writing a blog post about another blog post. I hope you can forgive me.)

Reading this fine example of careful reasoning has me thinking about the issue of marriage. I am pleased with how this argument was made. To summarize, the linked post addresses the argument that allowing homosexual marriage will create a snowball effect that will ultimately end with polygamist marriages becoming legal,* so for the sake of avoiding polygamy, we should not legalize gay marriage. This slippery slope argument (from gay marriage to polygamy) does not hold water, in large part because the arguments for and against each of these things use completely different reasoning. Demonstrating the legal necessity of one does not establish the necessity of the other.

The issue of polygamy isn’t receiving much attention in the media, but how about it? Is it okay for people to marry more than one person? I have to confess that I see little reason this should be universally forbidden.

After all, what’s the difference between an adulterer and a polygamist? And if it’s not illegal for a married man to support a girlfriend or two and father children out of wedlock with them, how can it be illegal for him to bind himself to them according to the laws of his church? Why is a practicing Mormon with two wives a criminal while [a politician, publicly] embarrassed by the discovery of his second family, is simply a punchline?
(Source.)

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Why the “Moral Objection” Fails

This notion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare) as a violation of a person’s religious liberty persists because it sounds like a convincing argument. It isn’t, of course, or the law wouldn’t have been ruled constitutional by the (majority Catholic) US Supreme Court. There are two main reasons why this argument does not hold water:

  1. It is a red herring.
  2. It is not sound policy.

It is a red herring because it mischaracterizes the way the law works. That the Supreme Court has ruled that the law is constitutional in its entirety (including this contraception mandate) should be sufficient to illustrate why this objection is irrelevant, but I’ll elaborate further for the sake of being comprehensive.

The religious “moral objection” issue seeks to erroneously portray the law (savvy readers might recognize this terminology as indicative of a straw man) by claiming that the law requires employers to provide contraception for their employees. This is false. So what does this law do? It does three things:

  1. It mandates that people carry health insurance.
  2. It mandates that employers of a certain size (50+ employees) offer health insurance.
  3. It regulates the insurance industry.

At the abstract level, that’s “all” it does.

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