The Digital Plague

It occurs to me that many of you may not be aware of a very serious epidemic that’s been silently ravaging the globe, so I’d like to take this time to talk with you about it. Before I begin, let me start with the obligatory disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist. I do not have a degree in virology or anything similar. What you are about to read may not be 100% medically accurate, and I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. Where I lack the medical jargon to deliver this information with clinical precision, I have instead substituted analogy. In the many places I am sure to deviate from good science, you are encouraged to take my words as the metaphor they are intended to be. Do not give in to the affliction I am soon to discuss. Engage your irony sensors before objecting. Let us now begin to discuss the digital plague—digititis, if you will.

Common symptoms include:

Headaches, vomiting, and nausea in one’s neighbors. Mental flatulence. Reflexive disagreement. Inflamed sense of self-importance. Uncontrollable urge to make everyone know how right one is. Inability to back down. Intermittent fusion of one’s cranium and buttocks.

Of course, this list is not comprehensive, and some of the items need elaboration, so let’s begin, shall we?

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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?

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Screw Your Preconceptions

Life is not Disney. Everything you know from Hollywood is wrong. “Common sense” is bullshit. How much of life’s misery could be averted by keeping these things in mind? Take, for example, relationships. If TV is to be believed, relationships are pretty straightforward: Meet someone. Fall in love. Dating turns into marriage. Kids. Happily ever after.

This is a fantasy, and it’s not the “gosh, that would be ideal” kind of fantasy. It’s the “complete work of fiction” kind.

Healthy relationships don’t just happen. They take work and commitment. Not every day is sunshine and roses. Sometimes you argue—sometimes about big things. And odds are good (like 100%) that this won’t always happen in the ways you anticipate.

Consider the romantic comedy genre (cue groaning). How many unique movies are there within this genre? Basically none. Take a look at that chart over there (→ that way →). X meets Y. X flubs meeting. X and Y get to know each other better. X and Y begin dating. Things go well. Really well. Then not so well. Big problem. The couple either splits up or seems likely to split. Additional hardships come, causing X and Y to rekindle their devotion to one another. X and Y overcome hardships. Marriage. Roll credits. The End. Happily ever after. X and Y are forever satisfied with their love, and there’s no more to the story.

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On Being an Adult

Last time, I wrote about what it means to be wrong, stressing the importance of critical self-examination. In a way, this article will be a follow-up to that. In particular, two of the questions I ended with are relevant:

  1. What are my beliefs?
  2. Why do I believe them?

Without a specific context, is it possible for you to answer these two questions? Almost assuredly not. How could you possibly hope to detail the entire set of beliefs that you hold when so much of what happens in your mind lives below the level of conscious awareness?

Subconscious beliefs may be the most insidious of them all. Most people would deny being sexist or racist, but how many say and do things that are clearly ~ist? We’re chock-full of cognitive biases that color the way we think about the world (seriously, take a look at the list). In a number of ways, these biases govern the way we live—at least until we learn that they exist, at which point we can begin deliberately replacing them with better reasoning.

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“Liberal” Honesty?

First, a disclaimer: the “liberal” I use on this page is intended to have absolutely nothing to do with the twisted sense in which it’s used in the US. (In that sense, “liberal” is a kind of stealth-pejorative that gets applied to anyone who isn’t a Republican—put another way, against anyone who disagrees with fundamentalist Christian policy or so-called traditional ideology.) Instead, I use this term to represent a sort of regression toward the mean by stepping back from “radical” honesty, which I have previously referenced.

As a rule (in the piratical sense—a guideline), I believe in being pretty open. I don’t mind expressing my views, even political or religious ones, until the social context makes it inappropriate to do so, but inappropriateness can be a tricky thing to pin down. To avoid getting distracted by the specific boundaries of situational appropriateness, I’ll just summarize it by suggesting “most non-professional situations” (i.e., outside of work-related functions). Let’s agree that this is a horrible oversimplification and move on.

“Radical” honesty fails the asshole test, but its basic premise—that people should be honest with each other—is a deeply valuable insight. If the general idea can be salvaged, why throw it away? (There’s a baby-bathwater reference to be made somewhere.) Being more open about your feelings needn’t intrinsically have a negative effect. The reason radical honesty fails here is because it presumes that the people you deal with are willing to accommodate your bluntness (or that you don’t mind alienating people if they aren’t). If we remove this presupposition, we’re left with something far more socially acceptable.*

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