Paula Kirby wrote stupid shit

This is how Paula Kirby tweeted about her essay* in re: the Harassment Policy discussion:

I’ll wait until you’re done laughing and/or rolling your eyes.
Done? Alright, let’s get on with this blogpost**. And btw., I’m ridiculously late to the game. Others have competently dismantled large parts of that ridiculous essay about Teh Ebil #FTBullies, but there’s just so much incredibly ignorant and untrue crap in this essay, I figure I’ll have a stab at it, too. But do read the other commentary on it, if you have time. Like I said, there’s so much crap in this, a single essay doesn’t do it justice: atheist logic, Ophelia Benson pt. 1, pt. 2, and SUIRAUQA (there’s probably more, but those are the ones I know about)

First, since I gather this has touched a nerve in some quarters, I shall deal with the terms “feminazi” and “femistasi”. As a general principle, I oppose the use of any kin dof name-calling. But sometimes an apparently rude term is doing more than being rude: it is conveying a meaningful point in shorthand form. For the record, I am categorically NOT suggesting that the people I have applied these terms to are, in fact, Nazis or Stasi members, or would ever have sympathized with either of them.There are many of us who are proud to be called Grammarnazis and who know perfectly well that no aspersions are being cast on our intentions towards either Jews or Poland. It might be considered distasteful that the suffix -nazi has come to be used simply to mean “extremist” or “obsessive”, but nevertheless, it has come to be so used, and The Sisterhood of the Oppressed cannot legitimately chalk it up as yet another example of their alleged victimization.

This is the first paragraph of the essay, and it’s already complete crap. And here’s why:
1)To be “proud to be called Grammarnazis”, and even to refer to oneself like that, is an act of Reappropriation; something that was used as an insult to try to shut someone up by making them feel bad for doing what they do by calling them -nazis is now being worn proudly as a banner, in a way similar to the way the Queer community has reapppropriated the term “queer”. And, in fact, in exactly the same way that many of Teh Ebil #FTBullies have for years now worn the worst epithets thrown at them as titles behind their handles, including the word “feminazi”.
2)A reappropriated word is still an insult/slur though, and so when it is used negatively against someone else, it is not used in the reappropriated, positive (or at least, non-negative) sense, but in its original, negative sense. Therefore, comparing being proud to be called a Grammarnazi to calling someone else a Feminazi in order to compare them to Nazis*** is worse than comparing apples to oranges (at least, apples and oranges are both fruit, and are both good for you).
3)The main difference, of course, between something like “Grammarnazi” and “Feminazi” or “Queer” is that being called a Grammarnazi is not an act that flows down a power-gradient, nor is it used to shut down anything too particularly important****. As such, you wouldn’t even be able to reasonably compare the insult-use of Grammarnazi to actual slurs used as insults, since they perform entirely different kinds of cultural work.
4)Regardless of any truth value to claims that the suffix -nazi has merely come to mean “extremist” or “obsessive”, this is obviously not true for the suffix -stasi, since that suffix doesn’t have a culturally acquired meaning other than the literal one, since it’s not in common use. As such, points 1-3 aren’t even necessary to establish the BS in that paragraph, since even if everything she said about the suffix -nazi were true, she didn’t just use that one. Calling someone a Femistasi is actually literally comparing someone to the East German Homeland State Security.

In both “feminazi” and “femistasi” the allusion is to certain totalitarian attitudes and the intolerance and suppression of dissent. Indeed, it was this, and eminently not their politics, that the Nazis and the Stasi had in common, which further underlines my point that no comment about anyone’s wider political views is being made.

This is part of the previous line of thought, but it’s crap in a different way, so I’m quoting separately. Paula here seems to imply that running a totalitarian state is not politics. Because a form of government is not political? I’ve complained in the past about such incoherent restrictions on what can be considered “political” so I won’t get into that here, but really. Suppression of political dissent, being part of a totalitarian state government, and being often the enforcing arm of the politics of the government is not political?

In the case of the -stasi suffix, it draws attentions to behaviours associated with the thought police, for whom anyone who dares to hold non-approved attitudes is automatically persona non grata and to be treated as an enemy of the people. I am referring, of course, to the unfailing response on certain blogs whenever someone has had the temerity to challenge the claims that have been made there. Any suggestion, no matter how mildly phrased or how in keeping with the principles of skepticism, that The Sisterhood might not be automatically and wholly right by default has been met with torrents of abuse, and a pot-pourri (actually, dung-heap would seem a more appropriate metaphor) of accusations ranging from troll at the lower end, through slimebag, douche etc, right up to misogynist or even rape-apologist.

“Thought police” is an Orwellian term. Originally, it referred to an actual police actually making sure that no unapproved thoughts happened, since people caught thinking the unapproved thing were brainwashed to “fix” the problem, and ultimately killed. Obviously the Stasi couldn’t quite achieve that level of efficiency, but they certainly tried, by arresting and/or killing people they’ve found expressing unapproved sentiments, even in the “privacy” of their own homes. So, what does Paula compare this to?
To argument. To people disagreeing, often with long-winded explanations and links to evidence, and doing so while liberally dispensing invective. In writing. On their own blogs, as well as in comment sections on other blogs. Most of these “oppressed” dissenters aren’t even banned from commenting on these blogs, and they certainly are free to express themselves in the privacy of their own public blogs without any repercussions (other than maybe having someone disagree with you (publicly even! *gasp*), or say that they don’t like you anymore, and maybe won’t give you their money) or restrictions. That’s stasi-like behavior. But apparently only when Teh Ebil #FTBullies do it, since the antiFTB contingent indulges in exactly the same behavior (plus occasional threats and extensive use of bigoted slurs; minus the evidence), but when they do it it’s just “calls for balance” and “challeng[ing] the claims”.

Good heavens, we have even seen Ophelia Benson describe DJ Grothe’s call for more balance in the discussions as “sticking a metaphorical target” on her!

This “call for balance” btw. was Grothe’s silly-ass, evidence-free claim that talking about harassment has caused a drop in female attendance at TAM, and therefore talk about harassment should stop. I fail to see “balance” here, except in the “Fair And Balanced” sense (more details about this, from Ophelia herself).

Let’s not forget the abuses of speakers'”privilege” at certain conferences, where audience members holding “the wrong attitudes” have been picked on by the speaker from the platform.

Elevatorgate is never going to die is it? Also, Paula is in business, not science… but really. It has never been a bad thing for a speaker to analyze and criticize an attendees public writing. Most of the time, this bit of whining is some sort of “the internet isn’t real” luddism. In this case, it seems more generic hypocrisy in the service of “when we criticize, it’s just criticism; when you criticize, it’s ‘picking on’ and being the thought police”, as noted above. Also, she’s just plain bullshitting when she claims Stef McGraw was “picked on” for her “attitudes”. She had a publicly stated written argument deconstructed. An argument is not an attitude, by any definition of the word.

Let’s consider 1930s Germany for a moment. How did the Nazis gain popular support? By exploiting a sense of grievance post-Versailles, by continually telling the German people they’d been treated abominably, had their noses ground in the dust,been unfairly penalized, that they were the victims of an international, Jew-led conspiracy, that they needed to rise from the ashes and gain their revenge and their proper, god-ordained place in the world.

Yeah, let’s consider this. And by “this”, I don’t actually mean the historical inaccuracies in this paragraph, because they’re not relevant just now. For starters, as Paula herself reluctantly admits in a later paragraph, it’s not actually a case of the Nazis “telling the German people they’d been treated abominably”, since the German people were well-aware of that fact (and a fact it certainly was), Nazis or no. But let’s consider the political situation in 1930’s Germany. Here we have an abysmally poor, systematically oppressed people, who end up becoming radicalized and a totalitarian state results. Happens all the fucking time. What’s the solution to the problem?
Well, according to Paula, it seems to be “Oh you silly Germans. Stop feeling oppressed and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”, and “Don’t talk about systemic oppression, don’t try to eliminate oppression, and don’t ever dare publicly and openly argue with those who say there isn’t any. Because if you do, you’ll be propagating a victim mentality and also being Nazis yourself.” Where in the goddamn universe has being silent about systemic oppression and telling people to instead fix themselves ever worked?
The real solution to the existence of systemic victims is not cries of individualist empowerment, but deconstruction of the oppressive system. The French learned this lesson, which is why WWII was followed by the creation of the Council of Europe and the EEC instead of another oppressive Treaty of Versailles.

So is the Sisterhood’s sense of victimhood also justified? No.

Fuck the evidence from years of social science*****. Paula says there’s no oppression of women, therefore there isn’t.

In my experience (and I’ve attended and organized a lot of conferences in my time)there’s a sexualized atmosphere at all conferences involving an overnight stay:people are away from home, probably drinking more heavily than they would at home, *cough* networking, surrounded by people who share a common interest, whether that’s in secularism or buttercups or ball bearings, and who are equally letting their hair down and out for a bit of fun, and, moreover, with hotel rooms conveniently located right above their heads.

What a sorry world Paula lives in, if she’s never experienced collegiality not laced with sex. It’s a bit like eating all foods drenched in Ketchup (or any other condiment of your choice).
Well, I have experienced plenty of friendly, collegial drunkenness, fun, and “letting your hair down” while away from home, too. Some of it involved sex and an atmosphere that could be described as “sexy”. Some of it however was just hanging out with awesome people and shooting the shit, without sex appearing anywhere on the horizon. It’s awesome (it also oddly seems to be clustered around Poland). Why, last October I spent an entire weekend in mixed company away from home, sleeping in the same room with two dudes, and somehow no one got propositioned. We must be all prudes; or asexual. Or, maybe, we prefer some variety in our life, and are therefore capable of sometimes not thinking about getting laid. Seems there aren’t that many people like that in Paula’s life, if she’s never experienced anything like that.

Anyway. What do you want to bet that most, if not all, of these conferences has sexual harassment policies (after all, this is what this latest “ZOMG Stazinazis” is about)?

I simply do not accept that any reasonably mature, rational adult does not know exactly how to avoid getting into this kind of situation if he or she would prefer not to,or how to deal with it if it occurs.

This is quoted just to laugh at it. Because really, she just finished saying that this happens at all conferences and that anyone can find themselves propositioned. Which I guess means “how to avoid getting into this situation” = “not going to conferences” :-p

And, of course, she’s being very disingenuous when she implies that we say people don’t know how to deal with propositions (or harassment; because let’s remember, this is about harassment policies, dissembling on Paula’s part notwithstanding). but you know, knowing how to deal with stupid shit because you’re constantly exposed to it is not actually a valid reason for stupid shit to exist.

Note that I am talking about normal, non-violentsituations in which no assault takes place. I am talking about the kind of normalinteraction that, whether you like it or not, goes on wherever you get a group of adults letting their hair down while away from home.

False dichotomy which denies the existence of harassment which is not assault.

but to give the impression that such assaults are commonplace is to do a disservice

Boring lie is boring, but at least explains why the preceding false dichotomy exists.

To tear a movement apart, […] over something that is just a feature of life in general and not specific to the movement itself

Translation: atheists and skeptics shouldn’t strive to be better. Average is fine. Doesn’t matter that average is pretty fucking horrible.

I did a sociology module as part of my degree many years ago: I know the arguments about socialization and normative values, and structural discrimination and all that malarkey.

This was hilarious the first time, and it’s never stopped being hilarious. Paula knows better than social scientists with years of work and experience and science to back them up. Because she took one sociology module. Is there any better demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger effect?

So there is an alternative, and it is this alternative that I would urge women to seize with both hands – whether we’re talking about how we interact in our jobs, in our social lives or in the atheist movement. And that alternative is to take responsibility for ourselves and our own success. To view ourselves as mature, capable adults who can take things in our stride, and can speak up appropriately. To really start believing that we can do whatever men can do. To stop seizing on excuses for staying quiet and submissive, stop blaming it on men or hierarchies or misogyny or, silliest of all, “privilege”, and start simply practising being more assertive.

And the way to fight poverty is to stop “externalizing” the causes of poverty, and instead tell people to stop being so goddamn lazy and to view themselves as “mature, capable adults who can take things in our stride” and stop blaming their poverty on rich people or hierarchies or classism or “privilege”.

Libertarianism is such tiresome bullshit.

Anyway, she’s repeating the bullshit trope that non-libertarian feminists are saying that women aren’t capable of doing what men do. This is of course bullshit. Women are just as capable as men, and they are often far better able to deal with adversity since they don’t get shit handed to them on a silver platter and have to constantly fight against stupid sexist bullshit. Men faced with even a fraction of the shit a woman who shares their other social statuses has to face tend to dissolve into incoherent puddles of self-pity rather quickly (see: MRA), because they lack the practice and have never acquired the requisite hardened skins. However, as noted above, being able to deal with stupid shit is not actually a good reason for stupid shit to exist. Plus, as everyone should realize, two people with identical ability but different stressloads will rather obviously not perform equally at the one task they have in common. All we’re trying to do is a)undo some of that damage of the extra stressload in the short term, and b)equalize the stressload.

But I am saying that we women do ourselves no favours by assuming that the system is malevolently weighted against us

And here Paula says that women shouldn’t know the truth, because it does us no favors. And she says we’re belittling women?

Yes, there’s the occasional Neanderthal, in any walk of life. But it’s up to us whether we let him put us off doing what we really want to do. Let’s not give him that power over us! We can choose to rise above him (or sidestep him) and continue pursuing our own goals.

Here Paula is being anti-scientific, because this comment basically amounts to “willpower is an unlimited resource”, which we know isn’t true.

In almost any fieldyou care to consider, the women who have made it to the topare generally not sympathetic to the view that men or the system were desperately trying to hold them back. They havesimply adopted the tactics I am describing here, and have refused to let anything stop them.

Women who mold themselves to and make bargains with a patriarchal system are more successful within the patriarchal system than those who try to dismantle it for the benefit of all women?


They certainly haven’t diverted their focus from their goals to worrying about how men are treating them, and they haven’t waited for men to give them permission to succeed.

indeed not. Other women (and their allies) have done this for them and done something about some of the structural barriers that exist so that these exceptional women could succeed. How is this an argument for not continuing to dismantle these barriers, so that even more women can succeed?

Activism is by definition controversial: we don’t need activists for causes that are already widely accepted. This means that conflict comes with the territory. Activists need to be able to cope with that, we need to be able to deal with people who really do want to silence us and discredit us at any cost. It can turn nasty.

I quote this specifically because it’s so fucking hilarious that this comes from the woman who whines about feminazistasi oppression because she and others are being criticized. As I said before, she’s basically saying that other people mustn’t speak up when they’re mistreated and instead they “need to be able to cope with that” and “need to be able to deal with people who really do want to silence [them] and discredit”. But she and the other antiFTB-whiners should be totes encouraged to whine all day and night about Teh Ebil #FTBullies, because they apparently don’t need to learn to cope. Not even with the much smaller amount of unpleasantness that they are receiving, as compared to what they’re dishing out.

Look in the pages of any self-help book you care to pick up.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Self-help books. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Paula is advising skeptics to read the quackery that is self-help books. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

What we have seen endlessly on the pages of the worst of the blogs over the course of the last year-plus is just a tedious, counterproductive, alienating, divisive, pointless self-indulgence.

Don’t care to argue “alienating” and “divisive”, but the fact that WIS happened, WIS2 will happen, and harassment policies are being adopted, is boringly obvious refutation of the claims of “counterproductive” and “pointless”.

How many of those speakers [at WIS] were not already well established in the movement? […] Talk about “Four legs good, two legs better”!

This is hilariously incoherent. A conference that previously didn’t exist and doesn’t cannibalize other conferences in terms of speakers can by definition not provide less exposure to these speakers (and the group they belong to) than its nonexistence. Also, it should be noted that Paula doesn’t actually know what these women who spoke at the conference talked about (other than the speeches they gave; she might know that, but I doubt she’s seen all the videos), and what kind of networking happened at the conference.

Far from encouraging new women to get involved, all this hysterical and unjustified insistence on how dangerous our conferences are for women, how hostile our movement is to them, the indignities and humiliations they will be exposed to should they dare to set foot over the skeptical threshold could have been calculated to scare them away.

I note she provides precisely zero evidence for any of this. Also, bonus point for using “hysterical”.

Ophelia Benson herself wouldhave us believe she’s been scared away from attending a conference because of the exaggerated and over-the-top messages she got about the terrible risks she’d face if she went.

Another boring lie. Paula here is basically claiming that “nice business, would be a shame if it burned down” is a warning about fire hazards.

– – – – – – – – –
*Incidentally, posted on scribd by hoggle. Nice allies she’s got.
**After sufficiently complaining at the fact that the link in her tweet can only be accessed with a google account**. because really, wtf? (in case you’re wondering, a previous tweet had the link to the scribd document. still a dumb format, but at least it doesn’t require anyone to log in anywhere to read it)
***she’s actually lying when she’s saying she’s using the suffix to mean “extremist” or “obsessive”, since she DOES compare FTB to actual, real, 1930’s Nazis later in the essay.
****being a stickler for the use of grammar where it actually helps communication, I still very much acknowledge that knowing the difference between you’re and your, and knowing when to use the word “whom”, is piddly bullshit compared to social justice activism.
*****a sample this, as well as other scientific articles and essays, are of course collected in the comments of this post

Last Copenhagen update

Note: there will be pictures to go with this, but I’m using my dad’s computer and internet right now, which can’t handle uploading images. As soon as I’m back in Germany, I’ll add the photos. Until then, the text will have to suffice, hehe.

When writing the previous whole-day descriptions, I realized I wanted to talk a bit longer about a few of the speakers and the stuff they talked about, but that would have made the other posts way too long, so I saved that for a separate post. I just didn’t think it would take me three weeks to write it. Vacationing makes me lazy, I guess.

The first speaker who really pleasantly surprised me was AC Grayling. Last time I cared about philosophy, I was in High-School, and the philosophy class was basically a meatspace version of Pharyngula with people arguing about everything. Afterwards, all philosophy I encountered was the sort of mental masturbation best exemplified by Christian apologists: building extensive rhetorical and highly hypothetical constructs with no connection to the real world. It seemed like a futile exercise in justifying what you already think is true, as well as creating fanciful world-concepts I had no reason to be interested in, much less accept as possible.
So, AC Grayling’s talk was a sort of re-introduction to a subject I’d completely lost interest in a long time ago. Mostly, I think, I liked that what he talked about was a sort of “applied philosophy”, or “how to live a more atheisty life”. And interestingly enough, it didn’t have anything to do with eating babies :-p
He talked about atheism as more than just the disbelief in deities; rather, he talked about it as part of a secular/skeptical/rational ethical framework. The first time I encountered this idea was in a completely different context: a video by Greta Cristina about secular sexual ethics, which boiled down to “we don’t need to accept authoritarian morality/ethics, because there’s no super-being above us; instead, we’re free to construct sexual ethics based on a rational view that focuses on consent and human needs”. AC Grayling’s talk was a broader, wider applicable version of this: making rationality and skeptical thinking the basis for a person’s (and a community’s) entire moral and ethical framework in all situations. And certainly, such a framework is sorely needed, since even atheists and skeptics usually function within the already-present religion-based frameworks, merely with minor modifications.
At first, he talked about the flaws in religious systems of morality & ethics: he mentioned that they were unreflective, which is certainly true, with their emphasis on authority and tradition on the one hand, and personal experience and “common sense” on the other; fostered acceptance of magic, which sort of works like “crank-magnetism”, since accepting one fantastic thing makes it so much easier to accept more and more of them; and in the case of Christianity, it doesn’t provide a framework for planning for the future, since at heart, Christianity has always been an apocalyptic cult (and I’d say that the Rapture fantasies are the single best example of this;. So is AGW and other environmental denialism along the lines of “humans cannot destroy what god created, that’s hubris!”). He then explained how a rational system should look, and how it would avoid and/or correct the flaws of the religious systems. He talked about Popper’s work, but that mostly just made me realize that I finally need to read more about that myself, since all I got out of that was the basic concept of training oneself to only accept testable ideas. More generally, he talked about the ethics of rationality and inquiry, or the “well-considered life”: living in such a way that decisions are made, and ideas accepted, deliberately, after considering options rationally and skeptically, instead of just going with the flow of society (or family, or even personal previously accepted convictions) by following its traditions and traditional authorities mindlessly. It was primarily about moral traditions, but this is highly applicable to politics, economics, and pretty much every other area of public live where “business as usual” and “staying the course” are pretty much inherently wrong. Lastly, he talked about what sort of society is most conductive to fostering this kind of reflective, rational life: a multicultural society that isn’t afraid of foreign, strange ideas and ways of doing things, and where the legal and cultural structure is such that it fosters and protects individual development, thought and expression, while at the same time making an individual’s responsibilities clear, as well.
It was a great talk. The only problem I had was the way he talked about what is actually skepticism, but called it “atheism”. While atheism is certainly a rational conclusion of a rational, skeptical “well-considered” life that only accepts ideas that are testable, and should be accepted as such by the wider skeptical community, it’s not the entirety of skepticism, and this kind of rational, skeptical atheism isn’t the only atheism out there, either. I don’t know whether he was blurring the line, or making the point that atheism should be pushed as much as possible into the position of rational, skeptical atheism, but it seemed a bad idea to treat atheism and skepticism as sort of synonymous.

The second speaker who made a great impression on me was Lone Frank. She’s a journalist and a has a PhD in neurology, so a lot of her talk was about our brains and how/why they “do” religion. She considers religion a mental parasite rather than an adaptation. She described the brain as a “social machine”, with functions highly adapted to primarily understanding the human environment, and that the “understanding how humans work” spills into the non-human environment, which we then tend to understand and interpret the same way we interpret societies: we anthropomorphize it. One effect of this she highlighted was the tendency to look for intent and purpose in everything (that infamous question “why”), while at the same time having a very hard time understanding the concepts of statistics and chance. This “promiscuous teleology” is most visible in young children: the question “what’s this animal for” might look nonsensical to an adult, but a child will likely answer it with an example of what they’d do with that animal (a lion is for visiting at the zoo, a bunny is for petting, a frog is for catching, etc.). Religion uses and reinforces this anthropomorphizing and teleology by giving people a supernatural force that creates (for a purpose), and cares about and reacts to human behavior. And personally, I even suspect that it might cause a sort of “damage” that makes people even more susceptible to these brain-errors: like just said, young children are extremely teleological, but most adults are much less so. But a young child who is told, throughout their childhood, that their teleological way of looking at the world is indeed correct, may not grow out of it, unlike someone who is taught that most things really aren’t “for” anything, and things don’t always happen for a reason (and fundies constantly demonstrate that they haven’t left the childhood stage of promiscuous teleology, be it with their obsession of Gods Will For Your Life; explanation of all events as either “tests”, rewards, or results of rightfulness or sinfulness; their resentment of environmentalism, etc.).
Anyway, because religion prays on those universal, inherent human attributes, Frank thinks that it will probably never go away (and therefore we need containment strategies, rather than hoping for its disappearance). It does however change to fit in with the society it finds itself in. In the West, this is increasingly a more fuzzy, less literal religion. More and more, especially in Europe but also in more secular regions and denominations in the USA, religion “mutates” into a sort an individualized, cherry-picked personal theology. Conversations about this form of religion center on its positive effects on those who have it: religion is good for your health, religion makes people happy, religion creates community, religion provides a base for personal ethics/morals, etc. and in this form remains at the center even of a society that is supposedly secular and non-religious. Even non-religious people often automatically give respect to the religion of fuzzy goodness, accepting the opinions of religious leaders and religious people in general on all sorts of matters of ethics, even in areas they have no expertise and knowledge (bioethics for example), and rarely argue against it because of the perception of religion as good for people, religious leaders as somehow more moral and more knowledgeable about morals, and personal opinions and beliefs being a matter of taste and not really something one should “attack” and argue about.
In reality, lack of expertise in the fields the religious judge, as well as the inherent flaws in religion-based systems of ethics I wrote about above, mean that there is not only no reason to listen to religious leaders’ opinions about ethics, it can be counterproductive and dangerous to do so. I asked Lone Frank about how she thinks this accepting attitude towards fuzzy religiosity, and their infiltration into everything, can be fought. She answered that we need to highlight their lack of expertise, and refuse to give them a place at the table when discussing ethics, refuse to give their words any influence when they give their opinions unasked, and insist that the media stop asking them. IOW, we need to repeatedly and loudly make it clear that their opinions on ethics just aren’t relevant, and treat them as such when we encounter them. And I think that creating the “rational ethics” system that AC Grayling talked about and popularizing it would help immensely in taking back ethics from the religions which have hijacked it and declared themselves experts, since a rational, skeptical system of ethics simply wouldn’t accept their self-declared authority when they demonstrate no understanding or knowledge of, much less a necessary expertise in, the subjects they’re making judgments about.

The last speaker I wanted to highlight here was Richard Wiseman, for reasons that have nothing to do with the last two speakers. His research into human psychology, especially human perception, was very fascinating to me, especially his research into lucky and unlucky, since the results were very familiar to those from studies about depressed people. It seems both unlucky and depressed people create a story-of-their-life that highlights the negative results, even of positive events (most notably, a lottery-winner who considered himself unlucky, because a bunch of others had the same numbers, so he had to share the prize-money), and are also hyperfocused in such a way that they’re more likely to miss things and opportunities that happen on the periphery of their lives. Similarly, the suggestions for how to stop being “unlucky” also work for training oneself to lessen the effects of depression, by changing these thought- and perception-patterns.
He used this example of the lucky and unlucky people and their emotional and subconscious self-perception as an example of the importance of understanding the human mind and its workings to the ability to find ways of changing these perceptions. This being an atheist conference, he focused his talk on changing the mind of theists. Basically, he was saying that many theists won’t simply reason themselves out of a world-view they’re emotionally invested, and that has for a very long time shaped their way of thinking; to change their minds, we need to address this emotional investment in addition to the cold, hard, facts. Unfortunately I don’t remember if he made any specific suggestions as to how to do that, and my notes don’t show anything either. I didn’t get the impression, luckily, that he was suggesting an accomodationist stance of hushing up “uncomfortable” truths to get theists to accept certain facts about the world. But I’ll have to read and watch more of his stuff to get a better idea of whether his “framing” is any good :-p

So, I guess I’ll have to add a book or two by AC Grayling, Lone Frank’s Mindfield, and Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor to my reading list :-)

Copenhagen, days two and three

Saturday was a real marathon of speakers, and required making choices, so there was no way to see all speakers (I hope other people, who have seen the speakers I’ve missed over the weekend will write-up their experiences and impressions as well). It also required notes, since my brain can’t absorb and remember that much information all at once :-p

We didn’t manage to leave Kristjan’s place early enough to get to the convention in time for the first speaker, because we miscalculated how long it would take for 6 people to get ready with only one bathroom. So the morning turned a bit chaotic; but at least there was real bread and real coffee (gotta like a man who knows how to use a French Press!!) for breakfast. Also, I’m glad to note that this time, the conference had food, too: coffee and coffecake for morning snack, beer and buffet for lunch, and more coffee and cake for evening snack :-)

Saw a few minutes of Jens Morten Hansen’s presentation, but not really enough to have an opinion on it. The next speaker was Lone Frank* who in my opinion was one of the best speakers for several reasons. For one, her speech was more locally relevant to the European atheists (especially in contrast to the previous day, which was very heavily America-centric), and from my point of view it was simply a different method of dealing with a different kind of believer than what I’m used to from the US and its fundies and passionately bible-believing Christians; she spoke about the almost instinctive, unearned respect for religion, and for clergy and their opinions, and how this is dangerous and nonsensical, and needs to be repeatedly pointed out as such. And two, she made a pretty good argument why that European, fuzzy, feel-good individualistic religion (AKA “spirituality”) is a kind of “chronic infection” of the brain which we need to learn to treat and minimize and keep from doing damage to our societies, but which is incurable, because of the way our brain is wired for interpreting everything in social terms. And three, she started her presentation with this picture ;-)
The next presentation was by Richard Wiseman*, who is an incredibly funny guy. His presentation was mostly about woo and irrational beliefs in general, but the point of it was to show how people get their irrational beliefs, how their own brains trick them, and how attached people become to these beliefs, and he suggested some methods of teaching rational thinking without ignoring this emotional investment.
Rebecca Watson’s presentation was probably the weakest one. But then, I might be just biased, since it was pink and about tone. She called it “don’t be a dick”, but I think it would more reasonably be “sometimes, it’s not about you”. One of the most annoying habits of evangelicals and new Christians is that they insert their god into every possible conversation. There’s no point in atheists&skeptics becoming like them, but OTOH sometimes, when it actually is about you, I think being rude is perfectly reasonable. For example, while it’s an asshole move to break out into lecturing when a birthday kid is being told to make a wish, it’s entirely reasonable when planning one’s own birthday party to explained to concerned Germans you don’t believe in luck and superstitions, and therefore don’t care that the party is before your birthday instead of after. Similarly, it’s ok to explain the same to someone trying to stop you from walking under a ladder, etc. Also appropriate in my opinion is pointing out that “how very Christian of you” is not a compliment, just like “that’s mighty white of you” isn’t.
I was already very familiar with most of the stuff in Aroup Chatterjee’s presentation of Mother Teresa’s entirely undeserved image as a good woman, so what caught my attention most was the effect she and her PR campaign had on the reputation of Kolkata (Calcutta): while it’s a city plagued by poverty, just like all of India, MT managed to make the world think of it as just one ginormous slum full of starving beggars, and nothing else, disappearing the existence of a middle class and of wealth, culture, and infrastructure. He was very much complaining about how MT’s work made foreigners ignore Kolkata when traveling to India, for example.
The last two presentations were Richard Dawkins and James Randi. Dawkins’ presentation felt oddly generic. He talked mostly about the concept of selection at the level of the gene, and how that’s, in the end, the only level at which it happened. So, basically, “The Selfish Gene” material. Randi’s presentation was hilarious, and made a good point that even a PhD or two don’t protect against being fooled by charlatans, and how a lot of people seem to want to be fooled.

And then we went to have dinner. The speakers were provided a separate table, which I don’t think should have happened; the whole appeal of a dinner like that, after all, is to mingle with the speakers. The Trophy Wife joined us for a large part of it, and PZ towards the end, but all mingling really only happened right at the beginning, before people figured out that it was ok to sit down**. Food itself was ok, but not precisely spectacular (it’s actually depressing that my flight-food was better; ok, it was business-class for once, but still), primarily because it was a buffet. I did pig out on the fancy cheese plate and fruit that were served as dessert. yumyum. Afterwards, we went to another bar to continue our conversations, but were kicked out indecently early, at 2am. I did end up sleeping through all but one Sunday sessions, but that was because I didn’t get to sleep till way past 5am (stoopid internet…).

So, all I’ve seen on Sunday was Victor Stenger. He went relatively superficially through some of the “fine tuning” arguments. Physics is entirely beyond me, so all I’ve gotten out of that was that all these “precisely tuned” parameters are actually often within a range, and/or pre-determined by some other physical parameters/attributes. I really regret missing Michael Nugent’s speech, since apparently a lot of other people liked it, and it could have spared me the mild embarrassment of not realizing that I’d spent half the night talking to him, hehe. Anyway, the sightseeing afterwards unfortunately was cut short by extremely rainy weather; combined with the 24hr delay of my flight, this basically meant I haven’t actually seen much of Copenhagen, which is somewhat disappointing. Dinner was at a Thai restaurant that offered “octopus with holy basil”, I was tempted, but opted instead for the spicy red curry with duck instead. And then I finally got to see the by now famous Ørsted Ølbar, which is cosy and has decent beer, but shitty lighting that nearly put me to sleep. And then we got kicked out, and the last bar we went to mostly excited Rorschach and Ye Olde Blacksmith, cuz they could smoke inside :-p Anyway, that’s where we got into a conversation with Michael Nugent about how to create a more non-Englishspeaker-centric conference, i.e. involving more south and east European participants and speakers. A lot of really good ideas were bandied about, and I hope they will be able to implement a lot of them, over time.

Ok, this is waaaay too freaking long already. Hope no-one fell asleep while reading it!

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*I’m going to write a more thorough recap/review of my favorite presentations, because including them in this post made it WAAAAAAAAY too long and unfocused.

** interesting phenomenon, btw… all the people trickling in were just sort of standing around in the middle, while the seating-section was completely empty. Eventually, a couple pharyngulites realized the absurdity of the increasingly crowded situation, so we found ourselves a nice, big table. there was still some off-table mingling, but we didn’t have to stand in the way of everybody else. most other people didn’t sit down until the announcement was made, though…

Copenhagen pictures

Here are a few pictures from the God & Politics Conference:

Group photo of the attending pharynguloids; only the Trophy Wife is missing.

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we took over the longest table during the Dinner. PZ ate mostly at the “speaker’s table” (pfffffttt…..), but the Trophy Wife joined us for a large part of the evening.

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Kristjan explaining stuff to PZ

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Moose Elk for sale! ;-)

Copenhagen, day one (updated)

So, a day late, but I did finally make it to the Atheist Conference in Copenhagen. Unfortunately my flight in was also late, so after landing I had the choice between going straight from the airport to the conference, in clothes I’ve been wearing for two days, missing the beginning of the conference and showering. I went to have the shower, since I could literally smell myself. And btw, showering at Kristjan’s place is quite the experience… there apparently wasn’t enough room for a shower, so there’s a showerhead just randomly installed over the sink. Fun times.

So anyway, I missed the intro and part of the speech by the first speaker, Roy Brown. Pretty much the only part of that that I remember was a list of things to teach in schools to promote rational and critical thinking, such as Comparative Religion. After that, I missed Gregory Paul and Dan Barker, because I went to watch the Germany-Serbia game with Rorschach instead. And let me tell you, that was NOT a pleasant experience (edit: the game, not the company!) :-p

So as a result, the only two speakers I caught in full were PZ Myers and AC Grayling. PZ talked about science education (d’uh): basically, it was about how the science classroom needs to be, ultimately, “atheistic”, in the sense that there simply isn’t any room for any gods in science class. That even people who were good scientists, like Ken Miller, got fuzzy-brained and said stupid, unscientific, unevidenced, silly and just plain wrong things just to make a god fit somewhere. And for that reason, a good scientist shouldn’t try to fit a god, or magic, or whatever other private belief they had into the science; science is godless, magic-less, woo-less. And so should science-education.
Oh, and there was a cephalopod joke, kook-quotes in Comic Sans, and PZ calling Michael Ruse a clueless gobshite. And a Vedic Creationist calling atheism a religion during Q&A. It felt almost like homePharyngula ;-)

AC Grayling’s speech fit very well with what PZ was saying specifically about science education, but in a way extended it. He talked about atheism as not just a-theism AKA “not collecting stamps”, not just as a rejection of the theist way of thinking and the theist ethics of faith and personal belief and fuzzy feelings, but as a positive attribute, as part of (or at least relevant to) a humanist ethic: he described this as an “Ethic of Inquiry/Rationality”, i.e. living a life in which no beliefs and opinions are taken on unless they can be tested and confirmed by the evidence (as opposed to “making a leap of faith”); and that as such, atheism is a philosophy in which you take your own life in your own hands and make choices about it, instead of having religious (or other, for that matter) authorities give you the decisions wholesale. It was a pretty neat talk and included many more interesting details, and it might well be enough to convince me to actually start reading philosophy again.

In between and after the talks, I got to meet a bunch of other Pharyngulites, pretty much none of which looked the way I imagined (well, except for David and Rorschach, whose pictures I’d seen previously). Good thing some of them included their nicknames on their tags :-p

After the talks finished, a group that included Kristjan Wager, Rorschach(who was freezing his butt off, because he’s spoiled by Australian weather, and apparently Copenhagen summer is worse than Australia winter, temperature-wise), David M, Knockgoats (in a severely distracting, colorful shirt), and windy went to have some food, because we were absolutely not sufficientlyat all, whatsoever fed and watered during the conference earlier. I vaguely remember the conversation being rather fascinating, but all I really remember was “nachos” that were basically doritos covered in cheese, some conversation about farming and water supplies, and another couple conversations about languages. My brain is clearly too fried to think straight and remember these essential details. Maybe i should have written it all down :-p

Anyway, we ended up being a couple minutes late to the “godless entertainment”, because food appeared too slowly, so dinner lasted longer than planned. And too bad, because Robin Ince turned out to be fucking hilarious. Severely confused, but hilarious. We walked in just as he quoted Ann Coulter’s wonderful statement that “for liberals, abortion is mandatory”; it very much only got better and more hilarious from there. The music group after, called Carbon Traders was a bit weird, if very entertaining. Some songs I thought were really good, but emo/political punk lyrics to happy fun music was…. well, weird like I said. These lyrics required proper electric guitars (instead of fakey acoustic/electronic guitars) and angryness. Though, the solo songs by the lead singer/songwriter about atheism were fun, and pretty good as-is.

And now I’m gonna go crash. I’m fucking tired, still jetlagged a bit, and it’s been a long day. Tomorrow maybe I’ll do a bit more details. I’ll try to remember to take some pictures, too. But those won’t get posted in any case until the end of the weekend, because there’s no way I’ll get any editing done until then.

(update: corrected a few minor mistakes and added links to the event and speakers; just on the off chance a non-Pharyngulite might read this blog :-p )